Traveling for the First Time to South Korea: Expectation VS Reality

South Korea is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world and yet, some people may not have had the chance to visit this wonderful destination. What exactly can you expect when visiting Korea for the first time?

Expectation: Seoul is a bustling city with nothing much to offer except eating and shopping

Being a huge metropolitan city with towering skyscrapers and over 25 million people, what else can you possibly do there other than eat and shop?

Reality: There are many traditional places to visit even in the midst of all the tall buildings in Seoul

Deoksugung Palace, one of the five royal palaces, is located right beside Seoul City Hall Station

In fact, there are five royal palaces that are tucked in the city center in Seoul. These compounds were mostly built in the Joseon dynasty, over eight centuries ago, each built for different purposes. From the main palace, Gyeongbokgung, to the palace with the secret garden, Changdeokgung, Seoul is definitely a must-visit for cultural enthusiasts and history buffs!

The government has also done a great job in preserving certain areas to ensure that their traditional heritage is not forgotten even in the modern world. Bukchon Hanok Village is one of these preserved places in Seoul where you can see Korea’s traditional hanok houses. If you want a more authentic experience, why not rent and wear a hanbok while exploring these sites and perhaps you will forget that you’re traveling to one of the most advanced cities in the world.

Don’t be surprised to find peaceful (and beautiful) shrines around the city too! Bongeunsa Temple near Bongeunsa Station, for example, was constructed over 1700 years ago and is still standing amidst the concrete jungle.

Gwangjang Market in Seoul city center

On top of the palaces and shrines, Seoul is also filled with traditional markets like Gwangjang, Namdaemun and Tongin Market! You’ll be spoilt for choices.

Expectation: Seoul will be like other cities – Busy in the morning, peaceful at night

I mean… what else can it be like?

Reality: Seoul never sleeps

Most of the stores in Korea are open until late in the night and some are even open all day round. 24-hour convenience stores can literally be found at every corner in Seoul and for the night owls, Dongdaemun, one of the top shopping areas in Korea is open until 4 am daily!

Expectation: All Korean food is spicy, except for the well-known Ginseng Chicken Soup, Samgyetang

Some of us just cannot tolerate spicy food and it is natural to worry about what to eat in a country famous for its spicy kimchi, fiery ddeokbokki, sundubu jjigae (spicy tofu soup) and bibimbap.

Reality: Non-spicy food is not hard to find either!

You will be pleased to know that there is nothing to worry about! Korean cuisine offers a wide selection for those who can not handle spicy food too.

I would recommend trying out kkalguksu (knife-cut noodles) at Myeongdong Kyoja, Andongjjimdakgimbab, tonkatsu, the duo of jjajangmyeon & tangsuyuk and not to forget, korean fried chicken paired with beer or more commonly known as chimaek. For some dishes like bibimbap and naengmyeon (cold noodles), you can also adjust the amount of red chili paste to add. You won’t run out of food to try!

Expectation: There will a language barrier when I travel to Korea

I mean, Koreans only speak Korean… right?

Reality: People in major cities like Seoul & Busan speaks English and even, Mandarin

In Seoul and Busan, menus (in most restaurants) are romanized and some even offer an English or Chinese version. On top of that, the majority of Koreans are able to speak basic English and most storekeepers in touristy places like Myeongdong and Dongdaemun can converse in Mandarin too!

Expectation: My trip to Korea is complete if I have visited Seoul, Busan and Jeju

After exploring these three cities, I have traveled and seen almost everything that South Korea has to offer!

Reality: There are many other cities worth visiting in Korea!

There are many other lovely cities in South Korea and each has its own thing to offer. Chinatown and Fairytale Village in Incheon, Seorak Mountain and Sokcho Tourist & Fishery Market in Sokcho, the Hanok Village in Jeonju, Windy Hills and Jangsado Island in Geoje, the list goes on! You definitely have not fully seen South Korea if you only visit Seoul, Busan and Jeju.

Expectation: The weather in Korea will never be as hot as in Southeast Asia

Korea is a four-season country PLUS it is known to have cold winters that can go as low as -10 degrees. So it can’t possibly be as hot as Singapore!

Reality: During summer, the temperature can go up to around 33 to 39 degrees in the day!

Summer (July 2017) weather in Seoul. Other cities like Daegu and Sokcho experience an even hotter weather during summer!

Unfortunately between June to end August, the heat in Korea can be as bad (or sometimes, worse!) as that in Singapore. In fact, Daegu city is also known as Daeprica (Daegu Africa) amongst the locals because of the unbearable heat during summer that can go up to 38 degrees!

That being said, the hot weather has its own benefits for us travelers. Thanks to the warm weather, you can experience wonderful and unique Korean festivals like the Boryeong Mud Festival and Sinchon Watergun Festival. Water parks like Carribean Bay or other local water leisure centers are also only open in summer!

Expectation: The best time to visit Korea for its nature is in Spring or Autumn

The romantic cherry blossoms scene in spring and vibrant autumn colors in autumn are mesmerizing!

Reality: You can still enjoy spectacular views in Summer and Winter too!

… but so are the flowers that bloom in summer! Visit the 10,000 sqm sunflower field in Gapcheon, Daejeon between July to August or Yangju Nari Park at the end of August to experience the natural beauty of Korea out of spring and autumn.

Even in winter, nature-lovers will be pleased to know that there are many scenic places to visit. Climb up a mountain and be transported to Narnia or hunt for Jeju Island‘s Camellia winter flower for a spectacular winter sight!

Expectation: I will see K-Pop or K-Drama stars when I visit Korea

Image credit: Drama Fever

You may have decided to Korea in hope to meet one of your favorite stars, but…

Reality: You will need to try (extra) hard if you want to see them

Meeting a star in Korea is not as easy as you think. However, it is not impossible to do so if you put in some effort. For the hardcore fans, waiting outside the respective agencies may be an option but for those with lesser patience and limited time to spare, there are other ways to ‘see’ your favorite idol in Korea too. Visit the SMTown museum or head down to Korea Tourism Organisation’s K-Style Hub in town to take ‘photos’ with your beloved!

Other things to expect when traveling to Korea for the first time

Here are some additional pointers that will help for your first trip to Korea:

  • Be careful when crossing as cars do NOT give way to pedestrians – especially look out for delivery bikes as they (usually) never stop for anyone!
  • Do not sit in the reserved seats on trains in Korea if you do not want to get unfriendly stares from the locals
  • Lastly, get ready to have an awesome, unforgettable holiday!

What are you waiting for? Call your travel buddies and plan your next getaway to South Korea now!

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