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Exploring Seoul Korea Like a Local: Part 1 - Arriving

Posted by Kyle Shigekuni on

Photo by: Yacht-Rent   

Author Kyle Shigekuni / Category Travel Stories / Published: May 9th, 2019

"Wait what? Google Maps doesn't work out here?"

Seoul is a true metropolis and seemingly planned better than most out there. The city is clean, not too condensed, and sometimes a bit overwhelming at first. The people, the culture, the FOOD, the scenery, are all unique and incredible in their own way. The architectural efficiency is remarkable to say the least. In busy areas of Gangnam you may find 3 bars, a pool hall, 2 all you can eat Korean BBQ restaurants, hairdressers and a few clothing stores in a single building with 4 other buildings full of the same attractions all competing in a a little less than a block.
Beautiful as it may be, Seoul is not the most foreigner-friendly city. This is mostly a cultural thing but has been changing in the last few years obviously from being put on the map during the olympics as well as the kpop movement.
It may be frustrating when you land to get acclimated and find your way around (like I was) if you're not super familiar with the language. This is what we hope to help you with through this post.

Bongeusa Temple in Seoul ~ An ancient temple smack dab in the middle of the bustling city


If you're looking to sightsee Korea's palace's or ancient cultural history, there's tons of travel blogs out there we recommend checking out.
However, if you're looking to immerse yourself like a local, dive into the in-the-know party scene (We'll try to keep this up-to-date), eat your way through the trendiest cafes and see what makes Seoul, Seoul, then this series was made for you. Hopefully this collection of what we've gathered based upon our experiences will be helpful as you explore new worlds.
Here's a few of the things we'll go over in this post to help you get acclimated while exploring the city
1. Korean Currency and Credit Cards - How to get it and what to use
2. Phone Applications for Seoul - They have a copy of almost everything we have here and some are very user friendly!
3. Getting Internet (Sim Cards & Wifi Pocket Rentals) - Essential for the gram
4. Getting to your destination - Our recommendations
5. Getting around Seoul with buses, taxis, and trains - Super easy once you get the hang of it with these tips

Itaewon in the daytime

Before You Leave: Korean Currency, Cards, and Phone Apps

Left is a screenshot of MangoPlate, Right is a screenshot of Kakao Map

1. Currency and Cards: The currency in Korea is the WON and you will see it as the symbol ₩ . Roughly 1,000₩ = 1USD. At the moment of writing this the exchange is better (About $.80 = 1000₩) but, it's easier to calculate this way. Most of Korea can be paid with card so make sure to pack a good travelers card so you can rack up on points abroad. For all other places where cash is king, make sure to use our guidelines here to avoid all fees and get the best rates. Usually the 7-elevens in Korea are the best places to use your international card.
2. Some of your phone apps may not work in Korea and for the most part, they use their own. Here's a few phone apps to download before you head out. These are all assuming a low proficiency in Korean:
KakaoTalk (IOS/Android) - This is the most widely used messaging app in Korea, very similar to Whats app but a lot more fun imo. Get all your friends setup at home so you can keep in touch while traveling.
MangoPlate - The Korean Yelp and much more user friendly than other Korean food apps. Useful when you are looking for local favorites and what's trending.
Google Maps - Doesn't really work for finding things but useful for bus commute if you have an address. Copy and paste an address from mango plate and you're good to go!
Kakao Taxi - Hail a taxi from anywhere. Apparently you can only use Korean Debit cards now
Kakao Maps - My favorite bus app (example above), as they show all available options to ride at once as well as countdown timers to the second as when the bus should be arriving. Their english format was released for the Olympics and isn't, shall we say, "polished" yet. Most restaurants have generic names like "Beef Buffet" for Korean Barbecue but it's still useful to get around with!
Naver Maps - Another great map option and more useful to explore with as their english translated restaurants are more updated. This is a more popular map option as many locals write quite thorough reviews on locations.
Trip Advisor - Foreigner reviews of places. Helpful if you're looking for specific restaurants or browsing for experiences

"You Have Arrived": Plugging into the Internet

3. When you arrive in Seoul, you will need internet. The wireless internet is unbelievably fast out there. We’re talking download speeds up to 50x faster than our cell towers out here. Although it's easy to get, it is not very straightforward on how.
There are two ways AFAIK to get logged in. There are SIM cards and then there are wifi pocket rentals. I’m a big fan of the former since pocket rentals have to stay charged, and cause more bulges in your already tight jeans. Plus you need to return them at the end of your trip and will pay hefty fines if you forget or lose it.
We'll focus on the SIM card. To use a Korean SIM card  your phone must be unlocked. Most newer phones are and if you are using an iPhone 5 or newer you bought it at the Apple store, the phone should be unlocked. If you bought it from a carrier (Such as the terrible Verizon) be sure to check your carrier if your phone is an unlocked version.
The easiest and cheapest route to get your SIM card is the KT wireless booth located at the Airport. At Incheon International, goto Gate 10 or Gate 6 and look for this booth. You can buy a wireless card there for 5, 10, and 30 day windows with unlimited internet.
5 days =₩27,000 ~ $26
10 days = ₩38,500 ~ $38
30 days = ₩71,500 ~ $70

