Visit Korea – Voted number 2 in the world by Lonely Planet as one of the best countries to visit in 2018, it’s insane how much rapt South Korea is getting these days. Long before the global spotlight was on the country, though, many travellers would have attributed the popularity of South Korea to the irresistible scent of fried chicken and beer wafting through the alleys of Seoul, the allure of a city with a nightlife full of bright lights and drunken antics, and the possibility of slipping on some ice whilst totally engrossed in your odeng stick, only to fall into the arms of your currently Kpop celebrity crush in the middle of the streets.
These days, people are traversing to all corners of South Korea, on a plight to find the next monumental mountain to hike, the next secluded beach to bask at, the next hidden pub to down bottles and bottles of soju with the locals, or even the next big ‘discovered’ city that, in a few year’s time, will have foreigners streaming in to inhabit the limited hotels and guesthouses and fuelling the tourism economy that they didn’t even know existed. And because of the occupancy on South Korea’s land and the sheer number of the population, there are still so many places, things, and people being discovered by people today who dare to walk the path less taken.
In light of all the above attention South Korea has been getting, when you visit South Korea, you truly want to get the best experience that you can, whether you’re an urban-dweller or prefer to be at one with nature, but these days, the bombardment of places to visit in Korea can put almost anyone off planning the trip. The internet is absolutely saturated with boundless suggestions for places to visit, and you might a bit confused as to what might truly be the best places to go. Well, below we’ve curated the top 10 places you should not miss whilst in South Korea. Some are predictable, some you have have never heard of, but all are definitely worth a visit.
1. Visit Korea – Myeongdong Night Market (Seoul)
Almost considered the heart and soul of Seoul, Myeongdong Night Market is a must visit for anyone who wants to truly experience the Korean nightlife so commonly portrayed in all the famous dramas, including the loud raving stallholders, the endless stalls of ‘odeng’ (fish cake skewers) and fried chicken, the tables upon tables of adorable Korean accessories at dirt-cheap prices, and the smells of distinct Korean spices permeating the air everywhere you walk. Apart from all the delicious food and unique Korean products you’d be able to purchase through the stallholders, Myeongdong’s known globally to have the biggest and best concentration of Korean skincare brand shops – if you’re a diehard Korean skincare fanatic, be prepared to spend hours here, trying on all the samples and probably buying everything you can get your hands on.
As easy to get to as 1-2-3, Myeongdong sits in the centre of the Seoul City, and is the perfect place to head to after a big day of exploring to sample each and every item sold by the skilled cooks/stallholders, to get your quick (and delicious) food fix before a big night out in the city, or the place you’d go to after a big dinner to gorge on additional street food and snacks until you’re ready to explode. It absolutely fits in anywhere on anyone’s itinerary, and whilst it’s been spoken about probably a million times before by other South Korea enthusiasts, that definitely shouldn’t take away from the charisma of the place – it just means it’s still as big, unique, entertaining, and well worth a visit as ever. For more on Myeongdong Night Market, have a read of our top things to do in Seoul article here.
2. Visit Korea – Gamcheon Culture Village (Busan)
Touted as ‘Korea’s Santorini’ and ‘Korean’s Macchu Pichu’, this Busan village has made a name for itself as being one of the most picturesque seaside villages in all of Korea. Its uniqueness comes from the colourful one-story homes that artfully climb the steep landscape of the mountain that they sit on, painting a beautiful picture of splashes of bright colour against the seaside.
When you visit this village, you can quite happily spend a few hours exploring the small, narrow streets, decorated with murals painted by the locals. Culture centres are located within the village also, for you to discover just a little more about this scenic destination. Upon arrival, you can even grab a map from the tourist centre which displays the most popular scenic spots that you can visit and receive stamps for. However, for those explorers who want to just wander and see where the road takes this, this is the perfect place to do that. Every corner you turn you will see some unique form of art, and everything you see will be worth a picture or two. An activity like this is perfect for a romantic date, a group of adventure-seeking friends, or even a family with children. To learn more about Gamcheon Culture Village, read our Busan article.
