7 Essential Seoul Travel Tips for First-Timers (+ everything I wished I knew)

The first time I went to South Korea, I spent three weeks there, with two weeks in Seoul as a super-tourist and took beautiful side trips to Jeju Island and Busan in the south.

Here’s everything I wish I knew before going to South Korea as a tourist. These are specifically Seoul travel tips, but some can apply to South Korea travel in general.

If you’re new to South Korea, read my South Korea travel guide.

📖 Read Next: 28 Places to Visit in Seoul and watch the vlog 🎥

Things I wish I knew before traveling to Seoul 🇰🇷 South Korea Travel Tips

Prebook before your trip:

📲 Local sim card or eSIM card from Klook

🚊 Ride from the airport: prebook a transfer | airport bus | AREX train

🚊 Purchase a KTX Pass online for travel to multiple cities

💳 Buy a pre-loaded T-money card

🚙 Rent a car in South Korea for as cheap as $28 USD a day

🎫 Browse through dozens of available South Korea tours

Best Area to Stay in Seoul

Seoul is massive, but these are three main areas where tourists generally stay.

📖 Read next: Where to Stay in Seoul Based on Your Interests

1. Central-Northern Seoul

A long walking street surrounded by small shops and restaurants with tourists walking at Insadong Shopping Street in Seoul

If you want to be closer to the main tourist attractions like all the palaces and famous shopping streets, stay in the Insadong or Myeongdong area more up north.

2. Itaewon

Itaewon Class (kdrama) Bar Sign on a large green bar in Itaewon

If you like to be around a nightlife, stay in Itaewon. There’s a lot of locals and foreigners who go there. People party on the weekdays til early morning. There’s also a lot of restaurants and shops there.

🍶 Looking for a social night activity? Consider joining a Seoul pub crawl

3. Hongdae

Hongdae shops cafe during day with crowd - Seoul, South Korea

For a busy but chiller vibe, stay in Hongdae, which is known for being the youth and indie music culture area. There’s a long walking street with tons of cute cafes, shops, and music performances.

Seoul Travel Tips: My Recommendation for First-Timers

If you’re staying longer than a week and don’t mind moving hotels, I recommend trying out 2 or 3 hotels in separate areas just to experience different parts of Seoul, which is what I did.

But for first-time tourists, I recommend staying closer to Insadong and Myeongdong. It’s just closer and easier to get to the main tourist sites.

My favorite stay was Travelodge Myeongdong City Hall (photo below).

Superior Queen Room with large white bed and hello sign on wall Travelodge Myeongdong City Hall

Basic Korean Language Travel Phrases

English is not widely-spoken in South Korea. It’s best to learn some basic phrases if you’re just visiting.

In non-touristy areas or restaurants, menus may not be provided in English.

But, you can use Papago or Google Translate to scan the menu text to English.

Hello written on a lined paper with the translation in Korean underneath - language Seoul travel tips

9 main Korean phrases to learn and what I used the most

  • Hello: Annyeonghaseyo (ahn-nyung-ha-seh-yo)
  • One please (Just 1 person, or 1 of this): Hana juseyo (ha-na joo-seh-yo)
  • Sorry: joesonghamnida (jeh-song ham-ni-da)
  • Thank you: Kamsahamnida (kham-sa-hum-knee-dah)
  • No: animida (ah-knee-me-dah)
  • Yes: ne (neh)
  • No thank you, or it’s alright: Gwenchanayo (gwen-chan-nah-yo)
  • How much is it?: Eolmayeyo? (ol-ma-eh-yo)
  • I don’t speak Korean: Hanguk-mal motteo (ha-ng-gook-mul mo-teh-yo)

Just remember, we’re visitors. We can’t expect locals to know or speak English to us. And if you ask someone for help and get rejected, try not to take it personally. They might have been too shy or were just busy!

