Cultural and Social Observations From My Trip to Seoul, South Korea

Words by:

Nyssa P. Chopra

Captivatingly charming. Undeniably underrated. Wonderfully welcoming. Marvelously modern. Effortlessly elegant.

Seoul was even better than I had imagined. I can’t wait to visit again, and hopefully explore the country beyond Seoul! In speaking with locals and expats during our 9 days in the city, here are my observations about Seoul and Korean culture.



ONE – The food in Seoul is simply fantastic. From street food to Michelin-starred restaurants, there’s literally something for everyone. Even the food in the food courts in the malls was delicious. I learned that there are more than 200 types of kimchi! The street food was very clean and safe, and we indulged almost daily, from tteokbokki to Korean honey pancakes to fried chicken. In addition, we had a Michelin experience and a traditional multi-course Korean feast — both of which were excellent and provided insight into the evolution of the country’s culture.

TWO – Transportation around the city is very efficient, civilized, and affordable. Though traffic can be challenging sometimes, especially when going from the north of the river to the south, taxis are very inexpensive and ubiquitous. Sometimes it’s faster to take the metro, which is just as great and has WiFi access. Rideshare companies such as Uber haven’t caught on in full force due to regulatory challenges, but you can still use Uber Black and hail regular metered taxis through the app, if you must. 

THREE – The shopping scene in Seoul is legendary. I had always heard that people go to South Korea to shop, but I didn’t fully understand that until now. There are duty-free shops, street stalls, department stores, and mega malls peppered throughout the city, many of which are open until 5a and enjoy millions of visitors daily. For tourists, you buy all your duty-free items in the store, and pick up your purchases in the airport (except Korean brands, which can be taken at the time of purchase). Myeongdong and Gangnam were some of my favorite shopping areas. Think: neon lights + labyrinthine alleyways lined with stores, shops, and stalls selling everything you could possibly want and need from skincare to textiles to food. It’s incredibly vibrant and open until the wee hours of the night. Some things to buy: soju (a local Korean spirit, tasted like vodka to me), skincare and face sheet masks (skincare is a serious sport here, and K-beauty brands are spreading like wildfire around the world), socks (for whatever reason, socks are one of the top rated souvenirs), coats (Korean women are among the best-dressed, in my humble opinion and the sheer selection of beautiful, feminine coats is jaw-dropping), and houseware (they have some of the most beautiful brass dinnerware and cutlery around).

FOUR – There are several US buildings around the city, most of which are delisted from map apps for security reasons. When I was meeting someone at one of the US Embassy buildings that didn’t have a public-facing purpose (i.e. non-consular), it was quite an adventure trying to figure out my way and explain to my non-English-speaking taxi driver how to get there. Luckily, through a serious game of charades and multiple stops of asking locals, I ultimately found it and on time, no less. ???????? 

FIVE – As with most destinations, knowing basic phrases and words goes a long way. We used an-nyeong-ha-se-yo (hello) and gam-sa-ham-ni-da (thank you) in abundance, and were met with looks of delight. English wasn’t as ubiquitous as I thought, which made for challenging interactions at times, but there’s nothing that Google Translate and a wild game of charades and pointing can’t solve. I was surprised by how many Koreans could speak Chinese, which was helpful as one of our friends with us could speak Mandarin. 

SIX – Koreans have a strong etiquette culture and they adhere to a rigid code of rules, both spoken and unspoken. A few points to keep in mind: 1) don’t blow your nose at the table—it’s considered rude (thankful for this rule, I find it utterly disgusting when I see/hear this!); 2) there’s no tipping culture; 3) it’s a massively patriarchal society, particularly in the corporate world (though it’s changing slowly from what I’ve heard/seen); 4) PDA is considered tacky and immodest (particularly amongst the older generation) and I generally didn’t see much of it; 5) dressing well is a sign of respect; 6) the number 4 is considered unlucky and many buildings don’t even have a fourth floor button on the elevator; and 7) it’s not a litigious society, unlike the U.S.

SEVEN – Korea is incredibly technologically advanced and Seoul is often ranked as a leading tech capital and one of the most digitally connected cities. There’s WiFi almost everywhere, including public areas, restaurants, buses, underground in the metro, etc. The infrastructure is also superb. It doesn’t hurt that it’s home to two of the biggest tech companies in the world: Samsung and LG. This also applies to the technological advancements in the country’s medical and cosmetic sector. With the highest rate of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world and nearly 1 million procedures per year, Seoul is often called the world’s plastic surgery capital. The two most common procedures are blepharoplasty and rhinoplasty. Flashy advertisements and billboards are plastered all around the city. 

EIGHT – Google Maps doesn’t work very well and most locals use a Korean version called Naver Maps. I highly recommend downloading the app to help navigate your way through Seoul.

NINE – Seoul is incredibly kid-friendly, especially in the malls. There are floors dedicated to keeping children entertained with toy lounges, arcades, and more. This helped us massively with Baby A. 

TEN – People are so kind, polite, and welcoming. There were several times that we must have looked lost as we were trying to find an address and almost always, a local walked up to us to ask if they could help us find something. ❤️

ELEVEN – Favorite bars: Le Chamber and Charles H.; Favorite neighborhoods: Gangnam, Jongno, and Myeongdong; Favorite nighttime food markets: Gwangjang and Myeongdong; Favorite hotels: Four Seasons and Park Hyatt

Check out more photos and recommendations for bars, restaurants, and sights on my Instagram.

November 23-December 1, 2019


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