In December 2019 I crossed something off my bucket list and finally made a solo trip to Seoul! ? As someone who's wary of travelling in winter, this trip meant a lot to me as a sort of personal challenge too. From staying in a shared guesthouse dormitory to trying to travelling light with a backpack, the trip was full of many travel 'firsts' and although it was challenging at times I ended up loving the city even more by the end!
That being said, I definitely had to think on my feet at times and I even learnt some things I wish I'd known while planning my trip. ? If you're thinking of travelling solo to Seoul (for a 'Seoul-o' experience ?) keep reading for some useful tips on how to navigate the public transport, which halal eateries you have
to visit, and how to survive the Korean winter!
1. Is it safe for a Muslim (woman) to travel solo in Seoul?
Safety is definitely the most important consideration when you're solo travelling. I've been to Seoul twice since 2018 (once with friends and once on my own), and both times I felt safe going out in the day and after sunset while walking alone. I did get cat-called once in 2018 but I never had any hostile encounters on the street. It's common to see some drunk people on the streets at night (especially on a Friday or Saturday) as South Korea has a strong drinking culture, but they won't get aggressive towards you and it's best to just leave them alone.
It's also more common to see hijabis in Seoul now particularly at Myeongdong, Hongdae, Itaewon, and at the major attractions. ? One of our writers even got to try on a traditional hanbok during her previous trip to Seoul that complemented her hijab! I saw quite a few hijabis wearing similar outfits around Bukchon Hanok Village and Gyeongbokgung Palace during my trip, and no one bothered or stared at them. ☺️ There were a few staying in the same guesthouse as me, and I also saw some solo hijabi travellers in the halal restaurants I visited. Overall I did feel very safe even though I was a bit nervous going back to my guesthouse at night just because it was dark, late, and cold.
Here are some tips to help you feel more secure:
- Remember to bring your passport around. This isn't just for getting tourist tax-free discounts (more on that below ?) but to ensure you have identification if you run into any issues. Make sure to keep it in a safe place in your bag!
- Do stay alert if you're walking outside after sunset (in winter the sun even sets before 6PM!) especially in Myeongdong, Hongdae, and Itaewon. Myeongdong and Hongdae get super crowded every evening, and Itaewon is home to several bars so you might see some rowdy patrons.
- Keep an eye on your bags and purses in crowds or during rush hours, and stay off your phone so you can be more aware of your surroundings. The subway trains can get very packed at the end of the day and you don't want to drop your belongings or risk getting pickpocketed!
- Before you leave your room or venture to a new place, calm your heart by reciting an appropriate du'a. My guesthouse was next to the mosque, and being able to walk past it at the start and end of each day also helped me feel more at ease. ? You can also bookmark these prayer rooms next to major attractions to plan out a break to recharge in the middle of the day.
2. Which is the best neighbourhood to stay in?The view from the Baek In-Je House Museum in Bukchon Hanok Village showcasing a traditional hanok family house. Some of the hanok houses in the area were even converted into hostels or guesthouses for an authentic traditional Korean experience!
Seoul definitely has no shortage of accommodation options, with plenty of hostels and guesthouses having popped up in the last 10 years to accommodate the humongous tourist growth. With some research you can even book a stay in a hanok
- definitely a unique experience you won't get anywhere else! ? You can look at hanok
villages such as Bukchon and Namsangol for options like these. There are also temple stays if you want to experience the tranquillity and zen of a traditional Korean Buddhist temple (temple food is also usually vegan-friendly with no alcohol used in cooking!).
Hongdae's streets at night are full of small shops selling everything you could dream of. ?
If you're deciding between the most popular choices of Myeongdong, Hongdae, or Itaewon I think it boils down to what your main goals are for the trip. Serious shoppers who want to be close to major attractions
will love Myeongdong's accessibility
. Hongdae is good for bargain hunters or if you prefer the vibrancy of a college town - night owls will also love the buskers and performers who dazzle in the streets after sundown! ??
