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The Introvert’s Survival Guide to Seoul

Seoul is a city that never stops. Or sleeps.

Or shuts up.

A cacophony of bright neon lights blitz attacks your eyes, the sound of a thousand speakers blaring the latest K-Pop hits assaults you on the street, and public space here, is private space.

It’s enough to make any introvert crawl under the covers with a tub of ice cream and never leave the house.

Seoul is so EXTRA, I’d bet even the hardiest of extroverts needs to escape the constant noise, activity and bustle of the city sometimes too.

Raise your hand if you’ve experienced any or all of the following while living in Seoul.

1. Sitting down on a totally empty subway car, which is already a miracle in and of itself, and then having someone come in, and sit in the seat RIGHT NEXT TO YOU. C’mon people, haven’t you ever heard of personal space?

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2. Being unable to hear the person you’re with, because the people across the room are talking SO LOUDLY that they’ve filled every nook and cranny of the space with their super loud and annoying voices. GAHHH!!

3. Listening to BOTH sides of a cellphone conversation on a bus for over 30 minutes. FYI: covering your mouth with your hand doesn’t diminish your voices if the phone is on full-volume and you’re yelling. 🙁

Here’s how to (barely) survive when you actually live in the country and have to fight the mighty throngs, noise pollution and neon lights on a daily basis.

Buy a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

The first time I heard about noise-cancelling headphones, I might’ve drooled a little bit.

They’re certainly not cheap, but invest in a pair and they’ll save you from chattering ajummas, giggling girl gangs, drunk ajosshis, blaring speakers and the general din of 10 million people living their daily lives.

There are 10 million people down there making a lot of noise

That I don’t own a pair yet might be the biggest tragedy in the whole history of humanity.

Become a morning person.

Korea might be one of the few countries on earth where coffee shops are busier at night than in the morning. In fact, a lot of cafes aren’t even open until 10 or 10:30. And this seems to be true for all activity in the city at large.

Head out the door anytime before 11AM (aside from rush hour), and you’ll find blissfully empty streets, malls, parks and subways.

Choose your cafes wisely.

There’s a lot done in cafes in Seoul. Blind dates, business, studying, meetings – the coffee shop is the place for it all – which leads to a lot of people yelling over each other to be heard.

It’s not impossible to find a reasonably quiet cafe in Korea, but the coffee chains are pretty much the noisiest places in the country. Music is played at a really high volume for some reason unbeknownst to me, and there are hundreds of people coming and going at all times of the day and night.

On the top of mountains, there is peace…but also no coffee. Hmm…this may be a problem.

You’ll have much more luck for solitude and quiet if you find a little indie cafe on a back street (as long as it hasn’t become Instagram famous). 😉

And don’t go to Starbucks. Ever.

Hide in the darkness of a movie theatre.

A dark movie theatre, where no one can see you, and people can’t talk on their phones or to each other is already nothing short of nirvana for your average introvert, but Megabox in Starfield COEX Mall has upped the ante by installing 5 columns of single seats in 6 of their theatres.

Silence AND zero possibility of accidental bodily contact with a stranger? Surely, this must be heaven.

Get all the delivery numbers.

Korea’s delivery culture is a nightmare on the sidewalks (helloooo dangerous scooter), but a dream for introverts. It’s possible to pretty much NEVER leave the house for food, groceries, or general life errands by hiring a virtual concierge service. Apps like yogiyo and 배달의민죽 even make it possible to order meals without speaking to an actual human being.

And yes, even McDonald’s delivers! 🙂

Of course, you can’t avoid contact with the delivery driver, but still…

And finally…take a trip to Japan.

When I get really and truly desperate, a short trip to Japan is the perfect solution to soothe my introverted feathers.

There are some very real cultural differences between the 2 countries, and while most of my Japanese friends love visiting Korea because of the free-for all feeling and constant noise, all I dream about is visiting Japan, so that I can bask in its order and blissful silence.

Just look at how organized the pedestrians are in Kyoto’s busy Nishiki Market

Fortunately, it’s a short hop, skip and a jump away from Korea, and it’s easy to find discount flights pretty much anytime of the year.

In fact, I should start looking for one now. 😉

Do you call yourself an introvert? Do you have any tips for surviving the noise and chaos of big city life? Share them in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you! <3

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47 Comments Post a comment
  1. I never thought I was (any part) an introvert until I started traveling, strangely. And I still think I’m 50/50. I love socializing, love going out, like making new friends, will talk to pretty much anyone, etc., but when I’m done, I’m done. And I have to have my alone time and alone space for at least part of each day. So when I started traveling, people were always wanting to share rooms or talk until 3 am, and I just reached a point each day when I had to turn off. I am still a night owl (and kind of like that Seoul starts so late!), but the incessant noise day and night might make me nuts. Very fun post!

