If you want to live somewhere peaceful and quiet, then Seoul is probably not the place for you. It’s a loud, fast, and stressful city. However, for many people it is also the perfect place to live. Is living in Seoul for you?
Seoul is becoming more popular among foreigners every day, with Korea’s emigration exponentially increasing. For many reasons, but probably mostly due to Hallyu, Korea has suddenly appeared on many people’s radars. I’ve seen a lot of people say that Seoul is their dream city without ever having actually experienced the city. However, how is it to actually live in Seoul? What are the ups and downs, the good and bad? Who will like Seoul, and who might not find it great? In this post I want to answer all of these questions from my experiences.
A Diverse and Giant City
Including the satellite cities, Seoul is the 5th largest metropolitan area in the world. While this means that Seoul has nearly anything you could imagine, it also means that the city is incredibly large, and travelling can be tiresome. Further, if you want to visit the country it isn’t simply a morning trip. It’s a whole day trip involving buses and trains. This is perfect if you love cities and never find yourself wanting to surround yourself with nature. Also if you just don’t like the outdoors in general. However, if you are someone who wants to spend lots of time outdoors then you may have some difficulties with Seoul.
That isn’t to say that the city doesn’t have nice parks though, because it does. But all of the parks are well-kept and while they are fantastic, I wouldn’t count them as ‘real’ outdoors. There are many beautiful parks within the city, and even quite a few mountains. Even Bukhansan can be visited without leaving the city!
Seoul is most definitely a beautiful city!
In this article I want to go over some of my general feelings towards Seoul. My honest feelings and realizations, the good and the bad. While there are a lot of facts in this post, a lot of it is also my opinion and the opinions of those who surround me. Please keep that in mind while reading this article! I do love Seoul, and I recommend that everyone visits it. However, it isn’t the ideal place to live for many people, and there’s a lot to consider before moving here.
Table of Contents
This is a very long article, and many people won’t want to read it all. If you would like to jump to a section, simply click on the links below!
Facilities in Seoul
Seoul, as with any large city is well equipped with every basic necessity you may need. Medical and dental facilities in Korea are great, and usually of very high quality and cleanliness. Further, there are many different price points that exist for each kind of medical facility, and many cheaper options exist. The leading hospitals (that are also the most well equipped) are Seoul National University Hospital, Samsung Medical Center, and Ewha Women’s University Medical Center. While there are many many hospitals in Seoul, the top university hospitals are widely considered to be the best, hospitals such as Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei Severance Hospital.
It is, however, worth keeping in mind that unless you require the state-of-the-art medical facilities that they offer, that you are probably better off visiting a less well-known hospital. The universities have great hospitals, but often you will find that the price reflects their quality.
Public sports/exercise facilities are also easy to find and exist nearly everywhere. Near where I live I have noticed multiple gyms, kick-boxing, yoga, an Olympic swimming pool, and an ice-skating rink. On top of that, there is also a public soccer field about 15 minutes from my home. It is open to the public except for when there are teams practicing. While most people don’t seem to use these facilities, they are all there and ready to be used. Further, the membership costs (when relevant) are usually comparable or cheaper compared to those of similarly sized western cities. Fantastic medical facilities are definitely not something you need to worry about while living in Seoul!
Parks and Nature
Outdoor parks and recreation areas are abundant. This is one of the aspects of Seoul that really surprised me and continues to pleasantly surprise me every week. From the small streams that can be found all around Seoul (Cheonggyecheon being the most famous of them) to the massive parks such as Pyeonghwa Park and Olympic Park, Seoul really has a lot to offer. I personally live in Seongbuk-Gu, and Seongbuk Stream is easily reachable. The stream isn’t anything special, but it is a nice green space that passes through the suburbs. It is great for walking, skating, or biking and provides a great alternative to the also great public transport.
Pyeonghwa Park is one of the many beautiful parks within the city.
The larger parks (such as the parks at World Cup Stadium) are also plentiful and can be found all around the city. These parks are usually very nice and well maintained. Whether you want a nice date location or a place to walk your dogs, these parks are fantastic and well equipped.
Another thing that Seoul is great for is hiking. While none of the mountains in Korea are exceptionally tall (with most of them being rather small relative to even the mountains I am used to in New Zealand), there are many that offer beautiful hiking trails. Bukhansan is easily reachable from the city and provides anything from 30-minute walks to 6+ hour walks. Many other (small) mountains are also located within the city, mountains such as Naksan, Eungbongsan, Namsan, and more!
