If you’re going to be traveling to South Korea, a country filled with magic, mystery, and wonder, then you’ll definitely want to read these absolutely amazing travel tips. Built up from my personal experience of living in Korea since 2015, as well as research on culture, travel, costs, practical issues, and lots more.
From cultural to culinary considerations, money, internet, and even what time to visit, there is a lot to think about when you start thinking about traveling to South Korea.
This guide will take the hassle out of planning and make sure you’re prepared for an incredible trip to South Korea, whatever time you visit.
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Planning Your Trip To South Korea
Not every adventure is the same, and some of these won’t apply to you, but hopefully you’ll enjoy learning about them anyway.
Make the most of your time traveling to South Korea. Be spontaneous, have fun, try something new, and make some unforgettable memories.
Use this list of travel tips to help you break down the barriers a different culture can create. Furthermore, find out how you can see a side of South Korea many tourists might miss.
2020 coronavirus in Korea: For all of the latest news about the coronavirus, and its impact on traveling to South Korea, please read this article.
Every trip is unique and there are so many things to consider in each situation. The questions below should help put you in the right direction when planning your trip to South Korea. After that, you can think about other issues.
How Long Will You Stay In South Korea?
The amount of time you plan to spend traveling to South Korea affects how much you can do. If you’re planning to only spend a weekend, then it’s probably best to stick to one city. If you’re going to stay in Seoul, check out this guide about where to stay in Seoul.
For trips longer than 4 days, I’d recommend staying in one city and taking day trips to other places. There are lots of day trips from Seoul, allowing you to use it as a base city.
Anything over 10 days means that you could travel from Seoul to Busan and see lots in between. When I first travelled to South Korea, I made it to Busan, Seoul, and Jeju all in 8 days. There’s a lot to see outside of the big cities – you can get some travel inspiration from my Ultimate South Korea Bucket List.
The best place to get started with your planning is this one week in Korea itinerary. It’ll give you loads of ideas about where to stay, what to see, a few different cities and attractions to see, and a brief overview about how much money to bring to Korea.
When Will You Visit South Korea?
This really affects what you can do and what you’ll see. The best times for traveling to South Korea are spring (March to June) and autumn (mid September to late November). You can see the lovely Korean cherry blossoms in April and the beautiful autumn leaves in Korea in October to November.
The weather in these seasons will be a lot more comfortable (between 15 and 25-30 degrees Celsius) and you’ll avoid the worst of the summer and winter problems.
To find out more about visiting South Korea in winter, check out my detailed guide about what to do in winter in Korea.
How Many Cities Will You Visit?
Many people want to do as much as possible when traveling to South Korea, or any country, really. This is great, but I recommend limiting travel to a smaller number of places. That way you can enjoy them more fully.
There are many places you can visit on a day trip from Seoul. These include Suwon, Nami Island, Incheon, and even the east and west coast. Plan wisely and you can minimise traveling.
Other great cities and places to visit include Busan, Incheon, Gyeongju, Jeju Island, Gwangju, Gangneung, and lots more.
Where To Stay In Seoul
Most people who travel to Korea will stay in the capital at first. If you’re coming to Seoul, then find out about the best places to stay in Seoul.
For budget travellers, Myeongdong and Dongdaemun are good places to stay and you’ll be able to pick up lots of cheap clothes, gifts, and street food.
People looking for lots of night life would enjoy the Hongdae area, which also has lots of good cafes, bars, and restaurants. Prices are reasonable in Hongdae.
If you have a bit more money to spend and want to check out some of the designer stores or hunt for celebrities, then the Gangnam district is probably best for you.
All of these areas have good subway connections and will easily get you to other areas.
How Many People Are Going?
Solo tourists, couples, and families all have different requirements when traveling to South Korea.
Traveling alone can be great as it allows lots of flexibility, but be careful as many Korean restaurants cater to groups of 2 or more. This includes Korean BBQ, which often has a minimum order of 2 portions.
Couples can find some great deals on small hotels and there are many romantic places to visit. Many cafes and restaurants cater to them with couples set menus.
Families will need to consider traveling together – South Korea is a very busy place and pushing can be a problem on the subway. Fortunately, restaurants in Korea are more focused on larger groups. You can experience some great shared meals where everyone gets to try a bit of everything.