3. Mount Hallasan (Jeju Island)
Known as South Korea’s tallest mountain with a distinctive volcanic crater peak, standing at 2000m elevation, Mount Hallasan is one of the greatest adventures you can have as a hiker. Considered as scenic, challenging, and worthwhile as the type of hikes you’d encounter in British Columbia and Oregon, Mount Hallasan has five different trails that can be taken up the mountain with adversity levels to suit every kind of person. Whilst only two of the five trails reach the top of the mountain, even a short hike up the easier and shorter trails will reward you with some stunning views.
One of the most popular times to hike Mount Hallasan would be winter, as when you reach the peak of the mountain, the snow-capped landscape that beholds you will literally take your breath away. Miles and miles of the island can be viewed from the top, and with the blue ocean stretching all the way into the horizon, it really doesn’t get much better than this. To read more about Mount Hallasan, check out our Jeju Island post.
4. Visit Korea – Gyeongbokgung Palace (Seoul)
Easily one of the most popular attractions in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung is a must for all those who appreciate refined historical beauty in the most authentic fashion. Gyeongbokgung Palace was the first of the royal palaces built during the Joseon Era.
It now sits in the heart of Seoul. Great efforts over the years have been poured in by the Korean government to preserve, maintain, and restore the palace to its original setting for future generations and visitors to learn and appreciate the way of life back in history.
It is a beautiful palace to view from the inside, and the outside is equally as stunning, provided you go during a time and day that avoids the crowds of tourists (usually bright and early in the morning, and on a weekday). To really get into the experience, dress up in a traditional hanbok and walk the grounds for some authentic looking pictures. Want to learn more about the Palace? Check out our article on top things to do in Seoul here.
5. Visit Korea – Seoraksan National Park (Gangwon)
After observation points high up in the clouds? Mountainside landscapes that stretch deep into the horizon? Miles of luscious green forest beds that allude towards the Garden of Eden? Seoraksan National Park just might be South Korea’s best kept secret in this aspect. Located in the North-Eastern province of Gangwon-do, the National Park itself is reachable from Seoul via an express bus that takes roughly 2.5 hours. However, depending on where you want to go, there are different bus routes that will take you to different entrances to the park.
There is a limitless list of things to do at Seoraksan National Park, including riding a cable car up to the mountaintops, visiting some temples, relaxing near some rocky streams, exploring caves, but mostly, there are a tonne of hiking courses that suit anyone from infants to the elderly. They range from only 30 minutes to roughly 15 hours (obviously they would have to be completed overnight), but most are between the 1 to 4-hour range, and can be done during a day trip alongside other sightseeing activities. It is the perfect option to get out of Seoul for a day and discover the nature side of South Korea.
Address: Seoraksan-ro, Sokcho-si, Gangwon-do
Book: Seoraksan & Nami Island Tour (from Seoul)
6. Taejongdae Park (Busan)
Highly underrated as a place to visit for unique rock formation and gorges to rival that of Taroko Gorge in Taiwan, Taejongdae Park is reserved for those who are after stunning scenery of complex nature formations that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Located in Busan, Taejongdae is not too popular amongst tourists for the time being, but this is quickly changing as people traveling to South Korea are expanding outside of the normal Seoul city and heading to charming seaside areas like Busan to seek the more rural geographies of South Korea.
Taejongdae Park itself is a consolidation of cliff edges, pine tree forests, lighthouses, temples, observatories, and more, but one would only truly visit Taejongdae to view the ocean as a mystique body of fifty shades of blue water, splashing artistically against massive gorges of rock. It’s overwhelming and awe-inspiring and stunning all at the same time, and capturing this beauty with your camera would make for a memorable and unique perspective of South Korea to bring back home. To find out more about Taejongdae Park, have a read of our Busan article.
7. Visit Korea – Bukchon Hanok Village (Seoul)
Located within the city of Seoul, Bukchon Hanok Village is a magnificently preserved village dating back 600 years to the Joseon Dynasty. For those who don’t just want to learn about Korean history, but want to feel it seeping through their shoes and under their fingers on the wooden walls framing the narrow streets, a walk through the peaceful Bukchon village that houses hundreds of traditional Korean houses called ‘hanok’ will immediately transport you back into the olden era.
Features of this village include narrow streets and very traditional-looking homes with pagoda-style roofs. Today, very little residents remain in the area, however, the buildings have been transformed to quaint restaurants, guesthouses, and tea houses, making it the perfect place to do some exploring and then indulging in some authentic Korean food culture.
