The blue and red yin and yang emblazoned on South Korea's flag represent balance – an ideal that was thrown off-kilter during the Korean War. But after the 1953 armistice, a modern Seoul bloomed anew. Today, the city is characterized by stunning architecture, vibrant culture and a thriving economy – all testaments to Seoul's resilience.
Seoul may seem like its blazing into the future, but South Koreans still hold fast to their rich heritage. Tucked between vast shopping districts and lively nightlife zones are relics of Seoul's history, windows into an old Seoul before the towers of concrete and steel. Gyeongbok Palace – the oldest and largest of five Joseon Dynasty palaces in the city – stands on manicured grounds just minutes from downtown. Nearby, Bukchon Village's wooden, one-story homes sit in sharp contrast to the surrounding high-rises. Miraculously, Seoul's past and present do not clash; rather, they play off one another. This harmonious blend of old and new is the key to Seoul's allure and a central tenet of the city's identity.
The best times to visit Seoul are from March to May and from September to November, when the weather is mild (average daily high temperatures stay below the mid-70s) and travel expenses are low. If you're a powder hound, you'll want to visit between December and February, when average daytime temperatures stay around the freezing mark and snow can be frequent. It's best to avoid the summer months, also known as monsoon season. During these months, Seoul is uncomfortably humid and full of tourists. What's more, hotel room costs are at fever pitch.
Data sourced from the National Climatic Data Center
South Korean culture is still deeply rooted in ancient Confucian principles, including a strong dedication to family and society. Because of Koreans' respect for the hierarchy system, family elders and ancestors are honored above all. To uphold Korean etiquette, bow to elders in greeting (younger people are expected to bow lower than the elders out of respect) and allow them priority seating on public transportation. A bow when meeting anyone else is customary. And don't get offended if someone asks your age. Since elders are held with such high regard in Korean culture, oftentimes people ask as a way to avoid disrespecting anyone in their company. This is the same among youth culture, as younger people perceive themselves to have different roles in the group dynamic than the older participants, even if the age difference is only a couple of years. But don't worry too much about whether or not you're performing the social norms properly. Koreans have become well attuned to Western culture and don't expect foreigners to know the ins and outs of Korean etiquette (there are many different types of bows). It is also worth noting that in writing, Korean given names come after family names (the opposite is true in the United States).
South Korea's official currency is the South Korean won (KRW). One United States dollar equals roughly 1,118 won, but don't let all those decimal places scare you – won only comes in increments of 10 (10 KRW equals about 1 cent), so figuring out costs isn't terribly difficult. You can exchange money at most banks, and withdraw bills in increments of 10,000 won from ATMs. ATMs, however, have been a faulty means of getting cash for international travelers. Generally, ATMs in Seoul cater to those with Korean cards and even though your card may be listed as accepted, it still may not work. If this happens, the Korea tourism board recommends seeking out ATMs in heavily populated areas, such as train stations, bus terminals or department stores. To be safe, order Korean currency before you go to Korea or obtain your money at the airport.
Combat and instability are in South Korea's past, but it's important to remember that this peaceful, modern democracy's armistice with its northern neighbor has been called into question a number of times since the Korean War ended in 1953. There have been a few isolated skirmishes between the two Koreas over the past 60 years, but the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South actually stands as a safe tourist attraction.
While South Korea's crime rates are low, you should still exercise caution when it comes to personal safety. Seoul plays host to the same crimes symptomatic of any densely populated metropolitan area: Pickpocketing and purse snatching are more common in crowded areas. Don't walk alone at night and if you're a woman, exercise caution when visiting nightlife districts, as sexual assaults against women have been reported to the State Department. Make sure you only use legitimate taxis like the ones described in our guide to Getting Around Seoul too. The State Department also recommends travelers not join in protests of any kind (demonstrations are common in Seoul). If you find yourself in an emergency, dial 119 for an ambulance and 112 for the police. There are no required vaccinations for visiting Korea. Tap water is considered safe to drink but most travelers don't as the difference in water may cause stomach problems for far-flung travelers.
Chowing down on hansik (traditional Korean food) is a cultural experience you won't want to miss – but it's also not for the ultra-squeamish. Many Korean meals include pickled ingredients, like kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage or other vegetables) and gochujang (fermented soy bean and red pepper paste), among other Korean flavors. Don't let fear of the unknown dissuade you – you're going to want to taste some of this.
If cabbage kimchi doesn't appeal to you, then perhaps Seoul's never-ending plethora of grilled meats will. Gather around a tabletop grill at a barbecue house and savor the aromas of sizzling samgyupsal (pork belly) or galbi (beef ribs). Watching you calorie intake? Head to one of the many Bon Bibimbap franchise locations around Seoul: Its namesake, bibimbap, comprises a bowl of rice, vegetables, chili paste, fried egg and (sometimes) marinated beef that will fill you up without putting a strain on your waistband (or your budget).
Truly adventurous eaters will want to head to Gwangjang Market, the oldest market in Seoul, where you can sample everything from mandu (rice-paper dumplings filled with ground meat or vegetables) to jokbal (pigs' feet boiled in soy sauce, ginger, rice wine and garlic). And remember to save some room for bindaeduk, a fried pancake made from ground mung beans that is reminiscent of a savory funnel cake. For more information about how to follow your taste buds around Seoul, visit the Korea Tourism Organization's official website.
The best way to get around Seoul is via the subway. You can throw in a taxi ride here and there if you plan on staying out late, or a bus ride if your destination is too far to walk. Seoul is too massive to be explored solely on foot, but it does contain some neighborhoods that were made for walking (Bukchon Village, for example). Because Seoul's public transportation is so cheap and extensive, we advise against renting a car (plus, traffic in the city is legendary). If need be, you can rent a car at either of Seoul's two airports, Incheon International Airport (ICN) and Gimpo International Airport (GMP). The vast majority of international flights come in via Incheon. You can take a taxi from Incheon or Gimpo into Seoul, or if you're looking to save a little coin, the AREX (Airport Railroad Express) train goes directly into the city too.See details for Getting Around
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The Republic of Korea requires U.S. citizens to hold a valid passport for tourism and business trips lasting up to 90 days from when you enter the country. A trip lasting longer than 90 days or for another reason besides tourism or business requires a visa. For more information, visit the U.S. State Department's website .
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