Places to Visit in South Korea

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The places to visit in South Korea offer the traveller a dazzling range of experiences, beguiling landscapes and 5000 years of culture and history.

South Korea is very much a land packed with places to visit. Hike to the peaks of craggy mountains enclosed by densely forested national parks. Get further off the beaten path than you though possible by sailing to remote islands, where farming and fishing folk welcome you into their homes and simple seafood cafes. Sample the serenity of a Buddhist temple retreat where the honk of traffic is replaced by the rhythmic pre-dawn chants of shaved-headed monks.

In South Korea, rugged mountain ranges slope down to pristine beaches, and bustling, cosmopolitan cities are surrounded by farmland. An exotic land of colourful celebrations and beautiful landscapes, South Korea is rife with traces of its thousands of years of history. At the same time, the country has industrialized so profoundly and so rapidly that, in urban areas, you may sometimes have to look a bit deeper to see the beauty amid the high traffic and towering concrete apartment blocks.

Best Places to Visit in South Korea

13. The DMZ

It’s known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), but this 4km-wide, 250km-long heavily mined and guarded buffer, splitting a hostile North from South Korea, is anything but. The world’s frostiest remnant of the Cold War, the border has become a surreal tourist draw. Lined on both sides by tank traps, electrical fences, landmines and armies in full battle readiness, it is one of the scariest places on earth. The tension is most palpable in the Joint Security Area (JSA), the neutral area built after then 1953 Armistice for the holding of peace talks, which can only be visited on an organised tour. Seven observations points along the DMZ allow visitors to peer into the secretive North.

12. Guin-sa

A bell rings and you wake at 3:30am to prepare for a morning meditation session. Breakfast is an austere meal, taken in silence so you can contemplate the ache in your bones from bowing 108 times in front of a Buddha image. Later, you’ll have more meditation time to contemplate the surrender of your body and mind in the search for inner peace. A Templestay is the perfect antidote to fast-paced modern South Korea. While the country is awash with temples, the impressive complex of Guin-sa is perfect in how it sequesters you in the fortress-like compound.

11. Hahoe Folk Village

The closest thing South Korea has to a time machine, the charming Hahoe Folk Village, some way from Andong, is a truly wonderful experience for anyone wanting to get a sense of how South Korea looked, felt, sounded and smelled before the 20th century rolled over it and changed the country forever. Over two hundred people continue to live here, maintaining traditional ways and customs, and even inviting people to spend the night in their minbak (private homes with rooms for rent). For a slice of old South Korea, Hahoe should be at the top of your list.

10. Gyeongju

It’s hard to choose just one stand out treasure in and around magnificent Gyeongju, but the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site of Bulguk-sa is most likely to take the honour, not least as it contains no fewer than seven Korean ‘national treasures’ within its walls. The high-point of the so-called golden age of Shilla architecture, this incredibly sophisticated yet wonderfully subtle temple complex is a monument to the skill of its carpenters, painters, craftsmen and architects, with its internal pagodas, its external bridges and the gorgeous, undulating scenery around it. Dotted with grassy burial mounds of Silla-dynasty royals, this ancient capital is the most traditional city in Korea, and should be on every visitor’s itinerary.

9. Busan

Busan has everything you could love without Seoul’s insane congestion. Bursting with mountains, beaches, hot springs, street food and seafood, South Korea’s second-largest city is a rollicking port town with tons on offer. From casual tent bars and chic designer cafes to fish markets teeming with every species imaginable, Busan has something for all tastes on land or sea. If you like your squid wriggling fresh and your soju (local vodka) served up in a tent bar, Busan should be at the top of your list. The region-leading Busan International Film Festival has a new centrepiece in the Busan Cinema Centre, an architecturally dazzling structure with the biggest screen in the country. It’s another example of this southern port’s take-no-prisoners pluck.

8. Gwangjang Market, Seoul

During the day it’s known as a place for trading in second-hand clothes and fabrics. But it’s by night that Gwangjang really comes into its own, when some of the market’s alleys fill up with vendors selling all manner of street eats. Stewed pigs’ trotters and snouts, gimbap (rice, veggies and Spam wrapped in rice and rolled in sheets of seaweed) and bindaettok (plate-sized crispy pancakes of crushed mung beans and veggies fried on a skillet), are all washed down with copious amounts of magkeolli and soju (local liquors). One of South Korea’s most earthily atmospheric places to eat, Gwangjang is a Seoul institution, with sights and smells redolent of decades gone by.

