5 Things to Know Before Visiting South Korea

South Korea is generally safe and easy to get around, but it still helps to know a bit about the climate, transit, and local traditions before you visit. Nomad Ronan shares his tips.

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South Korean mask Photo © Ronan O'Connell

Note: The travel described in this article was done before the COVID-19 pandemic. Its publication is not indicative of the current COVID-19 situation – we recommend doing your own research before traveling.

There are 37 US states larger in land area than South Korea – yet this tiny Asian nation has captivated me so much I have visited eight times and regularly daydream about its ancient palaces, modern cities, volcanic islands, mountain scenery, bullet trains, healthy food, and unique art forms. Whether you’re heading here for a quick trip or a deep dive, here are five things you should know about South Korea travel.

Is South Korea expensive?

Seoul is a relatively pricy destination, particularly for accommodation. But just like most other countries, most of South Korea is affordable compared to its capital.

In cities such as Busan, Daegu, and Gyeongju, you can get a spacious room for two in a four-star hotel, including breakfast, for as little as US $70 a night. Whereas, in Seoul, you’ll be lucky to secure a cramped room in a three-star property, with no breakfast for that price.

The good news is that, all over South Korea, the food is cheap and healthy. Small, family-run restaurants line the back streets of Korean cities, offering freshly made Korean cuisine for as little as US $5 a dish.

One easy way to save money is by changing cash at the small currency kiosks in busy tourist areas, which offer much better rates than banks or airport exchange desks.

The coast of Busan city, South Korea.
The coast of Busan city, South Korea. Photo credit: Ronan O'Connell

How to experience ancient Korean culture

The South Korean Government is dedicated to preserving ancient culture and has placed 134 traditional art forms on a protection list. Part of safeguarding these artforms includes promoting them to travelers, who can try out ancient skills at cultural centers in South Korean cities.

These classes include crafting Tal masks, making Hanji wood bark paper, learning Jultagi tightrope walking, and trying out Janggu drumming. At Korea House cultural center in Seoul, an artist taught me to decorate the fierce, demonic-looking Tal masks, which were used for hunting in prehistoric times and now are worn by performers during Talchum mask dances.

At the huge Seoul Global Cultural Center, which offers many such workshops, an expert showed me how to scrawl Seoye Korean calligraphy.

To find out about these classes, visit the official tourism information centers in the downtown area of cities like Seoul, Busan, and Daegu. 

Jultagi tightrope walking.
Jultagi tightrope walking. Photo credit: Ronan O’Connell

Climate and weather in South Korea

Few cities have weather that ranges as wildly as Seoul – I’ve frozen in winter and melted in summer. In July and August, temperatures can reach 104°F (40°C) with very high humidity which, if you’re from a cold country like me (Irish), ensures you sweat profusely.

Then, in December and January, it can feel like you’re in the Arctic, with temperatures dropping to as low as -4°F (-20°C) due to cruel winter winds blowing down from Siberia. Seoul feels like Houston, Texas in summer and Chicago, Illinois in winter.

The south of the country is milder than Seoul, but still very chilly in winter and has equally harsh summers. If you’re visiting South Korea in the winter, don’t worry too much about rain, as that’s the dry season, but wear warm clothes that repel the wind. In summer, avoid strenuous activities in the middle of the day, when it’s blazing hot, and pack a light raincoat in case of a downpour.

Getting around South Korea

At its narrowest points, South Korea is just 140mi (225km) wide, and 200mi (322km) from top to bottom. But it feels even smaller than it looks due to its superb public transport system. South Korea is similar in size to my home country of Ireland, yet is far easier to traverse due to something Ireland badly lacks – bullet trains.

Traveling at up to 190mph (306kph) these KTX trains reach more than 20 cities in South Korea. This impressive system allows travel from Seoul in the country’s far north to Busan in the deep south in just 2hrs 30mins. The KTX trains aren’t just fast, either. They’re also extremely comfortable and surprisingly cheap.

For US $190, visitors can buy a five-day Korail pass that offers unlimited KTX trips. Bought individually, that Seoul to Busan journey costs just US $73, or you can get Business Class for US $102. There’s really no need for an upgrade, however, as the economy seats are wide and plush, with lots of legroom, even for a 6’5” man like myself. Taking the KTX is simple, comfortable, convenient, and affordable.

Is South Korea safe?

I have traveled to more than 60 countries and never felt safer than in South Korea – so much so that I had no worries about my wife exploring Seoul and Busan by herself at night. There is a strong police presence in the downtown areas of all South Korean cities, which helps deter petty crime.

There’s even a special force to protect foreigners – the Tourist Police. This unit – tasked with taking complaints from tourists, providing them with general information and deterring crime against travelers – has nearly 20 offices across the country, all in popular tourist areas.