There are also lots of child-friendly activities and attractions that will keep kids happy.
1: Cultural Differences & Etiquette When Traveling To South Korea
There is a lot more to learn about South Korean culture than what you’ll find in Korean pop music and TV.
Understanding and appreciating the culture is an important step for anyone visiting any country. This can help you unlock the mysteries of its citizens, the history, and its oddities. The following are a few examples of Korean culture that will help you when traveling to South Korea.
If you want to know more about Korean culture, why not check out one of my guide to Korean etiquette for more great advice.
Life In Korea Is Busy
One thing you’ll notice as soon as you arrive in South Korea is that everyone seems to be in a rush to get somewhere. When I first arrived, I was told about Korea’s pali-pali (빨리빨리) – literally transalted to ‘hurry-hurry‘ – culture.
Time is precious in Korea and people expect things to happen quickly. This includes food arriving at restaurants, getting on and off of subway trains, driving, and lots more. Many Koreans work long hours (up to 10 pm), so they have to make use of the time they have.
Therefore, don’t be shocked if you see people rushing around or hurrying you along. They aren’t trying to be rude, they just don’t have a lot of spare time, especially during the day.
Take Your Shoes Off Inside
This is something any visitors traveling to South Korea or Japan will know about very quickly. It is considered rude to wear your shoes inside someone’s home. You will be asked to leave your shoes at the doorway. This also applies to visiting temples and some restaurants.
A step as you enter will indicate that the place does not allow shoes. You might also find a shoe locker or shelf to store your shoes. Not every place expects it, but you’ll find out very quickly if you do forget to take your shoes off. Trust me, it happens to everyone at least once and I still do it from time to time even now!
One other thing about shoes – if you need to go to the toilet, then toilet shoes will be provided at the entrance to the toilet. Only wear these in the toilet though – do not take them back into the restaurant! Yes, I’ve done this myself a few times. If you do the same, just laugh, apologise and keep it as a funny story for later.
Show Politeness To Elders
Korean culture is heavily influenced by Confucian teachings and age is very important for defining your position in society.
Age can often determine seating arrangements in social gatherings, as well as who pays for bills, organises things, etc. Therefore, please be respectful to those older than you when traveling to South Korea.
Four Is An Unlucky Number
You will notice this superstition the most when you enter an elevator. You’ll notice that there is no button for the 4th floor. This is because the word for 4 in Korean has the same pronunciation as the word for ‘death’. This curious oddity also appears in China and Japan. See if you can spot it.
2: Food And Drink In South Korea
There is so much good food to try in South Korea that you’d be forgiven for booking a trip here just to eat. There are some important things to be aware of when traveling to South Korea, though. More so if you’re from a country that doesn’t use chopsticks.
Chopsticks And Metal Utensils
In South Korea you will get a spoon and a pair of metal chopsticks for almost every meal. If you go to a Western restaurant, you may be given a knife and fork. Especially if you’ve ordered something that requires cutting, such as donkasu (돈까스) – pork cutlet.
If you think you’ll struggle using chopsticks, then I’d recommend packing a travel knife and fork. I’ve seen people given up on meals (noodles can be particularly tricky) because they weren’t used to using chopsticks. There’s no shame in it and you’ll be a lot less hungry if you’re prepared.
One other thing unique to South Korea is the use of metal chopsticks, plates, cups, and other eating utensils. You’ll get a metal cup in most restaurants that you can use for water (offered free). Don’t worry, beer and other alcohol are still served in a glass.
Tipping Is Not Allowed
If you’re traveling to South Korea from countries such as the USA, this could be one of the biggest shocks for you. Tipping in all businesses is generally frowned upon and not accepted. If you go to a restaurant and order a meal, then expect to pay the price that is mentioned on the menu. Tax is included and tipping is not necessary.
The same applies when you get a taxi or for similar services when you tip. You might feel that you should tip, but most restaurants won’t accept this and they may actually try to return the money to you if you leave it on the table. I’ve been handed cash back that I left behind even after I’ve left the restaurant.
That being said, if you take a tour or a private service, you might want to tip and it may be accepted. It’s up to you though. Some high-end restaurants may add a service charge, but this isn’t common.