Major advantage of staying near the mosque? Being near delicious halal food like the odeng (fishcake) and tteokbokki from Manis Kitchen! ?
For me, being near delicious halal food
was my topmost priority which is why I ended up in Itaewon! ? Seoul Central Mosque is located there and the area is full of Muslim-owned eateries, shops, and even supermarkets selling any ingredients you need to whip up a meal of your own. Itaewon does have one major drawback which is that the mosque is located on top of a hill and you need to climb all
the way up to reach any of the eateries or mosque. Having stayed in another part of Itaewon last year I thought I knew how hilly it could get, but I was really unprepared for how steep the climb was! I joked to my friend that every night was 'leg day' for me, and I could really feel the burn in my knees after a long day out. ?
Going solo was a big advantage here - I could walk and explore the city at my own pace, and pick where I wanted to stay without having to bear in mind who I was travelling with. If I was travelling with my parents I definitely wouldn't have stayed in the same guesthouse, and I don't know if we would have visited Itaewon more than once because going up and down the hill just to grab a bite would have been too tiring for them.
3. How can I ensure my accommodation is safe/secure?
In the last few years, there have been several scandals where hidden cameras or spy cams were found in accommodations both in South Korea and around the world. ? Worse still, some of these were left behind by previous guests and not the staff. It was a concern my parents had when I told them I was planning to travel to Seoul on a smaller budget, and while there are lots of tips online on looking for spycams
in your room you'll also have to research for trusty accommodation options
and have some faith in your fellow guests or accommodation staff.
I chose a women-only dormitory in a Muslim-friendly guesthouse
as I felt it was the safest choice for me that was still within my budget. It wasn't the most comfortable or luxurious place, but I felt secure there and it was also just 5 minutes from the mosque. My advice would be to check your room (even if you're staying in a more expensive hotel) the moment you check-in and immediately raise any concerns you may have to the staff. If you feel that something seems off, report it to them immediately and ask them to check the room themselves.
4. How do I navigate public transport in Seoul?
First, start by getting yourself a reloadable T-money or Cashbee card. You can use it across South Korea (not just in Seoul!) and even at some convenience stores or shops. A subway ride using the card costs KRW1,250 (base fare) and a bus ride costs between KRW900 - KRW2,300 depending on the service. There are also some transfer discounts
if you transfer within 30 minutes. I topped up my card with KRW50,000 on the first day of my trip and that lasted me about 6 days, including taking the Airport Railway Express (AREX), subway and bus fares, and some small purchases. If you're in South Korea for 3 days or less you can also consider buying a tourist pass
that includes free entry to popular attractions such as COEX Aquarium, Lotte World, and the Running Man Thematic Experience Center.
P.S. There are also refund machines in subway stations, so you can refund your balance at the end of your trip. ? Just avoid having to refund more than KRW50,000 as the process can take a long time.
Left: Part of the Seoul subway map in the Subway Korea app. Right: Subway Korea app showing how to get from Itaewon to Myeongdong (transfer station in orange).
Moving on, Seoul is actually one of the cities where I've had the most convenient public transport experience! The subway map is super extensive and you're never too far away from a station. The Subway Korea app (Download it on Android
) saved my life having to navigate the different lines too. It lets you pick your start and endpoints, and suggests the best route to take to get there. The station signs all have English on them, but do take note that the subway stations are HUGE! Walking from one line to another to transfer can even take 5 minutes so try to plan some extra travel time into your itinerary. ?
One downside is that there aren't a lot of signs on the ground level indicating where the nearest subway station is. You have to use a map or navigational app to find it, which might take some time. Which brings me to my next tip:
5. How do I travel around Seoul on foot?Left: Kakao Map app showing how to get to a destination via bus. Right: Same directions but via subway train instead.
