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In a Nutshell: South Korea

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

From its busy streets and bustling subways to its vibrant colored palaces and temples; South Korea brings the twenty-first century and ancient history together. Both beautifully well entwined, the end result being an eclectically picturesque country. Between the skyscrapers, apartment complexes and vast storefronts lie grand palaces that date back centuries, large temples and quaint traditional hanok villages. It’s a pretty incredible place to be and I had the privilege of experiencing this country this year. My time in South Korea was marked by many fun and different experiences that proved to be great learning opportunities about the people and the culture there.

The beauty industry, probably one of the biggest industries in the world, has its capital in South Korea. This is often known as the hub for the best in skincare and cosmetic surgeries; setting a high world-wide beauty standard. People actually come to this country specifically for beauty care and treatments! And I can sure attest to this. It was common to see women walking around in post-operative surgical bandages. Wearing them as if a badge of honor. Not only that, but it seemed that everywhere you walked, there was almost always some kind of skincare store with a plethora of products that promised youthful skin, anti-wrinkle, spot correcting and “porcelain white skin”. Don’t get me wrong, I feel that we have a high beauty standard here in the States, but South Korea definitely takes the cake in this department!

Something that I came to love about South Korea was the fashion and their never-ending shopping opportunities. No matter where I go, I love getting to see what people are wearing as well as the fashion trends and styles. From what I saw, I’d say that there were two different kinds of dress. The first being a more preppy or collegiate look. Plaid or pleated skirts, white button downs, knee high socks paired with scrunchies, platform loafers or Mary Janes were pretty commonly worn by women. Men wore “business” attire: slacks, collared shirts sometimes paired with a sweater or sweater vest and usually accompanied by a small satchel bag. As for the second style, think polished streetwear. This one is more similar to what you’d see people rocking in the States. Baggy or loose fit jeans, some kind of name brand sneaker shoe like Nike, New Balance or Adidas and an oversized T for both men and women. I would be remiss not to mention that an outfit was not made complete without its accessories. Claw chips, cute barrettes, jewelry, hats, sunglasses and some awesome phone cases were always added to an outfit. No matter what anyone was wearing, they always looked so well put together.

And of course they dressed so well because they have so many places to shop! Perhaps my favorite part of the shopping experience was the vintage designer resale stores. Designer wear is another large part of the fashion scene in South Korea. However, being on a budget makes it quite difficult to shop designer. These stores were so fun; there were so many of them and all packed with some great stuff if you were willing to comb through the racks.

Man, did I eat well (and a lot) on this trip! Anywhere from street food vendors and

convenience stores to Korean BBQ or Michelin star restaurants, you’ll be eating well wherever you go. The street food is fun because you get to try some popular dishes and treats for pretty cheap, all of which are easily shareable with the people you’re traveling with. Convenience stores were interesting, it’s pretty popular to grab some pre-packaged food on the go. The Korean BBQ spots were great, most of the time the food was cooked by the waiter so all you had to do was sit back and enjoy the meal. What was most surprising was the Michelin star restaurants were on the cheaper end of all the meals, but no less delicious! Of all my dining experience, I found that meals are eaten rather quickly. It’s not like the meals in Europe where friends and family get together and share food together for hours. No, here waiters come shortly after being seated, food is served and once eaten (or even before) the check is dropped off and you’re back to touring.

A big part of everyday life in South Korea is spending time at local cafes. They are similar to coffee shops, except better! This was definitely a really fun part of the trip for me. These aren’t like your typical coffee shops, almost every cafe has some kind of theme, specific decor or esthetic that make each one unique. And it’s not just a few pieces of decor sprinkled around, it’s almost immersive how much they do to make these cafes on theme. From whimsical, floral greenhouse to magically enchanting Harry Potter themed cafes; there are so many! It was a great way to break up the days, give your feet a break, get some food and coffee all while enjoying the cafe. Unlike the dining experience, the cafes tend to be more crowded as this is where most people meet with friends, catch up and spend long periods of time together.

A question I get asked often about this trip is was it difficult to communicate given the language barrier? And quite honestly, no (if you stick to more touristy areas) it was actually the opposite. I will admit, I was more nervous traveling here because I knew zero Korean. A friend I was traveling with knew a few words and phrases that she taught me. I made sure to commit them to memory and use them as often as I could. Of course being a tourist in South Korea I stuck out like a sore thumb, I’m sure people knew English would be the language to use when communicating. However, speaking with a local woman I came to understand that all South Koreans are required to learn and know English to some extent. When applying for jobs, you must speak some English or you can forget it. If there was ever a time when communication was more difficult, I had an app (which I will share with you later) on my phone that could translate for me.


If you should find yourself traveling to South Korea, I’ve put together a few tips and things to know/do before your trip. I promise these will help you make the most of your trip!


