South Korea is a dream destination for the traveller, an engaging, welcoming place where the benefits of a fully industrialised, high-tech nation are balanced alongside a reverence for traditions and the ways of old Asia.
Dangling off East Asia like a giant dewdrop, South Korea is a pleasingly underexplored mix of pine-clad mountains, misty archipelagos and rice paddies of emerald green, interspersed with urban pockets of incomparable joie de vivre. Surrounded by the global powerhouses of China, Japan and Russia, South Korea is turning into a little powerhouse of its own, and its traditions and customs have largely survived intact through troubled times.
South Korea’s cities are a pulsating feast of eye-searing neon, feverish activity and round-the-clock business. Here you can shop till you drop at markets that never close, feast on eye-wateringly spicy food, get giddy on a bottle or two of soju, then sweat out the day’s exertions at a night-time sauna. However, set foot outside the urban centres and your mere presence will cause quite a stir – in the remote rural areas life continues much as it did before the “Economics Miracle” of the 1970s, and pockets of islands exist where few foreigners have ever set foot.
South Korea’s compact size and superb transport infrastructure mean that tranquillity is achievable within an hour of the urban sprawl. Hike to the peaks of craggy mountains enclosed by densely forested national parks. Sail to remote islands, where farming and fishing folk welcome you into their homes. Sample the serenity of a Buddhist temple retreat. But rest assured – South Korea knows how to rock. There’s almost always a festival or event on, and friendly Koreans are happy to share their culture. For visitors, this highly distinctive culture is an absolute joy to dive into, whether it’s drinking ginseng infusions at a Seoul teahouse, peeking into a temple full of sutra-chanting monks, watching the spectacular ribbon-hatted “farmers’ dance”, or barbecuing galbi meat with new-found friends. If nothing else, your tastebuds will be tingling at the discovery of one of Asia’s most delicious cuisines.
Top Reasons to Visit South Korea
South Korea’s cities are a pulsating feast of eye-searing neon, feverish activity and round-the-clock business.
Seoul is a city to be explored all on its own with its efficient subway system that takes you everywhere from Apgujeong to Changdeokgung. Take the high-speed KTX train to Gyeongju to experience South Korea’s historic sites, or visit the beaches of Busan. Smaller towns hold the greatest rewards, such as the gorgeous islands viewed from the cable car atop Tongyeong and the neatly lined shrubs of green tea growing on soft hillsides in Boseong.
The best city experiences are:
Seeing the city lights twinkling below from Namsan, Seoul
Taking a night cruise along the Han River, Seoul
Browsing contemporary art in Samcheongdong, Seoul
Enjoying an al fresco cup of joe (coffee) on Gwangalli Beach, Busan
Shopping in a multi-level department store, throughout South Korea
The mountainous South Korean Peninsula provides an abundance of ravishing vistas and natural beauty spots. Urban centres have their charms too, but for real serenity head to one of the hundreds of islands.
South Korea is best explored when the cherry blossoms bloom in full force in the spring or when the fall (autumn) foliage lights up the landscape with fiery colour, especially in Seoraksan. The country’s mountainous terrain is best seen with comfortable shoes and a rental car. Deeper beauty can be found in quieter temples like Hyangilam or the unusual Buddha statues in Unjusa in Jeolla-do.
Being a peninsula, South Korea has incredibly dramatic coasts. Busan has wide sandy beaches, like Haeundae, while Gangwondo’s rocky coasts cascade down to dramatic waves. Tiny islands stretch out as far as the eye can see off the southern coasts of Jeolla-do and Gyeongsang-do, including the dinosaur nesting grounds of Goseong. Jeju-do has unforgettable coasts, created when volcanic lava cooked quickly in the surrounding sea.
Must-visit natural landscapes:
Namsan & N Seoul Tower
TRADITIONAL ARCHITECTURE & ARTS
Ornate Buddhist temples and royal palaces hold some of South Korea’s most impressive traditional architecture. Also see how ordinary folk lived in more modest, but architecturally pleasing, hanok.
Examples of architecture from all periods of Korea’s history can be discovered across the country. Seoul is particular offers a fascinating hodgepodge of the old and the new with ancient fortress walls, grand palaces and decorative temples within walking distance of charming early-20th century hanok (traditional wooden homes) and dramatic contemporary structures such as Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Korea also offers a spectacular range of arts. Rich, colourful costumes set the scene for passionate traditional pansori operas. Folk dances such as samullori, with its whirling dervish of dances, seamlessly meld the cacophonous and melodic. The country’s cinematic output along with Korean pop (K-pop) and TV operas makes up the hallyu (Korean Wave) of popular culture sweeping across the world.
