Brief solo visit to Seoul
August 10, 2012 11:38 AM   Subscribe

Forty-something woman traveling to Seoul solo for work. Advice needed-- etiquette, dining, shopping, sightseeing.

I am a female academic traveling to Seoul to give a presentation at a university there next week. I have never been to South Korea, and haven't traveled extensively in Asia (only Indonesia). I haven't had time to prepare myself-- I plan to read my travel book on the flight over. So, please share your wisdom about how to have a nice time-- dining solo? taking subway solo? safety at night? speaking English without offending anyone?

I will only be in town for 4 days. I plan to go to the DMZ for a tour one day. I'd like to spend my remaining "free" day and a half just getting a feel for the city. I will be staying in the Kangbuk area, apparently. I love big, bustling cities. I plan to do a little beauty supply shopping, but nothing else on my agenda. I am a foodie and was thinking about doing a tour of the market. Suggestions of what to order in restaurants, etc. also appreciated.
posted by picklebird to Travel & Transportation around Seoul, South Korea (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to add important question-- what are things I should know for my interactions with Korean professors and my hosts in order to behave appropriately. They are flying me over and putting me up in a swanky hotel-- I'd like to be a gracious guest.
posted by picklebird at 11:40 AM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: I'll tell you what I know. I was in Souel with my folks who were part of the Military at the time. I stayed on Youngsan base. But I did go "on the economy" and I can tell you how that went. We were primarily in Itaewon.

Lots and lots of folks speak English and like Americans. I found people to be friendly.

We took a tour of the National Folk Museum, which I enjoyed a great deal. Lots of dioramas and things like that. It's in the same complex as Gyeongbokgung Palace. if you can get there without involving a tour, I recommend it, just because we were rushed.

I will tell you that tours typically end at a shop of some kind. Amythest or Ginsing. It's annoying because it takes time away from your tour, and then you're preassured to buy something you probably didn't want.

The pollution in Asia is horrible. I either caught the world's worst cold or had a horrible reaction to the crap in the air. My nose ran practically off my face. We were in Osan buying leather goods and having clothes made, and the store owners brought me some kind of ginsing based remedy and my mom INSISTED that I drink it. Which I did. Disgusting, but it seemed to help. Also, runny noses, wiping noses and looking ill in public are all perceived as bad manners. (Hence the surgical masks people wear in public when they don't feel well) So you might want to get a mask and a butt load of kleenex packets just in case.

Speaking of Kleenex, you will want to have them in your purse as restrooms don't typically provide toilet paper out in the world. You can buy them relatively cheaply pretty much everywhere, but do you really want to negotiate that when you urgently need to go?

In Japan most of the toilets were embedded in the floor and one would squat to use them. Forget that, use a handicapped stall if there is one. I found Burger King and Dunkin Donuts excellent places to use the toilet out in public, with familiar Western fixtures.

Money. You can use American money in private shops, but not in regular franchises. So if you pop in to use the facilities at Dunkin Donuts, you'll need to pay for your red bean paste donut in Korean Won.

When you go shopping you may go into shopping areas with stalls. Each person rents a stall so you deal with them individually when dealing. There are "Department Stores" which are not at all like American Department stores. They are tall buildings with glass counters and escallators, but each person rents out space. So rather than having departments, you have different proprietors, each selling what they sell.

Selling counterfeit stuff is usual all over Korea. Most notably "Coach" leather goods. Decide now how you feel about it. Near US bases, they will offer to mail it to the states for you. That's cool, they will. They've got an agreement with someone on the base to take it to the Post Office. You can't get through customs with it, and your mail could be confiscated.

You will see Hello Kitty everywhere. Enjoy that.

When boarding planes at the airport, they don't go by seat numbers, they say something into the microphone and then you cram on willy-nilly. Be prepared for that, it freaked me out a little bit.

If you're spending a lot of time in the waiting lounge, you can find the Armed Forces transit lounge. They have comfy seats and AFRTS shows on TV.

If you buy anything at the airport with American money, you'll get your change in Won. The exchange rate stinks if you do it that way.

When they serve the meal, there will be a metal tube on the tray. That's not toothpaste, it's hot pepper paste. Use sparingly unless you want flames to shoot out of your ears (your ears if you're lucky).

