Seoul, South Korea is the most impressive and livable modern large city I’ve seen, especially when accounting for the value of one’s money – with prices a fraction of that of Tokyo and Singapore which are comparably impressive. Seoul is modern, clean, pedestrian-friendly, and innovative. I think that every city planner should be required to visit Seoul to see what a well-designed modern city looks like. Here’s why I love Seoul (note: I’m referring strictly on the city itself and not subjective elements like people, culture, and language that are probably more important to one’s quality of life, so don’t quite pack your bags quite yet. More on culture at the end):
- Modern – Seoul looks like a city from the future, similar to Singapore or Tokyo. Everything from the architecture to the subway looks brand new. Many things look straight futuristic, like the lighting on the intersections indicating the crosswalk signal – green for walk, red for stop. Apartments are also modern, all containing floor heating (Koreans invented this 7,000 years ago), and hot water that doesn’t run out.
- Dense without feeling overcrowded – Despite having a population of nearly 10 million people, the city doesn’t feel overcrowded unlike many parts of Manhattan.
- Pedestrian-friendly – The city is very walkable with many pedestrian streets.
- High density of venues. There are probably more restaurants, coffee shops, and other venues per square meter than anywhere else in the world other than maybe Tokyo. Whereas most western cities tend to just have one commercial venue per building except in shopping malls, in countries like Korea they’re practically stacked on top of each other. This translates to much more things to do within a smaller geographic area, which is part of why Korea is so pedestrian friendly.
- No homeless people. I can’t think of a single major U.S city that isn’t plagued by homelessness and poverty, though obviously this is more of a uniquely American phenomenon amongst first world countries since most European cities also don’t have such excessive levels of homelessness.
- Great public transportation – Subway stations show you when the next train is arriving in real-time, and have walls to protect people from falling or jumping onto the tracks. Even if staying the suburbs, you don’t need a car because the bus and subway systems are very good. Easy transportation outside of Seoul, and high speed rail via KTX high speed train.
- High standards – I don’t know if I’ve been anywhere with such consistently high standards of cleanliness, tasteful modern design, efficiency, and quality. This applies to design, food, hospital care, and anything really, and all at affordable prices.
- Highest density of nice cafes to work out of – I’ve never been to a country with such a high concentration of nice coffee shops to work out of. They are everywhere, with beautiful modern design, fast Wifi, accessible power outlets, and a place where Koreans go to work and study, so you won’t be the only weirdo with a laptop. There are coffee shops open 24/7. As a remote worker who prefers to work out of coffee shops, Seoul is the best city in this regards that I’ve been to. I will add though that many of the coffee shops are chains (The Coffee Bean, Twosome place, Angel in Us, Hollys Coffee, Starbucks, etc.), though that doesn’t bother me. Even most restaurants seem well-equipped for working
- One of the best food cities, especially factoring in value for money. Korean food is healthy, delicious, and always comes with kimchi, typically also with radish and green pepper, along with other side dishes. You’ll find not just amazing Korean food, but that of any cuisine, and especially healthy food which is my favorite. The value for your money is some of the best in the world. For example there’s a restaurant across from my apartment in Gangnam (city center) with a lunch buffet priced at 6,500 won ($5.36), and the food is amazing. One can easily get a quality, filling meal for 7,000 won ($5.78) at any time of the day.
- Restaurants are extremely efficient. Water is always available as self-service. Tables always have drawers containing utensils and napkins. One can often order their food through a machine, and side dishes are sometimes self-service. Tables at restaurants always have buttons that you can press to call the waiter (why isn’t this standard?). You get your food quickly, and pay on your way out – meaning no having to chase down waitresses for the bill. At fast casual type restaurants customers generally drop off their finished food trays at the designated areas, meaning tables get cleared up much quicker and aren’t bottlenecked by the cleaning of overworked restaurant workers. Korean restaurants are extremely efficient, and I wonder why these aren’t standard policies everywhere.
- Most public outdoor gyms I’ve seen of anywhere else in the world. Practically every park has a gym – which at a minimum will contain pullup bars and dip bars. Many gyms even have bench presses, one which had 25kg on each side. I’ve even seen free weights and squat racks at some of the public gyms. This is one of my favorite things about Korea, and there’s no reason this shouldn’t be standard everywhere in the world.
- Fastest Wifi in the world
- Large variety of things to do. In addition to the absurd abundance of restaurants coffee shops, bookstores, karaoke, saunas, etc. there are so many crazy “cafes” like fishing cafes, sheep cafes, movie cafes, you name it. Korea and Japan are incredibly innovative when it comes to things to do.