    December 13, 2017
    • There are so many different categories of introvert, it’s dizzying. Cheryl from Two Brown Feet (a true introvert if I’ve ever met one), has categorized me as a social introvert. Haha. I wonder if she would call you the same. 😉 No one every believes that I’m introverted, but I know I am because at some point, I’m just done…like you. I’m totally fine, and then all of a sudden EVERYTHING is annoying me, and its cuz my reserves have been drained. It’s much worse now with my wonderful extroverted Naia, who requires most of my energy. Haha. Fortunately, her and extrovert daddy will be able to tire each other out one day soon… (just as I planned). 😉

      December 14, 2017
  2. wow i had no idea Soeul was so in your face! Ive spent plenty of time in Tokyo and Yokohama. The train experience is the opposite everyone is so quiet!

    December 13, 2017
    • I’m surprised you haven’t made it over to Korea yet Andy! But yeah, Seoul is pretty much the exact opposite of Japan in that regard. People walking all over the place, chaos, and noise. It really does make me crazy – and japan the perfect break! 🙂

      December 14, 2017
  3. Aggers #

    Fun post, good read. Honestly everything is so in ur face that even us extroverts fantasize of escaping, anywhere off the grid where there are no neon lights and no connection. Preferably where you can see an unplanted tree and hear the sound of a bird or two.

    December 13, 2017
    • Hmm…is an unplanted tree different than a planted tree? Extroverts only dream about escaping to parties to recharge. At least the ONE I know. Ha!

      December 14, 2017
  4. Going hiking might be a good way to escape the noise. There are so many quiet places in Korea (might be hard to get to by public transport). But definitely worth it.

    December 17, 2017
    • For sure! But only on trails that are lesser known. Sometimes the popular mountains around Seoul are so crowded that it feels like a nightclub. Hahaha. :p

      December 19, 2017
  5. Haha I live in Daegu and so I love escaping to the vibrancy and alivenss that is Seoul given taht I consider Daegu to be way too quaint, conservative and lackluster. But I can def see how and why Seoul can be overwhelming. I’m a fan of living in bigger cities (I’m from Chicago and miss the diversity and size greatly) but the key is to constantly get away from it to be able to constantly appreciate it. Otherwise it’s like big city burn out!

    December 18, 2017
    • My aunt lives in Daegu!! 🙂 Yeah, I’d probably feel the same way if I lived there…and the truth is I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Korea, but Seoul (well, maybe Jeju), cuz I also love big city living. I love the convenience and opportunity and millions of things to do…but as an introvert, sometimes the hardest part is GETTING to things (especially in Seoul), not the being there. If I could just figure out how to teleport, oh, and make a big, silent bubble around myself in coffee shops, I’d be happy. Heh heh. 😉

      December 19, 2017
  6. People would definitely think I’m an extrovert, but living in the city I NEED a day each weekend to hole up and avoid all of humanity. Especially being a teacher I find I need to avoid people and often take cabs. It’s such a waste of money, but it gets me away from people! Shuttle also gets at least one order from me a week – have you tried it or UberEats?

    December 18, 2017
    • Haha, yes, I’d definitely say you’re an extrovert! 😉 As is Agri! but even HE needs to check-out from time to time. I WISH I could take advantage of Shuttle – but they don’t deliver much to my neighbourhood unfortunately. I’ve never heard of UberEats – will check it out!! 🙂

      December 19, 2017
  7. So many people tend to choose Seoul over other Korean cities for the opportunities, jobs, things to do, the food, etc. But sadly all those things make it very chaotic to live in and everyone has a tendency to complain after a few months of inhabiting Seoul. I say move out! Get a larger place in a different city, which will be cheaper and more spacious than anything teachers can afford in Seoul. Life is too short to avoid things, we need to embrace what we love and move in that direction!

