Welcome to study abroad in Seoul, Korea!
Seoul is one of Asia’s most modern and developed cities and the flagship city of the Asian Tigers, i.e. a miracle in economic development. It is sparkly, clean and beautiful, divided by the gorgeous Han River and enveloped by mountains. In contrast to the downtown high rises, there are also multiple UNESCO world heritage areas with ancient temples, palaces and courtyards for you to explore.
Even though Seoul is a vast capital city, it embraces its new residents quickly and warmly. Getting around is fast and easy when you get used to the metro map and identifying the stations. Koreans are very polite and friendly, and even though making closer acquaintances takes a while, once you become friends, the generosity and loyalty bestowed upon a new friend is everlasting.
Seoul offers excellent shopping opportunities from luxurious shopping malls and department houses to underground shopping markets with hundreds of stalls filled with quality finds for next to nothing (when you bargain a bit).
Another favorite past time in Seoul, or the favorite past time, is eating. There are innumerable eating opportunities and you will find your own Korean favorites quickly.
What makes Seoul unique as well, is the history of the Korean peninsula. With the border to North Korea only a drive away, the past has never been put to rest in Korea. The country is very safe in general, as is Seoul, but the contrast between the capitalist south, with all that it has become in half a century, to the communist north, is ever startling.
Facts and History
Full name: Republic of Korea
Population: 49 million (9,8 million in Seoul)
Major languages: Korean, English (taught in junior high and high schools)
Major religions: Christian 31.6% (Protestant 24%, Roman Catholic 7.6%), Buddhist 24.2%
Life expectancy: 83 years (women), 77 years (men)
Currency: South Korean Won
Main exports: semiconductors, wireless telecommunications equipment, motor vehicles, auto parts, computers, display,
home appliances, wire telecommunication equipment, steel, ships, petrochemicals
Time Zone: GMT/UTC + 9
Korea was an independent kingdom for most of its long history but started the 20th century under foreign occupation. Following the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan occupied the entire peninsula. Korea didn’t regain its independence till the Japanese surrendered to the United States in 1945. Korea was freed but divided into two zones of occupation roughly along the 38th parallel: North for the Soviet troops and South to the American.
Political chaos and infighting followed and broke into a full-scale war in 1950. China backed the North Koreans, while the U.S., the UK and the UN backed the South. The war between communism and capitalism lasted for three years and the Western super powers won the first round of the Cold War. Technically the two Koreas are still at war with each other since only an armistice agreement was signed in 1953.
Park Chung-hee’s regime from 1961 to 1979 kick started the South Korean economic miracle, and the country has now the 12th largest economy in the world.
South Korea is a gorgeous peninsula west of Japan, surrounded by the South China Sea and bordering only North Korea, its notorious other half, to the north. The capital city Seoul was largely rebuilt after the Korean war (1950-53) and has become a staggering triumph to capitalism and prosperity.
South Korea is both geographically and culturally often pecked as the halfway between China and Japan. In fact, Seoul is often called the new Tokyo; it has all the culture, shopping and excitement but is less hectic and much more affordable.
Even though South Korea might first bring into mind its urban glory, it has a vast and stunning rural side. There are a number of outstanding national parks and the terrain is very diverse. You can hike, mountain bike, ski, golf, or enjoy the sun and waves at the beach. The north is more mountainous and hosts wildlife such as deer and bears. The south of the peninsula, in contrast, is lush and tropical – the “ginseng country”.
The Seoul Tower – 1,200-foot tall shiny tower on top of the Namsan Park offers superb views over the city.
Samcheong – The hipster area in Seoul that is also the antithesis to the skyscraper horizon in Seoul. Samcheong is an old neighbourhood, dotted with one-story hanoks which are small, traditional houses with pagoda-style roofs. The hanoks have been quicky turning into Italian and American-style cafes, restaurants and wine bars in recent years. There are also art galleries and little shops in the area.
Apgujeong – The shopping district that can be described as the Beverly Hills of Seoul, complete with a Rodeo Street. The area is also where the most famous product of K-pop (Korean pop) was shot, the music video for Gangnam style.
Cheongdam and Itaewon – Cool areas to check out, and they can surprise you with how Western they are. Starbucks and boutiques line the streets and young Koreans are often as well educated in Western show business as they are in everything else. Hongdae is the college area, packed with shops, coffee places, laptops, ambition and excellent street food.
Hongdae (Hongik University) – The artistic area in Seoul. Known for street artists, trendy pubs and cute cafes.
Shopping – Tales and stories about the wonders of shopping in Korea circle the globe but you won’t get it till you experience it yourself. They have everything you could want and lots of things you didn’t know you wanted. Luxury brands in both cosmetics and clothes are much more affordable than in the West and the diversity is mind-boggling.
Subtropical Jeju – Korea’s largest island. It’s the result of a volcanic eruption and offers magnificent scenery that includes waterfalls surging into the turquoise sea. The entire island is stunning, and very romantic – Jeju’s nickname is the Honeymoon Island.
The Baekdu Daegan – the longest stretch of uninterrupted hiking path in South Korea; it runs for 460 miles.
Traffic is something you need to always factor in in Seoul. The subway system is the saviour element, it’s clean, cheap (0,6 EUR per trip), extensive and runs from 5.30 am to at least 1 am. You can buy monthly cards which take you everywhere for very little. Taxis are also cheap for short distances but it is good to have the destination address in Korean as the drivers rarely speak English.
Rice is the central element of all dishes. A typical meal consists of rice and soup, accompanied with sides of delicious and exotic vegetables, fish, chicken, meat, eggs and sea plants. One of the favourites is a marinated beef barbeque dish bulgogi. Bi bim pap is a bowl of rice, topped with vegetables (and anything you wish) and a sunny side up egg. Tempura, deep-fried vegetables and seafood, rivals much unhealthier Western fried foods and mandus, the Korean dumplings, are will steal your taste buds. Real, hearty Ram eon soup is the student’s best friend and an unimaginable upgrade from cup a noodles. Kim pap is the Korean equivalent for sushi and you can afford to have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most popular Korean beers are Hite, OB and Cass.
The currency of Korea is the Korean Won (₩ KRW). One euro is approximately 1 300 KRW depending on the exchange rate at the time.
Make a note of
Halluyu – a popular culture movement that encompasses music, films, TV soaps, video games and cartoons has been a growing influence on the overall culture since the 1990s and can now be seen and heard everywhere in Seoul. Its economic influence is huge as well: halluyu contributed more than £2.3bn to the South Korean economy in 2011 alone.
Baseball – Popular sport in South Korea with the season lasting from April to October. The games get really loud with the crowd cheering for their favorite team. Tickets are affordable at around 10 euros for one person. Beverages and fast food such as burgers and fried chicken are sold around the stadium and can be brought inside.
Kimchi – the spicy, crunchy and fresh version of sauerkraut; delicious super food served with almost everything you order.
Shoes – take them always off before entering a private home.
Table manners – burping at the table is fine; it showcases how much you liked the food. Sneezing, though, is a no no. If you don’t want to be served a second (or third, fourth, fifth…) helping of food, leave a little bit of your dinner on the plate to signify that you’re full.
Pali pali – i.e. hurry up; Koreans do not waste time, not necessarily because time is money but because Koreans get stuff done!