12 Important Cultural Differences To Know Before You Visit Seoul

Travelling to South Korea for the first time? This post will give you the lowdown on things you’ll probably want to consider…

Join me as I delve into the observations uncovered during my first time travelling to South Korea. The motive? To help you stay one step ahead.

You see, while there’s no shortage of useful resources online outlining tips and tricks for a memorable time in South Korea, fundamental logistics were often missing.

It’s all well and good having a list of things to do, but what about a list of things to know? After all, travel will only ever be sustainable if it’s done respectfully. Right?

That’s where this post jumps up. Within 10 minutes, you’ll get the scoop on things you shouldn’t do in Seoul, the reason why tipping isn’t advised, how Google reviews are exchanged for gifts at some tourist hotspots, and where to find technology that will, quite literally, stop you in your tracks. Plus 8 other topics.

Have I got your attention yet?

Before you jet off, or even think about a late-night Skyscanner scroll, read below to limit unexpected surprises the moment you step into Seoul, and South Korea more widely.

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Things To Know If You’re Travelling To South Korea For The First Time:

Without a doubt, Seoul was the adventure of a lifetime for me. However, part of being a travel writer is transparency – without any sugar-coating.

For this reason, I’ve included both positives and negatives in the discussion surrounding cultural differences. This isn’t about competition, or crowning a winner. It’s about using examples from one culture to highlight a contrasting reality in another.

The below pointers are here to guide, and are based on my experiences in South Korea’s capital city. Although, I’m far from an expert on Korean culture.

That’s why this post has undergone 37 hours of research, 3 proof-reading sessions, and 2 audits conducted by locals to ensure cultural insight is accurate. Nonetheless, if you identify any inaccuracies in the portrayal of culture, or can provide additional detail, please do share in the comments box below!

Now, let’s unpack the entries from my travel diary…

1. Spotted An Empty Seat On The Metro? Don’t Sit Down!

3 specific pieces of public transport etiquette stuck out to me when navigating Seoul subway systems…

Transport Point 1

Specialist seats for pregnant women, children and the elderly are only used by the individuals who fall into these categories.

Even if the seats aren’t occupied.

Quite different from the UK, actually, where many people place their rear end on seating for pregnant or elderly individuals, until they spot someone in need and voluntarily move. Which, come to think of it, probably isn’t the best approach to adopt.

Next up…

Transport Point 2

Noise is non-existent.

Prior to visiting Seoul, I had heard rumours that locals don’t talk or eat on public transport, out of respect to fellow commuters.

Turns out this wasn’t so much a rumour, but a fact.

Transport Point 3

The onboarding process is beyond efficient.

You’ll notice 2 lines outside every train door at all times. That’s right, single file entry.

London could never…

2. You Won’t Speak To People In Most Restaurants.

In some instances, stores were fully self-serve.

+ that’s due to the prominence of self-serve machines in many restaurants/cafes.

A feature of pure convenience, is it not? Especially where language-barriers are present, or when you’re getting those ‘you’re late, where are you’ texts.

However, not all machines accept card. More on that later on.

3. There’s Heavy Emphasis On Reviews – You’ve Got To Be Careful.

An example of the keyrings which were popular in Seoul.

When browsing up a place to go, a spot to see, or a service to book during your first-time travels across South Korea, don’t take things at face value.

You might initially be won over by an influx of positive, and almost too-good-to-be-true, reviews but they aren’t always genuine.

To emphasis this point, I’ll add two specific examples.

Ssada Gimbab, Myeondong.

This restaurant chain offered a pick of a cartoon keyring in exchange for a Google review.

A keychain like the ones in the photo above typically fell between 5000 to 10,000 WON (a few British Pounds up to 7) if purchasing, yet it soon made sense why only this specific ‘Ssada Gimbab’ had reviews reaching 4.9 in comparison to less than 4 in other locations of the same chain. You guessed it. There were no keyrings on display at other branches.

(I really loved ‘Ssada Gimbab’ in multiple locations though, and would say it’s the food spot I ate most frequently at. This restaurant is one of the best options for sampling traditionally-Korean dishes at very affordable pricing)

JUNO Hair, Myeondong.

In an attempt to save my frazzled hair, towards the end of my travels I booked in for a blow-dry at Juno Hair in Myeongdong.

The actual experience itself was lovely, and can’t be faulted, but it seemed a little bit like the customer service was overly-exaggerated. I thought it was a little strange, but brushed it off.

Then, as I had paid and was about to leave I understood how this salon might have a near-flawless rating of 4.9

2 staff members, albeit very pleasant, wafted salon cards in my face and unanimously verbalised that I should leave a review. They were waiting for a response within seconds. I hadn’t even stepped out the salon yet. Was the prior friendliness all for show? Were the flawless reviews partially down to pressure?

