One of the least-known yet most fascinating nations in all of Asia, South Korea has been unwittingly hiding behind the secretive cloak of its northern neighbour for over half a century and has mostly avoided the kind of tourist influx seen elsewhere in the region. Yet thanks to a recent swift rise in its popularity outside of Asia, perhaps due to random exports like pickled kimchi and K-pop, international tourists are showing an increasing curiosity for this ultra-modern yet incredibly traditionalist country.
Those lucky enough to have already visited will attest to South Korea being an absolutely superb travel destination. The infrastructure is world-class. which makes extensive touring easy and pleasurable. Attractions are far-reaching and varied with the country boasting outstanding wilderness, intriguing history, glorious temples, amazing architecture and sensational food. Yet above all, as in most stellar destinations, what stands out most is the country’s immensely friendly population. Western tourism is still relatively new here, so don’t be surprised if you’re accosted on the streets and asked to pose for a photo (a selfie, of course!) or to share a cup of tea. English is widely spoken in major cities and smiles are ever-present, no matter where you go. It certainly makes for a wonderful travel experience in what is, for many, a totally foreign and enigmatic land. Visit South Korea and you’ll be overawed by UNESCO sights you’ve probably never heard of and breathtaking landscapes you’ve never seen photographed.
For discerning travellers looking to find new horizons and new surprises in Asia…South Korea beckons.
Overview of South Korea
Korea’s civilization dates back over 5,000 years and, before the formidable kingdom was unceremoniously split in two – back in 1948 – it boasted one of the most illustrious regal histories in the world. Ruled by the Joseon dynasty for over 500 years and the Silla dynasty for almost 1000, South Korea’s UNESCO-listed heritage haul comprises opulent palaces, ornate temples and stunning cobblestone-maze villages seemingly plucked from fairy-tale books. Had all these historical riches been elsewhere, they’d grace every tourist brochure and be household names the world over yet the country’s cautious anonymity has kept this treasure-trove of wonders mostly hidden from world view.
For curious travellers, those who crave the new, the unknown and mesmerizing, South Korea is an absolute breath of fresh air. Most of all, because prominent cultural and historical sites are interspersed among sensational natural landscapes. National parks bursting with pine forests, lakes, waterfalls and vertiginous snowy peaks attract nature lovers in droves, with multi-day guided hikes past ancient temples and traditional villages offering the best the country has to offer.
The wonderful aspect of travelling through South Korea is that the country is small, compact and well connected. Every destination seems ‘conveniently located’ only a couple of hours away from another, so you can actually fit in a lot of touring in even just a week of travels and totally possible to only have, say, three base points, and visit all other sites on day trips.
South Korea’s Best Highlights
If Seoul is your first ever introduction to South Korea, be ready to be overwhelmed. Bustling and glistening like the modern metropolis it is, this incredibly contrasting city is a sensory overload like few others. Your immersion into the country’s history and culture can start in earnest, with Seoul home to 600-year-old regal palaces boasting magnificent gardens and pavilions, a number of great museums and collection of outstanding temples. The city also offers a number of day trips, most notably to the traditional village of Bukchon Hanok, once the residence of the Joseon’s extended family. Spend a day feasting your eyes and taste buds way along uber-trendy Myeong-dong, shopping for traditional souvenirs in Insa-dong and cap off your day’s exploration with sensational night-time view admiring over the city at the N Seoul Tower atop Mt Namsan.
It seems almost preposterous that the world’s most militarized strip of land be the second-most famous attraction in this beautiful and elegant country. But, alas, it is. Learn more about the trials and tribulations of both Koreas on a guided tour of the DMZ which is, to be honest, an insanely interesting place to visit nonetheless. A remnant of the Cold War (which for all intents and purposes is still ongoing here) the DMZ is still, nowadays, at the epicentre of world political headlines.
If you were to be in a hurry and could only visit ‘one’ historical and cultural destination in South Korea, then Gyeongju would have to be it. Said to boast more temples, statues, pagodas and palatial ruins than any other place in the country, this expansive city, wonderfully restored in recent years, was the headquarters of the Silla dynasty for its impressive entirety. It’s not hard to understand, then, how it could boast so many mesmerizing treasures. There is so much to see and do here that most visitors simply spend a full day visiting one temple, one Buddhist shrine, one museum and one royal tomb, to get a comprehensive feel for the incredible history encased in the very fabric of this city. We suggest you do the same.
