Imagine if you could live in a city that has all the awesome hustle and bustle of New York City but has virtually no crime, is immaculately clean, and most things cost about 30% less than in the US. That city exists now, and it’s called Seoul, Korea.
This past April, I had a chance to live for a month like a local in Seoul and experience for myself how much the land of my birth has changed since the rise of K Culture. The favorable exchange rate of the US dollar vs the Korean won was a huge added bonus this time around. But most of the highlights would have been just as good even at slightly higher prices, especially since many services like hospitals and dermatology cost less than half of what they do in the US.
I love urban living where you can feel the energy of so much activity happening all at once, and while I still love New York, Minneapolis, Paris, and many other wonderful cities around the world, here are the top 23 things that blew my mind and shot Seoul to the top of my list of favorite cities.
1. The subway system is immaculate
Clean, safe, and on-time, Korean subways are technologically advanced and very pleasant to ride. Safety is absolutely not a concern, and it is so clean that you could use the floor to take a nap. Glass walls separate the train tracks from the platform making falls or pushes impossible. You also know exactly when the train that you need to get on will arrive at your station – and very often the one after that too!
2. No tipping
Korea is not a tipping culture. Just a little? Nope. But don’t they secretly want a tip? Nope. Locals told us that some people would actually get offended by a tip. Hotel staff are now accustomed to Westerners who can’t help themselves so feel free to give tips for great service, and when a waiter or waitress spends a lot of time cooking your table bbq, you might consider giving them a tip. But otherwise, when in Korea, a thank you and a bow are the only gratuity required and appreciated.
3. Seoul is safe day and night
There were many nights that we overate at dinner and needed an evening walk (if the food wasn’t so damn good, we would not have been regularly overeating!). One night at midnight, my wife and I decided to test out the safety of the streets. So, we decided to wander into parts of the city we knew nothing about.
After about an hour or so of wandering – along the Han River and elsewhere, it was clear that neither we nor others on the street had any reason to be afraid. In fact, there exists a culture of exercise in Seoul where people bike and run along the river at all hours of the night. Living a portion of my time in NYC, I was sad that I could never experience the same feeling in Central Park at midnight.
When the weather was bad, we headed down to the Coex center (the largest basement mall in Asia) for our late night walk. Imagine our shock at seeing the entire Starfield Library open to browsers at midnight and clothing stalls loosely roped not to ward off thieves but only to show that they were closed for the night. Because of the prevalence of surveillance cameras, vendors are not concerned about thefts or robberies. Come and get it, we’ll come and get you later! And, they really will come and get you later if you steal.
4. The public bathrooms are pristine
Ever since I fell into an outhouse toilet and almost died as a little kid growing up in a much poorer Korea in the 60s, I’ve had a phobia of using public bathrooms. My fears of dirty unpleasant public bathrooms were put to rest as every public bathroom I visited from subways, train stations, and parks turned out to be clean, safe, and well-maintained. Some stalls even have a mini-toilet to accommodate both an adult and a child who may want to use the same stall – so cute! My only complaint is the almost constant visitation of the cleaning person, often of the other gender, knocking on the door while I was using the facilities.
5. People are respectful
Aside from being taught excellent manners at home and school, Korean people are kind and helpful to travelers. Seoul residents, especially the older folks, were not always so nice in the old days and would have some stern words for you if you accidentally sat in a seat reserved for the elderly. People also used to stare if you dressed a little differently but no longer. Attitudes toward tourists, and strangers in general, seem to have softened.
6. Technologically advanced
Robots at the airport offer to take pics of you and at the mall they make deliveries by day and clean the floors throughout the night.
The KTX bullet train travels up to 190 mph making travel from one end of the country to the other a breeze. The elevators were impressive too and we could not feel the elevators going up or down at our hotel. Pretty soon, we realized that every building with the new Hyundai elevators had the benefit of the same ingenious technology.
7. Cheap food is great and healthy
If you are paying more than $15 (20,000 won) per person for a great meal, you’re probably doing something wrong. Sure, you can splurge once in a while on a Michelin-star restaurant (and there are plenty of them both in number and variety). But, with the amazing options abounding of cheap, excellent food, there’s no reason to do so! Either way, no tipping saves a lot of money.
8. Street food is delicious
If $15 is too much, then try a $5 bowl of noodles or bibimbap at a street food market or pojangmacha (a street vendor). Almost without exception, quick bites to eat are as good as any Korean grandmom can whip up.
9. A multitude of high quality bars that will let me in
NYC has amazing bars but it’s nearly impossible to snag a reservation at any of the top places. Supply and demand in Seoul is much more balanced and as long as you know where to look, you can enjoy great drinks at a popular bar of your choice.
10. Every hotel has an amazing Korean “sauna”
Having evolved from the old public bathhouses that used to be prevalent in the old days, Korean saunas include all sorts of hot tubs, cold tubs, and steam rooms (both dry and wet). You can also order a Korean skin scrub down, where a skilled technician will rub a pound of dirt off your body. I know – sounds awful; but try it first and then we’ll talk.
If your hotel charges a fee for the use of their sauna, try finding a local jjimjilbang which might be a lot cheaper.
