Every country is famous for some things, whether good or bad. Korea is, of course, no exception. I thought long and hard about this list, and while there are lots of points that I could have included, I felt that these 12 points where the most famous aspects of Korea that are done better here than anywhere else. These are 12 things Korea does best!
Table of Contents
Korea has a cafe culture that is famous all around the world. Have you ever heard of a raccoon cafe? Have you even considered its existence before? How about board game cafes? Well, Korea has both. There is a vast variety of cafes here that cover nearly all interests and are perfect for anyone. Even cafes like Starbucks are unique here and offer a far wider variety of drinks than I have seen in any other country. Some of the coolest themed cafes I have visited in my time here are the animal healing cafe in Hongdae (which is home to raccoons, dogs, chinchillas, an ostrich, and even a coati), the Devil Dice board game cafe in Gangnam, which had nearly every board game known to humans, and the Jeffrey Flower cafe in Hyehwa.
This is barely scratching the surface though. The Korean cafe culture is deep and fascinating, and something you should definitely take some time to explore. My recommendation if you are travelling to Seoul is to visit at least one of these cafes a day, I can promise you won’t get bored! Finally, cafes in Korea usually have very clean toilets and every cafe will have WiFi available for use.
2) Public Transport
This is another aspect of Korea that you probably already know about if you have done some research, but it’s also something that can’t be overstated. Korean public transport is ah-may-zing. It’s the best in the world. Once you have a T-money or Cashbee card all transport in the country is basically accessible (with very few exceptions such as flights and some long-distance transport). Trains, buses, taxis, and even vending machines are not a problem as soon as you possess one of these cards. Transport is cheap and usually around 1250KRW for a one-way trip on the subway or bus, and navigation is easy (and in English!). A few apps such as KakaoBus and a subway app will provide detailed information and keep you constantly updated with timetables and other useful information. Taxis crawl the city at all hours and will mean that you are never stranded in the night. Depending on what prices you are used to, taxis are also very cheap!
Don’t worry, if you scroll further down this list you will see the lesser known points! But another thing that most people know about Korea, but can’t be overstated enough, is the internet. When I say internet I mean three things; LTE, home internet, and WiFi. Korean internet is world class and Korea is often considered to lead the world in terms of connected-ness. Gigabit Internet is available in Seoul for as little as 50,000KRW a month (less than $50 USD!) and LTE speeds are consistently fast. However, what puts Korea above other countries is the implementation of the internet. LTE is accessible everywhere, even in the metro. Every carriage of the train will have separate WiFi hot-spots, and every street corner will have public WiFi available. In other words, it’s almost impossible to not be connected!
Many counties are known for their food, and Korea is no exception. However, I don’t want to use this section to talk about the food in general, rather I just want to focus on one specific type of food… Desserts! The most famous Korean dessert is definitely bing-su, a bowl of ice-flakes covered in a variety of different toppings with seasonal flavours hitting the menus year-round. Bing-su is as tasty as it is beautiful to look at, and I can’t emphasise enough how much I have fallen in love with it over my time here. Bing-su can be quite costly though, and that brings me to the second part of this point, ice-creams and cool drinks. In summer, every convenience store will stock a large amount of ice-creams and ice cold drinks. You basically purchase a cup of ice and then pick a flavour pack to add to the ice. Summer is extremely hot and humid, but at least there are some pleasant parts to the heat!
5) Trust and Crime
You may be asking how I can put those two words in the same paragraph, but let me explain! Crime is very low in Korea, and trust is very big. Theft is not a problem here like it is in many other countries, and this is largely due to the strong trust that people have. I have been to the toilet in cafes and left my laptop, camera, or phone (or all of the above) on the table unattended countless times. You just know that no-one will touch them. I believe that this trust is a large reason (along with the crazy amount of CCTV) that keeps the crime rate low in Korea. Dropped your credit card? If anyone sees they will instantly let you know and return it! This was one of the most obvious things that was different from what I am used to. While New Zealand is certainly not rampant with crime, Korea was a totally different level!
Oh, Korean delivery! Korea is home to some of the most amazing food dishes on the planet, but that can cause some problems. When you wake up at 4 am and feel the need to eat fried chicken and drink some beer, usually there are not many options. But this is where the fantastic Korean delivery services come in. Food can be delivered 24/7/365. It is always efficient and fast on top of that! I have often ordered food only to have it show up twenty minutes later, already prepared and ready to eat! Depending on how much you spend (usually about 10,000KRW) all the delivery will be free too! No matter where you live, delivery is always available, even if you live on the 21st floor! The delivery in Korea is truly world class, and is undeniably one of the things Korea does best!
7) Food (other than dessert!)
Another amazing aspect of Korea is the food culture. As I am sure you may have seen before, Korean food is usually served with a multitude of side dishes. These dishes can range from kimchi to egg rolls, to beans or anchovies and while some of them are acquired tastes, (nearly) all of them are delicious. If you visit restaurants, you will always have your main dish accompanied by various side dishes that complement the main meal and make for a great dining experience. Further, many restaurants will allow you to refill (or self-serve) these side dishes!
