Here’s our guide to Seoul and the provinces of South Korea. Discover the food, customs, dos and don’ts, how to travel around the country, where to stay, and the best time of year to visit. Whether you’re a backpacker, city lover, or a solo traveler on a budget, here’s everything you need to know
South Korea has become one of the top destinations for travelers to Asia in the last decade or so. It’s not as expensive as, say, Japan, but it’s also not somewhere you can live on a few pennies each day. It’s great for solo travelers and its size means you can see a lot in a relatively short stay.
There are four distinct seasons as well, so when you go means very different experiences. Spring (March — May) is vibrant and blooming, with pink cherry blossom all around. Summer (June — August) is good for hiking in the high mountains, but hot and humid lower down, and fall (September — November) is warm enough to explore away from the chaos of the cities. Winter is very cold indeed, with skiing in the hills, but it also means there’s not much else going on away from the cities.
With all that in mind, let’s get going!
Seoul is everything South Korea: manic and confusing at first, with customs and habits that seem designed to befuddle, but by being open, honest and friendly, you’ll find that Koreans are the same. Don’t expect English to be spoken everywhere you go, but be amicable and you’ll receive help in return, regardless of the language barrier.
It’s having its pop culture moment right now, attracting more visitors than ever, and Seoul is as exciting and lively as any other major city, but has the unusual advantage of seamlessly threading the 21st century through the fabric of its past. For every neon billboard, there are traditional craft stalls and airy art galleries; for every incongruous Irish bar, there’s a peaceful garden temple.
Step back in time
You’ll almost certainly be drawn to Gyeongbokgung Palace, dating from 1395 and the largest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon dynasty. Its 7,700 rooms were restored in the 19th century, and the palace is one of the country’s most beloved cultural treasures.
To see how the normal people lived around that time, you can visit Namsangol Hanok Village, a living museum that allows you to see how various strata of society lived and worked, from commoners to royalty. Each dwelling, from humble one-room shack to stately home, is decorated as it would have been during the classical Joseon era, and its scenic surroundings and peaceful atmosphere make this a wonderful trip back in time. It’s closed on Tuesdays, but otherwise, the village is free to enter.
Eating and singing: two of a Korean’s great pleasures
If you are traveling alone, once you’ve spent the day exploring, the best way to meet new people (and make a slight fool of yourself in a good-natured way) is karaoke. Koreans love a bit of karaoke, and when the sun goes down, the neon-drenched streets of the Hongdae neighborhood host all-night sessions known as noraebang. Get some fried chicken and a couple of beers down you, and join the fun!
For other tasty treats, you’ll almost certainly encounter bibimbap (a rice pot with meat, vegetables and egg), bulgogi (marinated barbecue beef), and the ubiquitous kimchi (spicy, pickled vegetable, almost always cabbage). Bear in mind, that vegetarian dishes can be hard to come by; although vegetables, noodles and rice make up a large part of Korean cuisine, there will generally be meat included. You might want to brush up on your chopstick skills for plucking out what you don’t want!
South Korea’s fantastic transport network, coupled with its relatively small size, means there’s absolutely no excuse not to cast your net wider. The train journey from Seoul to Busan (the northwest to the southeast), for example, takes just under three hours, and there’s a lot to explore in this rich and fascinating nation.
Busan itself is the second-largest city and the country’s largest port. Densely built in narrow valleys between mountain ridges and two rivers, the city runs down to the ocean, and spreads out along the coast and into the forest. It’s also the country’s main summer destination, with the city being home to six beaches, including Haeundae, backed with a curved boardwalk, and Gwangalli, bustling with cafes, bars and restaurants. The mountains that surround the city are great for hiking, with miles of trails through the woods, and local conservation efforts are also important: see the Daejeo Ecological Park and its bird sanctuary and river restoration project, for example.
The train that got you to Busan will probably have gone via Daegu, home to around 2.5 million people and one of the powerhouses of 20th century Korea. Today, an interesting combination of cutting-edge technology and fashion industries, coupled with strong Buddhist beliefs, make Daegu a bit of a magnet for foreign students, English teachers, cultural investigators, and other people looking for a fun, vibrant city that’s maybe not as obvious as Seoul.
