Seoul may not have been on your travel radar before. But with Pyeongchang now in the limelight, tourism to Seoul is primed and ready to flourish. If you’ve never traveled to South Korea before, it may take a bit of adjusting. Give yourself a day or two to get acclimated, and you’re sure to love this buzzing city. Here are 11 tips every first-timer should know before traveling to Seoul.

Skyline of downtown Seoul, South Korea from bongeunsa temple

Bongeunsa Temple

1. Google Maps will only get you so far

Korean laws and regulations restrict how much map data Google Maps has access to. After researching online, I found that almost everyone recommends downloading other navigation apps to use in Seoul. The problem… they’re all in Korean. Honestly, you can still use Google Maps to get around – you just have to know how to use it and know its limitations.

Limitation #1- It will NOT give you accurate driving/walking directions. If you map your route, it will simply show a direct line from point A to point B, completely ignoring the layout of streets on the map. However, you can still see your location, so simply refer to the map and decide your own route to get to your destination. Old school, I know.

Limitation #2- Google Maps does not provide connections between public transportation routes. Yes, it will show you how to get from point A to point B using the subway system, BUT it won’t show connections between different lines (even if it’s more efficient to do so). For instance, if the most efficient route is to take the green line, then hop off at a connecting station and take the orange line the rest of the way, Google Maps might simply recommend you take the orange line the entire way (which may require more walking to get the station on your part). So, again, you can’t rely on Google Maps 100%, but take an extra minute and you’ll be able to navigate yourself pretty easily!

2. The subway system is surprisingly easy to navigate

That being said about Google Maps, the subway system is very organized, clean, and extremely affordable. There is almost no need to take taxis while you’re traveling in Seoul. The subway signs and maps are very clearly marked in Korean (both in Hangul and in Romanized Korean) and English. The subway lines are also color-coded, and the exits are always indicated by yellow numbers.

3. There’s no tipping

It may be ingrained in Western culture, but in Seoul, it’s not customary to leave a tip. Whether it’s taxi drivers, wait staff, bartenders or even bellhops, keep that extra gratuity to yourself. If you try to leave a tip, it may even be construed as rudeness. So, it’s best to follow the norm!

4. There are a lot of ways to say “thank you” in Korean

When I arrived in Seoul, I asked someone how to say “thank you” and they told me “gomab seubnida.” Then later I asked a tour guide, and he said “gamsa habnida” … I wasn’t sure which one to use, but I later learned that both are considered formal expressions (there are also informal ways, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to use between strangers).

However, “gamsa habnida” is the most formal and therefore, the most frequently recommended to travelers, since you really can’t go wrong with being overly polite. The “g” is pronounced more like a guttural “k” sound, and the “b” is more like an “m” – so, “kahm-sa ham-nee-da” is the correct pronounciation.

Korean Dish- Bibimbap

Bibimbap (the spice level depends on how much gochujang (chili pepper paste) you add)

5. Korean food tends to be spicy

If you’re a wimp like me and have zero tolerance for spice, then you’ll definitely want to be careful about what you try. Generally speaking, if a dish is orange or red, you might want to steer clear. But there are plenty of non-spicy Korean dishes that you should try while in Seoul – pajeon, gimbap, jjajangmyun, bulgogi, japchae, and even Korean fried chicken (without the spicy sauce).

6. Corn randomly appears in the most unexpected dishes

Another thing Koreans love to add to food is corn. Great news for me, but bad news for my husband who can’t eat anything with corn in it. We came across corn in Korean sandwiches, on pizzas, and even in ice cream in Seoul. Go figure!

7. Toilets are either high tech or very much the opposite

You may be familiar with high tech western style toilets in Asia that have all the buttons and gizmos with features like bidets, heated toilet seats, and even the option to play music. Just be careful pressing the buttons, as they’re typically only marked in Korean.

On the very opposite end of the spectrum are the Asian style squat toilets, which you may or may not encounter in old buildings. In most public restrooms, DO NOT flush the toilet paper. There is a trash bin in each stall meant for discarded tissue. This can be an awkward adjustment for many, but you don’t want to be the person responsible for clogging the pipes either. Don’t be that tourist!

poop cafe in Seoul

One of the more interesting themed cafes in Seoul!

8. There are a TON of cafes

Seriously, you will not be able to turn a corner without seeing at least one cafe everywhere you go in Seoul. Themed cafes, dessert cafes, and regular coffee shops are incredibly widespread with plenty of fodder for your Instagram feed!

9. Not all street food is authentic…

But it’s still really fun. A tour guide warned us that a lot of the street food is ridiculously priced and not even authentic Korean food. But as long as you’re cool with that, there’s no reason to let that stop you from trying some of these crazy concoctions! A corndog covered in French fries? Yes, please!

Seoul Cheonggyecheon stream park and bridge at night

Cheonggyecheon Stream

10. Shopping late at night is a big deal

Seoul is a shopper’s paradise, and the retail party doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. On the contrary, that’s when some stores are just heating up! I stayed in a hotel in Myeongdong and couldn’t get over how empty all the shops in the area were around lunch time, but by 10:00 at night, the streets were packed with consumers and street vendors. Night owls can also choose from Dongdaemun Market, Sinsadong Garosu-gil Road, Paju Premium Outlets, and Apgujeong Rodeo Street for more nocturnal shopping.

11. Korean chopsticks are different

You’ll frequently have to use metal chopsticks, which are flatter and wider than what you’re probably accustomed to holding. This can be a bit challenging even if you consider yourself pretty adept at using chopsticks. Koreans eat rice with a spoon, so at least there’s one less food to struggle with!

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