Due to their long history, South Koreans have a variety of traditions they have kept alive throughout centuries. Still today, you can watch traditional Korean dance and music performances, while people love to dress in traditional clothes (hanbok) – you can rent it to wear around Seoul and Jeonju, for example. Even in modern Seoul, you can still find traditional hanok house neighborhoods with lovely teahouses that have been in existence for decades. This mix of old and new is truly fun to explore when traveling in South Korea.
South Korea has a long history dating back over a thousand years. Due to the natural isolation of the Korean Peninsula, the country’s culture hasn’t changed as much as in other regions. Still today, you can stand in awe of some of the most significant cultural heritage sites of the country, such as Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main palace situated in Seoul. The city of Gyeongju is also a place of historic value and is often called a ‘museum without walls’. Gyeongju was the capital of Korea during the Silla Dynasty from 57 BC – 935 AD and is home to countless royal tombs, palaces, and temples that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Every year, there are more festivals in South Korea than one could attend, with a couple of main festivities everyone likes to join in with. When the snow melts and the weather gets warmer, pink and white cherry blossoms transform South Korea into a magical wonderland for a short period at the beginning of spring, and thousands of people come to see the blossoms from all over the country. Buddha’s Birthday is another major holiday celebrated in May with lantern parades and performances at local temples, while in fall, Koreans celebrate their own version of Thanksgiving during Chuseok and honor their ancestors during proudly conducted ceremonies. In fact, there are festivals in every month of the year for every taste.
In contrast to its historic landmarks, South Korea is a pioneer in creating new and innovative structures. Looking at Seoul, for example, you are surrounded by futuristic buildings in one part of the city, such as the Dongdaemun Design Plaza by Zaha Hadid, while traditional hanok neighborhoods lie just around the corner. Earlier this year, Seoul proudly opened the world’s fifth largest skyscraper piercing majestically out of the ground overlooking the Han River. It comes with little surprise that some of the world’s leading companies are also located here, including Samsung, Hyundai and Kia.
Koreans are very proud of their unique cuisine. This is another result of the country’s natural isolation and climate leading to particular food preparation methods. Take kimchi, for example, the country’s number one side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables that are kept in jars for months, one of many practices used to protect food during harsh winters. Over the centuries, Koreans have created a fascinating and rich food culture made up of meat dishes, stews, soups, noodle dishes, seafood and many vegetable side dishes. Visit South Korea and you should spend an entire day roaming street markets sampling your way through this concert of flavors.
As South Korea is not yet a worldwide popular vacation destination like its neighbors China and Japan, you will find untouched rural areas giving insight into traditional Korean lifestyle. While around 20% of all South Koreans live in and near Seoul, it’s especially the small rural villages where you can find peace and quiet. The well-connected railway and express bus systems make it easy to also explore the less visited areas of the country. You’ll be surprised that you can find lush rice terraces and hidden temples right here in South Korea.
You can find even more tranquility and inner peace when joining a one- or two-day templestay program, which allows you to spend some time living like Buddhist monks in temples across Korea. While the Korean templestay program might not be as heard of around the world, it’s a well-established organization offering English-speaking programs to anyone around the country. Whether you want to experience a templestay in downtown Seoul or in rural South Korea on top of a mountain, the options are endless and the results are incredibly rewarding.
While Seoul is arguably the most thrilling city in South Korea, it’s not the only large city that’s worth a visit. Despite its small size, South Korea has plenty of exciting cities from north to south. Busan in the very south, for example, is the country’s second largest city and located on a beautiful coastline with sandy beaches and clear ocean water. Jeonju in the west of the country is one of the last places featuring a traditional old town with Korean hanok houses and a beautiful destination in spring and fall. Each of Korea’s nine provinces has its own local cuisine and attractions that are worth exploring.