What I Wish I’d Known About Travelling to South Korea Before I Arrived

south korea travel tips

Earlier this year, TripAdvisor released its annual list of the world’s top trending destinations. The ranking looked at the quality and quantity of reviews from global travellers on destinations’ accommodations, restaurants and things to do.

Seoul, South Korea came in second on this year’s list, with the platform stating it was one of the most visited Asian cities in 2023, according to market research company Euromonitor International.

“Seoul, South Korea is known for its music and entertainment industry, and the area is home to over a dozen Fortune Global 500 companies, including Samsung and LG,” it wrote.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance to visit when I was invited on a press tour to preview Intrepid’s new Essential South Korea tour, geared at 18 to 35-year-olds. The tour started in Seoul and journeyed to Jeonju, Yeosu and Busan. We took classes in K-pop dance, tae kwon do and, helpfully, Korean language. We feasted on Korean barbecue, lunched in a local’s apartment and belted out karaoke.

south korea travel tips
Image: Getty Images

I added an extra day before and after the tour to explore solo. And there are a few things I wish I’d known or that, fortunately, I did find out before visiting and think are important to know. Ahead, I’m sharing them. From the apps to download before you go, to the shop type you shouldn’t miss, these are what I consider to be the best South Korean travel tips.

Get a SIM Card

Usually, I never get a SIM card when I’m travelling because I enjoy not being so connected. But I got a SIM card in Korea and I’m so glad I did. I don’t think I would have been able to do half as many activities as I did without it. I used the mobile data to look up café photos to see if they were visiting and to research places as I walked.

I picked up a SIM card at the airport from a few mobile companies in the arrivals area for $40 AUD. It gave me unlimited data for a week.

Download Naver and Papago App

Google Maps does work in Korea, but it doesn’t show you the actual walking distance — it’ll try to get you to take public transport to your destination, even if you’re a five-minute walk from it. For walking directions and detailed public transport instructions, down Korean navigation app Naver.

Also helpful to download is the translator app Papago. I often typed what I wanted to say to Koreans and showed them the translation on my phone. My therapist when I got a scalp treatment also used it to explain how dry, oily and generally terrible its current condition was.

Do Your Research Beforehand

Seoul is home to nearly 10 million. Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, is home to more than 3.5 million. I spent weeks before my trip asking friends who’d been to Korea for recommendations and saving videos of interesting places on TikTok.

There are places in Korea where you can buy second-hand clothes by the kilo. It’s home to every kind of themed café. And you can get all kinds of beauty treatments done there. You can also visit a museum dedicated to kimchi, get custom Nikes made and read books in a library with 13-metre-tall shelves.

south korea travel tips
Image: Getty Images

Sure, it’s worth researching before any trip, but, in my eyes, particularly for Korea, which has so many activities you can only do in a few other places in the world, not to mention a wealth of information on them on TikTok and blogs.

Convenience Stores Are Attractions Themselves

Convenience store sales by foreign tourists have been through the roof in recent years, as reported by many outlets. In big cities, they’re on nearly every corner, stocked with sweet and savoury snacks, ramen and lunch boxes. Drinks include the popular banana milk and caffeinated options. In Korea, you can eat and drink your purchases in convenience stores, with the three biggest names GS25, CU and 7-Eleven.

Everything Opens Late in the Day

Most cafés and shops in Korea don’t open until 10am or 11am, even in Seoul, its biggest city. On the day I had to myself to explore, I didn’t bother leaving my hotel room until 10am as I knew the café I wanted to go to wasn’t open until 11am. This means that the cafés and shops are open later, many until 9pm.

Consider a Group Tour

Finally, I’d say, if you’re after authentic experiences in Korea, consider the Intrepid group tour I did or another. On top of the Korean language class, which was held in a language school, K-pop dance class, where we learned a routine for ‘Super Shy’ by New Jeans, and the tae kwon do class, where we taught kicks and punches, we also did a kimchi-making class and slept in a ‘hanok’, traditional Korean home.

South Korea travel tips
Image: Getty Images

The Korean tour guide, Yong, told us about his life in Korea and translated everything along the way, including the secret to the kimchi-making class instructor’s flawless skin at 70 years old. Her secret was sunscreen, by the way.

Related: What’s Behind the Korean Cuisine Boom in Sydney?

Related: I Spent a Week Café Hopping in Seoul — These Spots Were the Standouts

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