Roundup Post on South Korea
Updated: Apr 8, 2018
Lets rundown our take-away for South Korea; for our ten days in Seoul and enjoyment of the Winter Olympics I felt that it would probably be good to give a little rundown on how the whole trip went and what our takeaways were.
For Seoul, we were very lucky in that we had a friend there that was willing to show us around to the city and for us to see things that we might not have seen if we were just there as tourists on our own. So, first off, we'd suggest getting a friend who lives locally where ever you're planning to visit. Realizing that's not always possible, we generally just do an internet search for the "top 10" must see, or more importantly the "top 10 free sights" in an area, and then we rank them in the order that we feel the need/desire to see them. On a good trip if we hit 3 of the 5 items we have marked that we would like to see we feel the trip has been a success.
Lets rundown our take-away list for South Korea:
1. It's not an inexpensive city, we found that in general pricing was on par with what we would expect for food and drink in Chicago. Do not go to Seoul (or Tokyo for that matter) if you are looking for the low cost Asia vacation that you hear people talk about.
2. In direct contradiction from item 1, there are a lot of foods available from street vendors that are good cheap eats. The foods are generally all fried foods, they are cheap and tasty albeit not healthy.
3. We found English speakers few and far between, they existed, but it was a little harder to communicate then we would have expected - especially when compared to a Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hanoi - I would say we last saw this when we were in Tokyo where the comprehension of English was good but they felt uncomfortable speaking if they were not confident in their language ability. We don't have that issue and will gladly mangle a foreign language in an attempt to try and talk to someone when we are visiting their country.
4. Local tours - more recently we started doing the hop-on / hop-off buses when we tour major cities as they are convenient ways to get around and learn at bit of the cities history as well. In Seoul we had free tickets for two different operators of these buses as part of the Olympic train package we had purchased and we made sure to take advantage of them. Here's our tip - don't bother. One of the buses had minimal information, the other only provided the next stop - They may stll work for you if you look at the tour route and can get in and use them to get around the city, but they both only leave from one starting point (both in different areas) so you still need to figure out how to get there first, bringing us to point..
5. Subways and bus transportation. Inexpensive, about $1.25 USD per ride, potentially slightly more if you are heading further out. The subway system in Seoul is extensive covering almost anywhere you need to be, and if not a local bus can get you the rest of the way. Cards can be purchased from machines in the subway, releoaded easily, and work on both the subway and buses - you need to tab the card on and off (in and out for subway) and, again if you've gone a long way, it charges you accordingly. Reloading money onto the cards is the easiest I've ever seen - you put your card down on the machine, it tells you what remains, you drop coins of bills into the machine and it automatically adds it to your card.
6. Subway downside - there is only one - it's clean and quiet and people are amazingly respectful. The negative is the hours, it stops at midnight and starts around 6am - not great if you have an early flight out as you will need to take a taxi. A taxi from Seoul central to Inchon Airport will run you about $65 US, where if you book a later flight the subway will cost two of you less then $10 USD.
7. The subways are great, walking in Seoul is easy - it has wide sidewalks and all, but most of all there are a lot of stairs. Crossing the street often requires you to go down a flight of stairs, cross, and then climb back up. Subways can be up to 6 flights underground, there are escalators but they are at certain platform ends and not always running in the direction you want. You will do a lot - we underestimated ourselves at 8-900 stairs a day. Treat it as great exercise, but for us coming from Chicago it was a sudden and unexpected workout.
8. Counting the stairs you need to climb / descend with the fact that Seoul is a city built around mountains, you will be climbing a lot if you are walking to sites. Be prepared for that, again from flat Chicago it meant that our calves were burning after a few days from the unexpected workout. Just know that everything's hilly and you will feel it walking - even more if like us you're toting around 15 pounds of camera equipment on your back.
9. So all that walking gets you thirsty, and soon you'll want to stop into a pub to take a breather with a nice cold pint. Not so easy in Seoul, I'm not stating that Korean's don't drink, just that in general they do their drinking while eating. Stopping into a restaurant and only drinking didn't sit well with us, I'm sure some would have no problems, but just know that if you're walking until you find a spot to find a drink you'll need to find yourself walking to a university area where pubs/bars exist (higher prices or course) or you may find yourself sitting on a park bench enjoying a cold beer bought at a nearby 7-eleven. Pro-Tip: Drink like a local and drink the rice wine (makgeolli - if it's refrigerated it's fresh) instead of beer, it's cheaper and actually isn't that bad.
10. And following up your time drinking, it's everyone's biggest foreign worry - how are the bathrooms? In Korea they aren't bad, not just from my point of view but from Tina's as well. She never complained about one, even the public ones in the subway stations. You can always bring in an extra set of tissues to be sure, but every one we went to was almost spotlessly clean and fully stocked. This is something you should enjoy but not expect if you are traveling the rest of Asia.
So that's it for our notes, I'm sure there was more we saw, more we missed documenting, and things we didn't even notice (our time living in China previously may have blinded us to some things), but hopefully the list helps somewhat.
Travel, get out, enjoy. Seoul is easy, and shouldn't be skipped as a stopping point for Asia.