I’m undecided.

4. You Won’t Find Rubbish Bins Very Easily On The Streets.

Besides much-loved street food markets across Seoul, there’s very little incentive to eat on the go.

The short answer? Rubbish bins are near-impossible to stumble across, meaning you’ll have no other alternative but to carry rubbish back to your hotel, or expressively set out on a detour for one.

I’m told, however, this is actually a measure to reduce the risk of life-threatening objects being hidden in public spaces.

5. Gluten-Free Products Aren’t Frequently Found.

Travelling to South Korea for the first time? Don't miss a Korean BBQ experience.
A good option if gluten-free – Korean BBQ.

I hate to break it to my fellow gluten-free explorers, but you will struggle in Seoul to find gluten-free products.

Upon travelling to South Korea for the first time, I didn’t see the universal ‘gluten-free’ symbol once.

Whilst a few menus had the standard small print of speaking to staff if you have allergies, allergen-friendly labelling hasn’t seemed to take off in Seoul yet.

Supermarkets were also somewhat limited with gluten-free alternatives, unless you went to specialist health stores.

I don’t have a full list of gluten-free food spots in Seoul, as I had days where I ended up eating wheat, but I do have a comprehensive guide to being gluten-free in Barcelona. If BCN is on your radar, have a little peak!

6. Traffic Lights Are Sometimes Displayed On The Floor.

Traffic lights like these are pretty common.

There’s a reputation of South Korea being a tech-savvy country, but this lifestyle is highlighted in ways you’d least expect.

Take traffic lights.

Did you know that certain streets have traffic lights displayed at ground level to alert those engrossed with their phones?

You do now!

7. Shop Assistants Are A WHOLE Load More Attentive, But Is It Too Much?

Shopping in Seoul isn’t as enjoyable as you might expect.

If you’re travelling to South Korea for the first time, you’ll want to shop.

I know it. You know it. Shop assistants know it. Seoul knows it.

So why did I end up leaving stores in frustration?

In the best case scenario, you’ll be followed by shop assistants everywhere you go. Yes, that’s the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario? You’ll be persuaded to purchase any item you look at for more than a second, or will be given a discourse on products you aren’t interested in.

There’s rarely a chance to freely look around.

Is this a sign of good customer service, or is this too much? You decide!

8. Let’s Chat Cars – Does This Shock You?

Lifting your hand to thank drivers as you cross the road becomes interesting when there’s no indication of who’s behind the wheel.

Whilst tinted-out front panels aren’t applicable to all cars, a large number of leisurely vehicles will cruise around roads in incognito mode.

9. Trying An Item Of Clothing On? You’ll Need A Face Cover.

Are you tired of finding a white top in store, flipping it around, and seeing it’s covered in foundation stains?

Seoul has a solution for that, as it’s common to be given a disposable face cover to put over your head when trying upper garments on. In fact, a handful of stores won’t allow you to try on clothing without one.

Can stores in the UK please incorporate this sometime soon?

10. Smokers Will Gather Together In A Designated Smoker Hub.

An example of a smoking hub.

Whilst I’m not a smoker, I was intrigued to hear that smoking is actually a fineable offence in South Korea, following a ban enforced almost a decade ago, in certain public places – including bars.

Instead, you’ll find designated smoking areas dotted around the streets if you’re keen to light up.

11. Tipping Isn’t Required, In Fact, It’s Not Even A Custom.

Unlike the US, and partially the UK, there isn’t a tipping culture in South Korea.

It may even be considered rude in some situations, as Koreans do not assume they’ll receive a tip. For this reason, insisting an individual accepts a tip isn’t advised.  

Better alternatives to show gratitude in areas where tipping isn’t custom include bowing, verbalising your appreciation, or voluntarily submitting a review.

You may notice tip jars at some cash registers, but few places actively have them. This does depend on the type of food spot you visit, however.

12. And Whilst We’re Talking Money, Here’s Why You Need Different Payment Methods.

Remember the above point about self-serve machines?

In some smaller spots, such as ramen bars, these machines only accept cash and also tend to only take smaller notes (10,000 WON).

Oh, and in situations where card is accepted, ‘Apple Pay’ or ‘Google Pay’ won’t always suffice. Take a physical bank card when travelling to South Korea (not just for the first time!)

Around 95% of my transactions in Seoul were done by cash, with a few physical card payments in well-known stores. I also had GBP and EUR currencies with me, which I changed into WON towards the end of the trip.

A necessary step to fuel my late-night spending sprees at DAISO…

Your Author:

Yaz is the writer behind ‘The Strawberry Snaps’ and is here to make travel a frequent part of 9-5 lifestyles.

For her story, click here.

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