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For a truly Korean experience, forgo the hotel and spend a night or two in a hanok. These traditional houses preserve the country’s history in their tiled roofs, papered windows, enchanting courtyards and heated floors. Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul is an especially picturesque neighborhood mostly comprised of these homes
Head to Jeonju, where you can not only sleep in these homes, but also take part in cultural experiences like cooking classes and tea ceremonies. if you visit in September stay in Andong’s Hahoe Folk Village and be treated to unique folk dances that feature an array of traditional masks.
In Korea, hiking is considered a social activity, and once on the trails, strangers quickly become friends. Elderly Koreans in particular, take hiking very seriously, investing thousands of dollars in vibrant outdoor outfits and professional equipment. They’re also often very eager to share both their smiles and picnics of kimbap, fresh fruit and makgeolli (Korean rice wine) with fellow hikers. These interactions, in addition to the beautiful vistas offered by mountains like Palgonsan, Bukhansan, Seoraksan and Jirisan, make a hiking trip a must on any visit to Korea.
Although most Koreans do not profess a specific religious orientation, Buddhism was once the national religion of the nation and its influence on the country is at once obvious, even in modern day Korea.
Visitors with a deep interest in the religion can participate in an overnight Templestay program and live like a monk for a day, partaking in gruelling prostrations, vegetarian meals and a 4am wakeup call. For those looking for a less intense Zen experience, Bongeunsa in Seoul offers a TempleLife program on Thursdays. Here, participants learn the basics of Seon meditation, the Korean tea ceremony and get a nice tour of the temple grounds.
Korea is often portrayed as a city of concrete and neon, so many are surprised to learn that there the country is incredibly bike friendly. On any given day, crowds of cyclists can be found pedalling along the Han River (where bikes can be rented for next to nothing). There’s even a route that goes directly from Incheon in the north of the country all the way down to Busan on the southern coast.
One of the best places to take a ride is Jeju Island, which offers smooth, continuous cycle tracks that run for some 180 kilometers. Minimal traffic, breathtaking natural scenery and fresh air make biking an activity that should not be missed.
Over the past few years, the world has come to know and love the delectable flavors of Korean cuisine, and people from all corners of the globe are flocking to the peninsula to savor it in its most authentic form.
While many restaurants in bigger cities provide English menus, it can be difficult to find the gastronomic gems of the country, which are usually hidden in obscure back alleys of lesser known destinations. That’s why going on a food tour is a good way to sample the tastiest treats Korea has to offer, all the while allowing local residents to do the dirty work for you. From seafood market visits to Korean barbecue tours, there’s a tour for just about every taste.
From the beautifully crafted ceramic pottery of the country’s dynastic days to modern twists on pansori (musical storytelling), Korean artists know no limits. Explore ancient treasures in the country’s most celebrated museums, such as the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, or the Gyeongju National Museum in Gyeongju, a city that’s often considered a museum in itself.
If your tastes are more contemporary, opt for a visit to the Seoul Museum of Art, or explore the eccentric galleries of Hongdae, Seoul’s premiere youth district and alternative art hotspot. Busan’s Gamcheon Art Village, a hillside community brimming with brightly colored houses covered in murals and a strong artistic spirit, is yet another destination worth exploring.
Korea can get really cold during the winter, and one of the best ways to warm up is to visit a jjimjilbang, or Korean style spa. Visitors to these much loved institutions have the option to soak in hot tubs, relax in steamy saunas and even get a body scrub. Upscale jjimilbang also feature facilities such as karaoke rooms, internet cafes, snack bars and sunbathing areas.
These sex-segregated facilities do require visitors to strip down to their birthday suits, so if you have a fear of public nakedness, they might not be for you. If you are willing to be adventurous, however, expect to enjoy some premium pampering and a truly Korean experience.
The best thing to do in Korea, hands down, is to simply get lost. The country is very much a treasure trove of sights, smells, tastes and sounds waiting to be taken in. It also has an extremely low crime rate, which makes exploring its cities and towns not only fun but safe, too. So, throw out those guidebooks, put on your walking shoes and get ready to experience all the surprises the country has waiting for you!