This is our guide to Seoul and the provinces of South Korea. Find out what foods, habits and things to avoid, how to travel around the country, where to stay, and the best time of year to visit. Whether you’re a backpacker, a 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 past decade or so. It’s not as expensive as Japan, for example, 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 it means very different experiences. Spring (March – May) is vibrant and flowery, with pink cherry blossoms everywhere. Summer (June-August) is good for hiking in the high mountains, but hot and humid below, and fall (September-November) is warm enough to explore away from the chaos of the cities. Winters are really cold, with skiing downhill, but that also means there isn’t much far from the towns.
With all that in mind, let’s get started!
Seoul is all about South Korea: obsessive and confusing at first, with habits and habits that seem designed to confuse, but with openness, honesty, and friendliness, you’ll find that Koreans are the same. Don’t expect English to be spoken everywhere you go, but be friendly and you’ll get help in return, regardless of the language barrier.
It’s having a pop culture moment right now, attracting more visitors than ever, and Seoul is as exciting and lively as any other major city, but it has the extraordinary advantage of seamlessly transporting the 21st century through the fabric of the past. For every neon billboard, there are traditional craft kiosks and airy art galleries; For every opposing Irish bar, there is a quiet garden temple.
A step back in time
You’ll almost certainly be drawn to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which dates back to 1395 and is the largest of the five grand palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. The 7,700 rooms were restored in the 19th century, and the palace is considered one of the country’s most beloved cultural treasures.
To see how ordinary people lived at the time, you can visit Namsangol Hanok Village, a living museum that allows you to see how different classes of society lived and worked, from commoners to royalty. Each residence, from a modest one-room hut to a stately home, is decorated as it was in the classic Joseon era, and its picturesque surroundings and serene ambiance make this a fascinating journey into the past. It’s closed on Tuesdays, but other than that, the village is free to enter.
Eating and Singing: Two of the Greatest Pleasures of Koreans
If you’re traveling alone, once you’ve spent your day exploring, the best way to meet new people (and fool yourself a bit in a cute way) is with karaoke. Koreans love a little karaoke, and when the sun goes down, the neon-filled streets of Hongdae host all-night sessions known as noraebang. Grab some fried chicken and a couple of beers, and join the fun!
As for other delicious desserts, you are sure to come across Bibimbap (rice bowl with meat, vegetables and eggs), bulgogi (marinated roast beef), and everywhere kimchi (Vegetables spicy, pickled, almost always cabbage). Keep 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 meats included. You may want to improve your chopsticks skills to extract what you don’t want!
South Korea’s great transportation network, along with its relatively small size, means there’s absolutely no excuse not to expand your network. A train journey from Seoul to Busan (from the northwest to the southeast), for example, takes less than three hours, and there is plenty to explore in this rich and fascinating nation.
Busan itself is the second largest city and the largest port in the country. Built densely in narrow valleys between mountain ridges and two rivers, the city extends into the ocean, spreading along the coast and into the forest. It’s also the country’s main summer destination, with the city home to six beaches, including Haeundae, backed by a curved wooden boardwalk, and Gwangalli, bustling with cafes, bars, and restaurants. The mountains around town are great for hiking, with miles of trails through the woods, and local conservation efforts are also important: look at the Daejeo Ecological Park, Bird Sanctuary, and River Restoration Project, for example.
The train that brought you to Busan likely passed through Daegu, a city of about 2.5 million people and one of Korea’s centers of power in the 20th century. Today, an interesting mix of cutting-edge technology and fashion industries, along with strong Buddhist beliefs, makes Daegu a magnet for foreign students, English language teachers, cultural investigators, and other people looking for a fun and vibrant city that may not be as obvious as Seoul.
Jeonju, located in the west of the country, is known throughout Korea as the birthplace of two important cultural contact points we mentioned earlier: the Joseon Dynasty, and Bibimbap. It somehow accommodates about 10 million visitors a year, most of whom come to see Hanok Village. While Seoul’s Namsangol Hanok Village is a living museum, the example of Jeonju is an actual village with living, breathing residents, and its 800 traditional buildings that contrast nicely with the modern city built around it.
peace and anxiety
The countryside in South Korea is just as worth exploring as the cities, often giving you a very different perspective on Korean life and hospitality too. Accommodation in the city is generally limited to the usual hotels, Airbnbs, and the like, but in smaller locations you may be able to stay in a hanok, one of the traditional homes listed above.
Hanok are timber-framed houses with curved roofs and tiled. Simple in design, with sliding doors, and arranged on the floor for sleeping, sometimes with heated floors, it’s atmospheric and quiet, and many will come with an evening meal or a traditional breakfast as part of the package.
Kyungju and Panmunjom
To continue stepping back in time – beyond the Joseon dynasty – head to Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BC – AD 935). For two centuries it was the fourth largest city in the world, and is now referred to as the “Museum Without Walls”. So what’s the best way to see it all? Take part in the cycling tour that links all the temples, palaces, and other historical monuments, led by a knowledgeable guide.
Finally, for something that seems unreal but still casts a surreal cloud over the country, visit Panmunjom. This is the location of the demilitarized zone, the Demilitarized Zone, separating North and South Korea, a four-kilometre strip of land surrounded by land mines, medicine boxes, and tank and troop traps. It’s a bit of a disconcerting warning that you’re staring at North Korea, and when you head to the JSA (Joint Security Area) and eponymous landmarks like the Third Stealth Tunnel, Freedom House, and the Bridge of No Return, it brings back the fact that this isn’t just about soldiers playing.
To visit the demilitarized zone, you must go as part of a tour, children under 12 years old are not allowed. If you wish to cross a military demarcation line (actual boundary), you must sign a waiver accepting that you are aware that you are entering a hostile territory, and that enemy action may result in injury or death. You’d technically be in North Korea, and while the concession sounds intimidating, it’s also very useful: the border serves as a sign of peace between the two countries, and tours are encouraged as lessons in history and as a booster for the economy.
Jeju was formed by a single volcanic eruption about two million years ago, and the powerful caldera can be seen from everywhere on the island. Legend has it that it was home to a race of gods, but they have apparently long since disappeared, and the island is now dedicated to tourism. In fact, it was so busy in the late 1990s that beach pollution became a serious problem. The island government has pushed into action, and is pushing for the entire place to be carbon neutral by 2030, and about half of the electric vehicles registered in South Korea are in Jeju.
It’s a mecca for surfers and beach-goers, and it’s also home to three UNESCO World Heritage sites. Climb mountains, explore lava caves, and bathe under clear blue waterfalls in forested lakes. It’s a great spot for island cuisine too, with beach bars serving fresh grilled seafood.
Otherwise, try Suncheon Bay, about 4-5 hours south of Seoul. Suncheon Town is another eco-destination, and the bay is home to wetlands that are home to about 140 species of birds. Huge fields of reeds and meandering water make the entire place a wonderful tranquil sight, and to learn more about the science behind the reserve there is an excellent museum.
Nearby Suncheon Bay National Park is a vast landscape area that includes copies of parks from other countries, including Thailand, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, among others. It also has wilderness areas to help insects, and an extensive network of walkways, bridges, and wooden walkways to help you get around. It is unlikely that you will be able to see everything in one day. Also in Suncheon is Seonamsa, a wonderful Buddhist temple and hermitage, again with huge gardens to wander and meditate on.
South Korea is full of things like this. Places you may not have heard of, but they are plentiful, charming and not to be missed. For such a small country, there is so much to do and see, so plan your trip to see a little bit of everything…before heading back to Kiwi.com again to see more!
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