The 5 best cities to live and teach in Korea
When I started this blog, this was one of the first topics I ever thought to write about. It’s an obvious question, and people come here looking for information on this topic. It’s a topic I’ve thought about a lot; in all my travels in South Korea, I’ve always kept a mental list of cities that I wouldn’t mind living in, if I had the chance.
But I’ve never written this post. And the reason is this:
If I ever went for a job in one of these places, I didn’t want to be competing with all of you. A good percentage of people interested in teaching in South Korea do visit this blog sooner or later, and I didn’t want to advertise my secret places. Sorry.
What’s changed? Well, at this point in my trajectory I think I’m unlikely to be competing with first-timers who have never been to Korea; I would probably be after different jobs. And anyone in Korea probably has their own list, or at least has the option of traveling to a place and checking it out. So I thought I’d finally tell you all my favorite cities to live in and teach in, in Korea.
But first, a whole lot of disclaimers and qualifications. (If you want to skip straight to the list, click here for my list of the 5 most livable cities in South Korea.)
- 1 Disclaimers
- 2 Qualifications
- 3 Criteria
- 4 Finally, the list
- 5 Why some other places didn’t make the list
- 6 Your thoughts
1. I haven’t been to every city in Korea
Looking at the Wikipedia list of Korean cities by population, I’ve been to about a third. Some I know well; others I’ve visited only briefly. Still, that’s not bad, and probably compares well to the average Korean.
Also, my percentage is probably better than it seems. When you travel, you choose places that are either large, famous, or scenic; so I’ve probably been to a larger percentage of the interesting cities. By the same reasoning, the higher you go up that list, the more likely it is that I’ve been there; I’ve been to 9 of the 10 largest cities.
That said, there have been some areas that I have explored better than others. While I’ve been to every province, I have spent very little time in Gangwon-do. I hear it’s lovely and a great place to live, but in terms of my knowledge of Korea, it’s a bit of a black hole.
2. I have personal biases
Most particularly, I am Australian, and so tend to like coastal and warmer places. If you feel at home in cold, mountainous areas, your list will be different from mine.
1. Why which city you choose doesn’t matter that much
Look, no matter where you end up, Korean cities tend to be a bit samey. Also, where you will actually live in a city makes at least as much difference as which city you live in. I’ll explain both of those things.
Firstly, the sameyness:
Look! I’m a psychic. I will now describe for you the city in Korea that you will eventually call home. If you already live in Korea – well, I’ll describe where you live now. Ready…?
There’s a downtown with lots of clothing stores and convenience stores and coffee shops. There’s also a Paris Baguette, a Dunkin Donuts, and a Baskin Robbins. The Paris Baguette is on a prominent corner; the other prominent corners are probably occupied by phone shops. There’s an E-Mart (and/or Lotte Mart/Home Plus), but it’s not in downtown; it’s in another part of town. There’s a foreigner bar. There’s a local mountain where you can look at cherry blossoms in cherry blossom season. Somewhere near the city is a body of water where you can rent duck boats. The locals will be proud of their mountain and their body of water. They will also be proud of a particular food that they claim is better there than anywhere else in Korea. There are places you can go hiking. There are lots of barbeque places, fried chicken places, and traditional Korean food places. There is a market area, and probably near it is an Old Korea part of town where all the old people hang out; this place will have lots of run-down looking stores selling second hand goods and ajumma fashion. There is a seedy area with love motels and business bars and noraebangs, some “nice” neighborhoods with lots of married couples with kids and lots of parks, and a City Hall type area that has a somewhat sterile feel to it and lots of office buildings.
The above, more or less, describes every Korean city. There are small Korean cities, medium Korean cities, and big Korean cities. The differences lie only in minor specifics.
Now, here’s the important thing. Korean cities are divided up into dong (동), or neighborhoods. Each of the above descriptions might describe an entire dong, or a dong might have multiple such areas within it.
The character of each dong within a city is much more distinct than the differences between cities themselves.
That is a little confusing. Let me try to explain. A love motelly, noraebang, amber-light district area in one city is likely to resemble the amber-light district in other Korean cities quite closely. It will, however, be very different from the nice neighborhoods with lots of parks and couples-with-kids in the same city.
What I’m saying is that even if you’re in a position to choose your city, it’s still very hard to know what the place you will end up living in is actually like, unless you can also choose where in the city to live. And that is a choice you almost certainly won’t have, if you’re new to Korea.