I used the Kakao Maps app (Download it on Android
) which was a lot more trustworthy than Google Maps. Kakao and Naver are the 2 most popular platforms in South Korea, but Kakao Maps has an interface that's partially in English and you can even bookmark key locations. It also tells you the estimated cost, how long till the next bus or train arrives (the red text in the image above), and if you click on an option that uses the subway it'll even suggest which door to enter for the shortest transfer time! You don't need to know Korean to fully use the app, but I think it takes about 1-2 days for you to get used to it.
6. Do I need to know Korean to communicate with locals? Are the locals friendly?
Many signs and even menus have English text, so you can generally get around the city quite easily. Knowing some basic Korean phrases will help you feel more secure or confident especially if you need to ask for help or directions. Many websites such as this one
have listings of useful phrases for travellers who are unfamiliar with Korean. Most locals can communicate in simple English but they will look quite happy if you're able to thank them or ask a question in Korean. The shop owners, staff, and locals I interacted with were all very friendly, and when I boarded the wrong train late at night one woman even yelled out to me to let me know I was on the wrong train and gently explained which train I should have boarded. ?
7. Where should I visit solo? How do I plan out my days?
The beauty of travelling solo is that your days are completely up to you! If you want to spend a day visiting Seoul's iconic spots you can. And if you want to just sleep in and have a late start to the day you can too. I did a lot of research on where to go before my trip, but I ended up not completing everything by the end. An important planning tip is that many museums and some major attractions close on Mondays
, and many cafés or eateries also close on Tuesdays
so plan around these!
If you're travelling during winter, I recommend not planning too much for the first 2 days as your body will need to get used to the cold. I wanted to visit Nami Island but the weather suddenly got much colder while I was there and I started to feel sick so I changed plans and stayed in Seoul for the day. ? There's still lots you can do within Seoul - like visit some photo-worthy spots
8. Is it awkward to eat alone in Seoul? Do restaurants allow single diners?
Many restaurants and cafés in Seoul
are perfectly fine with single diners! There are some that only allow for 2 or more pax to dine-in, but these are usually more expensive places (e.g. Myeongdongjeong). Casual places are totally okay, although the portion sizes are a bit more generous than what I get in Singapore. ? I think there's a mental barrier to feeling comfortable eating alone, but in my experience, the way to get over that is to go out and eat what you want anyway. ? The other guests won't judge you for it, and neither will the staff.
Here are some of the eateries I visited and dishes I had that I would absolutely recommend:
Makan 2 Chicken & Noodle
is run by the same family behind Makan Halal Restaurant and specializes in jjajangmyeon
(black bean noodles) and dalgangjeong
(sweet and spicy fried chicken). Though their menu is small, their noodles are absolutely amazing. ? They have a simple home-cooked feel to them, and the black bean sauce isn't too salty. Their banchan here is just a slice of pickled radish, but the sour sweetness of the radish goes great with the noodles! They also offer takeaway boxes for their dalgangjeong which is perfect for a supper snack.
11AM - 9.30PM (Wed-Sun), 11AM - 9.15PM (Mon), closed on Tuesdays
39 Usadan-ro 10-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 04405
If you like spicy food, you'll love the dishes at Hajj Restaurant
. Run by a Korean convert and cook Ms Mariam, it serves authentic Korean dishes as well as Malay/Indonesian dishes such as Mie Goreng. I ordered the Braised Spicy Chicken, but I still wasn't expecting it to be so spicy when it arrived. ?? The Korean standard of 'spiciness' is super high, and the chicken was tender with some onions and leeks adding a sweetness to the soup.
10AM - 12AM
39 Usadan-ro 10-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 04405 (Located next to the mosque - there's a sign pointing in the direction of the restaurant)
If you're a fan of good food you should definitely visit Makan Halal Restaurant
. Their samgyetang
(ginseng chicken soup) is hearty without feeling greasy or oily, and the chicken was tender and easy to remove from the bone. The soup didn't have that bitterness that some ginseng soups had, and I think it was easily the best ginseng chicken dish I've had in years. ? They're also super generous with their banchan
with 6 dishes served! Definitely value for money, and a good meal to warm you up during winter time.
