Korea is the land of beautiful cities, high-tech experiences, and ancient history. Korea offers is a travel option for LGBT people looking to explore somewhere different from our usual Key West and Barcelona retreats. Seoul is clean, well organized and has an extremely efficient public transportation system. If you’re looking to explore Korean culture, you can visit one of the many ancient temples and museums dedicated to the history of the Korean peninsula. If modern delights are more your thing, check out Hongdae for art galleries, cafes, and thriving club culture.
Fly into Inchon International Airport
Transfer from Incheon International Airport to Seoul by the airport railroad known as AREX Non-stop. Make sure you buy the correct ticket, there are two trains, the correct ticket is for non-stop AREX. Plan to be on the train for about 20-30 minutes before arriving in the city center. You can exchange your money at the airport if you are worried about it, but you’re likely to get a better rate if you change your money in Seoul. You can easily find a currency conversion place in Myeong Dong.
Hostels in Seoul are generally divided on the gender binary. If you are a gender nonconforming traveler, you may be more comfortable staying somewhere that has a private bathroom. My wife is an obviously female- but slightly masculine white American. She has run into numerous awkward situations in Korea where she is told she is in the wrong bathroom. Obviously, this is ridiculous and people should be able to pee in peace, but it’s the reality in traveling to countries that are homogenous and have little experience with LGBT people. Some LGBT travelers may feel uncomfortable, and some may just laugh it off. Either way, make the choice that is right for you. Hostels offer an opportunity for budget traveling- but don’t put yourself in a situation that could potentially ruin your trip if you think you’ll be uncomfortable.
I recommend staying in Hongdae or Gangnam areas if you want to be in close to a lot of street food, shopping, and nightlife.
- The Birdsnest Hostel is a great option if you are looking for a quieter low-cost option. Price range from $19 to $35 per night for a single bed.
- Kimchee Guesthouse is the perfect low-cost location if you’re looking to make friends to connect with. Be forewarned; it can be a bit of a party house depending on when you are staying. A Saturday night might get a bit loud for those who want a quiet night. Prices range from $15- $50
- If you’re looking for an actual hotel and have a bit more money to spend the Ritz Carlton in Seoul’s famous Gangnam district is incredibly beautiful and luxurious.
- The train system is so easy it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Korea literally has colored lines painted on the ground and walls in train stations. Follow the paint to the subway platform and you’re on your way to your destination. Korea is an easy place for English speaking travelers. Most signs are written in Romanized letters and Hangul and many people have a least a basic understanding of English. Getting around isn’t hard with some basic understanding of how Seoul is set up and where you’re going.
Gyeongbokgung Palace and Gardens
- This Unesco World Heritage site is a great introduction to ancient Korean culture and tradition. Built in 1395, it served as home to Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Behind the palace, there are gorgeous sprawling gardens and ponds. They can be easily missed if you do not know they’re there. This is the perfect place to take some great pictures and people watch. Some of my favorite pictures in Korea were taken here during the spring and summer months. Admission is 3,000 Won or roughly $3. For $10 you can get a one-month admissions pass to all 5 of Seoul’s palaces.
- The museum is on the same grounds as Gyeongbokgung Palace, once you are finished strolling around the gardens, walk over to the museum to learn the finer details of Korea’s heritage. The museum is home to nearly 4,000 artifacts that have been used throughout Korea’s history. English guided tours are available for $1 and are highly recommended.
Korean BBQ Dinner
- Korean BBQ is meat cooked on a grill that is built into your table. Order, Bulgogi, thick sliced tenderloin or Galbi beef short ribs. They will bring you a large platter of meat and grilling utensils along with half a dozen or more side dishes. One such side dish is Kimchi or spicy sour fermented vegetables. Each restaurant is slightly different but there are hundreds of options for Korean side dishes.
- Labryis is one of three lesbian bars in Seoul. It’s slightly hidden in a random unmarked building in Hongdae. It’s an experience I’d recommend. You will be transported into a world of nightlife that is clearly the only place most of the women in the room feel free to be themselves and explore their sexuality. You’ll have to pay a $10 cover that comes with a drink ticket but it’s absolutely worth the price of admission. Take note, men will not be admitted regardless of sexual orientation. For more suggestions on LGBT bars check out Discovering Korea.
- Start your morning with a cup of coffee at one of Korea’s many Puppy Cafés. Enjoy beverages, café foods and dozens of puppies in once place. What’s not to love? Grab a cup of coffee, buy some dog treats and play with some adorable pups for an instant warm glow of happiness to start your day.
Namsangol Hanok Village
- A Hanok is a traditional Korean house. This village is a reproduction of what traditional neighborhoods looked like. Watch a traditional dance and music performance, learn how to play some traditional games and participate in some handicraft workshops. If you go in the summer months, you may get a chance to see a traditional Korean wedding ceremony.
- Hanbok’s are the traditional Korean clothing. It’s a fun and unique souvenir to visit one of Seoul’s many Hanbok studios and take pictures in traditional Korean attire. Seoul Namsan Gugakdang is a great option because they offer you some insight into the history and cultural significance of the experience. You’ll get to participate in a traditional Korean tea ceremony and have your photos taken amongst the traditional Korean Hanoks. Be forewarned this activity can get awkward for some LGBT travelers because the costumes are very gendered. If you are perceived to be one gender, that is usually the outfit they will offer you. I’ve never heard of someone being denied the outfit of their choice, but it is a possibility in a country with such little experience in gender diversity. When Lindsay and I went, she opted out of the activity because she didn’t feel comfortable wearing a dress and didn’t want to engage in the awkward conversation about why she wanted the men’s outfit.
- Seoul Tower is an iconic landmark in Seoul. The tower offers an incredible viewpoint overlooking the city, but there is plenty to do besides viewing the gorgeous city lights. At the base of the tower are several small restaurants and the famous Locks of Love fence. Couples can buy small locks to write their names on and display as a symbol of their love. The tower is a very common couple’s date.
In one generation, Korea went from dirt roads to Samsung and the world’s fastest Internet. Due to this rapid modernization and the history of American imperialism, Korea lags behind in many of the social issues that are playing center stage in other developed countries. While Seoul is a fully modernized metropolitan area with much to do and see, it can seem a bit inhospitable to visitors expecting a warm welcome and an open attitude toward outsiders. You aren’t likely to experience any outright hostility or violence but wariness to outsiders still exists. Despite the wariness, there is a vibrant LGBT scene in Seoul. For another perspective on LGBTQ life in Seoul check out Lez Wander The World‘s post about their experiences as a queer couple in South Korea.