On top of the vast variety of restaurant foods, there are also street foods all over Korea. The street food can range from fresh fruit to Korean pancakes (usually savoury pancakes) and can often be accompanied by soju. The street food is cheap, and usually much more hygienic than the street food found in other countries.
If you’ve ever seen a K-drama or watched a K-pop video then I am sure you know all about Korean fashion and cosmetics (next on the list!). Korean fashion has recently become one of the biggest fashion trends globally and it is only becoming more popular. While usually quite conservative, the fashion here is gradually becoming more varied and exciting, and Korea is often a global leader in fashion. Clothes can be brought very cheaply at many different markets around the city, and it shows that good fashion really doesn’t have to break the bank. However, if you do prefer to shop for brand names, they are easily located too!
Another aspect that Korea is very famous for is cosmetics. Korean cosmetics are famous for being competitive with internationally renowned brands for much cheaper prices. Not only that, but the diversity of cosmetics in Korea is greater than that of other counties. Nearly every street will have stores dedicated just to cosmetics, and usually not just one or two, but quite a few. Whether you think cosmetics are good or bad, Korea definitely does them best. I know many people who have travelled to Korea just to come and purchase cosmetics, and while that may seem crazy, it makes sense when you compare the prices and quality.
10) Internet Shopping
Who would have guessed that the country that excels at delivery and internet speed would also excel at internet shopping? You did? Oh… Well anyway, Korean internet shopping is fantastic for a multitude of reasons. From groceries to clothing to technology, everything can be purchased online. However, while that is pretty standard for most countries, what sets it apart is the speed of delivery and the handling of the products. Often times I will make a purchase online only to see it at my front door the next morning. Or even that night! I’ve had items delivered as late as 11 pm before… On the same day that I ordered! Internet shopping is becoming a bigger and bigger part of everyday life, and Korea is setting an example for the world. If you order an item off of Gmarket (a big shopping site in Korea), everything will be tracked, no matter its cost. Not only this, but often there is no shipping cost at all! I’ve purchased items for 2000KRW (under $2 USD) that have had no shipping cost at all. This is definitely one of my favourite things Korea does best!.
11) The Speed of Life
While many people hate the speed of life in big cities (and Seoul especially), I think that you do have to appreciate some aspects of it. In New Zealand I often found myself waiting for things. Want a new debit card? It will come a week later in the mail. Want to move houses? That takes weeks or even months! However, in Korea the difference couldn’t be greater. Need to change your internet plan? Just call and it’ll happen instantly! I had a bad experience in my last house and literally moved houses the next day with no prior planning at all. I don’t think I could have done that in any other country. Most aspects of life here are very fast, and while some people hate it, there are definitely good aspects to it also.
12) Video Gaming
When I first came to Korea I was taken aback by how many middle-aged and elderly people were playing games on their phones in the subway. I feel that in many western countries games are considered as entertainment for the younger generations, but in Korea that definitely is not the case! All age groups here play video games and it is cool to see. Not only this though, but Korea is the home of E-sports. Tournaments and events are held constantly, and many times they are even free to enter. If you are interested in watching Starcraft 2, League of Legends, Overwatch, or whatever other game you fancy, you can simply stroll down to the studios on game nights and join in the fun. Often these events will have free giveaways and promotions too. Often I have gone and watched Starcraft 2 just to get the free pizza for dinner!
Gaming is a big part of modern Korean culture, and that is reflected even further in the popularity of PC bangs (pronounced bung, not bang!) all over the country. A PC bang is essentially just a big PC room with hundreds of PCs available for as little as 800KRW an hour. The best part? These aren’t under-specced PCs, these are top-of-the-line PCs with 1440p 144hz monitors and GTX 1080s. If you are looking for something to do with your friends, or just want to chill out for a while, PC bangs are a great place to hang out.
Bonus! Convenience Stores
It’s easy to take convenience stores in Korea for granted. After all, they’re on practically every other corner of every city in the country and open 24 hours a day. But don’t discount how truly painless they make life here. Convenience stores in Korea are stocked with everything under the sun. You can find pharmacy items, skincare, technology items, and lingerie as well as the usual snacks and drinks. But they play many other roles as well. They act like a post office, bank, bar, cafe and restaurant all at once. You can pay your bills, mail packages domestically and internationally, buy and reload your T-money card, get hot or cold coffee, snacks and even full meals.
Many stores have tables and chairs set up outside their doors, where you can sit and spend a warm summer evening, chatting with friends. There are no open-container laws, so you can buy your alcohol in-store and enjoy it right outside. It’s truly the most affordable bar you’ll find in Korea. A few stores in Seoul have been updated to be even MORE convenient. They have food corners where a dosirak can be ordered and made fresh on the spot, toasters to make DIY sandwiches, areas to eat in privacy using dividing partitions, freshly brewed drip coffee starting at 500 KRW per cup, and free charging stations with plugs and USB outlets.