Visiting South Korea is an experience unlike any other. You’ll have a chance to explore the exquisite countryside, looming mountain ranges, and peaceful waters that gave Korea her nickname, “The Land of the Morning Calm.” Throughout history, Korea was closed to outsiders, and by traveling to the elusive “hermit kingdom,” you’ll have the opportunity to tour what was once inaccessible and mysterious to outsiders.
Isolation kept Korea separate from the modern world, and modernization has only touched Korea in the last few decades. You will see an unusual panoramic of the ancient paired with the modern: curved wooden roofs nestled amongst modern rooftops, towering factories next to squat straw huts, and modern medical facilities beside herbal medicine shops. You might shop along an open market in the street, or at a modern department store, eat at Pizza Hut, or at a restaurant serving traditional delicacies, tour an eastern temple, or visit a Presbyterian church. No matter how you decide to spend your time while visiting in South Korea, you will be delighted and awed by the novelties of the country.
Planning Your Trip
It’s important to plan your trip several months ahead of time. Airfare to Korea can be quite expensive, and this gives you the opportunity to shop for the best rates. You will likely fly into Incheon International airport, located in the capital, Seoul. This airport services the greatest number of flights, thus you will have a better chance of saving on airfare.
When booking a hotel, it’s important to realize that hotels in most regions of the country are designed for traditional Korean travelers, and the beds consist of mats on the floor. American tourists aren’t typically interested in these kind of sleeping accommodations, thus it’s important to stay in a fairly upscale hotel, and request a western style room. If you don’t request this ahead of time, you will likely be given traditional accommodations and may be unable to switch rooms, because lack of availability. You should also consider whether you would like to stay in a hotel that incudes breakfast, or that has a restaurant serving both Korean and American cuisine.
Koreans speak the Korean language, known as Hangul. Some Koreans have a basic understanding of English, but many do not, and communication may pose difficulties. Additionally, even if you are familiar with the language, you might have a difficult time communicating, as different dialects are spoken in different regions of the country. You should consider hiring a translator, or at the very least, purchasing a pocket interpreter, if you plan on traveling outside Seoul. Even in major cities, such as Taegu and Pusan, you will be hard-pressed to find an individual who speaks fluent English. Thus, it’s important to buy a good map and guidebook, preferably with illustrations, to help you navigate the country, and to provide a reference for a native, if you need assistance getting around.
Traditional Korean food is both delicious and extremely spicy. If you aren’t used to eating spicy food, take plenty of antacid tablets with you, before sampling the local cuisine. White rice and kimchi are staples of the Korean diet. Kimchi is extremely spicy, cold fermented pickled cabbage. These two items, as well as a variety of other pickled and marinated vegetables comprise the bulk of a Korean diet. Meat is eaten sparingly, as an accompaniment, the way that Americans typically consume grains or potatoes. Popular kinds of meat include bulgogi, which is marinated grilled or barbecued beef, and kalbi, a kind of pork rib. Dried squid, octopus, and various types of seafood are also popular. Boiled, sliced eggs are also commonly used as a source of protein in a Korean diet. Abalone porridge is a typical breakfast dish, and a variety of flavorful soups and stews are also commonly eaten.
Major Cities and Attractions
The capital of South Korea is Seoul. Other large cities include Taegu, located near the center of South Korea, and Pusan, which is a large seacoast city on the southern tip of Korea. Attractions in Seoul include historic, cultural, and tourist locations. The ancient gate, which was one of the oldest structures in Korea was burned down, but is being rebuilt, and is still a stunning attraction. Other popular attractions include the National Museum of Korea, and the demilitarized zone (DMZ). The DMZ is located on the border between North and South Korea, and you can tour the tunnel that the North Koreans dug in an attempt to infiltrate South Korea. You can also view stone-faced North and South Korean soldiers patrolling their respective sides of the boarder, and tour a train station, with tracks that lead into North Korea. Sadly, trains don’t run across the tracks, as South Koreans are still waiting for peace and reunification with North Korea. Another popular attraction is Lotte World, the largest amusement park in South Korea, which features rides and games for all ages. You can also tour traditional Korean folk villages, which are replicas of traditional villages from different eras. If you are curious about eastern religion, you can tour one of the many Buddhist temples located throughout the country. Depending on when you go, you may be able to witness certain ceremonies and rituals that are open to the public.
Shopping is also a draw when visiting South Korea. Whether you visit the open street markets, shop at a department store, or visit one of the many specialty boutiques located throughout the city, you can discover all different types of merchandise and souvenirs to take home. When shopping, steer clear of places such as Itaewon Street, which is located near the US Army base. These and other popular tourist hotspots aren’t as clean as the rest of the city, and the merchandise prices are far higher. You should also be aware that prices are negotiable at the open marketplace, and most shops.. If you don’t speak the language or have an interpreter, this might be difficult, however, the exchange rate is such that you can still receive fantastic deals on exquisite, handcrafted merchandise. You will have to claim goods you purchase as you travel through customs, so avoid buying agricultural products and food to take home.
It’s important to realize that Koreans have different standards of etiquette and behavior than Americans. Although Koreans understand enough to recognize that you are a foreigner, and hence unfamiliar with their customs, it’s important to act respectfully, to avoid any sort of incident. Korean culture mandates that you respect your elders, even if someone is only your elder by a few months. You should defer to those who are older to you than you, even it seems if it seems odd. Restaurant servers, hotel staff, and shopkeepers will frequently bow to you.
Koreans bow as a form of respect, and although you don’t have to know proper bowing techniques, it is important to acknowledge a bow with a respectful gesture. Gift giving in Korea is not like gift giving in America. If someone offers you a gift, it’s polite to refuse, at which point they will offer the gift again. This back and forth exchange usually happens three times before someone accepts a gift. When giving a gift to someone, expect him or her to refuse the first time, and keep offering the gift, up to three times. If you make a friend, and are invited to his or her residence, you should always bring a small gift.
Koreans are known for being both blunt, and direct; thus, they may ask you questions, or make observations that would seem rude in America. Recognize that these individuals are trying to relate to you, and that it’s not meant as a personal attack. Additionally, when traveling Korea, it’s important to observe your surroundings and to attempt to blend in with other people. You shouldn’t imitate them, as this might be construed as mockery, but it is important to remain observant and alert.