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Getting lost in Seoul Korea as a Foreigner

Kangnam signage

Signage everywhere in Kangnam, Seoul.

Wayfinding is a dynamic multi-cultural activity, which is difficult for planners who need to plan the system for large numbers of people and especially when the system needs to be able to accommodate tourists, i.e. people from different countries and languages and ways of interpreting and absorbing signs.

Whilst Seoul, Korea, sees very few international visitors to its shores, compared to other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, having lived in Korea for two years though, I can tell you that it is a fascinating country and one which is a great case study for those of you interested in wayfinding and navigation. As an English speaker (from England), Korea teaches you that wayfinding is really a much more dynamic experience and activity that you would experience in other locations.

Navigating by Smell and other Senses

Navigating using your senses

Navigating by smell

We very often navigate using much more than just our eye-sight and signage. Statistics for many Western countries, for example, show that there is an average of 15% of the populations with sight issues. Sight is just one of five senses we can of course use, yet sight is often over-used in wayfinding design.

You will have almost certainly experienced wayfinding and the effects of aroma and smell. You are walking through the main street in Gangnam, past Kyobo book shop and you do not realise it, but you end up stopping off at a coffee shop on a side street, even though you hadn’t planned to originally. The drifting, strong and alluring smell of the coffee has connected with your senses and, unbeknown to you, you have succumbed to steering behaviour. Your route has been re-directed through the use of a wayfinding technique which is often forgotten, that using the sense of smell.  We use our senses a lot in wayfinding, such as when we are looking for the seashore and the board-walk, and you hear the sound of the bouncing waves and the swash, yet you cannot yet see the ocean or sea. Navigating involves far more than just our sight and cities such as Seoul (Korea), Bangkok (Thailand) and Shanghai (China) can mean a sensorial overload for tourists, with many unfamiliar smells, sounds, sights and options.

Technology And Wayfinding in Korea

If you really want to know what the future of navigation and wayfinding holds in Europe three to four years in advance, just head to Korea. You will experience, use and see technologies that are being used, which you will often only then see in countries such as he UK one, two or three years later. Korea is a country which is home to many of the biggest and best I.T. and Telecommunication brands including Samsung, LG and Daewoo.

Getting around a city such as Seoul is really a very different experience from many European cities. Technology and innovation are at the centre of your journey and route as you travel around. Seoul is a wired city in the true sense (internet hos-spots everywhere) and to the point where you can even do your shopping in the underground (metro) train stations.

Virtual Shopping becomes part of the journey from A to B in Seoul

Landmarks in Korea

Pagoda building

Like in any city, landmarks are an invaluable resource in Seoul. For Westerns though who do not understand the Korean symbols (such as me) these landmarks take on a deeper meaning and value and they were in fact extremely useful to me when I was living in Korea. The sight of Kyobo bookshop in Kangnam, as I reached the area in a taxi, was always a welcome site, for example.

Seoul is a very busy, crowded and lively city and a vast one. Trying to use a paper map in Seoul would be a difficult task. Technology though solves this problem in Seoul, with WiFi providing a permanent connection to Google Maps and other wayfinding apps. The problem I mentioned in a previous post though of text walkers is certainly noticeable as you walk around areas such as Gangnam, Itaewon or Namsadong.

Neon, Symbols and Mental Mind Maps

The Korean writing can itself be remembered as an image and it is up to us how to develop our cognitive maps and develop our sense of location and develop our route-finding skills in these unfamiliar and new environments. No doubt that Korean visitors to the UK and other countries have the same experience in resort. The lack of neon signs and of aromas escaping from food vendors is probably strange for a Korean in the UK, a country perhaps lacking in sensual direction one might say.

A great way to get the best out of Seoul is to allow yourself to get lost. Areas which are particularly good for exploring and getting lost and which are quite safe include:

  • Dongdaemun – is a wonderful place to explore, particularly Dongdaemun market, which is a vast area in which to get lost and shop. Just jump off at Dongdaemun
  • Gangnam – This area is full of restaurants, bars, shops and a lively bustling area popular with Koreans and visitors to Korea.
  • Coex Mall (코엑스) – Co-Ex mall is like its own mini city and a great way to get lost for a few hours and to get a feel for the brands, the styles and ways of Korean culture and style.
  • Hongdae – a popular area with students in Seoul, so awash with bars, restaurants and clubs.
  • Itaewon The most popular area with Westerners visiting Seoul and another area where it’s okay to just enjoy getting lost.
  • Sinchon – Another very good and lively student area where exploring without any specific destination means the opportunity to discover some fantastic bars and places to eat.

fluorescent signs


One of the keys to successful urban wayfinding system is its transportation system and the good news is that Seoul has a fantastic subway train system (one of the best in the world that I have used). The system is relatively new (comparing, let’s say, to the London Underground) and this has enabled the system to be designed with a better understanding of modern needs and with the ability for modern technologies to to included in the design.

Gangnam bus

Main street of Gangnam

Where to Stay in Seoul, Korea

There are some fantastic hotels dotted all around Seoul. Korean people, from my personal experience, are extremely hospital and friendly and these are two hotels I can speak highly of from my own experience:

Lotte World Hotel
(240 Olympic-ro, Songpa-Gu) – This hotel is attached to the shopping mall and amusement park and is in a great location. A luxurious hotel with facilities which include a sauna, mini-gold course and free WiFi.
(BOOK here!)

Grand Intercontinental Seoul
(521 Teheranno, Gangnam) – In one of the best areas of Seoul and a wonderful hotel next to Samsung Metro Station. Within walking distance there are more restaurants, shops and everything than you will likely need.
(BOOK here!)

What you Must See

Seoul is a stunning city to visit, particularly with it being so different from other Asian countries and a capital city which is missed by so many other international tourists. Many of you may have been to Bangkok, Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur, but Seoul is so often the forgotten city in this respect. Having spent two years living in Gangnam, Seoul, myself, I can tell you with certainty that this is a city (and country) with plenty to do, see and experience. Make sure to experience the:

  • Korean food – Korean food is very different to foods from other parts of Asia but can be summarised as spicy and often full of vegetables and very healthy, but equally as tasty. If you like garlic, soups and food cooked in social settings, you will love Seoul. Eating out is a social activity here.  (Worth trying is the Korean food walking tour)
Restaurant in Gangnam

Restaurant in Gangnam

  • The DMZ Tour (Demilitarized Zone) – If you are interested in the history of Korea and the North and South Korea issues interest you, a trip to the Demilitarized Zone is worth doing and one I did whilst in Seoul. This tour is one of the most popular with international tourists and is worth doing. (BOOK HERE!)
  • The Palaces – of Seoul are one of the best options if you want to really get a feel for Korean culture and what makes Korea, Korea. There are a number of beautifully maintained and view-able palaces including Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul).

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