South Korea is a dynamic nation comprised of spectacular natural beauty, buzzing cities, tranquil temples, and historical sites. There’s truly something for everyone, but with so much to do and see, planning a Korean travel itinerary can be a bit overwhelming for the first-timer. So, we’ve done the dirty work for you; here’s our guide on where to go, based on your interests.
For the foodie: Jeonju
Situated in the southwestern province of Jeollabuk-do, the charming city of Jeonju is renowned for its gastronomy and has been dubbed South Korea’s food capital.
Thousands flock here from all over the world to taste the delectable flavors of Korean cuisine, like bibimbap, a rice dish topped with namul (seasoned vegetables) and gochujang (chili pepper paste). Known as the birthplace of bibimbap, Jeonju holds an annual festival dedicated to the dish. The city is also the country’s makgeolli (rice wine) capital, home to a number of bars housed in hanok, traditional Korean buildings, where visitors can sample the fizzy brew as well as the country’s unique drinking culture.
Don’t miss Nambu Market, a spacious complex that consists of some 800 stores selling vegetables, fruits, and dried fish, among other wares. The space truly comes to life on weekend evenings, when vendors set up food stalls that offer everything from bacon rolls to octopus skewers to Vietnamese pho.
For the fashionista: Dongdaemun, Seoul
Perhaps there’s no better place to experience the country’s fashion scene in all its glory than Dongdaemun. Famous for shopping and retail, the market district is comprised of a whopping 26 shopping malls (many of which are open 24/7), 30,000 specialty shops, and 50,000 manufacturers. Those seeking affordable, ahead-of-the-trend pieces are sure to leave Dongdaemun satisfied, as it’s an incubator of sorts for aspiring designers looking to test the local waters.
The bustling neighborhood’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza is also home to the bi-annual Hera Seoul Fashion Week held in March and October. Since its establishment in 2015, the Korean capital’s sartorial spectacular has attracted a substantial roster of designers, buyers, photographers, and tastemakers from around the world.
For the nature lover: Jeju Island
Listed in 2007 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the volcanic island of Jeju is renowned for its outstanding geological features and special properties that make it a habitat for a variety of rare and endangered species.
The nature lover should not miss the chance to visit the island’s Geomunoreum, a series of lava tubes formed some 100,000 to 300,000 years ago by volcanic activity, as it’s often considered one of the finest lava tube cave systems in the world. Another popular destination is the Halla Ecological Forest on Yonggangsan Mountain, which is home to 288,000 trees representing 333 indigenous plant species. Having been established as a conservation area, the forest offers visitors the chance to observe and learn more about Jeju’s diverse ecosystem through its observatory, plant nurseries, and walking trails.
Of course, no trip to the island is complete without visiting the Jeju Olle-gil, a series of 26 walking trails that snake along the entire coast of the island, passing through small villages, beaches, farms and forests. Many of the routes take visitors off the beaten path, providing a unique look into the natural and cultural beauty of Jeju.
For the history buff: Gyeongju
Often referred to as ‘the museum without walls,’ the city of Gyeongju is home to more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, Buddhist iconography and palace ruins than any other destination in South Korea. The city’s center is especially spectacular; its unique urban landscape is made up of a combination of tumuli – large, round grassy tombs – and traditional architecture, all set against a backdrop of rolling mountains.
Explore Gyeongju’s royal past at Tumuli Park, Anapji Pond and the Gyeongju National Museum, where the history and culture of the country is beautifully preserved and exhibited. Another must-see is Bulkguksa Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built in 528AD, the temple has been restored and renovated over the years and remains a splendid example of Silla-era architecture.
For the party animal: Hongdae, Seoul
Boasting countless design shops, art galleries, themed cafés, and fashion studios, Hongdae is the perfect place to soak up Seoul’s youth culture. But the neighborhood really comes to life once the sun sets, when the young and trendy head to its gogi jibs (BBQ restaurants), dance clubs, and noraebang (private karaoke rooms) for round after round of debauchery.
Whether you’re looking to get your fill of craft beer, check out a live music show, or dance until the sun comes up, Hongdae is your go-to for all things nightlife. (Just be prepared to cure your hangover the next morning, as soju is more dangerous than it looks.)
