Before leaving the U.S. to teach English in South Korea, I packed the warmest clothing I had hidden in the spider webs of my closet: university hoodies, a few long-sleeved shirts, a faux wool coat, and a beanie.
Oh, bless my heart.
Little did I know that, during winter in South Korea, I would be layering as much “Heattech” as science allowed until I looked like the Michelin Man.
But winter is also one of the best times to visit South Korea. If you’re lucky enough to see snow blanket Seoul’s skyscrapers and Jeollanam-do’s mountains, you might sell off your ticket home to the first bidder.
Looking to explore South Korea during the winter? Check off these five tips to stay toasty.
1. Seek out steamy street food.
There’s nothing better on an icy day in Korea than tucking into warm hoppang, a bun filled with red bean paste, or occasionally sweet potato, cheese, vegetables, or meat. These hearty buns aren’t just warm; they’re cheap. Usually less than 1000 won, the buns are available from most convenience stores and some street vendors.
For more Korean street food that warms you up from the inside out, try gunbam, or roasted chestnuts; tteokbokki, a spicy, sweet ricecake dish served with a red chili-paste sauce; bungeoppang, the uber-popular fish-shaped cakes filled with sweet red bean paste; or hotteok, fried pancakes usually with a sugar, peanut, and cinnamon filling.
2. Load up on hand warmers at convenience stores.
In Korea, convenience stores aren’t just at every corner — they’re every few feet! And during the winter, all convenience stores sell hand warmers for about 1,000 won. Some even sell sticker-type body warmers and foot warmers, too, though they’re slightly more expensive.
If you can’t read Korean, look for the square packs near the checkout counter. Hand warmers always feel thick in their packages, whereas the wearable warm stickers feel thin. Local knowledge has it the “military-grade” hand warmers with cartoons of army men on the front are the warmest, and I agree.
For a cuter Korean souvenir, find an Artbox for a variety of reusable hot packs in the shape of characters. You need a microwave to warm these ones up, but don’t fret — there are plenty of free-use microwaves, too, at convenience stores.
3. Invest in warm layers.
Uniqlo — what fibers are in your Heattech clothing? Silk spun from the sun? I’ve tried other brands for layering warmth, such as Under Armour or Top Ten, but nothing compares. While there are Uniqlo stores scattered across the globe, there are 181 Uniqlo stores in South Korea worth checking out. Before paying full-price for your layerables, search the discount sections full of “Heattech” shirts and leggings in colors that didn’t sell so well.
If you aren’t a Uniqlo fan like I am, any layering is better than none. Men and women alike can check out one of the Vin Prime thrift stores for a larger selection of lightly worn winter wear. Lucky for you, thrifting is still a bit taboo to the younger generation in Korea, so there’s often a large selection of lightly worn winter wear available. I found a Uniqlo “Puffer Down” originally over 150,000 for 20,000 that’s become my staple winter jacket.
Scarves, fuzzy socks, cloth face masks, and gloves, all of which can be found at convenience stores, market stalls, and malls are also a must for optimal warmth.
4. Harness the power of the ondol.
The Korean heated-floor system, or ondol, might seem strange at first, but there’s nothing more snug than laying on the warm wooden floor after escaping the cold. The ondol is also useful for staying toasty at night because many Korean beds are directly on the floor.
Unfortunately, the ondol is usually expensive to use. Fortunately, if you’re just visiting Korea and staying in a guest house or Airbnb, you can usually crank the ondol during your stay with little consequence. (But don’t say this advice came from me!)
Do note that an ondol can take a while to warm up the room, so it’s better to leave it on “외출” or the “away” setting while you’re gone, rather than turn it off when you leave and on again when you’re home.
5. When all else has failed, don’t think about the cold.
This is tongue-in-cheek, but there’s also some truth to it. In South Korea in the winter, you’ll spot many school girls walking to and from subway stations or buses, and you might be shocked at what they’re wearing.
While many school girls stay warm up top with puffer jackets, they often wear their short school skirts bare-legged or with thin, skin-colored tights. The weirdest part? They look absolutely comfortable. They aren’t shivering, chattering their teeth, or power-walking to their destinations; they’re strolling and laughing with friends.
How can you, too, secure this superpower? Don’t think about the cold. While it might be easier said than done, heated subway cars, buses, and taxis are plentiful in South Korea, and chances are you won’t have to endure the cold for long. Plus, once the temperatures dip below 12 degrees Celsius, the cold just feels… cold. The less you think about the snot in your nose freezing, the less it will bother you.