“A turtle travels only when it sticks its neck out.” ~ Korean proverb.
Ever wondered what the secret is to having the most enjoyable trip possible? Welcome to my “Be Invisible” series – your ultimate guide for how to avoid looking like a tourist on your next adventure and guaranteed to boost your entire travel experience.
Bursting with helpful tips and tricks, I’ve asked locals from particular cities around the world to share their insider knowledge on the best ways travellers can become “invisible” when visiting their city and enjoy it like a local. If you’re ready to challenge travel stereotypes, overcome language barriers and embrace what I like to call invisible tourism, you’ve come to the right place!
|This etiquette guide to South Korea was written by Max from Dame Cacao. The best way to see Seoul is by being an invisible tourist, so I’m very excited to share her top South Korea travel tips for how to best blend in amongst locals when travelling. These do’s and don’ts in South Korea also provide a great insight to Korean culture and values to help you make the most of your visit.
If you’re planning a trip to South Korea, these tips for visiting from a local’s perspective will help you have a more enjoyable experience and know what to expect before you go. Read on for more!
This post contains affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
10 South Korea Travel Tips to Help you NOT Look Like a Tourist
Hallyu has affected your life, whether you know it or not.
The “Korean Wave” (hallyu) is a cultural force which includes K-Pop music, Korean dishes, and Korean cosmetics & skincare, among others. But the effect of hallyu has been felt hardest in South Korea’s capitol city of Seoul.
Every year that I’ve lived here, the proportion of visitors traveling around Korea leans heavier & heavier towards the foreigners.
Make no mistake; Koreans travel domestically a lot. The most traveled air route in the world is from Seoul to Jeju City (an island off the southern coast). But when I walk around Seoul’s most popular neighbourhoods, I see more & more physical diversity.
People are visiting Korea from all around the world, and most all of them start their journeys in Seoul, just as I did when I arrived here three years ago. Moving to Korea was my first time in Asia, and I certainly made my share of mistakes. Probably a lot a didn’t even realise I made.
But over the years, I’ve learned how to blend in as best I can as an obviously non-Korean person. These South Korea travel tips are some ways you, too, can make your trip respectfully, insightful, and relatively invisibly.
1. Know the stereotypes
One of my top South Korea travel tips is to be aware of foreigner stereotypes, and actively act against them.
Such stereotypes include, but are not limited to the imagined facts that all foreigners are loud, dress scantily, have lots of tattoos, and only speak English (or worse, NOT English).
There are a bevy of other stereotypes, but those are the most important ones to be aware of as a visitor.
2. Avoid confrontation
As I mentioned above, Koreans have it in their head that foreigners are loud, in part because the sound of foreign languages just sticks out more, but also because in many other countries, yelling in public is perfectly acceptable.
Yet in Korea we have this idea that it’s important to “save face” (maintain a good reputation), and that includes neither yelling nor being yelled at in public.
So Koreans don’t take kindly to either being yelled at or ignored, as those are both shows of disrespect, and will usually get you immediately booted out or denied.
They also won’t yell at you if you do rude things, like drink alcohol or eat on the subway (which is legal but frowned upon); they’ll just look away with annoyed expressions, or maybe sigh.
3. Hang out where locals do
If you want your Korea itinerary to take you off the beaten path, I recommend walking around up-and-coming neighbourhoods near the most popular destinations.
For example, if you want the youthful energy & cheap food of the university neighbourhood of Hongdae, check out neighbouring Mangwon, instead.
Other alternative pairings include Apgujeong (instead of around Gangnam Station), Hangangjin (instead of Itaewon), and Dongdaemun (instead of Myeongdong).
TIP: And don’t be shy with taking pictures; Koreans know their best angles and aren’t afraid to look vain by snapping a couple (dozen) shots.
4. Dress conservatively on top
Korean style & dress expectations are basically the opposite from those in most of Europe and North America. For women, short shorts and shirts are all the rage, and long skirts rather than leggings or pants.
Men tend to wear jeans or slacks at all times rather than shorts or sweatpants.