- Many parks interspersed throughout the city, Han river, mountains.
How does Seoul compare to other similar cities?
How Seoul compares to Tokyo – Seoul is like Tokyo at half the price, but without the craziness. Tokyo feels a bit more vintage, whereas Seoul feels more modern albeit perhaps a bit more corporate. Seoul and Korea in general is packed with high-rise buildings (comfortably dense with large open spaces and parks), which most people seem to live out of. Tokyo on the other hand has more mid-sized buildings, most likely due to its earthquake-vulnerable geography. Japan has the best customer service of anywhere in the world, and you’ll feel like royalty even walking into the lowliest fast food chain. I’d recommend Tokyo instead to tourists unsure if which country they’d prefer, but Seoul for those looking for more bang for their buck (not factoring in local salaries).
How Seoul compares to Singapore – Singapore is the most modern and clean city I’ve ever visited, and maybe the most efficient tied with Seoul. That being said, Singapore is smaller than Seoul, and significantly more expensive. Seoul also seems to have much more to do in terms of fun venues to visit, whereas Singapore is more restricted in that department – probably due to Singapore’s government being more restrictive in not wanting to waste peoples’ time. Singapore is definitely more diverse and everyone speaks English, and I imagine salaries are much higher as well, but everything is also more expensive.
How Seoul compares to Taipei – Taipei probably has the best value for money of any city I’ve been to in the world. It’s definitely cheaper than Seoul, but with comparable value. That being said Taipei is much smaller than Seoul, and I believe Seoul has more things to do. Also I personally prefer Korean food. That being said, I loved Taipei, and Taiwanese people are probably amongst the friendliest in Asia.
Culture and Downsides of Seoul and Korea
Seoul and Korea of course like everywhere else isn’t perfect, and isn’t for everyone. The population is pretty homogenously Korean, and English proficiency is fairly low, with menus often not in English. That being said, the written language is actually extremely easy to learn and can practically be learned in 5-10 minutes, so I highly recommend investing the effort if spending more than a few days here (or just use Google Translate I guess).
The biggest con I see to Seoul as an outsider is the fine dust air pollution that can get bad in the winter, causing the sky to look grey and the air to be unhealthy to breathe. It is thought that most of this pollution actually comes from Chinese factories. This is very unfortunate, though on the bright side it seems to only be confined to the mornings and afternoons during a month or two in the winter. Outside the winter its generally a non-issue.
Korea is notorious for having a very demanding education system and work culture. This is a double-edged sword in that it means working long hours from middle school in high pressure ultra-competitive environments, but at the same time is probably a big reason why quality and standards are so high here.
Koreans highly value status – whether that be prestige from graduating from a top school, working at a top company, or wearing expensive luxury goods. This is something I personally dislike, though on the bright side it is good that Koreans respect intelligence and accomplishments. In Korean schools, smart people are praised and respected whereas in American high schools, smart kids are sometimes teased and derided as “nerds” (thankfully people mature in college).
Plastic surgery is rampant in Korea, a symptom of this ultra-competitive culture.
Conformity is high here, similar to other Asian cultures. This again has positives and negatives. Its conformity, along with its ultra-competitiveness, is probably responsible for much of its success in going from third world to first world in a generation, and now being one of the most modern, wealthy, and innovative countries. This conformity is also partially responsible for South Korea containing COVID-19 better than most other countries in the world. But individuality is also important for entrepreneurship and creativity.
I’m convinced that Seoul is the best modern major city when factoring in just the city itself, and unquestionably the best major city when it comes to value for money (Taipei arguably has better value for money actually, but is much smaller at 2.6 million people). Every city planner should be required to visit Seoul to see what a well designed modern city looks like.
Am I saying that everyone should pack their bags and move to Seoul? No. A city is much more than just its buildings and infrastructure, and the type of city best suited for someone is a highly subjective question. If you prefer houses to apartments, Seoul is probably not the place for you (though there are fine neighborhoods with houses in Seoul). I’d argue that people and community are much more important to one’s quality of life than the city itself, and I’ve had the most fun in some of the objectively shittiest cities. Some might prefer to live more in nature, others might prefer the Parisian vibe, the bike-friendliness of Copenhagen, the diversity of NYC or London, the laidback Mediterranean culture, etc.
Regardless of the subjective question of which city is right for you, Seoul is an impressive city, and there’s a lot the world can learn from Korea.