Being Vegan When Traveling To South Korea
I’ve tried being a vegetarian in South Korea and it wasn’t easy. I have other friends who manage it (even being vegan), but eating out can be very difficult as most restaurants don’t cater to vegans or vegetarians. Even the concept of veganism can be difficult to communicate in a country where meat or fish is in most meals.
That being said, it’s not impossible. As with many other countries, vegan and vegetarian friendly restaurants are slowly becomingly more popular. Follow the link for a list of vegan restaurants. If you want a good salad, then department stores are often a good place to find them.
Lots Of Food Is Spicy
If you love spicy food, then Korea is going to be great for you. From super spicy chicken feet (dakbal – 닭발) to insanely hot instant ramen (buldak bokkeum myun – 불닭볶음면), there is something for any spice lover. If you want to see how hot they get, check out this video.
For those people who don’t enjoy spicy food, then ask the staff for food that is ‘an maewoyo’ (pronounced an may whoa yo) – which means ‘not spicy’.
A general rule for food in Korea – if it’s red, it’s spicy.
Street Food In South Korea
Some of the best food in South Korea can be found on the streets. Often fried, always delicious, there are so many wonderful dishes to try. Don’t be afraid, give it a go and try as much as you can.
Be Prepared To Shout In Restaurants
In Korean restaurants there are two ways to order your food. The first is to push a button on the table that will call the waiting staff. These buttons are really convenient and you can usually find them at the end of the table or around the edge of the table.
If you don’t find a button, however, then you’re going to have to shout like a local. The best expression to get attention is chogiyo 저기요 – which translates to ‘excuse me’. Don’t be shy, the locals will all be doing the same to order their food.
Make Use Of Free Water
Almost every restaurant in Korea will provide water when you eat. I get as much as I can as this is the perfect time to hydrate so I can cut down on the amount of bottled water I need to buy later on.
3: Health And Safety Issues When Traveling To South Korea
I’m sure there are two things that are on people’s minds when they consider traveling to South Korea – the threat of North Korea and fine dust pollution. I can tell you that only one of these is one that locals are actually worried about most of the time.
2020 coronavirus in Korea: For all of the latest news about the coronavirus, and its impact on traveling to South Korea, please read this article.
North Korea Isn’t The Big Issue
Ask most people in South Korea and they’ll tell you that they aren’t really worried about an attack from North Korea. Whilst being a very divisive topic between those who want reunification and those who don’t, for most people the threat of war is far away (even though North Korea is so close to Seoul).
When traveling to South Korea, try not to worry too much about an issue that the global media love to exaggerate. Yes, the two countries are at war, but the impact on day to day life in South Korea is pretty much non-existent. If you’re curious about the issue, then why not book a DMZ tour when you travel to Seoul.
Watch Out For Fine Dust
The other big issue that dominates the global news about South Korean is fine dust. Fine dust – air pollution caused by a number of different sources – is a serious issue that can greatly affect the quality of a trip to South Korea.
First, some good news. South Korea works hard at trying to curb the causes of fine dust pollution, banning certain cars and reducing traffic during bad periods. Also, fine dust is mostly seasonal and is worse in the spring but not so bad at other times of the year (but can still occur).
If you’re planning to travel during springtime, then perhaps download an app to check the air quality during your trip. Also, consider buying a mask to reduce the amount of pollution you breathe in. Honestly, though, fine dust isn’t a constant threat, but it can ruin the view on some days and when it gets really high (over 200), it’s best to stay inside.
Korea Is Safe – But Be Sensible
Tied with Japan, South Korea is the safest country I’ve ever been to. There are very low levels of theft, muggings, and general personal harassment. People are generally very honest and friendly to strangers.
The only real issue you’re likely to deal with as a foreigner is a lack of understanding of foreign cultures and the odd bit of suspicion – common in most countries, to be honest.
You are not likely to be robbed whilst in Korea. However, don’t be too complacent wherever you travel. Try to be careful when you travel, keep track of your valuables, and act as you would in your own country.
Vaccinations For South Korea
It is best to consult the health advice offered by your government. South Korea is cautious when it comes to diseases after the MERS outbreak a few years ago, so entry checks occur at all major ports and airports to control the spread of any diseases.
The recommended vaccinations for South Korea are: hepatitis A & B, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, meningitis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap), chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia, and influenza.