Of course, crime exists in South Korea. Tourists are more likely to fall victim in quiet areas, where there’s a lesser police presence, or late at night in entertainment precincts, particularly if intoxicated


Want to avoid faux pas and causing offense? Get more etiquette tips for South Korea here.

Learn more about South Korea on the World Nomads podcast. How hikers might find themselves invited to a family picnic – beyond barbecue (and the secret 'man food') – and how to score yourself the best value round-the-world ticket.

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36 Comments

  • Chris said

    I wish I had known more basic phrases to get around the city, it'd make vacation much easier. I didn't know it was so easy for people from the UK and Canada to get a tourist visa. I didn't know Korea had such an intense rainy season in the late summer... watch out!

  • Irene said

    Thanks for the vital Info.
    It helps having the local area maps too, for quick referencing.
    Recommend subway transport, it is cheaper.

  • Chris said

    A little help on the basic phrases

    Yes - Ne
    No - A-ni-yo
    Thank you - Go - mop - su - mnida
    Nice to meet you - man -nesso pan-gap-su-mnida

  • Karen Leanne Sandberg said

    Before leaving CANADA and United Kingdom tourists visa,. passport., did not know how they had understanding for summer season,. Language SOUTH KOREANS will be helpful., traveling basic phrases,..?

  • Steven said

    Great tips and i agree that before we visit sout korea we should learn their culture and some korean words too

  • a person said

    when asking for something : ju-saey-o
    example - mul ju-saey-o ( water please)

  • Esse said

    Korea seems pretty cool. Visiting Seoul is on my bucket list ???? #OneDay

  • S.S. said

    I lived in South Korea for 13 years. Living in there was lot better than just visting. You should spend more time at shopping and make some Korean friends. They speaks English fluently and helpful. (but women over 40 years aren't). To learn few words would be great. I really recommend to go South Korea, especially if you're interested in K-pop.

  • Furaha Nyagawa said

    Am so happy and jealous for you I wish to visit Korea I love that country so much

  • Laila said

    Woooow~! this is kinda helpful. I definitely want to go to South Korea one day! :3

  • Pasio said

    Wow~ Fantastic!!:) It's really so helpful. When I traveled to Seoul, Korea, I played with Korean local friends who are sooooo kind and really soooooo funny. I want to share the website http://tourmatekorea.kr ! Enjoy your Trip!:)

  • 심준호 said

    I'm Korean, and Some Local lingo were be rude in Korea. If you want to ask where can I find Hotel,
    You must say "Hotel lo ga nun gill zom al su it ul ga yo?"
    And Koean Taxi is not too expensive to traval.
    I believe half of U.S or Japan.
    If You visit korea contact me I'll answer you.
    skpe ID: wokoung2002.
    And If you have a question, Ask Me, or who is not over40. Because Korea developed very very fast, So almost them Lived poor conditions.And worst Learning condition.But now, you may see how the Korea amazing.

  • Samaher said

    Hi ,

    I am from Egypt basically I will visit Korea in June or July still thinking about the month and am a little bit confused cause I don't know which places to visit and stuff like this . So if any one can help this is my kakotalk ID samaherxox .

    Thank you

  • Al said

    Hello there am an African lady ,,been to all Asian countries but s.korea.i want to visit there next year can someone tell me how they relate to Africans.

  • Rachel said

    I'm going to Korea when im a bit older, my question is what places should I add on my bucket list apart from Seoul & Busan?

  • Rebecca Thering said

    I lived in Korea from 2013-14, and wish I had known more about ordering food at restaurants + street food. Korean cuisine is SO delicious, but restaurants can be intimidating when the only menu is a picture-less plaque on the wall in Korean.

    That's why I created <a href="http://www.rebewithaclause.com/p/korean-food-restaurant-guide.html">The Beginner's Guide to Korean Food and Restaurants</a>, to help fellow travelers have a much more comfortable, traditional dining experience while in Korea.

    http://www.rebewithaclause.com/p/korean-food-restaurant-guide.html

    Enjoy! ^^

  • Patt said

    My 3 super great suggestions for you..
    First, Taxies are fast and cheap, morning and night. Cash, credit cards are all allowed. My fave taxies are orange colored since they're so nice and clean :)
    Second, Prepaid sim card. I highly recommend KRSIM brand from CU Convenience Store in the inches airport. Used couple other brands, but this one has no disconnections.
    Third, keep cash all the time. They sometimes don't accept credit cards.. especially street food market or even in some Taxies.. Cash cash and cash..!!