11. Cheap and clean taxis
We took a subway to visit my uncle in Ilsan, a suburb of Seoul, and decided to take an hour-long taxi ride back to our hotel. I expected to pay upwards of $100 but instead paid the meter fare of $28 (38,000 won). At the end of the ride, I felt sorry for the taxi driver. (Remember, no tip!)
Taxi drivers in Korea are a proud bunch and because most of the taxis in Korea are independently owned, the drivers take a lot of pride in maintaining clean, nice-smelling interiors.
12. Excellent and cheap high-end food in the basement food court of expensive dept stores
I try to avoid shopping of all kinds, especially at expensive department stores like Hyundai, Shinsegae, and Galleria, where they have the most expensive brands available worldwide. (Imagine the most expensive 5th Avenue stores in NYC bunched up in a mall…) But, in Seoul, I found myself at department stores all the time to meet people and enjoy the scrumptious food in their basement – all presented in open kitchen style. (Remember, you should not be paying over $15 on any dish!)
13. Cheap dermatology services
Walking the streets of Seoul, you cannot help but notice that all the women and even some of the men have a smooth glassy look to their skin. What is going on?! Not only are people avoiding sun exposure, but if you look up as you walk you will see a skincare clinic on the upper floors of virtually every commercial building in Seoul. In those plentiful establishments, it’s easy to spot that it’s the norm, not the exception, for people stop in frequently for routine facial treatments.
Remove dark spots for $4 each (which I took advantage of – reluctantly, at the insistence of my wife), or get a luxurious aqua peel facial that will remove all the impurities in your skin for about $60. Botox and other dermatological treatments cost about a quarter of what you’d pay in the US. So, no wonder the standard is for Koreans to have glass skin! It would be more surprising if they didn’t.
14. Fast food delivery
No, not “fast food”. Simply great food of all types that is delivered fast and in exactly the way you’d want to consume. We were visiting a relative, who decided to order bingsoo (shaved ice dish) for us. The time it took to go from ordering three amazing flavors of bingsoo to us thoroughly enjoying them – 10 minutes!
15. Number of cafes and coffee shops
Korea has to be the most caffeinated country in the world today! There is a plethora of cute, creative cafes (often several of them in one block) that will serve coffee as well as other drinks and snacks into late evening hours. Just don’t ask for dairy substitutes like soy or oat milk. Unlike many Korean Americans, including myself, Korean people today have grown up with so much dairy in the past several decades that lactose intolerance is apparently no longer a thing. (I had a hard time explaining my condition at pharmacies.) If you rely on Lactase pills, be sure to pack plenty of them before you go to Korea because they don’t sell them in Korea.
16. Well-preserved traditional buildings
Seoul is over 2,000 years old and it has the old buildings, ambiance, and culture that come with such history. They have done an amazing job of preserving and renovating them to re-create the old neighborhood feeling, often right next to rows of gleaming skyscrapers.
17. Comprehensive medical exams are easy and affordable
A full day of examining every part of your body will cost you a fraction of what it costs in the States. At the end, you will have a book of results with a CD that you can share with your doctor back home.
18. Genesis limos
One day, my father-in-law’s friend gave us the use of his car, which turned out to be a limo made by Genesis, along with his driver. (Yes, we had an amazing time!) We were shocked at the number of foreign luxury cars on the streets of Seoul driven by a chauffeur, but our favorite car by far was the Genesis limo.
While it looks like a sedan from the outside, it is stunningly spacious and comfortable inside with all kinds of technologically advanced gadgets. We later had a chance to compare it to a Mercedes Maybach, arguably the world’s most luxurious car, and the Genesis came out on top in our opinion, at a much cheaper price tag. This means that a Korean car may actually be the world’s most luxurious car! We’ve come a long way from the humble Hyundai Pony.
19. Strict adherence to traffic laws
Gone are the days of wild impatient drivers making the streets a dangerous place to attempt to drive. With surveillance cameras everywhere giving out fines to anyone who dares to break the traffic laws, including jaywalking pedestrians, Koreans are probably now the most traffic-law-abiding citizens in the world.
20. Trains run on time
All the time! And, they are clean and modern. We found no zombies on the train to Busan and we arrived almost too quickly at our destination. Truth be told we wouldn’t have minded a smidge more time to fully enjoy our first-class seats, which cost $30 each.
21. No pickpocketers
Koreans used to be the best pickpockets in the world. We used to be almost proud of the notorious skills of our pickpocketers. There used to be stories of cash sewn into underwear that was pickpocketed – without you even knowing it until too late. I’m not sure where they all went, but pickpocketers are no longer a major concern for both natives and travelers alike.
22. Netflix kalguksu lady working hard every day
Perhaps in a perfect embodiment of the Korean work ethic and grit, the now-famous Netflix kalguksu (Korean hand-made noodle dish) lady from “Street Food: Asia” can be seen at her stall every day at the Gwangjang market with legions of tourists queued up to taste her cooking. But, frankly, every dish we tried at every stall of the Gwangjang market (a huge roofed shopping space where you can find things at wholesale prices) was delicious.
23. Inter-generational family dinners
This might be one of my favorite stunners about Korea, which brings tears to my eyes. In a country where generations of families live in the same city, weekends are full of grandparents walking down the street with their grown children and grandchildren. A particularly lovely scene was a family of four generations eating a weekend meal together on a quiet Sunday night, as we sat next to them admiring them.