It can be daunting visiting a country where you don’t speak (and can’t even try to read) the language. Never let this put you off! If you’ve read Five Reasons why Visiting Korea should be on your to-do list and are ready to book your trip, here’s what you need to know.
Seoul is a metropolitan city with a population of 10 million, so accommodation of any kind does not come particularly cheap.
My personal recommendation is to stay in a hostel. I know the word hostel may remind you of school trips, but in Seoul they are really quite good. Many are family-run businesses and so they make an extra effort to make you feel at home. It’s also a great way to meet both young and old people from all over the world. We stayed at CMS Inn in Hoegi where we met Koreans, a Polish girl, Chinese, Indian and Canadian travellers.
The rooms in CMS were well-equipped and each had its own toilet and shower – so no sharing, woop!
Many hostels have a communal area where you can eat your meals with the other residents and, if you fancy, do a bit of cooking. This was particularly helpful on the days me and my husband missed eating a good old biryani.
One of the most helpful things about staying in a hostel such as CMS is that they offer personal advice and tips on how to get around the city and make the most of your stay like a local. Prices are in the region of around £40 per night.
Halal food is available in Seoul, you just need to know where to find it.
Itaewon is a busy multicultural district that is home to Turkish, Arab, Malay, Indian and Pakistani restaurants. They serve halal food, but:
- They tend to be more expensive than Korean restaurants -particularly the Turkish ones – possibly because they are ‘exotic’ and can therefore get away with it.
- These restaurants are unlikely to serve authentic Korean food.
If, like me, you want to eat Korean food when in Korea, my recommendation is that you start with Al Makan restaurant. It is owned and run by a Korean revert. While the menu is somewhat limited, the prices are good, staff are friendly and the food is great – I highly recommend their beef bulgogi, which is around 10 000 won.
Another place I’d recommend is Yang Good restaurant in Yeoksam, as they offer an authentic indoor Korean BBQ experience (K-drama fans, you all know what I’m talking about).
Wherever you do go to eat halal food, remember to check the halal certified status of the restaurant.
Also remember that the Koreans are experts in seafood and my, oh my, do they have such an amazing variety. Whether it is Octopus or salmon, the Koreans know how to transform ordinary dishes into something distinctly Korean and incredibly delicious. Just be aware that alcohol is sometimes used in cooking and you will want to ask the chef to avoid using it when cooking your particular dish. Koreans are generally very understanding so don’t worry about any awkwardness you may have experienced in other countries.
A lot of the street food is halal – fish sticks and red bean buns are delicious – but be wary of buying stews where you cannot identify the ingredients, as pork is a popular ingredient.
Meat aside, vegetarian food is readily available but you will need to learn the phrases to ask if a dish contains meat.
The population of Muslims in Seoul is relatively small, so it’s not surprising that Mosques are not about everywhere you go.
However, Seoul has a central mosque in Itaewon, which is conveniently located where many of the halal restaurants are.
If you are out and about and need to pray, there are prayer facilities in some popular tourist areas. Lotte World and Coex Mall both house prayer rooms complete with qiblas and prayer mats, while the Korea Tourism Organisation in the city-centre has one that comes with a wudhu area.
The public transport system in Seoul works like a dream. Trains run on time, tickets are affordable and better yet, station maps are in English! It is therefore very easy to get around, though should you require assistance, most passers-by will be more than happy to help. I only needed to look a little lost trying to exit the station with my pram when an old lady ushered me to follow her and guided me to the lifts.
Flying to Seoul from the UK is around 11 hours direct or 13 hours with a stopover. We flew with Finnair who offer Muslim meals (can’t say they were particularly tasty) and it’s fair to say that it is a reliably good airline. It’s always more expensive by at least £150 to fly direct, with non-direct flights in the region of £450.
What to pack
Only two items I would recommend this time:
1. Selfie stick: To be honest you can buy one there. Unlike in the UK, it is in no way taboo to use these and, once you do, there’s no going back.
2. Cereal: Breakfast cereal isn’t really a ‘thing’, so unless you are willing to hunt for it, save yourself time and energy and bring your own.