Traveling in a foreign country is sometimes challenging, and where the language is just a bunch of boxes and lines squished together, doubly so. But South Korea is a country with a lot to offer; Buddhist temples and Internet cafes are within minutes of each other and McDonald’s sit next to traditional fare on many of Seoul’s ancient and packed streets. Thankfully, South Korea is also very technologically savvy, and part of the key to having a great vacation is tapping into their many helpful apps for your smart phone.
Now, some of these travel and tourism apps will be much easier to use if you understand Hangul, the Korean writing system. Have no fear, the strange symbols are actually phonetic and pretty simple. You might even be able to memorize the writing system during your 10-12 hour flight over. If not, you could pick it up once you’re in Korea. I’m not saying you’ll be able to read anything faster than, say, a four-year old, but that’s okay. And if you are a slower learner or just have no desire to learn Hangul, that’s okay too, because some of these phone apps are useable in English too.
Regardless of your Hangul abilities, at least download or install a Korean keyboard on your smart phone. It takes five seconds. If you don’t use it, the Korean you convince to help you will. Ready? Get your phone out and head to the App Store, Google Play, or wherever else you get your apps.
1. Google Translate
Do I need to say anything about this? Alrighty, good.
The Korean version of Google Maps, you’ll find much more detailed and accurate locations here than good old Google. This is especially helpful because Korean restaurants and stores seem to close and change within 18 months of opening in the first place. There is also a street view, the upside-down teardrop shape with a green and black stripe across it, especially helpful when you don’t want to wander around forever. While you can only search basic English words and get results (like “subway”), the GPS locator will show you exactly where you are with incredible accuracy, which is indispensable.
Also, if you ask a Korean person to help you with directions, they literally won’t understand how Google Maps works, so you better download this one.
3. Subway or 지하철 (Ji Ha Cheol)
If you’re spending any time in Seoul, which I assume you are (who doesn’t?), then this app will help you navigate the huge, complex subway system around the city. Complete with awesome features like the nearest station locator and the exact duration of a subway ride, you’ll come to depend in this app like Grandpa and his prosthetic hip.
You can set the language to English (or Japanese!) and it has subway maps for not just Seoul, but Busan, Daegu, Daejeon and Gwangju as well.
4. Visit Korea 3.0
This app is created (and updated frequently) by the Korea Tourism Organization and is basically a huge database of tons of cool tourist attractions all over Korea. Everything from mountains, wildlife parks, Buddhist temples and shrines, to the weirdest museums are all in the database; they don’t miss much. (However, sometimes they name them weird things, so searching for the Korean name of what you’re looking for sometimes helps.) Addresses, phone numbers, directions and a summary of the attractions are all included in this app.
Bonus hack: Copy and paste the Korean name of your destination into NaverMap for directions. No Korean skills needed!
5. 코레일 or Korail – Korean Only
If you plan on leaving Seoul to see Busan or any of the other major cities, then this app will help you navigate the train system and schedule. Unfortunately, though, it’s exclusively in Korean. That’s okay, though, because if you’re staying in a hostel or a hotel, you can ask the desk person to help you look up schedules or even book your ticket ahead of time.
Bonus: Cookie Run for Kakao Talk
Just to fit in with the locals. You know. The middle-school-aged locals playing cell phone games while walking down the street and everything. (Hey, if your face is buried in your phone, it’ll take someone at least five extra seconds to notice that you’re a foreigner!)
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!