(If you do ever get to choose where in the city you will live, I recommend all of the following!: The amber light area with the noraebangs, the old Korea area, the downtown area, the sketchy neighborhood around the bus terminal, any university “back gate” area. This is where Korea tends to be at its most lively and interesting, and despite any misgivings you might have, these places are still pretty safe. Places I’d prefer to avoid: the city hall area, any area with lots of big box type stores, new town type areas and areas in a cul-de-sac off a main highway. All these tend to have a bit of a depressing and empty feel to them. Nice neighborhoods with lots of young families and kids can be nice places to live, but can also be a little on the dull side.)
1. Waegukin’s guide to how the locals perceive foreigners
One thing that can make a big difference to the ambiance of where you live, and which does seem to vary from city to city, is how the locals perceive foreigners. The feeling of being silently despised as you go about your everyday existence will get to anyone after a while. And a minority of places I’ve been to in Korea do have that feel.
I’ve thought a lot about what accounts for this difference in vibe regarding how foreigners are perceived in different cities, and from this have formulated the following highly unscientific chart to explain them.
Explanation: the horizontal axis reflects the wealth of the city. Is it home to a large Chaebol industry, or is it a rural, farming area? The vertical axis represents the area’s familiarity with foreign English teachers. Have they seen them around for years, acting like dickheads and drinking outside the convenience stores, or are they still a novelty?
This leaves us with four quadrants, and explains, I think, the differing levels of hostility you might encounter. Now, one of these quadrants probably doesn’t exist any more – the wealthy area that is unfamiliar with foreigners. The wealthy people in those places long ago brought in foreigners to fill their hagwons and tutor their children. But when I first came to Korea, these places still existed, and they were nice places to live – everyone beamed at you and was delighted to see you.
Anyone know of anywhere left in Korea like this? Some wealthy island somewhere, perhaps?
This leaves us with three quadrants. Unfortunately, familiarity with the ways of the waegukin breeds a certain amount of justified contempt in many. Still, I think the attitude towards foreigners in wealthy areas in Korea tends to be pretty good, which is why I describe it as “tolerant” – they may have a mix of good and bad impressions, but they have no reason to feel resentment. So the attitude is one of tolerance; whatever they think about foreigners, they don’t feel any deep animosity; they have no reason to. To make an analogy, do the inhabitants of a wealthy gated community resent the immigrant gardeners? Of course not.
Resentment belongs to the upper-left quadrant. These are areas that are both poor and familiar with foreign English teachers. The resentment is not hard to understand. Many people in these places lead difficult, hard-working, unsuccessful lives, and so they resent young, barely qualified foreigners who come to Korea, are paid well for little work, and act boorishly.
The last Korean city I lived in, a rural city in Gyeonggi-do, was an example of this sort of place. I felt the dislike every time I went to the local supermarket, and I felt it in the looks of strangers. Of course, there were lovely people there, too; but I felt it often enough in shops and on the street for it to bother me.
The city I live in now, in rural Jeollanam-do, is equally poor, but the feel is completely different. There aren’t many foreign teachers here, and the attitude, as illustrated in the diagram, is oblivious. People here tend to have no preconceptions about foreigners, good or bad; they treat you only as the person who appears before them. The way this most obviously manifests is this: around here, I’m hardly ever told I speak great Korean (which I don’t). They don’t have an expectation about how much Korean I probably know; they just accept it.
Anyway – my advice is to choose somewhere wealthy, or somewhere with few foreign English teachers. Avoid poor places that have plenty of English teachers.
Wherever you live, you’ll want to get away from time to time. Korea’s public transport is good, but it’s not equally good everywhere.
All cities have a bus terminal. But larger cities tend to have larger bus terminals, with buses that go to lots of places. Small cities may just have a bus terminal that goes to local towns, and hooks into a larger bus terminal in a neighboring city. Changing buses is a pain, so having a big bus terminal is an advantage. A subway connection is also nice. A KTX station is great! You can go to big cities quickly. A KTX station on the Gyeongbu line is best – you can quickly go to Seoul, Daegu, Daejeon and Busan, and a bunch of other interesting places.
3. Downtown area
Does the place have a cool, compact downtown with a lot of different shops, bars and restaurants? Wherever you live, you’re going to spend a lot of time in downtown, so it helps if it’s a fun, interesting place, and isn’t spread out into a bunch of different areas.
