We’ve been a week and a half in South Korea, being one of our shortest stops. The main motivation to visit the country was to know more about the culture and the food since we like cooking Korean food and we’ve previously done a Korean cooking class back at home in Germany.
Èric was already in Seoul 7 years ago so it was nice to see how much the country has changed in the last 7 years. We’ll try our best to summarize our feelings about South Korea below.
The good feelings about Korea
Quite cashless: In comparison to Indonesia or Japan, Korea is pretty modern and therefore quite cashless. You can pay with a card in many places and almost all restaurants, even at small shops. It’s almost like modern cities such as Barcelona or London but having the drawback that you cannot pay by card in public transportation… also when being at the airport!
Water dispensers: in almost every hotel, restaurant, airport, and office you can just get water for free, either cold or hot. The hot water is already ready separated only by a click, which makes it very easy to make your own tea. And the cold water is so practical and it tastes good. You don’t need to keep buying plastic bottles.
Culture of banchan: in traditional Korean restaurants there is the culture of banchan, which are seasonal side dishes that you get served with your main dish for free. You can repeat as many times as you want, so when you are in Korea you can say “banchan juseyo”, which means more banchan please and you will be served more food. Don’t be shy because you can do that 4 or 5 times without any problem if you’re hungry.
English: English has improved significantly in Korea in the last 7 years. So much so that you can communicate in English in most of the places. It’s amazing to see how much language education has improved in comparison to other Asian countries.
Landscapes: there are quite a lot of things to do in South Korea for being a small country and it has some of the nicest landscapes of Asia concentrated in a little Korean island that we would definitely recommend visiting. Check our posts on the best things to see in Jeju and in Seoul.
The not so good feelings about Korea
Vegetarian or vegan: similarly to Japan, vegetarian or vegan cuisine is not yet popular at all. In fact, in Jeju city, one of the hotel receptionists told us that there was only one vegetarian restaurant, which was a tofu restaurant and we were almost alone there. The majority of food is barbecue and they don’t allow you to share a plate of meat between two people. We tried 3 restaurants and in all of them they said minimum 200g of meat per person or 400g if it’s black pork! This is an insane amount of meat that we didn’t want to eat. Of course the Jeju alternative to meat is seafood since it’s an island… so there are almost no options for Korean food that is vegetarian or vegan, apart from the seasonal banchan.
Sugar in savory-looking food: Apart from being meat and fish oriented, South Korea has a cuisine that is sweet by default. The same way that Europeans have a rather salty cuisine. This means that garlic bread or fried egg bread is actually covered in a layer of thick sugar. Also most of the Korean fried chicken. This is OK but if you’re not a sweet tooth and are worried about the health issues that sugar might have, it makes the experience of eating “savory” food not so good.
Driving: the last time Èric was in Korea he didn’t drive but this time we rented a car to drive through Jeju. Maybe it’s just a thing in Jeju but the way of driving is very aggressive. Most of the cars had scars and people didn’t respect the traffic signs so well, especially close to the crossings. Moreover cars were speeding up to twice the speed and then suddenly breaking when speed cameras were on the way. Because of that there are many speed bumps and speed cameras every 2 km in the island, which is also quite annoying.
More tourists in Seoul: South Korea has become extremely popular in the last few years with the publicity of K drama, K pop, the Parasite movie and Squid Game. So much that it’s super hyped. 7 years ago Èric was alone at the metro at the end of summer and September. And people interacted with him, asked him how he was and whether he could speak English to them. People were very nice and respected each other. It was also really cool to be in so many beautiful places in Seoul with almost no western tourists. However, with the new hype it has changed so much that even at the end of November, where the weather is already quite cold, it’s full of tourists from many countries at places such as the Hanok village and the locals are not so much interested in the tourists since they are just accustomed.
Fewer Korean restaurants in Seoul: 7 years ago there were so many Korean restaurants and just a couple of fast food restaurants. Most of the restaurants offered traditional soups and bibimbap for a really nice price. The menus were not translated in English so you had to speak with signs or learn the alphabet as Èric did back then. Today, it’s the opposite. Most of the restaurants are just chain restaurants and when checking in tripadvisor and filtering for Korean cuisine there were only 210 restaurants out of 5500… it’s full of starbucks, Mc Donald’s, Burger King, Subway, etc. This made it much more difficult to find decent restaurants with good Korean food for reasonable prices :/
Seoul is not so clean and it’s smelly: The streets of Seoul are not the cleanest of the world with some rubbish laying on the floor of markets and also with a bad smell from time to time, similar to sulfur but probably coming from the canalization of the city or the way the rubbish is stored.
You need cash for the public transport: Cash is necessary for the public transport, which is quite impractical when having just arrived at the airport since you need to find an ATM or a machine for exchanging money.
Google maps doesn’t work well: Koreans use Kakao map for directions, which makes Google Maps don’t work very well, especially for directions when driving the car, which doesn’t work at all. Kakao map is a good alternative but we didn’t like the way it was rerouted and that it took so long to compute routes. For public transport we found Citymapper to be better than google maps or Kakao maps
We would recommend going to South Korea for many things such as the modernity, the landscapes and some of the traditional dishes such as bibimbap or tteokbokki.
We hope that our point of view of the feelings of Korea might help you out knowing what to expect. And that they keep you motivated to visit such a beautiful country.