Seoul Travel Guide
South Korea is on the list of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Countries to Travel to in 2018! Like finally! And my advice? You can’t skip the bustling capital of this small country, Seoul. This sprawling metropolitan, where around 10 million people call home, will blow your mind.
I don’t know about you, but I think that Seoul is one of the most underrated cities to travel to in the world. With all the tourists flocking to Tokyo, many have overlooked the Korean capital and underestimated what it has to offer. Palaces are everywhere, people are warm, food is fantabulous, snow is perfect (South Korea is the host for the Winter Olympics in 2018), and most importantly, it’s not too expensive!
Read on to know more how you can best explore this fascinating metropolitan.
The cost of a dorm bed per night in Seoul can range from 10AUD to 25AUD depending on the location. Contrary to my advice on accommodation in other cities, location actually doesn’t matter that much in Seoul because public transport here is very cheap and efficient.
Myeongdong, Hongdae and Itaewon are all good areas to stay but they might be a bit more expensive. You can look into Mapo-gu or Sinchon if you prefer a cheaper hostel.
I personally prefer Hongdae best. I highly, HIGHLY recommend Gateway Korea Guesthouse. This guesthouse is located strategically in the heart of Hongdae and it’s very affordable! The staff there is really nice and you get to know everyone from every corner of the world!
If you wanna shop till you drop, stay with K-Guesthouse Seoul City. It is also very near to Gwangjang Market where you can get some of the most authentic street eats in Seoul!
Itaewon is an area saturated with expats and foreign tourists. Clubs and bars there play western music and the crowds are really fun! If you are planning to have a big night out in Itaewon, stay with Mosc! It’s very chic and new and affordable!
You can even get a private room for 2 in a hostel for AUD30 – AUD65. So don’t always think that staying in a hostel is sleeping on a dorm bed.
If you don’t like the idea of staying in a hostel, opt for a budget hotel which offers more privacy.
Seoul has many budget hotels but they run out fast. The main crowd of tourists who travel in Korea is Korean themselves, Japanese, Chinese and South East Asians. These people plan FAR in advance so budget hotels are always on high demand.
Price for a room for 2 in a budget hotel starts from around AUD50. Book early before you get owned by the high prices.
Want something more fancy? Stay in a boutique hotel! Boutique hotel has recently become one of the main accommodation options among the middle class nowadays, and Seoul definitely has got a lot of that.
Boutique hotel normally offers really chic designs and have pretty quirky concepts. A night in a boutique hotel can set you back at AUD100. It will cost you a bit less when you travel during the shoulder season (which is late autumn and winter).
Want something different? Stay in a hanok house! Hanok is a traditional style house that people from ancient time lives in. The first hanok house can be dated back to the 14th century! And imagine you can stay in there!
I stayed in a Hanok house for free through Couchsurfing. I have included more information about Couchsurfing and what you should be aware of.
Airbnb has seriously become one of the most popular accommodation options, mainly because of the flexibility that Airbnb can offer. The best part? You get to hangout with the owner if you are lucky! They can also give you handy tips about the city, as well as telling you the tourist traps in Seoul so you won’t get ripped off!
If you are using Airbnb for the very first time, you can sign up through this link to get a 25 dollars worth of credit to spend for free!
Public transport in Seoul is incredible. It is fast, frequent, punctual and most importantly, very affordable. Get a transport card from one of the ubiquitous convenient stores and top it up.
Within the city, each journey will cost around 1350KRW (~1.50AUD) regardless of the journey time. So if you are tight on budget, you should explore area by area. Plan well and you can stretch your penny a little more.
For example, if you are going to Hongdae, you should also visit Sinchon area. Spend one day in Gyeongbukgong area. Visit Myeongdong, Namdaemum and City Hall together. That way, you won’t spend that much money on public transport as you just have to pay a return ticket.
KTX train express is one of the easiest ways to travel between cities in South Korea – it travels up to 300km/h. In another word, you can get from Seoul to Busan in just 2.5 hours! Although flying takes just 1 hour, you have to take into account of the waiting time and the delays that might happen at the airport. And let’s not forget about the security check.