Cultural and historical areas are also located all over the city. If you are interested in Korean history then you won’t be disappointed. Everything from massive temples (such as Gyeongbokgung and changdeokgung) to the great gates such as Dongdaemun can be found throughout the city. There are a decent amount of museums and galleries that have cheap, or no entry fees. Some outstanding places such as the War Memorial in Samgakji are completely free to enter and offer a lot of information about Korea’s past. Smaller museums such as the Seoul wall museum are also totally free to enter which is something that is usually too rare in big cities.
Shopping in Seoul is great, with both traditional markets and massive department stores coexisting. Markets like Gwangjang capture the more traditional feel of the city while still retaining relevance today with their incredibly large and diverse inventories. Gwangjang, Namdaemun, Dongdaemun, and the other markets contain pretty much anything you could ever imagine and they are a joy to visit.
However what if markets aren’t your thing? Then you will be pleased to hear that Seoul has a lot of very modern shopping malls. Some of them are even the biggest (and tallest as the case may be) in the world. Shinsegae, Hyundai, and Lotte Department Stores are always reachable no matter where in Seoul you live. The products that these malls sell are comparable in price to that of cities such as London, New York, Melbourne, and any other big city. Don’t expect to get away with cheap shopping in Korea if you want brand names and department stores.
Both markets and shopping malls are easy to find in Seoul!
Other areas of interest are the Chinatown in Incheon, the ice-skating rink in Lotte World (Jamsil), the traditional markets like Noryangjin Fish Market, and a whole lot more.
I feel like there’s not much more to say about Seoul and its facilities. It has everything that city of its size needs, and it really isn’t lacking in any area. While the city is massive, usually you won’t need to leave your home area or district due to the great spread of these facilities. However, even if you need to travel a bit there is fantastic public transport in Seoul…
Seoul’s public transport is truly world class. Even further, it is a world-leading public transport. The subway, buses, taxis and trains are comparatively cheap (a usually subway/bus ride is 1250KRW, about $1 USD). Further, they run from 5 am until 11pm-1am. Buses are fast and efficient (although quite bumpy sometimes), and the subways are fantastic. Every subway station is equipped with big glass doors and walls to prevent access to the tracks – something which terrified me as a child when I visited London. The subways are often attached to shopping malls or underground markets, and as such the subways are even better than just being great public transport.
Crime and Safety
While not directly related, I will include them together as they are often relevant to one another. Major crime-wise, Korea is VERY safe. However, petty crimes are very common. Common to the point where for some crimes, many people don’t even know that what they are doing is against the law – things such as very poor driving (I consistently see people running red lights or even driving on the wrong side of the road/footpath), and drunk driving are both very common.
Things such as prostitution are illegal but simply overlooked, and there are occasionally incidents of corruption. However, when talking about the crimes that most people care about – things such as homicide rates, theft, scams, etc, Korea has a good record, and living in Seoul is usually very safe. With that being said, I do have a few warnings.
Even in the back-streets of Kwangjang Market I felt safe.
If anyone on the street approaches you for some kind of ‘cultural experience’ DO NOT agree. Simply leave them and walk off. Cults do exist in Korea, and scams are common enough. I’ve had people try to scam money off me (by claiming they had a child who needed medical care, and apparently the women was the mother. Later though, she claimed she was the aunt of the child) and I’ve been approached by the cults on multiple occasions. If someone asks you if you want to wear Hanbok, say no. Even better, just walk off and don’t talk to them. If someone comes up to you and asks questions like ‘where are you from?’ or ‘how long are you here for?’ just leave them. Especially if there are two people.
If you really want to wear a Hanbok, visit a rental place yourself and don’t let anyone else lead you there. I’ve heard some horrible experiences from foreigners who have followed them, and while I’ve never gone off with them, they have approached me many times.
So while serious crimes are very rare, there are still small crimes being committed everywhere. However, these crimes won’t affect you (except maybe the bad driving) if you know what to look out for and just live your life.
As for safety, Seoul is generally very safe too. My one piece of advice though is just to watch out when you cross roads. If the light is green for crossing, make sure you still look. People run red lights as if it’s a fun game, and people often drive very drunk. Always keep an eye on the road, and never trust the lights of crossings – many drivers apparently can’t even see them or are in too much of a rush to care.
In conclusion, Seoul is very safe and I’ve never felt concerned for my safety. The only real worry here are the scams as I know many tourists do fall prey to them. If someone approaches you on the street and is acting friendly there is a 99% chance the want to scam you – no matter how friendly they seem.
Even while exploring the massive maze-like markets like Gwangjang Market I have never felt that unsafe. Korea is very safe and it is good at making you feel safe, I’ve definitely been to places where I wouldn’t have felt safe in other countries, but in Seoul, I do feel safe.
