Backpacking South Korea
Looking for important travel information while backpacking in South Korea? Here you will find information on working in South Korea, entry visas, South Korea hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Facts About South Korea
- Things to do in South Korea
- Entry Visa Requirements for South Korea
- Foreigner Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs in South Korea
- South Korea Hostels
Facts About South Korea
South Korea’s rapid expansion as one of the world’s tiger economies has seen it become increasingly westernised. This has brought with it numerous improvements in infrastructure as well as a huge increase in facilities for travellers.
The good news is that this hasn’t displaced the traditional Korean culture completely and the country at the moment in many ways offers the best of both worlds. While in major cities you will find plenty of shops, bars and clubs you will also find alleys where traditional markets hold full sway and the bustle of a typical Asian city hasn’t yet given way completely to the orderly queues and multi-national chains of the western world.
- Currency: Won (SKW)
- Time Zone: GMT + 9
- Language: Korean
- Telephone Services: Country code +82, International access code 001
- Emergency Numbers: 112 Police, Fire and emergency 119
Climate in South Korea
Like North Korea and unlike many of its Asian neighbours South Korea has four distinct seasons, the hot summer months also contain the monsoon season which is generally in July and August, the winter runs from December to mid-February. The best time to visit South Korea is in the Spring and Autumn which are mild and fairly dry.
Things to do in South Korea
The nation’s capital is the city of Seoul which offers the sort of pleasant mix of east and west that South Korea is famous for. As well as ample accommodation of all standards ranging from cheap budget hotels to luxury international hotels, the city also offers plenty of clubs, bars, restaurants and of course shopping.
Taking some time to explore you will also find vestiges of the countries oriental past. Soel’s most famous attractions are undoubtedly its palaces, the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the most well known and have been exquisitely restored following destruction during the Japanese invasion.
The highlight of this exquisite palace is the decadent two-storey throne room which was a seat of power for the Joseon dynasty. A somewhat lesser known site is the summer Changgyeonggung Palace which is just a short bridge crossing away from the famous Jongmyo Shrine which contains the 27 ancestral tablets of the Joseon dynasty kings. Also well worth a look is the Seoul Tower which is the third tallest tower in the world, the nationally prized Namdaemun gate and the War Memorial.
Next in line on most tourists list, after Seoul, is the town of Gyeongju. This town was the capital of the country for some 100 years before Seoul displaced it and is now the site of numerous ancient ruins.
The key sight here is the Bulguska which is a splendid temple constructed on a stone terrace just outside the town. This temple is world renowned as one of the finest examples of Asian art and within its walls, you will find plenty of Buddhist artwork and relics. The other main attraction is Tumuli Park, which is a walled-off enclosure containing the tombs of 20 Korean rulers. Just a stone’s throw away is the Cheomseongdae which is one of Asia’s oldest known observatories.
For those who like a taste of the outdoors, South Korea offers two excellent national parks. The most popular is the Seoraksan Park which boasts an extraordinary selection of scenery ranging from waterfalls, rivers and beaches to rocky foothills and lush forests.
Some of the most popular areas are the Osaek Hot Springs which is where most of the accommodation is and the Daecheonbong mountain. Those looking for a more secluded experience and prepared for plenty of good hiking trails might prefer to head for the Songnisan National Park which also boasts the excellent temple of Beopjusa, as well as an enormous pagoda, visitors can see a 33m high solid bronze standing Buddha statue which is the largest of its type in the world.
Unique Activities in South Korea
Another good way to get an idea of things to do while backpacking South Korea is to scan the activities offered by Get Your Guide or Viator. They work directly with local tour operators, so you won’t have to scour the internet or roam around town trying to find the best deal.
If you know your schedule ahead of time, a great insider tip is to buy tickets for major tourist attractions in South Korea ahead of time. Tiqets has entrance tickets and skip the line passes for major attractions in Seoul so that you can avoid the lines and save that precious time for more exploring.
How to Travel Around South Korea
If you’re flying to South Korea or plan to take short flights within the country, we recommend using a few different flight comparison search engines. Kiwi is a new favourite among travellers. On average, we have found the cheapest flights to South Korea with them compared to the other websites out there.
Of course, it is always worth checking Skyscanner to guarantee you’re getting the best deal. Both websites offer great flexible search options, allowing you to search the whole country of South Korea to find the cheapest airport to fly into, and also see prices for a full month if you’re flexible on travel dates.
Train Travel in South Korea
The best way to get around in South Korea, where available, is the rail network. Operated by Korail, the network is fast and efficient and also very affordable. There are four classes of train ranging from the high-speed saemaeul to the sedate bidulgi and kkachi classes which lack air conditioning and have more uncomfortable seats. There is a KR rail pass which is available and allows unlimited travel for between 3 and 10 days but these can only currently be purchased from Japan or America.
Bus Travel in South Korea
Local and inter-city buses are safe, fast and incredibly cheap and also make a very good way to travel. You may find that there is little provision for English speakers on the buses but hotel staff will generally be happy to help you select the correct bus.
Buses are run by a variety of local companies and in general travel on local buses requires payment to the driver. For inter-city buses, you will most often have to get a seat reservation which are only valid on one bus, if you miss it you will have to buy another ticket.
Backpacking Tours in South Korea
Though part of the fun of backpacking South Korea is exploring on your own, there are situations, especially when venturing off the tourist trail, when it does make sense to go with a guide or a small group. For these times, a popular option among backpackers is G Adventures. They hand-select local guides to ensure authenticity and quality. This is especially a good option for those travelling South Korea alone who would like to meet up with like-minded travellers. Their most popular trip in South Korea is their classic 8-day Best of South Korea tour or their 24-day Highlights of East Asia: Japan, South Korea, and China tour.