  • Usman said

    Hi,
    I m from india. I m verry exicted to go to south korea,seoul and i like their culture i may come to visit.
    Thank 2 u all 4 the rule

  • Ambery said

    I also enjoyed you shared all these alluring things while the journey. I have captured a lot of images there. Now my elder brother has a plan to go there after finishing his <a href=http://www.bestbustours.com/3-days-from-new-york-to-acadia-park-maine-tour.html>portland to acadia national park</a> to enjoy some time with his some office colleages. I hope so that it will be a really great time for them.

  • Adejolu adedoyin said

    I really wish to go there but the only one problem i have is that. I don't have anybody there as a friend or family...i have to prepare myself for visit Korea because I like everything about the country

  • Dan said

    @ Al, korean relate very well now with African...Just that the language is a little bit of issue for easy communication...And @ Adejolu adedoyin you can message or talk to me if you want to come korea on my [email protected] or you skype me on walexy58

  • Lua Viet said

    These all look amazing!! Thank you for share

  • Ocean said

    hi, my family (three children ages 12, 8 and 4) are visiting Seoul in July and was wondering if anyone would recommend staying in Gangnam Gu or Myeongdong area. We are open to either to be close to shops, restaurants and access to places where we will be able to visit cultural and historical places plus scenic spots for photos. Any suggestions, most appreciated.

  • clara said

    I am the same as you. Very fond of aoa in Korea. And I really want to vacation in Korea. I like your holiday content. Thank you for sharing your holiday experience.

  • Jay said

    Both my father and I were stationed in Northern South Korea decades apart from each other. He was actually at the DMZ whilst I was at Camp Casey/TDC. I did a tour of Seoul (with a disposable camera) that was very entertaining/interesting. The DMZ was very intimidating. I would love to see how much has changed after nearly 30 years! My Google Translate app (then "World Lens?") did very well in Spain/South America. I am curious to see how well it does with Japanese/Korean. We actually drove straight through a student protest without incident in Seoul once. I walked through a Political one in Buenos Aires not too long ago. They must have thought that I was Brazilian for some reason, but I digress.

  • Mark said

    So good tips there. I would also suggest writing hotel/place names down in Korean if you want to catch taxi as it helps a lot. Definitely a good point about learning the language, it has helped me significantly.

    Another thing is to research the food you want to eat so you don't miss out. I have a list of korean food here which I recommend people travelling to Korea should eat: https://boundforbusan.com/?p=1148

  • Jackson said

    Oh how I long to be in Korea.I have a dream but no one to connect and enable

  • Carolyn said

    Biggest suggestion I have that all people should know when traveling to/from Korea. SAVE A PET'S LIFE by VOLUNTEERING to have a DOG fly on your ticket back home!! There are plenty of shelter's looking for volunteer's to let a dog be added to their ticket, check out https://ypaprescue.wordpress.com/.

    It doesn't cost you anything and there is minimal coordination done on your part. The shelter will get your flight reservation and personal information to contact the airline to add the pet on your ticket.

    On the day of your flight, they will meet you at the airport for check-in with the dog and all the paperwork done to provide to the airline. They check-in to the flight with you and then the airline will issue you a bill to bring over to another counter where the shelter volunteer will pay the fee and you will receive your boarding ticket. When you arrive at your destination, you claim on customs that you brought your dog back and go to baggage to pick up the pet. The adopters will meet you at arrivals to get the dog and you walk away feeling warm and fuzzy that you saved a dog's life.

  • Ayomide Mubinah said

    I really wish being in Korea
    Like ..I love dat place merely from watching there movies and have learn their languages alot

  • Adcel joy concepcion jang said

    Can i ask something ? Now have flight for korea?

  • Sophie said

    I'm Korean and impressed that many foreigners want to visit my country.
    As many K-drama show, the night of Korea never sleep.
    You can watch it just enter the keyword "Gangnam' into YouTube.

    And Korea's security and safety are top of the world.
    Even if you leave your laptop in your seat at the café, it is never disappeared or be robbed.
    When I was in New York, it seems to be weird that everyone protects from danger and keeps their stuff safe all day.

  • samuel otabil said

    very helpful keep it up

  • jack said

    I would like to connect with a man from the USA who speaks Korean and visit South Korea. We could split expenses. I would even go further and pay 75 percent of the hotel room if you are on a budget.

  • Hannah said

    I will like to visit Korean one day,I really really love the country😍😍😍

  • Khadeejah said

    Thanks for all the tips. I have been considering to visit south Korea but I don't know anyone and the language difference as well. I am an African and I for one really like south Korea for vacations. I was hoping if there are tourist guides who might be willing to help.

  • Samreen said

    I want to go korea please help me going to Korea and meet bts please I am big fan of bts I m from Pakistan but I want to meet bts all memebers..💜

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