Airport Tips for Seoul, South Korea

At the Incheon Airport, you want to do these 3 things:

Incheon Airport Limousine Bus Sign 6002 going to Myeongdong City Hall

1. Pick up a local sim card: IF your phone is unlocked. You can buy a sim card there or preorder a Korea sim card on Klook. 10 days of data costs about $20 USD.

📲 I usually use Airalo for esims in South Korea. You can use my code ROSEAN3468 for $3 USD off your first purchase.

2. Get some won, which is the currency in Korea. Credit cards are widely accepted in Seoul, but get back up cash, and for like food stalls that only accept cash.

In general, the ATM offers a better rate than exchanging at the airport. But do whatever’s easiest.

3. Lastly, buy a T-money card at the airport or at any convenience store. It costs about $2 USD. It’s a card that you can use to pay on trains, buses, convenience stores, some supermarkets and restaurants. Some taxis even accept it.

🎫 To make it easier, buy a pre-loaded T-money card to pick up at the airport

You can use it throughout South Korea, not just Seoul. But, if you don’t want to get a T-money card, you can just buy paper tickets at the train station. But getting a T-money card is one of the top Seoul travel tips you’ll read.

It takes about an hour to get to Seoul from the airport. Here’s some transportation options to/from the airport:

  1. Take the AREX express train. You can book your ticket in advance here.
  2. Hail an airport taxi or book a Kakao T or Uber taxi (check my example Uber in Korea costs).
  3. Arrange an airport pickup or drop off in advance.
  4. Take the subway, which will likely mean a transfer at Seoul station.
  5. My favorite: take an airport bus, which stops by major areas in Seoul.

How to Get Around Seoul – Transportation Tips

Inside subway, reflection of young woman waiting for train in Seoul South Korea

The first time taking public transit in a new country is always nerve-wracking! But it gets easier. And signs and ticket machines are in English. Here’s 5 main Seoul travel tips for getting around the city.

1. I highly recommend downloading the app CityMapper, which is in English. You can download Citymapper right now just to get an idea, and it’s simple to use. The app show directions for trains, buses, and walking.

2. You can’t rely on Google Maps. It’s not optimized to use in South Korea, especially for walking directions. If you’re looking up just walking directions on Google Maps, nothing will show up.

The most popular apps for getting around in South Korea are Kakao Map and Naver Map, which I still have, but they’re less user-friendly in my opinion. They are most helpful though when traveling Busan and Jeju Island.

3. You can add money to your T-Money card at a ticket machine in a train station, or at any convenience store. You have to use cash.

Depending on how long you’re in Seoul, start with 10,000 to 20,000 won. The base fair for trains is 1250 won.

🎫 To make it easier, buy a pre-loaded T-money card to pick up at the airport

4. When riding a train or bus, don’t sit in the designated areas for elderly or pregnant women, even when the train is empty. This is not the US. 😉

5. And last thing about train stations, elevators and escalators are not common. There are elevators, but they’re in certain entrances that you have to look for, and are just harder to find in my opinion.

You’ll rarely see this in Seoul travel tips posts, but prepare for a stairs workout if you’re not able to find them, but don’t be afraid to ask others.

How to Take Buses in Seoul

A red circle STOP button inside a public bus in Seoul

Buses may seem intimidating, but are pretty easy to take. Just look for your bus number on the bus stop sign. Once you’re on the bus, tap your T-Money card on the card reader and tap again when you get off the bus.

Buses cost 1,200 won. Only major stops are announced in English. I use Google Maps or another Maps app for this to follow the dot so you know when to press the stop button.

How to Take the Taxi in Seoul

1. Uber works in Seoul. When you open your Uber app, it converts to Uber T. Your original payment info is already saved in there. You don’t need to pay in person.

2. If you do have a local sim, you can also download Kakao T, which is the main taxi app. If you’re a foreigner though, you can’t link your credit card to the app. You’ll have to pay with cash or T-money card at the end.

Kakao taxis are more readily available than Uber, but sometimes you’ll come across a language barrier if the driver can’t find you. There’s still plenty of Uber drivers. Sometimes you just have to wait a bit longer.