Pack

  • This is a very walkable country due to its excellent public transportation system, so be sure to pack comfortable shoes.

  • Feel free to bring your graphic T’s, athletic paraphernalia, designer wear; you will fit right in with the style there.

  • Bring an extra tote bag. Trust me when I say you will do a lot of shopping, you will need an extra bag to put all your new goodies in. I promise you will not be the only one doing that, many locals carry an extra tote with them.

  • It would be a good idea to pack layers. Be prepared for warm or hot days as well as chilly, overcast days. I was there in April/March and experienced a wide range of temperatures throughout the trip.

  • You will be taking so many pictures, using your phone for GPS or translating and looking up where you're going to eat your next meal that your phone will lose battery, and fast! Make sure you pack an external battery pack for your phone!

***Pro tip: Anything you forget to pack or whatever you need extra of, you will most definitely be able to pick it up at a store near you. I promise you’ll find whatever you need, so don’t sweat!


Download

A couple apps for you to download before you leave for your trip that will make life a lot easier:

  • “Naver Map” This is going to be your best friend. This is a navigational guide specifically made for traveling in South Korea. I used this app without a doubt, every day for walking and subway directions. It is very user friendly and accurate.

  • “Buca Check” This will be how you check how much money you have on your subway pass. You will get a subway card at any convenience store and load your card with cash only. This app will link to your card and be able to tell you how much a line is and how much you have left on your card. If you plan on using the subway as your main source for getting around (which I highly recommend), you will need this app.

  • “Papago” Another app specifically made for South Korea that will serve as your translator. You can take a picture of whatever it is you’re trying to read and it will translate the picture into English, a super helpful tool!

Plan

I know that there are some people that like to just go with the flow when they travel, but I would highly recommend that you take some time to plan out your days before leaving for your trip; there is just so much to see and do!

A few things I recommend planning on:

  • There are many little districts within Seoul, each unique and with their own vibe. Be sure you branch out and visit a few of them!

  • Visit a Lotte Mall. These are their big shopping centers similar to our Westfield malls, it’s fun to look around and window shop.

***Pro Tip: If you want to do a three-for-one, go to the Lotte Mall in Sincheon-don (pictured on the right). Here, you will find a massive Lotte Mall where you can shop to your heart's content. The Lotte Tower is located here which is now the sixth tallest skyscraper in the world. And just a few blocks down, Lotte World Amusement Park.

  • Plan on going to some museums and palaces. They are extremely clean, well organized, beautifully curated and all packed with information and history. If you only make it to one museum, be sure to visit the Korea War Memorial and Museum.

  • Book a spa or salon treatment while you’re here. Treat yourself to a little break from all the walking and take part in the K Beauty hype. You will absolutely need to book these treatments before you leave for your trip as this is a popular country to get beauty treatments done. It’s quite an experience and definitely something to try out.

  • Please take advantage of the amazing cafes here! In case you need help narrowing it down, here are some of my favs! (Just a little something to note is that you will need to purchase an item to be seated at any cafe.)

Top Row Left to Right: London Bagel Museum, Soha Pond Cafe and Super Matcha Cafe

Middle Row Left to Right: 943 Kings Cross, Cafe Layered and Colline Cafe

Bottom Row Left to Right: Angmusae cafe, Cheong Su Dong and Cheese Industry Cafe


Buy

  • Stock up on all your skincare products while you’re in South Korea! Brands like Dr. Jart, Beauty of Joseon and COSRX are very popular and cheaper to buy here. To get these products, you can visit the Olive Young stores, they are literally everywhere and are similar to our Sephora or Ulta stores.

  • Get a phone case or phone accessories. There are seriously so many stores that sell all kinds of fun cases with awesome pop sockets and phone charms.

  • Visit a “Nike By You” store. This is a specific Nike store that allows you to design your own Nike apparel. You will have to make an appointment in person, get to the store early because appointment times sell out fast. Once your appointment time comes, you can decorate a shirt, sweatshirt, hat or shoes using their specific graphics and patches. It’s so much fun and such a great souvenir to take home.

Visiting South Korea is an experience like no other. This vibrant country seamlessly blends its rich history with cutting-edge technologies, creating a unique and captivating destination for travelers. Exploring South Korea's historical sites allows you to step back in time and witness the grandeur of dynasties past. The juxtaposition of these ancient treasures with the modern skyline of Seoul is a sight to behold, showcasing the country's ability to honor its roots while embracing the future. But it's the people and culture that truly make South Korea shine. The warmth of the locals, the delectable cuisine, and the vibrant K-pop scene all contribute to the country's unique charm. So, if you're seeking a destination that combines the allure of history with the excitement of the future, South Korea should be at the top of your list! Gamsahabnida.


And that’s the dirt!


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