Be sure to check before you travel. There aren’t any major concerns besides the above (which affects most travelers). Besides these, I’d recommend some medicine to deal with upset stomachs as the spicy food can be hard to digest for some people.
Toilets Can Be Different
New travelers to Asia might be shocked by the squat toilets that are still used in some places. Firstly, don’t worry too much as most public places have removed these or have a regular toilet as well. If in doubt, there are some useful signs that show you how to use this type of toilet – and many hilarious signs about how NOT to use them.
Secondly, you might be surprised at how high-tech Korean toilets are. Electric toilet seats are an amazing invention that heats up the toilet seat (perfect in winter) and also provides helpful jets of water to make it into a bidet. These can be a bit confusing at first, but once mastered they provide a much nicer experience.
Trash Cans Can Be Hard To Find
I often wonder how South Korea can be so clean when there are barely any trash cans around. The reason for this is that South Koreans are very responsible with their trash and will carry it until they can find somewhere to dispose of it, even if that means taking it home.
For those traveling in the big cities, there are some places that you can find trash cans. The best places are at bus or train stops, as well as inside the many convenience stores (7/11, CU, GS25, Emart 24). If in doubt, head into one of these.
Drinking Water Tips
Water from the taps in South Korea won’t make you sick, but a lot of the pipes are old and the water doesn’t always taste that fresh. Buy water as you travel so you can keep hydrated. As mentioned, most restaurants and cafes provide free drinking water and you would be wise to take this opportunity to drink as much as you can.
In Case You’re Concerned About Traveling To South Korea
If you’re worried about traveling to South Korea, or any other country, then I’d recommend getting travel insurance before you travel. I often use World Nomads when I travel and they have great insurance, including for people traveling to South Korea.
You can get an incredibly reasonable quote for your travels from the link below:
4: Travel And Transportation In South Korea
Getting around Seoul and South Korea in general is very easy. Korea has a modern public transport system that, whilst busy, gets you where you’re going at a good speed and relatively cheaply.
Get A Transport Card
Transport in South Korea is fast, efficient, and best of all, cheap. And there are ways to make it even cheaper. Transport cards, such as the T Money Card, allow you to travel without having to use cash. Charge up the card and then touch the sensor whenever you go into or out of the subway or bus.
Besides transport, you can also use these cards to pay for taxis, buying goods in convenience stores, and some other shops. It really is an essential purchase when you arrive in Korea.
There is also the Korea Tour Card, which contains all the functions of T Money, but also offers discounts on selected attractions in Seoul and the rest of Korea. If you’re traveling to South Korea, this could be more useful for you.
There are discounts on attractions, sights, shops, restaurants, and lots more. The price is just a bit more expensive, but definitely worth it.
Take The Airport Express
There are several different options to get from Incheon Airport to Seoul, including the airport trains, limousine buses, taxis, and arranging a private pickup.
The best option is the Airport Express train. This costs less than 10,000 won and will whisk you into the city in around 45 minutes. There are two options – the non-stop express which goes directly to Seoul Station, or the all-stop commuter train that will drop you off at many different stations on the way to Seoul Station.
The other option is to take an airport limousine bus. These can be useful for getting to other parts of the city not covered by the Airport Express.
Beware Of Black Cabs
There are many types of taxis in Korea. The ones that you should take in Seoul are orange (various colours in other cities) and it is best to avoid the black ones. These black taxis are labelled as ‘deluxe’ taxis but really don’t offer much else besides a much higher fare. There have been countless reports of these taxis ripping off foreigners, charging much higher fares they should have.
A general rule for taxis in many countries is to ask for the meter charge. If the taxi driver isn’t using the meter then they are probably going to try to rip you off. Tell them they must use it or you’ll walk away.
5: Shopping And Markets In South Korea
So many people travel to Korea from other countries just for shopping. Areas like Myeongdong and Hongdae are a shopper’s paradise, full of bargains, designer goods, and a wide range of cosmetics, fashion, unique cultural items, and more.
Shops Open Late, Close Late
South Korea is a country that never seems to sleep, with cafes, shops, and bars open until late. You can stay out shopping until 10:00 pm and then go to a cafe to chat with friends until well past midnight (some are even 24 hour!). Night time is the time to be active in Korea as many people work late.