Entertainment and Activities
Entertainment in Seoul? It’s nothing short of fantastic. I haven’t lived anywhere else (other than New Zealand) for a long amount of time. Hence, I can’t compare to other big cities. However, I have no hesitation in saying that Seoul has an incredibly diverse and fun entertainment sector. Currently rated as the fifth best student city in the world, Seoul doesn’t lack at all.
There are a lot of activities for both daytime and nighttime. Daytime activities are as you would expect from any city. Cinemas, public playgrounds and parks are common and easy to find in Seoul. On top of that though, you also have some (more) uniquely Seoul things, things such as cafes, karaoke, soju bars, massive arcades, and more. While these might not sound too special, there is a unique Korean spin on most of the entertainment.
The cafe culture in Seoul is fantastic if you either love coffee (and other hot and cold drinks!) or enjoy spending time in nice atmospheres. Cat cafes are plentiful, and flower cafes can be found in every district. VR cafes are located around the place, and board game cafes are around every corner. Due to the lack of living spaces in the city (as most people live in smallish apartments), there is almost an unbelievable amount of activities that can be enjoyed near wherever you live.
On top of that, escape rooms are also very common in Seoul – more so than I have seen anywhere else. While I don’t want to go into too many details or share pictures (as it ruins the experience), the escape rooms that I have done have been fantastic. Basically, it involves getting locked in a room for one hour with your friends. If you find a way to escape within that hour, then you succeed! These rooms are usually about 20,000 per person per hour, but they are a lot of fun and well worth trying.
Karaoke. What is Seoul without the 노래방? As I mentioned earlier, Seoul is known as one of the best student cities in the world. I believe that the Noraebang (Karaoke room) is a large reason of that. Singing seems to be a popular pastime of the majority of Koreans, and the rooms are very cheap to use. Whether you can sing well or not, the rooms are very fun and always a blast. You also don’t have to feel embarrassed if you want to visit by yourself – many people do!
If, on the other hand, you prefer to drink before singing then you can! The nightlife in Seoul is also fantastic and there are many different hotspots for nightlife. Whether you want to visit a party-centric area, or would prefer a quieter place, you can find it here. Clubs are common and both the bars and clubs are of similar costs to most western cities. However, you can also find many great places at cheaper prices.
If you prefer shopping, then there are shopping malls in nearly every suburb. The malls are usually massive and often have 6+ levels to them. Within, you will usually find things such as cinemas and cafes, along with the obvious department stores.
If Seoul excels in one area, then I would have to say that it is with entertainment. Whether you have a lot of disposable income or not, there is always something to do and it is one of my favourite aspects of the city. The entertainment discussed above, along with the free parks and gardens means that you can have world-class entertainment for free or for a price.
Crowds and Stress
You’ll hear it again and again, but I want to emphasise the importance of it. Seoul is stressful. In 2017 it was the most stressful developed city in the world, being beaten out by cities mainly in central/southern Asia, South America, and Africa. While those countries usually get low rankings due to factors such as crime, this is not the case in Seoul. Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the world! So what is it from? Seoul has one of the lowest mental health ratings out of every city in the survey.
It is known that many mental health issues aren’t even recognised in Korea. It has been getting better recently, but it is still far from what it should be. How can mental health be addressed when it isn’t even recognised? If mental health is a worry for you then it is greatly advised that you discuss it with your doctors before coming to Korea. Make sure that you are able to receive the medication or help that you need before moving to Korea.
Hongdae on a Friday night can be incredibly crowded!
Seoul is also the absolutely lowest rated city in the survey for race equality and a very low ranking city in terms of gender equality. Race equality in Korea is unfortunately highly dependent on your race, however. The truth is that westerners (Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders) and especially English speakers (from the 5 native English countries) are often idolised, while those from south-east Asia and central Asia are often looked down upon. Job chances are also very dependent on your race (at least as a student). Since there aren’t many jobs available due to the language and student visa limitations, tutoring is a go-to for many students. However, even if you aren’t teaching English, westerners will be prioritised.
The last factor that plays a big part in the stress ranking of Seoul is the pollution. While definitely not the worst on the list, the noise and air pollution in Seoul is no joke. Make sure to take care of your health and wear a mask whenever needed (I always wear a mask when the air quality reaches red, which is 150+). If you have asthma like me it is also worth being more careful. Make sure to get an air filter for your house!