7. Jeonju Hanok Village

Jeonju’s version of a traditional village is arguably more impressive than Seoul’s. The slate-roof houses are home to traditional arts: artisans craft fans, hand-make paper and brew soju (local vodka). Foodies will be pleased that the birthplace of bibimbap (rice, egg, meat and veggies with chilli sauce) offers the definitive version of this dish. If you decide to stay (and you will), you’ll find plenty of traditional guesthouses, where visitors sleep on a yo (padded quilt) in an ondol (underfloor heating) room. In keeping with the theme, there’s even one run by the grandson of King Gojong.

6. Pyeongchang County

They say the third time’s a charm, and so Pyeongchang won with its third bid to host the Winter Olympics. In 2018, the Games will be held at the Alpensia and Yongpyong ski resorts, as well as the Gangneung coastal area. Located near each other, Alpensia and Yongpyong are Northeast Asia’s better ski resorts with dozens of runs for skiers and snowboarders, mogul bumps and cross-country trails, including slopes for families and beginners. Views of the East Sea (Sea of Japan) can be had on clear days, and there are some spanking-new accommodation and leisure facilities too. Yongpyong also hosts an International Ski Festival in February.

5. Cheong-gye-cheon, Seoul

A raised highway was demolished and the dug up ground revealed this long-buried stream. The effort has transformed Seoul’s centre, creating a riverside park and walking course that provides a calm respite from the surrounding commercial hubbub. Public art is dotted along the banks of the stream and many events are held here, including a spectacular lantern festival in November, when thousands of giant glowing paper and paint sculptures are floated in the water. There’s also a good museum where you can learn about the history of the Cheon-gye-cheon.

4. Suwon

Built as an act of filial devotion and heavily damaged during the early 20th century colonisation period and then the Korean War, the restoration of Suwon’s Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, began in the 1970s and is now almost finished. A detailed 1801 record of its construction has allowed the 5.52km-long wall and the Hwaseong Haenggung (a palace for the king to stay in during his visits to Suwon) to be rebuilt with great historical accuracy. A walk around the wall takes you through four grand gates.

3. Boryeong

Every July, thousands of people converge upon the unsuspecting (but fully welcoming) town of Boryeong and proceed to jump into gigantic vats of mud. Welcome to the Boryeong Mud Festival. The official line is that the local mud has restorative properties but one look around and it’s clear that no one really cares for much except having a slippery sloshin’ messy good time. Mud aside, this foreigner-friendly and very high-profile festival also features concerts, raves and fireworks. A tip: don’t wear anything you want to keep! South Korea’s dirtiest, most enjoyable festivals takes place each July on the west coast.

2. Jeju-do

The frequently dramatic volcanic landscape of Jeju-do, the largest of South Korea’s many islands, is best seen on foot. Climbing to the summit of Hallasan, the country’s highest peak, is very achievable and, in good weather, provides spectacular views. The Jeju Olle Trail is a network of 26 half- to one-day hiking routes that meander around the island’s coast, part of the hinterland and three other islands. Get to know South Korea’s largest island by spending a day following all or part of a trail, which passes beaches, temples and mini-volcanoes on its circumnavigation of the island. It’s a wonderful way to soak up Jeju’s unique charms and beautiful surroundings.

1. Changdeokgung, Seoul

The ‘Palace of Illustrious Virtue’ was built in the early 15th century as a secondary palace to Gyeonbukgung; these days this UNESCO World Heritage-listed property exceeds Gyeonbukgung in beauty and grace – partly because so many of its buildings were actually lived in by members of royal family well into the 20th century. The most charming section is the Huwon, a ‘secret garden’ that is a royal horticultural idyll. Saunter, as kings once did, through this dreamy palace in central Seoul. Book well ahead to snag one of the limited tickets to view this special palace on the moonlight tours held during full-moon nights in the warm months.

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