South Korea’s southernmost city is the polar opposite of its capital. Modern, yes, but unhurried and laid-back, revered among locals for its avant-garde art scene, beautiful beaches, relaxing thermal baths, excellent markets, stunning temples and abundance of nature in which to while away a day of leisurely hiking. A popular spot for R&R, Busan is an excellent place to end a tour of the country.
Seoraksan National Park
Arguably the most known national park in the country, UNESCO-listed Seoraksan is the most popular mountain hiking destination in the whole country and, thanks to its ingeniously convenient cable-car, a super popular day-trip destination as well. Spectacular granite peaks, crystal clear streams and fertile valleys, all framed by ancient pine forests, hide the 700-year-old Gwongeumseong Fortress, accessible after a short hike from the top cable-car station.
The self-proclaimed ‘spiritual heart of South Korea’, Andong is one of the most authentic traditional villages in the country. Only a few hundred people live in this picturesque, UNESCO-listed village and you’d be hard-pressed not to see it as a breathing, living museum of cultural history. Its riverside location makes it even more appealing and, considering the sunrise views here are to die for, we highly recommend you include an overnight stay in one of the local B&Bs. The whole experience is simply magical.
The birthplace of the Joseon dynasty, Jeonju is one of the most charming historical towns in the entire county and what we love most is that its bustling foodie scene (Jeonju is UNESCO-listed as a city of gastronomic importance) also makes it a culinary giant, so a visit here satisfies in every sense. Immensely popular with locals but overlooked by most foreign travellers, Jeonju is an absolute gem. A maze of traditional Korean wooden and mud-brick homes, called hanoks, combine to create a postcard-perfect cobblestone village, with these historic homes now housing tea shops, handicraft boutiques, guesthouses and museums. Whilst here, visit the wonderfully colourful and sobering Catholic Church, where local Catholics were executed over a century ago, shop for traditional paintings in one of the many artisan workshops in town and stay the night, even if only to feast on a bibimbap waffle at the evening local street-food market.
It’s the heritage-listed lava tubes, caves and volcanic peaks that have pinned Jeju on the list of the country’s top attractions yet it’s the unspoiled nature and idyllic vibe that have ensured the island enjoy a cult following among locals and foreigners alike. The prime destination for honeymooners, hikers and anyone in search of a relaxing yet invigorating reprieve, Jeju Island is a splendid mix of topography and attractions. Semi-tropical wilderness, volcanic mountains and an impressive maze of hiking trails welcome active explorers, although a fair amount of luxe resorts also tug at the heart strings of those who just want to chillax on a glorious beach for a day or two. With its mild climate, signature health spas and bevy of natural attractions, including the highest peak in the country, wildflower-covered valleys, hidden waterfalls, plenty of wildlife, crater lakes and those all-too-famous lava caves, Jeju is the single most popular holiday destination in the entire country.
Best Time to Travel to South Korea
With its four very distinct seasons, South Korea offers unique visual experiences no matter when you visit, although springtime (between April and June) is particularly special due to the abundance of cherry blossoms in glorious bloom and the fact that temps are ideal for extensive hiking and sightseeing. Autumn visits (September to November) also gift a spectacular array of earthy-coloured foliage and still-good temps for outdoor explorations. Winter trips, over the Christmas period, are ideal if you wish to indulge in lots of thermal bath soakings and hit the ski slopes whilst trips over the summer months of July and August are best planned for the coastal areas and Jeju only, as the temps inland can get unbearably hot.
Ready to explore this incredibly fascinating country? Let us take you there! At GetAboutAsia, we offer you the best of South Korea’s natural, cultural, historic and culinary treasures, with itineraries tailor-made to suit your desires and budget. We take care of all the logistics so all that’s left for you to do is come enjoy a truly remarkable travel adventure. Contact us for more info on itineraries to South Korea and multi-country trips.
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”