10.30AM - 10PM (Wed-Mon), closed on Tuesdays
52 Usadan-ro 10-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul 140911
P.S. Check out more Seoul eateries serving Korean cuisine here
9. What solo traveller-friendly activities are there?I visited Herb Lab Bomdong in Hongdae for a footbath café experience! Hongdae also has many other cafés including animal cafés but remember to do your research before visiting such places. ☺️
South Korea has a strong café culture, and there are many small independent cafés all over Gangnam and Hongdae perfect for some café-hopping
. Many of these also serve only coffee and some cakes or sweet treats, so do dine at your own discretion. A new trend has also been cafés that offer a footbath service so you can enjoy soaking your feet in a warm herbal bath tailored for your skin, and then sip on a warm cup of tea after!
Seoul is also full of art museums and galleries
both big and small. If you don't typically visit museums I encourage you to try to visit at least one, many of which show off Korean artists based locally and internationally. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) is one of the biggest art galleries in Seoul, and their main gallery
next to Gyeongbokgung Palace has a mix of physical installations and video films for a multimedia experience. Smaller galleries such as the Daelim Museum
are also good for spending maybe an hour or two, and the museum shops often have lots of adorable merchandise you can get as a souvenir too. ?
P.S. Museums and galleries usually charge an entrance fee of KRW8,000 to KRW15,000. If you're keeping your budget tight but still want to visit, I recommend visiting the bigger galleries to get more bang for your buck.
fans can also look forward to permanent and temporary exhibitions throughout the city. The temporary pop-up for BTS was definitely on my list, as well as several pop-up café birthday events for K-idols and even a visit the permanent SMTOWN Coex Artium that I loved. ? Honestly, I felt self-conscious at first, but no one will bat an eye at you for being a K-Pop fan or lugging bags of merchandise around. ? You can also find birthday banner ads for your idols in many train stations - I even saw one for Taylor Swift put up by Korean fans! If you're travelling to Seoul for K-Pop, rest assured you'll have plenty of things to do to fill your days with - or you can check out our 5D4N Muslim-friendly itinerary especially for K-Pop fans
10. How do I shop tax-free as a tourist?
Tourists can receive an immediate tax refund after shopping with a minimum purchase of KRW30,000 (capped at KRW300,000 including tax), or receive their refund at the airport before their flight back. Here are some easy steps for claiming your refund:
- Shop at stores that include tax refund services. These can be seen in logos displayed by the store, and some companies offering these include Global Tax Free, Global Blue Tax Free, or Easy Tax Refund.
- Present your passport during purchase to receive your VAT refund receipt.
- Option 1: Some stores may have a booth in-store where you can immediately get a cash refund, or apply for a cashback into your credit card. Bring your receipt to the booth and follow the instructions in English to receive your refund.
- Option 2: Upon arriving at the airport for your flight home, get your boarding pass but do not check in your luggage yet. Show your purchased goods and VAT refund receipt to the officer at the booth, and get a stamp or indication of approval.
- Check-in your luggage at the oversized baggage counter or carry it onto your flight.
I used an in-store kiosk in Myeongdong to receive an immediate cash refund, which was very convenient! At Incheon Airport, I only had to scan my passport at their kiosk and was given the go-ahead by the officers that my refund had been properly processed. ?
P.S. You can also shop duty-free at specific malls such as Lotte Duty-Free, The Shilla Duty-Free, and Shinsegae Duty-Free. Just remember to bring along your passport for confirmation of your tourist status!
11. Where are the best places to shop in Seoul?
I didn't go to Seoul intending to shop a lot (I only had a backpack and duffel bag with me!) but by the end of my trip, I was regretting not bringing more duffel bags to hold my purchases. ? I was surprised to find out that so many popular brands from apparel to cosmetics to skincare are cheaper in Seoul compared to Singapore.