However, KTX train ticket is not the cheapest. There might be promotion at times but it’s a rare occurrence. Fortunately, you can get a rail pass by Korail if you are a foreigner! This is much cheaper compared to buying individual tickets. Make sure you know all the different options that are available to you before deciding on getting one.
If you want to explore places in greater Seoul that are out of reach of the public transport system (which is not very likely). You have more flexibility over your own time as you don’t have to adhere to the schedule of the public transportation.
Honestly, I haven’t heard Seoul being a great country to do road trip. If you have done it before and enjoyed it, please comment down below!
Bear in mind that if you have only an international driving license, you are NOT allowed to drive. You must have a international driving permit or a Korean driving licence.
To my surprise, taxi in Seoul is quite cheap. It starts with 3000 KRW (~3.50 AUD) and 100 KRW (~0.15AUD) is added for every 142 metres travelled. In short, a 15-minute ride without traffic will cost around 10000 KRW (~12AUD).
However, if you party til late at areas like Itaewon, it’s gonna cost a lot more. Taxi drivers charge a fixed price as the demand is high. This is not allowed in South Korea but people are desperate for taxi when they can’t even stand straight. If you don’t want to succumb to taxi, you can party a little bit more until 6am to take the first train back to your accommodation. Problem solved.
You can hail a taxi with Kakaotaxi. This is the Uber equivalent in Seoul. However, bear in mind that it’s not cheaper nor more expensive than normal taxi. The bad thing about Kakaotaxi is that they can see your destination and decide if they want to take you, whereas taxi drivers are more likely to take you regardless of where you wanna go.
Eat and Drink
The variety of food in South Korea is insane. Firstly everything looks red. Secondly, everything tastes amazing.
Seoul has many cheap chains that you can get the most out of your bucks. For example, you can get a bibimbap bowl for around 5000 won in Gimbap Cheonguk.
Convenience stores in Seoul are lifesavers if you are tight on budget. There are literally 1 convenience store every 50 steps you take in any direction. Famous chains include 7/11, GS25 and CU. Different chains offer different variety so that you won’t get tired of what you are eating. This is normally my go-to place for breakfast.
Besides, Seoul is a street food haven! With just 5000 KRW, you can get a big serving of tteokbokki (spicy korean rice cake) with some oden (skewered dish that is cooked in boiling broth). 1000 KRW and you can get a hotteok (Dough filled with honey or stir-fried glass noodle). Gimbaps (Korean rice roll) will cost around 1300 KRW for 3.
Trust me, having good food while travelling in Seoul is possible without emptying your bank account.
You can get a hearty serving of dakgalbi (spicy stir-fry chicken chop) for ~10000 KRW if you share it with a bunch of friends.
If you have someone to share some Korean Fried Chicken with, you can get a whole chicken for 20000 – 30000 KRW. You can also get half and half (2 different sauces) for similar price. Pay a bit more for some booze! I mean, what is korean fried chicken without the beer!
Having an authentic Korean BBQ is one of the must-do thing on my list while I was in Seoul. Trust me, it’s really worth it. For 20-30 AUD, you are having one of the best cuts for your barbecue. They are plenty of Korean BBQ restaurant for you to choose from, and I just go to the one that my Korean friends recommended.
Of course if you fancy some edible gold to tickle your palate, you can opt for the fancy restaurants located in the skyscrapers. Seoul is home to a couple of Michelin restaurants and if you have the dinero, you can definitely try them out.
Even if you don’t have that much money, you can still have extravagant good at moderate prices. Follow Michelin Bib Gourmand (the cheaper version of Michelin) and you will explore a whole new world of gastronomy in Seoul at prices ranging from 30AUD to 70AUD.
Also, if you feel like splurging, splurge during lunch time! Many high-end restaurants in Seoul have special lunch menu which cost half (or less) of the price they would normally offer for dinner!
I am so happy that Seoul is more card-friendly than Tokyo! Although it’s still good to have some cash around sometimes, you can get by in Seoul without much cash to be honest. Most stores and restaurants take cards without extra charges.
ATMs are everywhere in Seoul. However, bear in mind that you will be charged some fees. Generally, most banks in Korea will take your foreign ATM/ debit card. Some banks charge a one-off fee (around 1000 won) and some banks (like KEB-Hana) will charge a percentage of how much you are withdrawing, WHICH IS WHY YOU HAVE TO WATCH OUT!