Lastly, the crowds and traffic. I actually find that the crowds in Seoul are no worse than any other large city. Many people complain about the crowds in Seoul, but other than a few very busy places like Myeongdong and Hongdae I have never found them to be very bad at all. If you want to avoid the crowds, it is usually possible. Just be careful of the areas above, and be careful not to travel at peak hours. Living in Seoul doesn’t have to involve crowds.
As I said earlier, mental health is probably the biggest health issue in Korea, and especially with living in Seoul. If you have a history with mental health or see yourself possibly needing expert help, make sure to check with your doctors what options are available in Korea.
Other than mental health, the biggest concern is the bad air quality. The air is usually of an OK quality, but there are quite often days when it is very bad. Being outside on one of the days last week was equivalent to smoking 9 cigarettes! While this may not seem bad, you have to remember that breathing is constant. It’s something you passively do, and something you can’t simply avoid. If you have a history with respiratory conditions, make sure that you get a good supply of masks, have your needed medication (in advance of coming to Korea), and that you buy an air filter for your house – the bad air will get inside.
While the pollution can be very bad some days, there are also beautifully clear days mixed in.
As a general tip, download some kind of app on your phone which monitors the air and let it send you notifications on the days when the air is worst. If possible, stay inside during those days. Usually the air is worst in spring, and usually 1/2 days per month the air will be exceptionally bad. The air isn’t as bad as many other cities in Asia, but your health is always worth worrying about. If you plan on living in Seoul for a longer period of time, checking the air quality is essential.
Education and Work
I wanted to touch on another major factor of daily life that concerns health and stress. I had a quick look, and I wasn’t able to find any evidence, but it is widely believed that the education and work culture is directly related to the very high suicide rate and prevalent mental health conditions. Education in South Korea is relentless and super competitive. The good news is that if you are considering moving to South Korea, then you probably aren’t an elementary to high school student. University is a different matter, and while it still has its problems, it is far better than the earlier education. However, if you are considering bringing children to Seoul then make sure to do your research thoroughly. There is a reason that many Korean parents move overseas for their children’s benefit.
Attitude Towards Foreigners
I have no experience with Korean companies. I have always had the benefit of being independent and doing freelance work. However, after asking some of my friends about the work culture in Korea I have learnt that it is also very stressful and difficult. Working hours are far longer than most countries, and many companies don’t know how to properly interact with and handle foreigners. If you can take a job with a western company, then that is probably your best choice.
Korean people are overall very friendly and kind towards foreigners. However, even if you speak Korean fluently, it is hard to ever actually feel like you belong. Often you may not be invited to events, or may even be purposefully excluded. This is highly dependent on where you work, but more often than not this seems to be the case. I have only lived here for two years, and I have limited experiences, but I don’t think you can ever feel like you are a Korean – like you really belong.
That isn’t to say that you can’t have a great time here though. Many people dream of being treated as a Korean (as Koreans are treated as people who belong). However, being treated as an outsider has its own benefits. Once you accept that you will never be a ‘native’ no matter how long you are in Korea for, you can have a great time. Embrace being an outsider!
This is often one of the first questions I am asked about Seoul – is it expensive? Yes and no, let me explain! Seoul is the most expensive city in Korea, and relative to the other Korean cities it is indeed quite expensive. However, when compared to western cities I have found it to be very cheap. I have gone into far more detail about Seoul’s living costs already, but I will make a quick overview of them here.
Renting a one-room apartment is usually about $400-$700 per month depending on the area you wish to live in. However, usually you are required to pay a deposit, and this is where the big costs come in. Often a deposit will be $3000+USD and it is a big hurdle to be able to pass if you are interested in moving into your own place. The good aspect of the deposit, however, is that it is just that. A deposit. When you move out (provided you honour your contract), you will receive the money back. It is a big hurdle to pass initially, but the money isn’t gone forever.
Other monthly costs such as utilities and phone/internet plans are not too costly either. Unlimited data can be had for around $60 per month, and gigabit internet goes for $50. Cheaper plans are obviously available however. They can be found as cheap as $20 per month for 2gb data or 100mb/s internet. Utilities are also cheap, and in the cheaper months (fall and spring) I have found them to be less than $50 together. However, in winter and summer (heating and AC), you may find that these costs go up to $100 easily.
There is some great food in Korea! It’s definitely one of the best food cultures I’ve ever experienced.
Finally, food costs are pretty affordable too. While living in Seoul, you can expect to eat out for $3-$20 for a decent and healthy meal. Korean foods are usually the cheapest options, with foods such as kimbap, bibimbap, deopbap, and more often being found for $3 per person. Western food is usually over $10 per meal, however, and it can quickly get more expensive from there. Eating at home will usually run you about $2-$5 per meal if you are conservative, and as such, I usually find myself spending about $225 on food every month.