The area between Ewha Womens University and Hongik University (Hongdae) is full of shops selling all kinds of apparel, accessories, and jewellery. ? The jewellery, in particular, was more affordable compared to the same items in Singapore! Many cosmetic and skincare shops also offered special box deals or packages for tourists which can be up to 40% cheaper than what you'll find at home. Just take note that if you visit during autumn/winter you'll find thicker clothing that may not be the best fit for hot and humid Southeast Asia - but perfect for your next autumn/winter holiday. ?
Best for buying:
bargains, accessories, and independent brands you won't be able to find back home.
If you're looking for K-beauty such as cosmetics or skincare
you can find lots of shops throughout the city - but I recommend visiting Myeongdong so you can hunt through the different brands at once! Some shops even sell a range of brands, and I managed to find a shop selling the halal-certified range from Talent Cosmetics! Even popular brands such as Innisfree, Laneige, or Mamonde were at least 5-10% cheaper than what you'd find in Singapore. ? If you're looking for sheet masks, some of the stores even offer them for less than KRW1,000 per piece!
Best for buying:
international and Korean brands at a discounted price than what you'll find back home.
12. How do I deal with the Korean winter?This was the week that was 'supposed' to not go below 0 degrees - but it ended up having the coldest day on record in 2019! It also started snowing this week, which was a happy surprise. ?
Coming from Southeast Asia, it can be a bit difficult to adjust to winter overseas
at first. If you're not sure about travelling during winter, I would not
recommend Seoul during late December as your first foray into the cold. ? The temperature was predicted to be between 2 degrees Celsius and 10 degrees Celsius while I was there - but during my trip itself, it dropped to as cold as -11 degrees! ❄️ Many stores are heat
Here are some essential tips to survive without getting frostbite:
- Buy suitable clothing! I used Uniqlo's Ultra Warm Heat Tech and Heat Tech Lined Pants and they really seemed to work! Some evenings (when it was around 2-5 degrees Celsius) I went out wearing just a Heat Tech turtleneck, Heat Tech pants, a denim jacket, and my coat. It definitely varies from person to person, and if you're not sure how good your 'cold tolerance' is you can always pack light and buy more layers once you reach Seoul. (There will be winter discounts on too!)
- Get a fabric or padded face mask to protect against the wind. Scarves are useful too, but if you want better coverage for your face you can pop into any cosmetics store to buy a face mask. I found a face mask to be more convenient than a scarf, and the padded one I got helped keep the heat in to keep me warm too!
- Wear a good pair of shoes. The roads in Seoul can be quite uneven, and paired with (potential) snow it's important to have shoes that have a good grip and are made from thick windproof material. Sneakers can actually be okay if they have material such as leather or suede on them. However if it's snowing heavily make sure not to wear any converse or fabric which will get soaked by the snow!
- Drink lots of water and take breaks to keep yourself warm. Shops and stores will be insulated, and if you're feeling cold stop and buy a hot drink to warm yourself up!
- Plan around each part of the day. The early morning and late afternoon usually felt the least cold, because there would be less wind. Conversely, the middle of the day was actually the coldest for me (despite being the sun being out) because the wind was so strong!
13. Finally ... is it worth it to travel solo in Seoul?
This is only my 2nd trip travelling solo (and I did spend part of it hanging out with a friend who was travelling to Seoul at the same time as me) but I enjoyed it! Personally, I really enjoy solo travel because it lets me go at my own pace and as an introvert, it felt like a way to refresh myself after a long year and look forward to the start of 2020. ? Seoul was also quite easy to navigate, which definitely made the experience more positive.
However, I think it's important to know that a solo trip is not just fun and games throughout. There were 1 or 2 days where I felt too tired to go out or that I was missing my friends and family - and these are normal experiences that more seasoned solo travellers experience too! ? Solo travel is meant to push you out of your comfort zone, and I think Seoul is a great place to help ease you into that. Overall, I think travelling solo to Seoul is worth it if you want to challenge yourself and discover a new side to this fast-paced city!