If I think of anything else, I'll post.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:42 PM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: It's super safe at night, the subway is cheap dead easy to navigate (it's colour-coded and station names are printed in the Roman alphabet as well as Korean), and cabs are plentiful and affordable.

Most tourists tend to enjoy the Insadong and Myeongdong neighbourhoods for shopping and sightseeing.

My favourite meal was dak galbi. Restaurants that serve it specialize in it and I recall that there are lots located south of the river near to Jamsil station. Spicy and delicious (lots of spicy food in Korea.)

Many Koreans who speak some English love the opportunity to practice, so don't worry about the language barrier too much.

And if you want a laugh, ask them about fan death.
posted by fso at 12:50 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

1st, Korea is dramatically different than Indonesia. Consider this your first time in Asia.

English speaking Koreans can be found. Koreans whose English you can actually understand and converse with: very difficult to find (of all Asians, Koreans and mainland Chinese have the hardest time with English pronunciation). Be patient, and don't read lips.

I must mention a bit about temperament : Do not expect the 'submissive Asian nature' or soft-spoken speaking styles - Koreans can be very direct and aggressive in speech and approach.
posted by Kruger5 at 1:00 PM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: I've lived in Seoul for the past four years, and my day to day experience is much different than what Ruthless had. I, for one, don't find the pepper paste that spicy, and my doctor advises me to wear a face mask when I'm sick because it helps minimize your throat and sinuses from drying out when you have an infection.

I think the Ongo food tour is a very good idea; MeFi user chrisinseoulsk runs the excellent Chris in South Korea blog which is full of detailed tourism info. I work near Insadong, which is surely part of any organized tour (at least not the food-related ones) for its art galleries, . While you're near Insadong, you might also find Samcheongdong and Bukcheondong worth visiting, the latter being essential for scenic views of meticulously maintained traditional Hanok houses. Also nearby is Changdeokgung palace, which frustratingly tries to have people tour in groups, but it's easy enough to break away. Very nice for it's "secret garden". That whole Insadong area could be an afternoon or even a whole day. As regards department stores, Lotte, Shinsegae, and Hyundai are all nice but pricy and perhaps not having much you couldn't find anywhere else in the world. Have fun!
posted by holterbarbour at 1:57 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Personally I would stay away from Itaewon unless hanging around other foreigners is very important to you.

holterbarbour has already covered the neighborhoods I would recommend for sightseeing. Regarding food, ask your Korean hosts for recommendations. In particular, ask for recommendations for temple food, and if you're feeling spendy, for royal court cuisine. These are both genres of Korean food that are almost impossible to find outside of Korea. Both genres of food will not be very spicy hot, and may be quite different from Korean food encountered in the typical Korean restaurant in North America.

One fun place to visit (at least for me) is Kyobo Book Centre, or Kyobo Mungo. Try to visit the Gwanghwamun location. It's a humongous bookstore that is always bustling. In addition to the books, check out the stationery section - I can never resist buying pens and notebooks and random office items I never knew I needed before!
posted by needled at 5:24 PM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: And regarding interactions with your hosts, just be polite the way you would be at home. Many Korean academics got their graduate degrees from U.S. or Canadian universities, so they will speak English and be aware of Western manners.

Remember to have business cards on you for exchanging business cards, and consider taking some of your university's logo items to give as gifts - things like pens, keychains, or t-shirts or other interesting things your university may have.
posted by needled at 6:08 PM on August 10, 2012

If you need more specific advice, feel free to memail me--I've lived in Seoul since 2002.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:19 PM on August 10, 2012

Best answer: Thanks for the mention, holterbarbour =)

dining solo? taking subway solo? safety at night? speaking English without offending anyone?
Dining is fine - no worries unless you're in a meat restaurant where it's assumed you'll be eating with someone else.
Subways and buses are fine - just use your common street smarts.
Safety at night - pass on Itaewon - it's the bar / club scene for the twentysomethings. Otherwise you'll be good - again, common street smarts.
Speaking English - a lot of Koreans are shy about speaking English unless they're practically fluent. Be patient with their pronunciation, and speak slower than you normally do. If it's clear they're fluent or native-speaking, then those fly out the window.

Buy some Korean won as soon as you arrive - they're easy to cash out at the airport, and I don't recall there being a big price difference the last time I looked.