For the tea enthusiast: Boseong
The sleepy town of Boseong is widely known for its picturesque tea plantations that curve around the region’s hilly terrain. The most famous of these is the Daehan Dawon Plantation, where visitors can spend an afternoon basking in Boseong’s tranquil environment.
Stop by the Tea Museum of Korea, where you can learn about the process of growing and processing green tea – and even make your own. When hunger strikes, visit one of the local restaurants for lunch and sample a selection of green tea specialties such as green tea noodles and green tea ice cream.
For the Hallyu fan: Gangnam, Seoul
It is no exaggeration to say that Seoul’s Gangnam district is the origin of contemporary Korean entertainment. Even before Psy made it famous with his catchy Gangnam Style, the upscale neighborhoods of Cheongdam-dong, Apgujeong, and Sinsa-dong were the primary sources of all things trendy.
More than half of the major Korean entertainment companies are located here, including SM, JYP, and Cube, so it’s not uncommon to see K-pop idols roaming the area. While the companies’ offices are off-limits to the public, many have cafés and shops where you can pick up your favorite artists’ albums and memorabilia – and maybe even rub elbows with a few of your favorite stars. (Dosan Park, Cofioca, and Jenny House are also popular sites for celeb sighting!)
If you don’t happen to see a real idol, keep an eye out for the K-Star Road’s GangnamDols, a collection of 17 adorable bear sculptures that represent the country’s most beloved K-pop groups.
For the avid hiker: Seoraksan National Park
Bursting with a variety of colorful wildflowers in spring, lush verdancy in summer, fiery foliage in fall, and a soft, snow-covered landscape in winter, Seoraksan National Park makes for an excellent hiking destination any time of the year. Designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Protection site, the park also boasts thick forests, copious wildlife, several hot springs, and serene Buddhist temples.
Oeseorak (or Outer Seorak) is the most accessible area of the park, nearest to Sokcho and the sea, and is popular for its stunning waterfalls such as Biryong Falls, Oryeon Falls, and Towangseong Falls as well as unique geological formations like Ulsanbawi Rock and Geumgang Cave. In addition to the sites, the people visiting this area are very friendly; don’t be surprised if a local asks you to share a bottle of makgeolli (rice wine).
After your hike, head to the Osaek (Five Colors) area for a dip in its famous mineral springs, or stay the night in Seorak-dong, which is packed with hotels, restaurants, bars and noraebang.
For the culture vulture: Andong
Famous for its regional specialties and wooden masks, Andong is a wonderful place to explore Korea’s historical, cultural, and traditional arts-related sights.
Don’t miss the Hahoe Folk Village, an area shrouded in natural beauty and known for its traditional thatch roofed-houses, many of which are still resided in, and cultural relics. Stop by the Hahoe Mask Museum, which exhibits time-honored Korean masks that have been used in a variety of traditional mask dances for centuries. If possible, plan your trip to Andong in September to experience the city’s Mask Dance Festival, which features Korea’s unique traditional mask dances and musical performances.
Of course, you can also dabble in the culinary arts. Many of the village’s restaurants serve up the city’s specialties, including jjimdak (spicy braised chicken over glass noodles), salted mackerel and regional soju, a much stronger brew than its Seoul counterpart.
For the beach bum: Busan
With an impressive landscape of mountains and beaches, and a host of seaside seafood restaurants and beach bars, Korea’s second-largest city is an animated coastal metropolis beloved by beach bums and water sports enthusiasts.
Those seeking some fun in the sun head straight to Haeundae Beach, a white sandy stretch punctuated by craft beer bars, burger joints, and several dance clubs. Usually packed with tourists in peak season, the beach plays host to a number of events and festivals, like the Busan Sand Festival, and is the home of Busan Sealife, where participants can scuba dive (safely) with sharks.
Gwangalli Beach is a bit less crowded, but is just as beautiful. Visit at night to take in the beautifully illuminated Gwangan Bridge (which was featured in the Marvel hit Black Panther) or enjoy a performance by one of the many street musicians.
Gamcheon Culture Village, a hillside community brimming with brightly colored houses covered in murals, and Haedong Yonggung Temple, one of the only oceanside Buddhist temples in the entire nation, are also worth checking out, should you get tired of the sand.
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