Is it pretty? Self-explanatory.
5. The Goldilocks factor
Some may disagree with me, but I think there is an optimum population zone: between 200,000 and 1 million people is about right. Smaller cities can be nice, but they’re likely to lack things you’ll miss after a while. The supply of foreigners living in these places, too, can be a bit limited – there might be nobody you would want to hang out with. And the public transport options are usually not great.
As for the biggest cities – many people like them. Their main disadvantage for me is that there tend to be too many other foreigners, and that can impact your experience. Instead of just a foreigner bar and a restaurant or two, you start to have entire areas where foreigners congregate. And those areas can be messy on a Saturday night. You start to be able to live a cocooned, expat-bubble experience in these larger cities, with expat ultimate frisbee teams, a variety of expat restaurants, expat “events”. That’s easy, and so you’ll be tempted to do that, and I think that is a problem. People who do that tend to not get as much out of their time in Korea. Still, I can understand why for some people, that might sound like a good thing and a good place to live.
In addition, with the largest cities you also start to run into an extreme version of the problem discussed earlier – where, exactly, will you be living? In the heart of downtown, or an hour outside of it, off the subway line, with a long bus ride to get to downtown? Find yourself in such a place, and you’re likely to start to resent everyone who gets to live closer to the city’s happening areas.
None of this is to say that those larger, metropolitan area cities like Busan and Daegu are bad places to live; they’re not. But this is a list about the absolute best places, and for me, they don’t make the cut.
Finally, the list
Enough of all that. In reverse order of personal preference, here are what I consider the best places to live and teach in Korea.
5. Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do
I have a personal bias, here. This was the first city in Korea I lived in. But I do think it has a lot going for it.
Gumi’s downtown surrounds the train station, at the base of a beautiful mountain, Geumosan. The train station is on the Gyeongbu line, and Daegu is only half an hour away. There are easy high speed train connections to Seoul and Busan. It also has a bus terminal that goes to almost anywhere you might want to go. The downtown is not large, but has a nice feel to it, and neighbors the large market. It was the hometown of benevolent-ish dictator Park Chung Hee, and so has historically been the beneficiary of a disproportionate amount of government favor, which accounts for its great infrastructure and the supportive presence of chaebols like LG and Samsung.
There’s nothing spectacular about Gumi, but it’s at the center of everything, you can go anywhere in or outside of the city with ease, and it ticks all boxes. A nice place to live.
Similar options: Pohang, another city in Gyeogsangbuk-do, has a lot of similarities to Gumi. The transport isn’t quite as good, but it has the advantage of beaches.
4. Songjeong-dong, Gwangju
I’m cheating a little bit here by including a dong in a larger city. However, I justify it by the fact that until recently it was a separate city, and it still has that feel.
It is unusual for this list in that it is the only city that doesn’t fall into the top right of my diagram. It’s not wealthy, and furthermore it is a city that is familiar with foreigners, something I said to avoid. So, what gives? Well, the foreigners they’re familiar with aren’t English teachers. They’re Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai people who work in the local factories. Those people must put on a better show than us English teacher types, because this city is amazingly friendly to foreigners; the downtown shops have signs in them saying “We Welcome Foreigners!”
Songjeong is one of the few places in Korea that, to me, has the feel of an immigrant neighborhood that is about to be gentrified. It has amazing, authentic south-east Asian restaurants courtesy of all those different immigrant groups. In a square kilometer or so it has a great downtown, a terrific five day market, and a love motel-y nightlife area.
It also has spectacularly good transportation for a not very large or famous place. It has a KTX station, a subway station on the Gwangju network, and an airport.
3. Cheonan, Chungcheonnam-do
Cheonan is another city which ticks every box. It is on the Seoul subway system and its KTX station is the crossing point for the Gyeongbu and Janghan lines. It’s a wealthy city with a bunch of different universities, and a tech center for companies like Samsung and LG. It has a wealthy-feeling, lively downtown area. For those for whom “how far is it to Seoul?” is a prime consideration, I’d recommend Cheonan as a place to live.
Similar places: Suwon, home of Samsung, reminds me of Cheonan – they’re both wealthy tech cities, close to Seoul, with good public transportation.
2. Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do
Gyeongju is an internationally famous tourist destination, the “museum without walls”. But I don’t put it here for that reason – at least, not primarily. From a tourist point of view, it can be seen in a day or two, and what are you going to do with the rest of the year?
