Traveling in Korea
Korea is a unique experience for any backpacker. You don’t run into a lot of other travelers once you get out of the capital, which is refreshing, but that also means all eyes are on you if you don’t look like you are from there. Korea was our second stop on our 2017 Asia trip. We flew into Seoul where we spent a week and then visited Daegu for a couple of days, Pohang for a couple of days, and finally another week in Busan. Most of the big stops on the list are gigantic cities, but they are laid out in such a way that anyone can easily get around on public transport and it’s not hard to get outside the city to enjoy the outdoors. The language barrier is naturally the most difficult part about traveling in Korea. If there aren’t any English signs and nobody that speaks English is present, everyone is still pretty helpful and you kind of just get herded around until you get what you are trying to get. The food in Korea really stands out as a unique cuisine. You often have to ask not just what you are eating, but how to eat it as well.
Side rant: The population in Korea is aging. I would say that about 75% of the people out and about on a given day are ancient old ladies in floral jumpsuits with visor hats on, while the other 25% are young people who are completely incapable of looking up from their phones. I have honestly never seen a more digital, social media, and selfie obsessed group of people in my entire life, and I was a college student at an American university for 4 years.
Some Koreans do love hiking though, so there are plenty of great outdoor activities to do in addition to many great places to hangout along the coasts. The big cities are great for trying food and site seeing, and most cities are located in mountainous valleys providing easy access to national parks. It is a super safe and super easy country to travel in. Korea is also surprisingly affordable for the backpacker budget.
The Cost of Travel in Korea
- Currency: 1155 Won = $1 US Dollar
- Credit Cards: Yes- Most western credit cards can be used for everything except public transport or market vendors.
- Drink: Beer in a restaurant is $4-$7 and from the store is $2. A bottle of soju (the local drink of choice) is only $1.65 from the store or $3-$4 in a restaurant.
- Food: A meal like bibimbab in a restaurant is $5-$7 and usually comes with bottomless kimchi. There are also plenty of simple noodle based dishes for as little as $3. The all-you-can-eat Samgyeopsal (Grilled Pork Belly) places typically cost $10 per person and you get STUFFED. Cooking for yourself is actually rather expensive in Korea, unless you have a full kitchen and can buy in bulk. Otherwise, most accommodations have a hot water heater and instant ramen costs less than $1.
- Accommodation: Airbnb-Private rooms/flats in Seoul can get as low as $16/night, whereas we found $20 to be about the average everywhere else. There’s no need to pay more than $30/night anywhere. There are cheap motels and guesthouses for around $20-$30 as well, but again, you can always find an Airbnb in Korea for $20 a night.
- Transportation: The subways are cheaper in Korea than in japan. It’s about $1.50-$2.00 per person to go anywhere, including transfers, in all the big cities. In Busan you can buy a day pass for only $5. The local buses are actually about the same price (1700 won when you get on and you can ride it as far as you need to). The long distance buses are relatively affordable. The most expensive one we took was from Seoul to Daegu and it was $25 usd per person. From Daegu to Pohang was $7 and Pohang to Busan was $8.
Tips for Traveling in Korea
- You shouldn’t ever need to take a taxi in the cities. The subway system thoroughly covers the entire city of Seoul and the same goes for Busan.
- There is a dog meat market in Busan still. I tell you so that if you find it by accident you aren’t shocked and you can avoid it. There are petitions against it online you can find.
- The fish market in Busan is a total ripp-off. There is no need to spend $75 on a plate of seafood that close to the beach.
- The view from the bottom of the Seoul tower is just as good as the view from the top and won’t cost you $20
- Check out my post on Top 4 Free Things to do in Daegu
Things to do in Korea
- Hiking in the national parks is a favorite past time of many locals and a great way to get out and see the unique landscape. There are some great national parks surrounding just about every city.
- Busan is a big vacation spot for Koreans, especially those living in Seoul. It’s kind of embarrassing really though because the beaches aren’t even very nice. They have roped off swimming areas and lifeguards. Koreans can’t swim so they are all out there in life jackets, splashing around in the safety zone. It is nice to relax in the sun though and the rest of Busan city is pretty cool too.
- Seoul is obviously where most people visit when they go to Korea. It’s also where most people live in Korea. The city of Seoul has all kinds of great stuff to do. There are thousands of great restaurants and different districts for night life. There are all kinds of old temples and important pieces of history. The War Memorial Park and accompanying museum are a must see.