    December 18, 2017
    • We’ve been living in Seoul now, for 9 years!! and I actually still love MOST of it. The energy, public transport and services, food options, things to do – it’s never-ending. Unfortunately, the things that drain me here, as an introvert, drain me everywhere…so I kinda have to just check out to recharge from time to time, or not leave the house. Haha. Plus we have kind of a unique situation here, in that we live rent-free in a 3 bedroom, 1400 square foot, top floor apartment. We wouldn’t have that in another city in Korea, so for us, the cost-benefit definitely favours Seoul in a big way. 🙂

      December 19, 2017
  8. I love this offbeat guide to one of my favorite cities on earth! I’m an introverted extrovert myself, meaning I enjoy my alone time as much as I enjoy my going out nights (#leoproblems) and urban traveling is my favorite way to travel so I love the vivaciousness of Seoul! That being said, you painted a portrait of how this city could be an assault to the senses for introverts so well, I cringed while reading some of these! Noise cancelling headphones are real especially for this extremely loud talkers in cafes! I definitely think that was my biggest hangup when being out and about. I had no idea they had single seat rows in the movie theaters!

    December 18, 2017
    • It seems that there are a lot of us introvert extroverts out there…and while I don’t enjoy going out to a noisy bar with a million people I don’t know, I’m totally fine at a party where I know most of the people. I do get to a point where enough is enough though…and I need to wall myself into a solo bubble away from everyone (including my daughter!)
      Despite its challenges though, Seoul will always remain one of my favourite cities on earth…but seriously the loud talkers in cafes!!! This is my biggest pet peeve. Sometimes I feel like everyone in the city has bad hearing. Like do they really need to yell when they’re sitting RIGHT across from each other??? I think it’s worse for me too, because I can understand every single word of their conversation, which makes it difficult to truly ignore. :(((((

      December 19, 2017
  9. Such great tips for the introvert traveling to Seoul! I totally agree with quiet streets in the mornings. They were pretty dead when I would walk to school in the mornings. The only thing I got delivered was McDonalds. And then I found out Subway was around the corner from my house so I started going there too.

    December 19, 2017
    • For me it’s such a blessing to be able to live my life opposite of the peak times in Seoul. It’s like I have all this infrastructure at my disposal that’s meant for millions of people, but that only some are using at that time. Haha…I get as much delivered to me as possible – coffee beans, diapers, dry cleaning, meals – it’s amazing and usually free! 🙂

      December 20, 2017
  10. wrpalomo #

    I’m a housewife and I enjoy my extrovert ME time… which means ME without the boys…. so I am all over with friends during school hours and while I just get to enjoy those ME times including all the noise because at the end of the day, it’s balanced out by my family moments:-)

    December 19, 2017
    • Haha, you MUST be extroverted, because I think becoming a mother is what made me MORE introverted. 😉 I used to have sooooo much time to just sit by myself doing whatever (which I really needed) and now every minute is busy with my little darling. I find I get drained a lot faster when I’m out in the world as a result…mostly because I don’t have much energy reserves left…

      December 19, 2017
  11. Chelsea Brady #

    EXTRA is the perfect word for Seoul. You definitely need to keep up with her sassy spirit. I totally agree with the subway situation – as introverts, we need our space! Finding myself in a crammed subway with ajummas staring at me (i’m a black female) became a daily part of my day! I really liked this post, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    December 19, 2017
    • It’s so weird to stand out physically, in a culture that is not shy about staring. I felt like a zoo animal when I visited Albania with my hubby – since I was pretty much the first Asian person a lot of people had ever seen. Super uncomfortable…but at least there was space, and no accidental contact. Though I guess you probably deal with touchy-feely ajummas all the time. 😉

      December 20, 2017
  12. Great Post!

    December 28, 2017
  13. Sorry for ditching you on this one! I’ve realised that I’m a recluse (you know this!) and can be socially awkward. haha! Surprisingly, when I travel I can become a very chatty person. In Seoul, I’ve found places that can be quite empty during the day. The forest line is my firm favourite. Timing is also very important though. I stay away from tourist zones (I break this rule for Hanji) and avoid the rush hour. Honestly, nothing beat the solitude of our apartment. lol!

    January 18, 2018
    • Noooo I would never have guessed you were a recluse, especially since you talk my ear off every time I see you. 😉 The trick is definitely to avoid tourist zones at all costs, and to time things perfectly. Sigh… I miss the days when I didn’t have to leave my apartment. Now, Naia leaves me no choice!! :p

      January 19, 2018
  14. Wow! Seoul sounds intense. I’m generally not a fan of cities, I prefer nature based destinations, and a place that’s always at a maximum volume would drive me absolutely crazy. I like your creativity of finding ways to escape the noise. Good to know people actually do keep quiet at the movies.

