The first thing a first-time traveler to Korea will notice if they go to Seoul is how insanely crowded and chaotic of a city it is. Travelers who have been to Beijing may not be as surprised, but those coming from the orderly cities of Japan will undoubtedly be amazed at how different Seoul is from Tokyo. Although both cities are crowded, traffic in Seoul, both automobile and pedestrian, tends to defy almost all laws and reason, unlike its Japanese counterpart. As your shuttle bus approaches the Seoul city limits from Incheon International Airport, be sure to look out the window, and get a taste of what driving in Seoul is like.
As you gaze out the bus window, you may have occasion to grasp the handle on the back of the seat in front of you as you veer dangerously close to cars in adjacent lanes, as other motorists cut in front of each other with reckless abandon, and as pedestrians stroll lackadaisically along the narrow shoulders of the street and randomly walk into traffic. You will also frequently witness drivers on motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds weaving in and out of traffic, cutting through red lights, and zipping down the sidewalks. You may even see them weave through traffic while going the wrong way. And yes, they drive motorcycles on the sidewalks. As a pedestrian, it definitely keeps you on your toes. Speaking of which, crosswalks are virtually meaningless in Korea unless they are accompanied by a stoplight―and even then, they seem to be more of a general guideline than a rule.
If you want to cross the street in an area that doesn't have a light, the trick is to find a decent sized gap, hold your breath, and just go. Most cars will continue moving at full speed, as if they couldn't care less about you being present. 99% of the time, they will slow down just as they close on you. 99% of the time. I haven't experienced the other 1%, so I can't tell you what happens, but I'm sure it isn't pleasant.
Yup, Seoul traffic is truly a sight to behold.
Yup, Seoul traffic is truly a sight to behold.
The good news, though, is that Seoul has a well-developed public transportation system, including subways, buses, trains, and taxis. Subway stops are almost always printed in English, and you can usually pick up a subway map at your hotel lobby or front desk, also written in English. Additionally, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway has an outstanding website that includes an interactive route map. Just enter your starting station and your destination, and it will calculate the fastest route, line transfers, and the approximate travel time.
Aside from the subway system, taxis and buses offer service throughout Seoul and other major Korean cities. The bus system is rather complicated for non-residents, and is much less user-friendly than the other options. As such, I would recommend tourists avoid using it unless there is no other option. Taxis, on the other hand, are a great option if you don't mind paying a little bit more. They usually cost more than a subway or bus ticket, but they are still far cheaper than taxis in either the United States or Japan.
The first 2 kilometers cost 1,900 won (approximate 2 US dollars), and the meter runs in 200 won increments after that. Subway tickets range from 900 won to 1,900 won per person. Taxis can come out cheaper than the subway at times, particularly if you are riding with 3 or 4 people over a relatively short distance. They are also generally faster, more convenient, and more comfortable than subways or buses; just be sure to avoid taking them during rush hours, between 8 and 10 am and between 5 and 7 pm. Tipping is not a custom in Korea, but taxi drivers are happy to receive tips if you wish to do so.
One thing you will notice about Korean taxi drivers is that there are a good number of them on the roads at virtually any hour of the day. If you go out during the wee hours of the morning, taxis practically own the streets of Seoul. This is a reflection of Korea's accurate nickname, 'The Land of the Morning Calm'. Aside from taxi drivers, garbage men, and newspaper delivery people, Korea's streets are dead quiet until around 8 am, when people begin their trek to work.
Many businesses, especially eateries, do not open until 10 am or later, but will also often stay open until midnight or later. Some tourist areas and businesses use more conventional hours, opening and closing earlier. Generally, however, Korea's time schedule is shifted a few hours later than what is normal in most western countries. For tourists who like to stay up late, Korea is a perfect destination. For those who love to get up early and seize the day―well, a visit to Korea might be a good opportunity to test the virtues of sleeping in.
I may have painted a slightly harrowing picture of traveling in Korea. But as long as you mind the basic lessons that we all learned as children―look both ways, be aware of your surroundings, and all that fun stuff, you should be fine. Getting around Korea can seem chaotic, but it is also an adventure that is worth experiencing. So do walk the streets a bit, do try the subway system, and do ride in a taxi. Most of all, don't be intimidated about exploring the fine city of Seoul and the rest of Korea. There is plenty to do and see, and getting there is half the fun.