- Soju- Soju is a distilled rice liquor. The Korean answer to Japanese sake, except it has a way higher proof and the Koreans drink it way more than anyone in Japan drinks sake. It tastes like watered down vodka, but it is served nice and cold so it’s pretty refreshing. There are some flavors that make it better. Most Koreans won’t eat without it. The hangovers are brutal though….
- Samgyeopsal-Grilled pork belly, most commonly consumed at an all you can eat establishment where the grill is in the center of your table and you cook the raw meat yourself.
- Kimchi- Fermented cabbage with spices. Most people have tried some version of it but it’s made about 50 different ways in Korea and they are all better than anything I’ve had at home.
- Mandu- These are what we call “pot stickers” at home and they are made about a thousand different ways here. Be careful though If you are trying to get the ones with pork in them because some of them are just stuffed with rice noodles and ain’t nobody got time for that.
- National Museum of Korea
- War Memorial Park
- Seoul Museum of History
- Gyeongbokgung Palace
- Bukhansan National Park
- Namdaemun Market
- Seomun Market
- Suseong Pond
- Hiking in Apsan Park
- In Busan
- Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
- Beomeosa temple
- Songjeong Beach
- Haeundae Beach
- Beomeosa Temple
- Hongbeopsa Temple
Before visiting Seoul, I always thought it looked like a lego city. All of the buildings were large and block-like, perfectly identical, only made in a few colors, and can be infinitely added to in an ever expanding metropolis. That is definitely the view you get from the mountains, but when you are down in the city you learn that it is much more vibrant and lively than a grey city made of building blocks. We stayed in a good part of Seoul, but there didn’t seem to be a bad part to stay in as long as you are close to the subway station. Over half of South Korea’s entire population lives in Seoul, so despite my normal emotions towards big cities, this capital is actually a great introduction to the Korean way of life. There are plenty of free things to do in Seoul and a lot of reasonably priced food and housing options.
Daegu was our next stop after Seoul. We stayed in a weird love motel/spa with a circular bed and advertisements for the adult film channel on the walls. It was cheap enough though, and conveniently located close to the monorail. Daegu actually had a lot of budget friendly things for us to do. The Seomun Market is a giant open air/indoor market place that is cheap to eat at and try new things, but also turns into what looks like a small festival every night at 7:30 when about 50 different mobile food carts roll out and live music takes the stage. Suseong Pond is another great night activity because the fountains light up and there are a number of music stages around the lake where local musicians play every night. There is also a forest of christmas lights and a small carnival at the pond. We spent a good deal of our time in Daegu hiking around Apsan park. Park entrance is free and there are several great trails that take you to different temples as well as an observation point with a great view of the town. You can take the monorail within walking distance of the trail head and skip the cable car and hike to the observation point. The city of Daegu also has several busy shopping streets that are bustling day and night. We didn’t really do much there besides people watch and have some ice cream.
We stayed about 15km outside the actual city of Pohang close to Chilpo beach. This area is home to a number of small beaches nestled into little bays. The towns behind them are very small and some don’t even have any shops for food and drink. I’m sure it is busy during peak beach season, which starts around mid to late July, but we were there right before so it was a ghost town. There are some great boardwalk hikes that take you along the coastline, as well as some other trails that go back up into the hills for a great view of both the city skyline and the ocean. South Korea and the U.S. conduct military drills in the waters around Pohang, so there are a lot of strange empty military posts and bunkers scattered around. It’s a short ride into the busy city of Pohang from here, but without having a car or wifi, we didn’t have the luxury. However, we enjoyed the peace and quiet for a week after spending time in the big cities beforehand.
Busan is the second most popular tourist destination in Korea after Seoul. That is mostly because of it’s beaches. We visited 4 of the beaches in Busan as well as a number of hikes and temples. They say the food and the accent is totally different in Busan than in Seoul. There are definitely differences, but this city is still quite authentically Korean. There are plenty of big markets to get lost in around the city as well as lots of outdoor street food areas. You could spend a whole day just wondering around and eating different street food. The subway is 1800 WON ($1.70 usd) to go anywhere in town. We took it from complete opposite ends one day just for the heck of it and to see if the weather was different. It cost us $3 and it took an hour and a half (it was still raining on that side of town too.) The subway will also take you to the Busan Bus Terminal where you can catch an intercity bus to anywhere else in the country. It will also take you straight to the international airport. I don’t think it has ever cost me less than $20 to get to the airport in a town before. Busan is loaded with fun activities. By the time we left we had been to probably 15 different restaurants, 4 markets, 4 beaches, 3 temples, and two hikes.