The Seoul Speed of Life
Life in Seoul is fast. Everything about it is fast. Whether you want to get some (fast) internet installed at your house, or order a new phone online, it is FAST! Next day delivery, food delivery within the hour (even for coffee), meetings, travelling, and even drinking. Everything here is fast paced and things happen quickly.
While this can make it stressful as I mentioned earlier in this article, if you are the person who loves a fast life then Seoul is for you! Personally, I do love the speed. Being able to move houses within the day is something I have never even heard of before, and it is really fantastic. If you prefer a more relaxed life then the reality is that Seoul probably isn’t a good fit for you. The city is fast, always moving, and always changing. One day a cafe will exist, the next day it will be a restaurant. One day you will be next door to a small villa, and the next day month you will be next to an apartment complex.
This also extends to services such as LTE and internet, with everything being quick to install and with blazing speeds. Not only that, but service in cafes and restaurants is fast, and even more. Seoul is the capital of speed!
Quality of Life and General Overview
Clerks and waiters are friendly and kind, and I have never had any truly bad experiences with Korean service. Items and services are affordable and doing your day to day activities should be of a similar or cheaper cost to a large city such as LA or London. Public transport is amazing and of a fantastic quality – I mean, what other country has heated subway seats? Or WiFi on every carriage?
Overall I would say that other than work and education (which may or may not be good), the quality of life in Seoul is great. If you like the idea of everything I’ve talked about so far then you may have found the perfect place to live!
I do, however, want to discuss the times that Seoul might not be right for you. There are a few sacrifices that you have to make while living here. Some sacrifices people might not be willing to make. Things such as the crowds, space, stress, and more are sacrifices you will be needing to give while living in Seoul.
Is Seoul for you?
So, is living in Seoul the right choice for you? With the expensive real estate, it is very likely that you will be limited to a rather small apartment. In Korea as a whole, finding a house is hard enough. In Seoul, your chances of living in a real house are close to zero. There are some very nice and large apartments. But they are also very costly and they aren’t affordable for average people. If you are considering living in Seoul then make sure that you are willing to live in a smaller place than what you may be used to. The good news is that while the apartments are small, you get the great benefits of always being close to everything you need, and if not, you always have the amazing public transport.
When it Might Not be for You
As mentioned previously, there is also the problem of stress and speed. If you don’t enjoy a fast-paced lifestyle then Seoul also may not be for you. It is possible to live life at your own speed. But when being surrounded by an ever-changing, fast moving life, it is hard not to get caught up in it. If you enjoy relaxing and living a calm life then Seoul is also probably not the place for you.
Finally, I wouldn’t recommend Seoul to anyone who doesn’t like attention. This definitely depends on what you look like, but if you look different to Koreans, you will get attention. The attention isn’t in a negative form, but I often find people staring at me or just watching me walk past. It’s not really a big deal, however, and as more foreigners move to Korea it will become less common. However, if you don’t like standing out and getting random attention at times then keep this in mind.
When it is For You!
On the other hand, Seoul is fantastic for many types of people! If you love speed, and value efficiency and attending to problems instantly then the city is perfect. I love getting things done as quickly as possible, and this is something that always has appealed to me. I love being able to get a new credit card the same day. Along with shopping online and receiving the goods the next day.
One of my favourite picnic locations in Seoul.
Students will also find Seoul a place to love. With the number of activities and the copious amounts of drinking that go on, Seoul really is a great city to party in. You will rarely (if ever) find yourself bored, and this is another of my favourite aspects of Seoul. There are many different educational institutes within the city, and you will have opportunities for whatever you want to study!
If you enjoy culture and want to learn a deep and interesting history then Korea as a whole is a great place to live. With the number of museums, historical monuments, and cultural highlights, Seoul is a great place to live and learn. Not only that, but the city has a lot of amazing parks that can be enjoyed for free. The Han River flows through the city and provides beautiful locations to have picnics and ride along the river.
Seoul – The Perfect Place to Live?
As with everywhere, there are positives and negatives to Seoul. Personally, I have had a great time here and there is a reason that I call it my favourite city. The diversity, culture, and beauty that can be found at every turn make for a constantly exhilarating and exciting living experience. The size of the city means that even if you live here for 10 years (or so I imagine), you will still experience and find new things. However, it is up to you to decide if Seoul is the right place for you to live. I wanted to make this an honest article about my views and opinions of Seoul. There are some major downsides that may not be worth the positives for some people. For me, however, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.