8 years ago, I would not dare to visit Seoul on my own as everything seemed foreign, from the language to the street signs. A lot has changed since then, there are clear signs in various languages such as English, Mandarin and Japanese not only near and around tourist landmarks but at subways, buses, restaurants, etc. Tourist information booths and tourist guides have sprouted around major sights and shopping areas, the latter can be found standing at intersections dressed in bright red (usually in pairs) in places like Myeongdong or Insadong. Kudos to them as they have to brave the elements to direct lost tourists to the desired destination. The official Korean tourism website is a good starting point for the latest information.
The following are some tips when visiting Seoul.
1330 is a free telephone service for tourists in Korea, very much like a concierge service. It is available round the clock and is manned by bilingual staff.
Moving around Seoul could not have been easier with the extensive subways and buses. I prefer the former as you can avoid traffic jams. The T money card is perhaps the most convenient card to have if you intend to travel by bus or subway in Seoul and around Gyeonggi-do. This card can be purchased at any convenience store and at the subway station for a non-refundable charge of KRW 2500. It offers rebates and mileage (the latter requires registration at the T money website). Any unused value in the card can be refunded less KRW 500 at any convenience stores prior to departure. Seoul subway maps can be downloaded at the Korean tourism website or through apps market for smartphone/iphone users.
To save on transport cost, we stayed in a central location near major sights as well as within easy access to subway line 1 and 3. Most sights and shopping areas are located along these lines.
Do carry the addresses, map or names of the places that you intend to visit written in Korean. Smartphones with a camera are handy for taking snapshots of the addresses or maps which can then be used to show the locals when asking for directions.
For day trips to Busan, Jeonju, Gangwon and Gyeongju, use the free shuttle services that are available for tourists only. These buses require advance reservations online via here. The buses are comfortable with business-class like seats, most importantly, these services offer direct routes and are FREE!
Visitors can claim tax refunds from participating stores with a minimal purchase of KRW 30 000. You need to ask the cashier before payment of purchases for the tax refund receipt. You will then be asked to fill in your particulars and given an envelope. Cash or credit card claimants can only be made at the airport.
There are 2 kinds of tax refunds- Global Blue and local.
For the former, claims can be made after you pass immigration, near Gate number 28 or at airports of participating countries such as Singapore, China, Japan and Russian Federation. These can be in the form of cash or cheque, the latter would be mailed to your preferred address.
Local tax refunds are made before you pass immigration. Essentially, you need to inform the airport staff upon checking in your lugguge that you would be claiming tax refund. You would then need to proceed to the tax refund counter (we found one next to the oversize luggage check in counter) with your passport, luggage containing your purchases and receipts of the purchases. After inspection, he would then place the receipts into an envelope (please remember to fill in your name and address!) and dump it into a box. Refunds would be mailed to you later. Do check again that all receipts have been stamped. My friend was alert enough to realise that 2 of her receipts were not stamped and promptly returned to have it done.
Note: DO separate the Global and local receipts into 2 envelopes.
I did not do so when I presented my claim at the Global-Blue counter, the receipts were confusing and I was told that the receipts were not eligible for refund although they are from participating stores. I suspect these receipts were overlooked by the bored staff manning the counters.
Head for Myeongdong first if you can. This is a woman's haven for cosmetics and beauty products. Shopping here can be addictive as you would receive samples of their products just by walking pass the store, more if you make a purchase! My friend commented that she could have saved on her personal grooming products by coming here first to collect the samples to be used during the trip. Some of the highly recommended cosmetic/ beauty houses include Etude, Missha, Hanskin (home of BB creams), Skin79, the Faceshop and my personal favourite, Innisfree.
For Chinese speaking visitors, do visit Gong Soon Sung at #50-6, Namchangdong, Namdamun (Hp 019-360-6013) for purchases such as seaweed, ginseng, kimchi and other Korean food products. This store is owned by a Taiwanese who gives up to 50% discount for tourists from Asia-Pacific region.
Head for Dongdamun for the latest fashion and accessories, Insa-dong for antiques and Korean souvenirs, Samcheong for unique hand made accessories and shoes, Myeongdong for the young and trendy, Mario towns I, II, III and fashion town at Gasan digital complex station for imported brands like Levis, Zara at outlet prices (do take note however that the products here are from past season). Another place that offers good buys is the underground shopping area at the Express Bus terminal station (alight at subway station Express bus terminal). Goods on sale here ranged from shoes, flowers to linen.