Jeonju, in the west of the country, is known throughout Korea as being the birthplace of two important cultural touchpoints that we’ve previously mentioned: the Joseon dynasty, and bibimbap. It somehow absorbs around 10 million visitors a year, with most coming to see Hanok Village. While Namsangol Hanok Village in Seoul is a living museum, Jeonju’s example is an actual village with living, breathing residents, its 800 traditional buildings contrasting wonderfully with the modern city built around it.
Peace and disquiet
The countryside in South Korea is just as worth exploring as the cities, and it will often give you a totally different view on Korean life and hospitality as well. City stays are generally confined to your usual hotels, Airbnbs and the like, but in smaller locations, you may well be able to stay in a hanok, one of the traditional houses mentioned above.
Hanoks are typically wood framed houses, with curved, tiled roofs. Simple in design, with sliding doors, a mattress on the floor for sleeping, and sometimes with heated floors, they’re atmospheric and calm, and many will come with an evening meal or traditional breakfast as part of the package.
Gyeongju and Panmunjom
To continue stepping back in time — even further than the Joseon dynasty — head to Gyeongju, ancient capital of the Kingdom of Silla (57 BCE – 935 CE). For a couple of centuries it was the fourth largest city in the world, and is now referred to as a ‘museum without walls’. So how best to see everything? Take part in a cycling tour connecting all the temples, palaces and other historic sights, led by a knowledgeable guide.
Finally, for something that feels unreal but still casts a surreal cloud over the country, visit Panmunjom. This is the location of the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, separating North and South Korea, a four-kilometer strip of land surrounded by landmines, pillboxes, tank traps and troops. It serves as a slightly worrying warning that you’re gazing across into North Korea, and when you head to the JSA (Joint Security Area) and landmarks with names like the Third Infiltration Tunnel, the Freedom House, and the Bridge of No Return, it brings home the fact that this isn’t just playing at soldiers.
To visit the DMZ, you must go as part of a tour, and children under the age of 12 are not allowed. If you wish to cross the Military Demarcation Line (the actual border), you have to sign a waiver accepting that you’re aware you are entering a hostile area, and that enemy action could result in injury or death. You’ll technically be in North Korea and, while the waiver sounds scary, it’s pretty performative: the border acts as a demonstration of peace between the two nations, and tours are encouraged as both history lessons and as a boost to the economy.
Jeju was formed by a single volcanic explosion around two million years ago, and its mighty caldera can be seen from pretty much everywhere on the island. Legend has it that it was home to a race of demi-gods, but they’re clearly long gone, and the island is now devoted to tourism. Indeed, it was so busy in the late 90s that beach pollution became a serious problem. Spurred into action, the island’s government is pushing for the entire place to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and around half of the electric cars registered in South Korea are on Jeju.
It’s a mecca for surfers and beach bums, and is also home to three Unesco World Heritage Sites. Climb the mountains, explore the lava tube caves, and bathe under clear, blue waterfalls in the forest lakes. It’s a great location for island cuisine too, with beach bars serving freshly caught, barbecued seafood.
Otherwise, try Suncheon Bay, around 4-5 hours south of Seoul. The town of Suncheon is another eco-destination, and the Bay is home to wetlands that house around 140 species of bird. Huge fields of reeds and meandering water make the whole place a wonderfully peaceful scene, and to find out a bit more about the science behind the reserve, there’s an excellent museum.
The nearby Suncheon Bay National Garden is a massive landscaped area involving versions of gardens from other countries, including Thailand, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Turkey, the UK and more. It also has wild areas to help the insect population, and a vast network of pathways, bridges and wooden walkways to help you get around. It’s unlikely you can see it all in one day. Also in the Suncheon region is Seonamsa, a gorgeous Buddhist temple and hermitage, again with huge gardens in which to simply wander and contemplate.
South Korea is packed with things like these. Places you’ve probably never heard of, but which are plentiful, magical, and not to be missed. For such a compact country, there’s so much to do and see, so plan your trip to see a little bit of everything… before coming back with Kiwi.com again to see a bit more!
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