Moreover, the exchange rates of Korean banks suck to the max! I remember losing 17 AUD for a ~200AUD worth of withdrawal. I mean that’s one korean BBQ worth of money!!
One tip for you: for most banks, you can choose to opt in or out for the Visa exchange rate. If you opt in, the amount of Korean won that you are getting follows the international trend of Visa currency exchange rate, which is generally better than the one offered by most Korean banks. If you opt out, you will be charged like how I was charged.
So opt in for the Visa exchange rate if you don’t want to be ripped off! You have been warned.
Seoul generally has a “no-tipping” culture, and I am happy to adhere to the rules. Unless you are very happy with the service (which I was when I was at the Korean BBQ restaurant where the waiters and waitresses come running to grill our meat because we were so busy eating), you don’t need to tip.
Bureau de Change
Generally, I am strongly against carrying a large sum of money with you. Although Korea is safe, you are still at risk of losing a large sum of money prior to boarding your flight, when you’re in the flight and so on. Prepare a few options so that you won’t starve to death when that sum of money is lost for whatever reason.
Incheon International Airport has sooooooooooooo many bureau de change so don’t you worry. Bear in mind that most of them are offered by major banks so they have pretty shitty exchange rates. However, if you really need cash when you arrive in Seoul, there’s an option. They are also 24/7.
Although it’s not as cheap as the Philippines, I would still say that Seoul is a land of cheap alcohol.
And all the convenience stores are holy shrines. A big can of Cass beer (Korean light lager) will cost you around 1000 won (~1.20 AUD). A big can of OB beer will cost just 1500 won (~1.80 AUD). Yeah it’s amazing I know. My liver suffered a little when I was in Seoul.
The famous soju brands that most Koreans drink (Jinro/ Chum Churum) will cost you 1000 – 1500 won (1.20-1.80 AUD). And that’s around 5-6 standard drinks!!! See how good it is? If you can’t stand the strong taste of pure soju, you can get flavoured soju. My favourite one is peach soju and you should really try it.
The best thing is, alcohol doesn’t cost that much in restaurants either! If you go to restaurants that locals go to (rule of thumb: no English menu), alcohol will cost you just 10-20% more than what a convenience store normally offers. You can see that everyone is drinking in the restaurants (especially when it’s a weekday, where all the white-collared people enjoy with food and drinks) and the atmosphere is amazing.
To the nocturnally-inclined – YOU HAVE TO GO TO SEOUL. Holy lord, I have to say that nightlife in Seoul is my top three after travelling to more than 40 cities! (Top being Siem Reap and second being Berlin for me).
Maybe it was because I was there during the festive season, most clubs are very happening. I will divide this section by areas.
If you wanna splurge, look no further and go straight to Gangnam area. This is really an adult playground. There are so many chic bars overflowing with wondrous cocktails. Rooftop bar, private brewhouse, lounge style bar, chambers… You name it. The ambiance is like those you would see in movies where people have business meetings.
Don’t have much to spend? Then head straight to Hongdae! This area is dominated by fun and energetic students. Bars are cheap and most clubs are free if you enter before midnight. By then it would already be lit. There are so many restaurants that open 24/7 and if you are dying to have some korean fried chicken or dakgalbi, Hongdae has got you covered. I was here for 2 nights and spent around 25000 won each night including late-night snacks and drinks in the bars.
Feel like mingling with expats and foreigners, Itaewon will answer all your prayers. Most clubs play English music and the crowd is generally non-Koreans. It’s generally a bit more expensive here in Itaewon but if you did enough pres, you will not spend that much. I was here 1 night and spent around 35000 won including a humongous kebab that I couldn’t finish.
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I hope that this Seoul Travel Guide will help in planning your travels to this underrated metropolitan! If you are a foodie, check out the Top 3 Unique Korean Food to Try when you’re in Korea!
Born and raised in Malaysia, Aaron is a medical student that is crazily in love with travelling. He loves to inebriate all his readers with the crazy travel stories and personal travel tips that he has gathered throughout years of travelling experience. Learn more about him here!
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