3. Tipping for taxis is not common.

What to Pack for Seoul, South Korea

Here are a few essential packing items for Seoul:

Three graphic icons of plug, teal backpack, and a phone charging

1. Plug Type F

In case you don’t know, South Korea uses a specific type of plug for charging your phone or laptop. It’s not the same as in the US.

You’ll have to get a plug type F charger, which is the same as a lot of European countries. Or just get a universal travel adapter, especially if you plan to travel a lot.

Some hotels do provide a USB plug, but most don’t. Make sure to get the correct plug. You can also look for one in a convenience store or supermarket in Seoul.

2. Umbrella!

If you’re visiting during the summer months of June to August, bring an umbrella, or buy one from a store, and carry it with you. Rain stops and goes.

📖 Read my Summer in Seoul tips and experiences.

3. Skin Protection

General tip, bring a hat and sunscreen to protect your skin from UV rays. One of my top Seoul travel tips.

4. Walking Shoes

Bring good walking shoes. You’re most likely going to be walking a lot. I wear Xero Shoes – I can walk for hours and not have sore feet.

Culture Shocks and Cultural Differences

Walking Trail - Seokchon Lake Park_Seoul South Korea

Here are just some random cultural differences and observations in Seoul.

1. Seoul is generally safe, and statistically safer than many countries. Always be careful of your surroundings, but I walked alone past midnight and it was fine. If you need to call for help, the number is 112.

2. Most of the restaurants I went to were self-service, which also meant returning your plates and cups to the counter and clearing out any napkins from your table.

If you’re unsure, just look at what other people do, which is what I did. ^^

You usually pay at the counter. And tipping is not common at all.

3. For those going in the summer, it gets REALLY hot. And it sometimes rains. I was always drenched in sweat. But when I looked at the locals, they looked flawless.

4. Lastly, here’s the tea, don’t expect locals to be social and friendly to you just because you’re a foreigner or an obvious tourist. They’re just minding their own business.

If you want to make friends, you have to actively try, join a meet up, a club, or English exchange. At least, that’s my experience.

And if you just want to enjoy traveling solo, that’s fun too. There’s so much to do in Seoul! You won’t run out of things to do alone. Look out for my solo Seoul travel tips post coming soon.

Top Places to Visit in Seoul

There’s always something to do in Seoul. Nature sites, cultural and historic sites. Entertainment. Here are 4 of my favorites spots.

Looking for more? Check out my 28 Places to Visit in Seoul list.

1. Gyeongbokgung Palace

Royal Guard Changing Ceremony - guards in red and blue traditional Korean clothing - Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul

If you only have time to visit just one palace in Seoul, go to Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s massive and so beautiful.

There’s historical sites as well as nature sites. It feels like a time-hop. It’s the most popular palace and only about $2 USD.

🚌 Join a group tour for Gyeongbokgung Palace + Temple Guide

2. Cheonggyecheon Stream

Cheonggyecheon Stream during summer day - Seoul, South Korea

This must-visit is a 7-mile stream in the middle of downtown. You can walk it or sit on a step and put your feet in the water. At night it’s lit up as well. It’s open 24 hours.

🌌 Join a Seoul Moonlight night tour of Cheonggyecheon Stream, Royal Palace, & Naksan Park

3. Bukchon Hanok Village

A neighborhood of brown and red traditional Korean houses at Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul

This is a beautiful neighborhood of hanoks, or traditional Korean houses designed with nature in mind. It’s really pretty to walk through. People also dress in traditional hanboks to take photos. You can rent a hanbok online to pick up.

4. Namsan Seoul Tower & Park

Namsan Park Walking Path Seoul South Korea

You’ll get a beautiful view of Seoul on the way up and down. I’d probably go there multiple times. The park itself is huge and the views are amazing.

🎫 Pre-book your Namsan Tower cable car ticket to skip the lines

Hope these Seoul travel tips were helpful!

Have a great time in Seoul!

Check out my city guides for: Jeju Island | Busan | Gyeongju | Pohang

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