Don't think it's been mentioned yet, but Gangbuk literally means 'north of the river'. That makes Myeongdong and Namdaemun some GREAT areas to walk through. The former is great for street vendors along department stores and health/beauty products, while the latter has a little bit of everything. You'll find more people speaking English in the former, but there is a tourist assistance center in Namdaemun.

My blog might give you enough ideas for a second trip! Google 'Chris in South Korea' and you'll see it =) Anything else, just mefi mail.
posted by chrisinseoul at 9:22 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For traditional historical Korea, go to one of the palaces mentioned above.
For traditional/old Korea, go to Insadong, definitely.
For bustling industry city 90s Korea, go to Jongro-3ga, which is just chock full of hyperactive wholesalers that sell everything- a store just selling zippers, just selling glues, just selling motors, chains, lace, light bulbs, used cameras (Korea has a great film/camera market).
For street market and great street food Korea, go to namdaemun market.
For clubby expat Korea, (don't) go to Itaewon.
For chic upscale expensive Korea, (don't) go to Apgujung, garosu-road.
For designy-indie-bandy-artful independent young Korea, go to Hongdae.
For modern/contemporary art gallery Korea, go to Insadong and just north of it,
For nightlife Korea, go to the chic/clubby places above or go to Gangnam station on line, exit 4, follow the crowds.

Generally, stay north of the river. Seoul started there, and the more interesting/old stuff is all up there.
posted by suedehead at 11:56 PM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Food to try:
Gimbap- like sushi rolls but way more delicious with things like kimchi inside
Mandu - yummy dumplings
Korean "BBQ" - eaten communally, you cook the meat yourself in the middle of the table and wrap it up in a sesame leaf , yum!
Dongdongju - delicious milky rice liquor (drank communally from bowl in middle of table)
Soju - rice liquor, not delicious but must be experienced if in Seoul

I lived in Seoul for a year about 10 years ago and these are the things I sometimes wish I could fly back just so I can eat them again, or drink again as with dongdongju. Especially try handmade gimbap and mandu, which are lunch items that can be found everywhere in Seoul, and are painless and easy to order and eat on your own. Eating and drinking is generally very communal in Korean culture, so hopefully your hosts will take you out for dinners so you can enjoy the full experience where the table is covered in food and everyone shares everything (this would also be the time to drink dongdongju).

I agree with others that you should go check out Insadong (looks like it's in the area) and avoid Itaweon (not much to see).
posted by smartypantz at 12:34 AM on August 11, 2012

aww, I just spent about four days in Seoul last week! So for four days, I don't have much advice. I would suggest going to the Gyeongbokgung (Palace) and the Seoul Zoo (good for getting a feel for family life in the city - be warned, however, almost nothing there is in English). Go into some supermarkets and check out the Asian-ized groceries you can buy.

Unlike everyone else here, I actually liked walking through Itaewon. It is indeed where you can find a lot of tourists and tourist-oriented businesses, but imo I was relieved to see some foreigners. It seems Seoul attracts mostly Chinese and Japanese tourists and Westerns are hard to spot on the street (and even at most of the museums we went to).

Japanese food in Korea is much cheaper than it is in the US (and Canada, I assume), so if there are any particular Japanese dishes you want/like to try, check out some Japanese-style restaurants. Japanese dishes common in Korean restaurants. I would recommend you try the seafood. I'm no foodie so I can't remember specific dish names, but squid is especially good. (Ask for an English menu if you can!) Make sure to have some bibimbap, which is apparently a signature Korean dish. It's vegetables and meat you mix in with chili paste and rice. (I hope you like spicy food in general!)

Also gotta disagree with the above poster who said the subway was easy to navigate. As an English speaker, it is difficult to remember the long Romanized names of Korean places. Plus the Seoul subway system is HUGE. There are dozens and dozens of stops - it's one of the biggest subway systems in the world. The trains are crowded at any hour. It is, however, fairly safe and easier to figure out than the bus system. Cabs are a pretty cheap options.

I doubt you need to know this, but Koreans always take off their shoes before entering a house (as you will see if you go to Gyeongbokgung and enter the monarchs' former houses).

Hope that was helpful...I haven't spent a lot of time in Korea, so take it with a grain of salt. Have fun! Koreans are indeed generally very friendly.
posted by myntu at 10:21 AM on August 11, 2012

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