Health and Safety in South Korea
The health service in South Korea is adequate especially in tourist areas but not up to the standard of Western Europe. Hospital staff rarely speak English and payment will almost exclusively be required up front. It is recommended that comprehensive travel insurance is arranged before travelling to South Korea.
There isn’t any known risk of polio, typhoid and cholera in South Korea and vaccinations against these are not required. There is a slight malaria risk but it exists only in the benign vivax form.
Water is heavily chlorinated and whilst safe may cause mild stomach upsets on first exposure. Bottled water is widely available and should be used for the first week or so of your stay until you can become adjusted to the environment. Milk is not pasteurised so it is safest to boil milk before use and avoid dairy products. Meat should be eaten well cooked and hot, vegetables should be cooked and fruits peeled before consumption. Normal precautions should be observed when buying food from street vendors.
Entry visa requirements for South Korea
All visitors require a valid passport and a return ticket for entry to South Korea. EU and USA nationals require a tourist visa which is valid for between 30 and 180 days depending on the exact nationality. British nationals can apply for up to 90-day tourist visas. Applications should be made to the nearest Republic of Korea embassy.
Foreigner work permits and backpacker jobs in South Korea
It is relatively difficult to find well-paid jobs in South Korea and in fact teaching is the only profession that you are likely to find any opportunities for employment in. Many people travelling to South Korea on gap years do so having already saved enough finances, from work in the UK or Europe for example, and so volunteer work is popular in this part of the world.
Teaching English in South Korea
Most opportunities for paid teaching jobs in South Korea can probably be found by asking in schools and institutes (hogwons) in Seoul, and also by checking for vacancies in daily newspapers such as the Korea Times.
If you want to arrange work before you set off on your travels, try the English Program in Korea’s website. University graduates can find placements with the English Program, teaching English as a foreign language, earning between 1,200,000 and 1,600,000 won per month. It is sometimes advantageous to train for a TEFL qualification before leaving the UK, particularly if you intend to teach English in other foreign countries as well, see the TEFL website for more details.
Volunteering in South Korea
Many volunteer organisations arrange placements in the Middle East. Most projects involve teaching English and helping with the development of communities.
Youth Action for Peace
Volunteers are sent on work camps to help with community projects, which can involve teaching English to children, or practical building and restoration programmes. Volunteers are also given language tuition and provided with food and accommodation. Projects last between one and four weeks between June and September.
This organisation runs various projects throughout the Middle East, mainly focusing its attention on the teaching of English. Work with i-to-i in Korea is paid. Workers are employed in schools in Korea for thirty hours each week and can earn between ₩800 and ₩1000 per month, and are expected to work for twelve months. Applicants must be degree holders and pay their own insurance. Accommodation is provided by i-to-i, who also gives TEFL training.
More teaching opportunities are available in South Korea with Project Trust. The focus of teaching is in Hyundai Middle School and Daewoo Middle School. Volunteers teach English as well as helping with extracurricular drama and sports activities. Accommodation is provided by the Trust. Volunteers must be aged between 17 and 19 and a half years old and are expected to raise ₩3850 themselves to fund their project, this includes all expenses for living costs, travel, donations etc.
Useful Links to find jobs and volunteer positions in South Korea
South Korea Hostels and Budget Accommodation
South Korea boasts plenty of modern tourist hotels and all of these are registered with the state. Most hotels offer air conditioning, heating, private baths as well as bars, restaurants and other shops. The Korea National Tourist Organisation maintains a list of all tourist hotels in the country.
One of the more unique ways to stay in South Korea is in the inns or Yogwans. These traditional inns are famous for providing a unique and traditional Korean experience. Prices are usually very cheap and you will be given a mattress and pillow and will be expected to sleep on the ondol, which is a traditional heated floor system. The Korea National Tourist Organisation can provide a list of Yogwans throughout the country.
There are also over 50 youth hostels in the country which provide dormitory style accommodation. These are mainly centred around the tourist areas.
We have had good experiences finding hostels in South Korea on HostelWorld. They have the largest inventory of hostels worldwide, and with over 10 million reviews and ratings from other travellers, you know exactly what to expect.
Another good way to find accommodation while backpacking in South Korea is by checking hotels.com and booking.com. With both sites, you’ll not only find hotels, but also homestays, hostels, and other unique accommodation.
We have discovered some great finds and have appreciated the ability to book ahead. You can use their advanced filtering to narrow your results by budget, location score, overall review score, and amenities. Many of the places on booking.com also offer free cancellation, which takes the pressure off the planning phase of your trip.
The other option when staying in South Korea is the home-stay and temple-stay programs. As their names suggest the home-stay program allows you to live with a Korean host family and the temple-stay program allows you to stay in various temples and allows you to see the day to day rituals first hand. The Korea National Tourism Organisation can provide details of the home-stay program.
Useful Links for Backpacking in South Korea
- Kiwi and Skyscanner – Flight comparison search engines to find the cheapest flights to South Korea and within the country
- GetYourGuide and Viator – a collection of local tours and things to do in South Korea. Also offers Skip the Line tickets for crowded attractions
- Tiqets – Website selling entrance tickets and skip the line tickets for major attractions in South Korea
- G Adventures – guided backpacking tours in South Korea, great for solo travellers or for those interested in a more adventurous trip which would require a guide
- HostelWorld – #1 hostel search website to find accommodation while backpacking in South Korea. Thousands of hostels and millions of reviews from fellow travellers
- Booking.com – commonly used booking site. Hostels, hotels, and other unique accommodation with advanced filtering and millions of reviews
- Travel Insurance – read our comprehensive overview of Travel Insurance and some recommended providers for your backpacking trip to South Korea
There you have it, the ultimate South Korea backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around South Korea.
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