On the other hand, like most places that benefit from the tourist industry, it is a city that is friendly to foreigners. It has a small, attractive train station close to downtown. Even if you’ve seen all the tourist spots, it remains a very pretty city, filled with parks, trees, and history. It has a compact, pleasant downtown area.
In terms of transportation, it is not as connected as some of the other places, however it does have both a train service and a good bus terminal. More than that, it is extremely close to Daegu, Ulsan, and Busan, giving you no shortage of great places to go on the weekend.
1. Geoje Island, Gyeongsangnam-do
Geoje-do is an island of extraordinary beauty off the southern coast, full of mountains, beaches, coves, and tiny offshore islands that look like something from a storybook.
It’s a shipbuilding island, and each of the two main towns, Gohyeon and Okpo, are company towns – Gohyeon home to Samsung’s shipbuilding facilities, and Okpo to Daewoo’s. One of the more interesting sights I’ve seen in Korea is Okpo at seven in the morning, everyone on the streets wearing identical Daewoo coveralls; like something out of a science-fiction movie from the seventies. Both towns have a wealthy feel to them.
Gohyeon’s downtown is great, along a single, bright, busy and wealthy strip running down to the water. The bus terminal is close by. Although it is an island, it is connected to the mainland by bridges, and so you are not cut off from going to other places. While, being an island, Geoje is not as central with regards to transport as some of the other places mentioned here, it does have buses that go to a lot of places, including a super-cool, fast run to Busan along coastal bridges.
It is, however, an expensive city, due to its location and the high average incomes.
Similar options: If I didn’t feel the need for balance, there would probably be more Southern coastal cities on this list. Tongyeong, close to Geoje Island, also has a lovely feel to it. Yeosu in Jeollanam-do is also a great city, although when I was there last it did seem to be experiencing something of a post-Expo slump.
Why some other places didn’t make the list
I thought about including a list of the worst places in Korea, but it didn’t feel quite right. Most of the places I would nominate I don’t actually know very well; I just passed through them. They are also of a type: that sort of smallish, depressed rural city.
I will, however, mention a few famous places, and why they didn’t make the cut:
1. Seoul – I’ve written before about my feelings about Seoul; suffice to say I don’t think it is one of the world’s great cities. A colossal concrete machine, like Ginsberg’s Moloch, devoted to turning people into money, lacking in green space, unpleasantly crowded.
2. Busan – I’m not alone in my hatred of Seoul; it’s an opinion shared by a substantial minority of expats here. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t like Busan, and I’m not sure I would trust someone who didn’t. Busan is great in all the ways Seoul is not: colorful, lively, and bright.
But… it’s really spread out. It actually covers a larger area than Seoul. And its subway system is slow, making a trip from one side of the city to the other something of a trek. And who knows where you’ll end up living, within that city? Personally, I prefer Busan as a place to visit, rather than a place to live.
3. Jeju-do – The island of Jeju-do is rightly acclaimed for its beauty and natural wonders. And experience those wonders you will, if you go to live there, because you’re going to be mostly stuck on that island. Sure, you’ll visit Seoul a couple of times, and Busan maybe once, but ultimately it’s going to be too much of a hassle to go to anywhere else in Korea. It’s also windy for most of the year.
But don’t stress about it, because it really doesn’t make that much difference, which city you end up in. You can have a great time in any of them, and equally you can make yourself miserable in any of them. If you don’t get to choose – if you just have to roll the dice and go where you find a job – then I would suggest you embrace that randomness. I’ve lived in four different cities in Korea, and only chose one of them. And it didn’t make too much difference, either way. They were all great experiences, in different ways.
A list like this is bound to cause a fair amount of disagreement, and I’d love to know what you think. What are your secret places? Am I missing important criteria? Is there a better city that I happen to have missed in my travels? Let me know in the comments.
I do have a request, though. If you’ve only lived in one place, and want to say that place is super-great, I would ask you not to comment. I’m happy that you like where you ended up, but you have huge amounts of confirmation bias, and nothing to compare it to. When I’ve seen this topic discussed before, I’ve seen the following happen: you get a ton of people saying, “I like where I live!” and it ends up being nothing more than a poll of where foreigners live in Korea. And that doesn’t help anyone.
If, on the other hand, you want to nominate a different city, or if you’ve lived in multiple places, by all means go ahead and tell me where you like, and why.