The consequence of this late night culture, however, is that many shops don’t bother opening until after 10:00 am – probably because the owners are busy sleeping after a late night. Indeed, I struggle to find a cafe in my area that is open before 8:00 am!
Visitors to Seoul’s famous shopping districts might be surprised to find shops not open until 10:00 or even 11:00 am. The Uniqlo in Myeongdong – the largest store of this giant fashion retailer – isn’t even open until 11:30 am! Plan your shopping experience wisely and have a lie in if you need it.
You Can Claim Tax Back On Your Shopping
Lots of people come to Seoul and Busan for tax-free shopping and South Korean businesses are ready to help you get your money back. If you spend between 30,000 won and 300,000 won you can get an immediate tax refund. Tax can only be claimed up to a total of 1,000.000 won. Follow the link to find out how to claim your tax back.
There are many duty free shops and the large department stores are set to cater to foreign tourists, with lots of big discounts and special offers. This is one of the best ways to save money when you’re travelling in Seoul. For more great tips, check out the article below:
Haggle In The Markets
The traditional markets in South Korea are great places to find some bargains, often being a LOT cheaper than you’d find in your own country – although possibly not as authentic, too. Stalls usually don’t come with a price and the sellers will often start with a high price, knowing that you will try to haggle.
Make an offer for what you think is a good price, then barter with the market sellers. If you don’t get a good price, take some time to walk around a few other stalls as you might get a better price just around the corner.
6: Sightseeing In South Korea
Seoul is great for sightseeing. Check out the Royal Palaces, the historic Bukchon Hanok Village, N Seoul Tower, and more. There is also a lot to see outside the capital, including the ancient city of Gyeongju, the marvels of Busan, Jeonju’s Hanok Village, and countless other places.
Check Closing Dates Of Major Attractions
There’s nothing worse than planning a day of sightseeing than getting there and finding out that the place you want to see is closed. I’m sure everyone will experience this sometime on their travels, but there are ways to avoid that if you do some research.
Whilst there is no definite list of all the attractions with their closing dates, you can find a lot of good information about set days sights are closed from the Visit Korea website. Find out more information about the operating hours for the major palaces in Seoul.
Make The Most Of Free Attractions
Traveling to South Korea can be expensive, but there are ways to be a smart traveler and save money. There are many beautiful public places you can enter for free and walking around doesn’t cost a penny. I love hiking in Korea as it’s a mostly free way to enjoy the wonderful Korean nature.
Seoul has plenty of free attractions that you can visit. Balance your budget by making the most of free attractions mixed in with other tours. For more recommendations, check out my list of 25 amazing free things to do in Seoul:
Plan Tours In Advance
Shopping around for the best tours can save you a lot of money and allow you to know what you’re doing each day. Plan wisely and figure out what the priorities are for you on your trip, as well as leaving a bit of flexibility in case you discover something amazing that you weren’t aware of before.
There are many tour operators in South Korea that you can book all kinds of tours with, including Klook, Trazy, Get Your Guide, and many others. If you want some ideas about what to see, why not check out my Ultimate South Korea Bucket List.
Buy A Discover Seoul Pass
As with the T-Money transport card, there are ways to save money when you visit attractions in South Korea. One of these is the Discover Seoul Pass. You can use this card to gain free entry to a range of attractions over a 24 / 48 / 72 hour period. This card also acts as a T-Money transport card, so you won’t need to buy both if you buy this pass.
7: Language Issues When Traveling To South Korea
A lot of people might be scared about traveling to South Korea because of the large language differences. Not only is there a different language to deal with, there’s also a different alphabet to get your head around. Don’t worry too much about that though.
Most signs are in the Korean alphabet (hangul) and English, with translations in most major areas. Getting around shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Learn Some Korean Before You Arrive
If you’re worried about being able to order food on menus, or chatting to the locals, then why not learn a bit of Korean? Just a few useful phrases can go a long way to making your trip a lot more comfortable.
The Korean writing system (hangul) is one of the simplest to learn and once you’ve mastered it, you should be able to read any sign or menu.
There are many great sites for learning Korean, such as 90 Day Korean. You can get great support learning Korean and free lessons to begin with.
Use Google Translate
If in doubt, turn to Google Translate. I still use this to check the meaning of words or phrases I don’t know in Korean and it can help you find the words you want to say. Although not perfect, this should help you get by in a difficult situation.
