South Korea is a land of extremes. You can walk amongst the ruins of the Joseon dynasty, and then go watch pro-gamers compete in a Starcraft tournament. You might meditate at a Buddhist temple, and then go sing your heart out in a private karaoke room. Whatever it is that excites you, you’ll be able to find some version of it here.
Seoul is the capital of South Korea, and it is most likely the place where you will arrive. Packed with cultural and historical sites, and great activities and food, Seoul is the perfect place to begin your Korean adventure!
- Gyeongbokgung Palace (the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty)
Beginning your journey at Gyeongbokgung Palace will fill you with a sense of awe. Located in the middle of Seoul, you will immediately notice the palace’s imposing gates and walls. Walk through the palace’s grand gate, and stand in the same courtyard where ancient Korean kings used to hold court.
The palace was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in the 16th century. It was rebuilt and used as the centre of Joseon government for centuries afterwards. Today, you can experience its verdant gardens, beautifully detailed pagodas, and colourful artwork. There is also a museum on the palace grounds where you can learn about some the rich and fascinating Korean history.
After you lose yourself in the palace, it might feel like the afternoon has passed in only a few minutes.
- Drink tea at a tea house in Insadong
When you are finished exploring the palace, you’ll be near Insadong. There is a famous street that runs through Insadong which caters to tourists. It is a vibrant and exciting area to explore. There are plenty of traditional Korean crafts to admire or buy, impromptu shows to watch, and tasty Korean restaurants.
If you enjoy tea, drinking tea at a traditional Korean tea house is something you won’t want to miss. Your experience will vary, depending on the specific tea house you visit, but be prepared to sit on the floor (don’t worry, they’ll give you a cushion). The presentation of the tea and the atmosphere of the tea house will make you feel as if you were in ancient Korea.
- Hike Bukhan Mountain
Seoul has many wonderful mountain trails that are easily accessible from public transportation, and give amazing views of the city. If you have the time, hike a few of them. Hike all of them if you can.
But if you can only do one mountain, Bukhan Mountain is the one you’re looking for. It is located on the northern edge of Seoul. There are several peaks you can hike to, and the trails are interconnected. You could spend an hour or two doing a single peak, or you could spend the entire day hiking from one peak to the next.
Most of the peaks will provide you with a great panoramic view of Seoul. Make sure you pack yourself a kimbap (rice, stuffed with vegetables, and wrapped in dried seaweed), and enjoy it on the top of the mountain, while you take in the view.
- Buddhist Temple Stay
There are a number of Buddhist temples in Korea that allow visitors to stay overnight (or several nights). Depending on the temple, the monks might engage you in guided meditation practices, or stringing beads on a necklace, or chanting.
- Visit the DMZ
You can arrange a tour (preferably with the USO) to the DMZ (the De-Militarized Zone). The border between North and South Korea is currently the most heavily fortified border in the world. The conflict between the two countries has lasted over 50 years, and you will learn some fascinating details about the conflict.
The tour includes a trip to the JSA (Joint Security Area), where you can step inside a room that is actually North Korean territory! Also, you will probably notice a North Korean guard with binoculars, staring you down.
- Eat Pajeon and drink Makgeolli in a tent on the street
Pajeon is often referred to as a Korean pancake. It is cooked with green onions, and you can find versions that include kimchi and seafood as well. Makgeolli is sweet Korean rice wine. These two go very well together. These tents are very common in the busy areas of Seoul, such as Hongdae and Gangnam.
- Get out of Seoul
Seoul gets a lot of attention, and for good reason: it’s huge, and about half the population of Korea lives there. However, if you have more than a week to explore Korea, you might want to consider leaving Seoul, and venturing out to one of these places:
- Jindo Island, and the Sea Road Festival
Jindo Island is where the famed Jindo dog originates from. The locals here are quite proud of that fact, and they hold Jindo dog shows. Come during the Spring and you can take part in the Sea Road Festival. When the tide goes out, a huge crowd of people walk across the ocean floor to a nearby island.
- Sokcho, and Seorak Mountain
Sokcho is a city on the eastern side of Korea and can be reached by a four-hour bus ride from Seoul. There you can find great seafood, nice beaches, and Seorak Mountain. A day-long hike along Dragon Ridge on Seorak Mountain is an incredible experience, especially during the fall season. Finish it off with some Korean barbeque when you get back.
Article By: Tom Thayer is from the US, but lives and works in Korea, teaching English.