Don’t miss these hanoks, temples and palaces:
Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul
Jeonju Hanok Maeul, Jeonju
Seongeup Folk Village, Jeju-do
Hahoe Folk Village, Hahoe
If you’re heading to South Korea, try to organise your holiday to coincide with one of the country’s top festivals and events. It’s one of the best ways to get a feel for South Korean culture and tradition.
On even a short trip around the country you’re more than likely to stumble across a special event of some sort. Many are religious in nature, with Buddhist celebrations supplemented by Confucian and even animist events. Most festivals are concentrated around springs and autumn, but there are many spread throughout the year. If you’re heading to one, don’t be shy – the locals love to see foreigners joining in with traditional Korean events, and those who dare to get stuck in may finish the day with a whole troupe of new friends.
Top festivals to experience:
Yeon Deung Ho (Lotus Lantern Festival), May
Jongmyo Daeje, May
Boryeong Mud Festival, July
Busan International Film Festival, September/October
Gwangju Biennale, September to Novembr
Korean cuisine deserves greater inter national attention. A thrillingly spicy mishmash of simple but invariably healthy ingredients, it’s prepared with consummate attention, and doled out in hearty portions at more restaurants than you could possibly count.
It’s not all about kimchi! Let your appetite lead you on a merry banquet around Korea and you’ll be astounded and sated by the range of culinary offerings, much of it unfamiliar outside of the country. Each region of the country has its own specialty, based on the season and what’s grown nearby. Beach towns specialise in hwae (raw fish) and other seafood, such as shellfish hand-caught by women divers in Jeju-do. Gangwon-do is known for its potatoes, Jinju for its bibimbap (mixed rice bowl) and Danyang for its garlic. Grill meat on your table, slurp chewy cold naengmyeon bbang (buckwheat noodles) in the summer or just enjoy some spicy boong-uh-bbang (goldfish cookies) from a street vendor.
The best food & drink experiences:
Cooking your own meat on a tabletop grill
Noshing from Namdaemun Market’s many street vendors, Seoul
Picking your catch at Jagalchi Market, Busan
Drinking homemade rice wine in a remote village
Stopping for seaside dining on the rocks at Yongmeoli Haean, Jeju-do
Enjoying a cup of tea while overlooking the city’s shoppers, Insadong
Scaring off vampires with garlic in Danyang, Chungcheongbuk-do
South Korea’s year is split into four distinct seasons. Spring generally lasts from April to June, and is one of the best times to visit: flowers are in bloom, and a frothy spray of cherry blossom washes a brief wave of pinkish white from south to north. Locals head for the hills, making use of the country’s many national parks, and the effects of the change in weather can also be seen in a number of interesting festivals.
South Korea’s summer, on the other hand, can be unbearably muggy, and you may find yourself leaping from one air-conditioned sanctuary to the next. It’s best to avoid the monsoon season: more than half of the country’s annual rain falls from early July to late August. In a neat reversal of history, Japan and China protect South Korea from most of the area’s typhoons, but one of two manage to get through the gap each year.
The very best time of the year to visit is autumn (Sept-Nov), when temperatures are mild, rainfall is generally low and festivals are easy to come across. South Korea’s mountains erupt in a magnificent array of reds, yellows and oranges, and locals flock to national parks to picnic under their fiery canopies. T-shirt weather can continue long into October, though you’re likely to need some extra layers by then.
The Korean winter is long and cold, with the effects of the Siberian weather system more pronounced the further north you go. However, travel at this time is far from impossible – public transport services continue undaunted, underfloor ondol heating systems are cranked up, and the lack of rain creates photogenic contrasts between powdery snow, crisp blue skies, off-back pine trees and the earthy yellow of dead grass.
Where is South Korea located?
At 96,920 sq km, South Korea is a similar size to Portugal. Located in South East Asia, the country is bordered only by North Korea and has 2413km of coastline along three seas – the West Sea (also known as the Yellow Sea), the East Sea (Sea of Japan) and the South Sea (East China Sea). Its overall length from north to south is 500km, while the narrowest point is 220 km wide.