Type in the word you want to say and show the screen to the other person. They can type in Korean back and you can actually have a serious conversation like this.
If In Doubt, Try English
Korea has adopted a lot of English words into their own language, especially words that were only created in the last few decades. For example, ‘internet’ in Korean is ‘인터넷’ (in-ter-net). If you’re struggling to translate, just take a chance and say the word slowly in English and it might work.
8: Money In South Korea
Korea uses the Korean won with the largest note being the 50,000 won note (roughly $50). You can change money in various places and some large shops in Seoul will accept foreign currency.
Credit cards are widely accepted and you shouldn’t have any problem paying with one. Withdrawing cash from an ATM can be hit and miss, so be prepared.
If you’re looking for some great ways to save money when you’re traveling to South Korea, then be sure to check out my article below:
Don’t Change Money At The Airport
This is my golden rule whenever I travel and I’ve never found a good rate at the airport. Whilst it’s convenient, there is simply no need to change money at the airport in South Korea.
The rates they charge are the worst you’ll find and you’ll get a better rate withdrawing cash from an ATM. You can withdraw cash from certain ATM’s and exchange money in most major banks in big cities.
Try exchanging money in one of the tourist hot-spots, such as Myeongdong.
Prepare Some Money Before You Travel
It is best to try to get some Korean won before you travel. This will allow you to at least get into the city centre and buy some food when you arrive. This is especially important if you don’t have a credit card.
Credit Cards OK In Most Places
One thing that I’ve learned from living in South Korea is that credit cards are definitely the way to spend money. In fact, South Korea has one of the lowest use of cash payments in the whole world, with only 20% of transaction being completed this way.
The South Korean government encourages retailers (big and small) to accept credit cards to speed up the change to a cash-less society. This makes it really easy to use a credit card in South Korea. Some market stalls may prefer cash and offer a discount for paying this way.
9: Internet & Mobile Phones In South Korea
Traveling to another country and not having an internet service can be a daunting prospect these days. We’re so used to always being connected. Fortunately South Korea is one of the most advanced countries when it comes to internet and mobile phones and has the fastest internet speeds in the world.
Use Free WiFi Throughout South Korea
There are a lot of free WiFi spots throughout Korea, including at the major airports, train stations, and subway stations. You can also find free WiFi in many public places to help you find your way around in Seoul. Cafes often provide free WiFi, too. Follow the link for a complete list of free WiFi spots in South Korea.
Grab A Sim Or WiFi Egg
If you don’t want to take your chances with free WiFi, and you use the internet a lot, then your two options are buying a sim card for your phone or a WiFi egg. You can buy these at the airport on arrival and there are a lot of different options available.
Download Useful Apps
There are a lot of apps that will help you when traveling in South Korea. I use apps for ordering taxis, ordering food, finding my way around, and for translating Korean into English. There is generally an app for anything and traveling in South Korea in the 21st Century gets easier every day.
Charging Phones And Other Tech
South Korea uses 220 volt electricity and plugs are similar to European ones with two round prongs. Many hotels will provide a USB socket that you can use to charge some tech, otherwise consider buying a universal adapter when you arrive. You can find them in most convenience stores throughout the country.
10: Weather When Traveling To South Korea
The weather in Korea varies a lot, going from very hot and humid in the summer, to freezing cold and dry in the winter.
If you’re lucky enough to choose when to travel to Korea, then spring and autumn are definitely the best times to travel.
Rain can happen at any time, so make sure to bring an umbrella with you.
Plan For The Seasons
Choose the time you want to travel and pack accordingly. If traveling to South Korea in winter then definitely pack a thick coat. In summer, pack light and expect to be hot and sweaty if you spend a long time outside.
Don’t let that put you off though, there are plenty of things to do during summer in South Korea.
Buy Extras From The Markets
Koreans live with the extreme weather conditions every day and there are always lots of ways to adapt. Traditional Korean markets are great for buying cheap hand fans that will cool you down in summer, or pocket warmers for those wintry sub-zero days.
In case you arrive ill-equipped, then head to the nearest markets and buy some clothes and accessories to help you survive. Fans, pocket heaters, ponchos, umbrellas – you’ll find them all and in an infinite range of cute and colourful designs.
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