Showing any cleavage or even collarbones is a big no-no, and will garner you more stares than necessary. A good rule of thumb is to avoid tight clothes and always wear sleeves; this goes for both men and women.
5. Take off your shoes
Please. This goes for Korean restaurants, tea houses, most temples & guesthouses, and some museums.
It’s pretty common throughout Asia to remove shoes in religious spaces, but it surprised me when I also had to take off my shoes before entering local-style restaurants.
Just remember, if you have to sit on the floor, then you have to remove your shoes.
6. Yell in restaurants
One place where it’s not only acceptable but expected that you yell is in restaurants. Feel free to yell at your meal mates, at yourself, and even at your server.
Though for the latter, yelling is only acceptable for grabbing attention, not if you have an issue with service or the food.
TIP: To get an employee’s attention, simply yell “cheo gi yoh” (literally “over there”) or click the service button on your table (if there is one).
7. Forego the fork
In East Asia, chopsticks are the go-to in most restaurants, but Korean chopsticks are these heavy metal sticks that seem slippery and impossible if you learned using wooden chopsticks.
But forks are not only hard to come by in local restaurants, they’re sort of rude to use.
Koreans thing of stabbing your food as rather violent, and largely believe that it ruins a dish. So it’s worth at least taking a stab at using chopsticks and a spoon to eat your meal before trying to ask for a fork.
8. Look for a public trash pile
Throughout Korea, public trashcans are basically impossible to find. If you think you’ve found one, double check that it’s not a post office letter drop.
But instead of just holding onto your trash, keep an eye out for public trash piles on street corners and near bus stops; the piles get larger as the night goes on.
Around midnight, the local elderly tend to go through the piles in search of recyclables, and then around 5am the trash collectors come and pick up everything. So please litter responsibly.
Korea is known for its nightlife and it’s shopping, and the latter is everywhere. Especially in the metro stations around the country, you’ll find older people with blankets covered in goods, quoting you prices at least double what they should be.
In bigger metro stains and in the markets you’ll see large stalls of clothes, toys, accessories, and more. If there’s a written price or a real door on the shop, you probably shouldn’t try to barter.
But in the transient and semi-permanent marked across the country, bartering is expected, especially by older generations.
TIP: For bartering you may need some Korean counting ability, and you’ll definitely need the phrase “HA-reen joo-say-yoh” (할인 주세요).
10. Just because it’s A city, remember it’s not YOUR city
Things are just run differently here. Don’t be surprised if you see teenagers drinking in the street, old men spitting on the sidewalk, or a packed subway car being completely silent.
Korea is one of the most homogeneous societies in the world, with fewer than 2% of the population made up of foreigners (most of whom are Chinese).
You will stick out no matter what you do, unless you happen to look Korean. But there are certainly ways for you to blend into Korea better, without resorting to buying a whole new wardrobe and adopting Korean makeup styles.
In South Korea it’s all about respect, so if you can show people that you’re respectful of their culture, then you’ll get about as invisible as you can be.
|Max has combined her two loves of chocolate and travel on her blog, Dame Cacao. You can follow her chocolate-filled adventures on Instagram and Facebook.
Things to do in South Korea to book in advance
Here are some exciting things to do in South Korea you can book in advance to enrich your trip:
Ready to be invisible with these travel tips for South Korea?
Now you’ve discovered secrets about the do’s and don’ts in South Korea by a local, perhaps you’re ready to make the trip! Why not take a look at the latest Seoul hotel deals? Or if you’d like some more travel ideas and inspiration, here’s all my articles about Asia to get you started.
For learning my secrets for how to “blend in” anywhere, take a read of my #1 Amazon New Release book!
Do you have any extra tips to add to this list? Let me know in the comments below. I hope you enjoyed this instalment of my Be Invisible series! If you found this helpful, please share it or follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok or Instagram for more!
Until next time,
Like it? Pin it! 📌
Featured image credit: Pixabay
First pin image credit: Pixabay
Second pin image credit: Pixabay
This post about South Korea travel tips contains some affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase and if you do, thanks for your support! This helps with the costs of running my blog so I can keep my content free for you. As always, I only recommend a product or service that I genuinely love and use myself!