For those wanting to learn more about the village, there are cultural centres within the village also, which offer some details on the village’s significance, and how it came to be the attraction that it is today.
Address: 37, Gyedong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Access: From Seoul, take the train to Anguk Station, and use Exit 1 or 2. Head straight for about 3 – 4 minutes and you will arrive at Bukchon Hanok Village.
8. Visit Korea – Homigot (Daebo-myeon)
If you’re a self-confessed sunrise-chaser and enjoy waking up when it’s still dark to try and catch the first rays of light, then Homigot, located at the eastern-most end of the Korean peninsula, is where you need to be. It is the absolute first place in the entire country that the sun’s rays hits, and there is even an entire sunrise festival dedicated to it annually.
When visitors arrive at Homigot, they will see a two-part bronze sculpture in the shape of a pair of hands. This is the national symbol of the sunrise festival, called the “Hand of Harmoney”. When standing in the right angle, when the sun rises you will be able to capture the sun’s rays slipping through the fingers and then sitting on the palm of the hand.
Aside from the most breathtaking view of the sunrise in Korea, Homigot also offers incredible views of the Eastern Sea, visible from the moment you step out of the designated parking lot for visitors. You can make it a day (or just a morning) and visit the rows of restaurants selling fresh seafood and authentic Korean cuisine afterwards.
Access: From Dong Seoul Bus Terminal or Seoul Express Bus Terminal, take a bus to Pohang (approximately 4 hours 40 minutes). Alight and take Bus 200 to Guryongpo Stop. From there, transfer to Bus 203 and alight at Homigot Sunrise Square Bus Stop.
9. Sinpo International Market (Incheon)
As one of the leading food markets in South Korea, Sinpo International Market has a lot to answer for its fame. And given that it’s famous dish is ‘dakgangjeong’, which translates to fried chicken, one of the most famous Korean street food worldwide, it’s proven that it’s fame is well-deserved.
Having come into existence in the late 19th century, and officially becoming a market in 1970, Sinpo now boasts 140 different market stalls, each selling everything from fresh vegetables and fruits to fried chicken made with special secret sweet and spicy sauce, Shinpo-dumplings, tteokbokki, and every kind of Korean streetfood you can imagine. It’s foodie’s absolute dream destination. You will also notice some Chinese influence on some dishes as well, as it is located to the famous Incheon Chinatown nearby. To find out more details about the Sinpo International Market, have a read of our Incheon top places to visit.
10. Visit Korea – Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
Japan is the number one destination in the world for cherry blossoms – absolutely no one can dispute that. However, it doesn’t mean that around the world, there is less beauty during cherry blossom season, and that’s certainly not the case when it comes to Jinhae, unofficially known as South Korea’s home of the cherry blossoms.
Just like in Japan, every year, the season for cherry blossoms waver according to the weather, but they generally happen around mid – late April. The cherry blossoms are become somewhat of a symbol of the city, and because of this, there is even an annual Cherry Blossom festival dedicated to it!
Whilst you can easily revert back to your pictures of the last time you visited Japan during cherry blossom season and adopt the mindset that nothing could be prettier, open your eyes and mind up to the fact that cherry blossoms in a completely different country could translate to an equally, if not more, stunning imagery, as the setting is different, the landscape is different, and most importantly, the crowds are different, or rather, the crowd size. In Japan, millions of tourists flock to the cherry blossom hotspots over the few week period to experience the explosion of pink petals. However, in Jinhae, only up to a million visitors are expected during that season.
The Jinhae Gunhangje Cherry Blossom Festival, which usually happens during April, is a ten-day festival that celebrates the beautiful blossoms. Visitors who come during this time can participate in festivities at the ‘Romance Bridge’ (Yeojwacheon Bridge), Gyeonghwa Station, and Yeojwacheon Stream, and purchase food and drinks that all align with the cherry blossom theme at the festival stalls.
The 2018 festival happened from April 1 – April 10.
Access (to Jinhae): From Seoul’s Nambu Bus Terminal, a bus to Jinhae takes approximately 4 hours, and costs 25,000 won. From Busan, there are buses that run every 15 minutes, and take 45-minutes to 1 hour.
As you can, there are so, so many reasons as to why you should visit South Korea. Lonely Planet are pioneers in the field, and they do know what they’re talking about when they voted it as the second best place to visit in 2018 (and it’ll just get better every year after that).