Itaewon-daero on a Friday Night  

You can add on voice minutes but it’s not necessary as you can make calls on the Kakao Talk app.
Keep in mind, if you are thinking of extending your trip or putting off buying the SIM card, you can ONLY buy these wireless cards at the airport or at their office in Seoul near Hongik University Station Exit 2. There are other cards you can get at the local phone stores but you may need a translator to be successful there.

Getting From the Airport to Your Hotel/AirBnB

Getting from the Airport to your place: Airport Buses or AREX Express Train
Since Incheon international is pretty far from Seoul, you will need to buy a bus or train ticket to get to your destination. Airport Buses costs about $15 per person and can be bought right outside of the airport at one of the bus stalls. These comfortable traveliners will take you directly to the main stop of wherever you're staying. The AREX Train is about $10 and also leaves from Incheon International, but you have to deal with moving your luggage around (whereas on the bus, the polite driver takes care of that for you). The last time I checked the bus kiosk signs they were all in Korean so make sure to bring a copy of your address to make sure you know what neighborhood you're heading to. I found it best to figure out the closest train station to the place you're staying, and tell them or show them the train station on your phone.
You can do this by Opening up Google maps, Naver Maps, or Kakao Maps, plugging in your address and searching around it.
Examples of major ones are Gangnam Station, Sinsa Station, Apgujeong Station, Itaewon Station, etc
You can use Google Maps to track your location and make sure you're getting off on the right stop. If not just ask the bus driver to alert you when you get to your destination. There will be automated voice notifications in the bus but to my experience, they are very easy to sleep through 😅
If the bus drops you off too far from your location you can always take a taxi. There’s usually a taxi line near the bus stop or you can just hail one from the street (Look for the lit up top). Taxis typically come in grey, orange, white, and black. The latter are more luxurious and will charge a slight premium. Taxis may seem a bit expensive but keep in mind it is not courtesy to tip (often it's seen as rude).
Generally taxi’s start at 3000₩, increasing 100₩ every 150m, with the black taxi’s starting at 5000₩, increasing 200w every 150m.
A majority of taxi’s still don’t have GPS systems so it’s helpful if you check ahead of time and look for common landmarks around your destination to tell them to goto. Large hotels, main street crossings all work. If that doesn't work, remember the numbers "02-1330" and ask the taxi driver to call it for you. An English interpreter will come on and will help you communicate with the taxi driver.
Aside, if you’re used to Uber and Lyft, there’s a taxi service in Korea based off the chat app called Kakao Taxi. You can use this to hail the nearest taxi driver straight to you. Here is a guide for the english translations for the app.
Travel Hack: If you’re staying at a hotel, the hotel will usually only have the luxury taxi’s available. You can ask them for an “Ilban” normal taxi, who is usually waiting right around the corner out of sight.
Make sure to always grab the receipt. If you forget something in the cab you can call the taxi driver directly via the receipt and request him to come back

Getting Around The City and Exploring

Example: Naver Maps zooming in on Gangnam Station & Alver Coffee

Back to the original statement with Google Maps
Due to the imminent threats of the North, South Korea doesn't allow any international servers to hold data on their local mapping. Since Google is operating their servers outside of South Korea, you will not be able to use them to explore with them and plan out your trip. Because of this, yelp is also out of the picture, as well as Uber and Lyft.
Getting around with Street Buses and Trains
The high majority of locals use the bus and train systems. Unlike most countries, the public transit systems in Seoul are extremely efficient and very clean. Again, Kakao Maps is the best way to find the correct buses to take and will give you countdowns to the arrivals.
Travel Tip: If you are arriving at a train station, keep in mind which station exit you need to take in order to end up on the correct side of the street. They are conveniently numbered and there are signs all throughout the subway pointing to the different exits available.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Congrats! You should be well versed and know how to get around Seoul!

Seoul's neighborhoods are amazing and all hold a uniquely beautiful vibe to them. Make sure to head on over to our next post on the different neighborhoods and hidden alleys.

Kyle heads up our marketing at Blue Flamingo. He is currently based out in Los Angeles, CA and is a self confessed fanatic of Korean Food. He is passionate about health, travel, freediving, and furry animals.

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