    June 3, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      Seoul truly is max volume as you said. The pace is just intense.The great thing about the city is that if you can live your life on the opposite schedule to the masses, it’s incredible. You get huge parks and amazing infrastructure almost to yourself! 🙂

      June 7, 2018
  15. Lance #

    I have found a kindred soul. While I love to travel, and take my kids to many great places, I am an introvert. I dislike crowds (thanks to my introverted dad). I travel to locations early. I like the idea of getting all the delivery numbers. Don’t get me wrong. I do like people. But, I prefer people from a distance.

    June 3, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      Haha crowds of people are definitely not my thing. Give me a one on one anytime. If you’re a morning person, you’d do ok here…cuz Koreans are definitely not early risers. You’re more likely to find people in a cafe after 8PM than before…

      June 7, 2018
  16. I love the pictures you have shared. Makes me want to travel to Seoul. Such a vibrant city it seems to be!

    June 4, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      It really is. There’s a neverending list of things to do and see – even if you’ve been living here for 10 years like I have!

      June 7, 2018
  17. Wow… that picture of Seoul at night is incredible!

    We are planning to visit Japan and South Korea in the next couple of years, so this guide is extremely useful. Great write-up!

    June 4, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      Awesome trip! Japan and South Korea are almost polar opposites… a lot of people say Japan is for introverts and Korea for extroverts, and I’d tend to agree. You’ll find things to love about both though, for certain. 🙂

      June 7, 2018
  18. Wow this was very useful. I have never been to Seoul but would definitely need these tips to survive there as an introvert. Japan as well is a place I dream to travel to. I am sure it will amaze me.

    June 4, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      Japan is the perfect place for introverts, and I often wish I could live there myself. The great thing about Seoul is that if you can go places on the opposite schedule to the masses, the city is basically yours!

      June 7, 2018
  19. Wow, what an experience you had in Seoul, I never thought that it’s gonna be hard especially in the subway with so many people. I’ve heard that Starbucks became like a label to your financial status it cost so much in Korea than other countries. Going out of the city is the best idea indeed!

    June 5, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      The subway is intense at rush hour…I try to avoid it if I can. But the rest of the time, it’s okay. There’s nothing like in Japan, where people get stuffed in like sardines by men wearing white gloves. Actually I don’t find Starbucks much more expensive – there are definitely way more expensive places. I think it’s the fact that it’s a foreign brand that makes it that way more…

      June 7, 2018
  20. Shelley, thanks for sharing these tips! I’m also an introvert at heart, but I work hard to overcome my natural state when traveling. Still, busy places like Seoul can take a toll on us introverts (especially my husband), so I appreciate the heads up on noisy cafes and delivery options. And you can’t go wrong with taking a trip to Japan 🙂

    August 15, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      Happy to help out a fellow introvert!! 😉 Are you planning a trip to Seoul in the near future Chelsea? It’s worth it…despite the extroverted-ness of the place.

      August 15, 2018
  21. J H Lee #

    I’m a Korean born and bred in Seoul, yet everything mentioned above still bothers me gravely. Just one thing to mention though. After long and unbearable suffering by those intrusion into personal space, I’ve come to realise one reason. People choose to sit right next to you in an empty subway train, a restaurant, a shower room of a public swimming pool etc., because they do not want you feel alienated. For many reasons impossible to explain briefly, people here are afraid of being left alone. It often means being an unwilling outcast, bullied and ostracised. They are letting you know you are welcomed and included, wihch is considered to be much more important than any personal space. They are actually being kind to you.

    Until recently I used to move away to protect my personal space and wound up hearing people say “You don’t like people.” Now I just stay and give the automatic smile for strangers.

    September 14, 2018
    • Shelley @Travel-Stained #

      I see what you’re saying, and I do understand the whole afraid of being left alone thing. Even though I was raised in Canada, I do understand Korean culture somewhat (and I swear my dad is still trapped in 1970s Korea. 😉 but anywayyyyyy) – I think that is mostly only true if you look Korean. I have seen several people shy away from sitting next to a foreigner, and have even heard people say they are scared to sit next to my husband. That’s the opposite of inclusive or kind if you ask me – it’s xenophobia. And ajummas who are pushing my 2 year old daughter out of the way to get to a seat faster has nothing to do with inclusion – it’s just me-me-me. Don’t get me wrong – I love Korea -but there’s as much of what you say, as there is complete and total competition and selfishness… and sadly more and more of the competition than kindness these days. 🙁

      September 17, 2018

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