graffiti wall Hongdae Park Ally Moon

Graffiti wall in Seoul. Photo: Aly Moon via Trover.

For some destinations you can book your airplane ticket, your hotel, pack and bolt out the door. You may have been there before, you may be visiting a friend, or you might be on a business trip with a little time to explore on your own. However if you’re a Westerner headed to Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, research can make your trip go more smoothly and save you money.

These tips may seem a bit formal but they’re a good starting point when you visit Seoul.

Dress modestly

Even though Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world it’s still relatively conservative. It may be sweltering out, but ladies, keep shoulders and arms covered and reserve short shorts for the beach. Dress to see but not to be seen. The respect you show for local customs will help you connect with your hosts, with vendors, to take better pictures, and discover more.  Night-clubbing is a different beast but still if you wear flip-flops and shorts you might not get in.

Don’t expect everyone to speak English

While most street signs are also in English not many Koreans will attempt to use the smattering of English they learned in school. Bring a good phrase book and mark phrases you may need. Learn how to pronounce a few basic things, like “Thank You,” “Where is the bathroom,” and “How much?” Keep your cellphone charged and in WiFi mode so you can use apps like: How to Say. If you show how willing you are to try, it’s surprising how most strangers appreciate the effort.

A touching topic

Most of us in the West don’t think twice about holding hands, a peck on the cheek or hugging, but it’s not recommended in Korea. Koreans will go out of their way not to touch. They will bow slightly or offer a hand formally in transactions but frown on touching strangers or acquaintances in public. Being respectful and harmonious is very important in Korean society.

temple food seoul

Temple meal, Seoul, Korea. Photo: 여주시 via Trover.

Eating out

In many traditional Korean restaurants, or if you’re invited to a private home, you’ll be expected to leave your shoes near the door. Be sure you’re wearing clean socks! Always wait for your host to tell you where to sit and to pour your drinks. Eat everything on your plate and refuse the first offer of second helpings. Know how to use chopsticks and never use them for pointing. When you’re finished place them on the table or chopstick rest, never parallel across your bowl. Tips aren’t expected but leaving change on the table for wait staff is welcomed.

Stay safe

The crime rate in Seoul is relatively low but in a city this size it’s always good to take some precautions and use your street smarts. Crimes of opportunity like pick-pocketing and purse snatching happen no matter where you are in the world. Trust your gut instincts and women especially don’t risk being out after dark alone in night-clubbing areas. Know which district you’re staying in and bring a business card from your hotel to give the taxi driver.

If you’re a U.S. citizen register your itinerary with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.  If an emergency happens the State Department will help U.S.citizens. Give friends and your airlines your travel schedule before leaving. Use legitimate taxis and don’t take rides from strangers. Once you’re there, these basic tips will soon become second nature while you visit Seoul.

Written as part of the Hipmunk City Love Project.