It’s a beautiful, culturally and economically wealthy country with much to see and explore – but South Korea is often viewed as off-limits thanks to its irascible neighbour North Korea.
This year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang may have attracted the eyes of the world but South Korea has a lot more to offer beyond this singular sporting event. As one of our top travel destinations of 2018, here’s why South Korea should be on your travel list.
Why should you go?
The capital Seoul is a bastion of high tech super-convenience. Buildings are towering and futuristic, plus the shopping is glorious. In trendy tourist hotspot Insadong you can see traditional folk dancing, buy antiques, enjoy every flavour of patbingsu (a shaved ice dessert topped with fruit and sweet sauce) and explore a cutting-edge contemporary art scene.
It might be roughly the same size as England, but high-speed bullet trains mean you can zip the length of South Korea in no time. Just three hours on the KTX from Seoul is the bustling, foodie capital of Busan, where the fish markets and street food will make you wish you didn’t have to go home.
Hiking is a national pastime and there are 22 national parks, pristine natural environments perfect for a day or several days of serious walking. It’s not unusual to see big groups in hiking gear enjoying bottles of makgeolli, a milk-coloured rice wine, as they climb mountains.
From visiting vast palaces and sleeping on the floor in ancient houses, to eating at restaurants served by robots and watching drone football matches — South Korea really is a heady mix of new technology and ancient tradition.
Why is now a great time to visit?
With the Winter Olympics seemingly unfreezing immediate relations between North and South Korea as athletes compete under the same flag, it’s an intriguing political time to visit.
But wrap up warm. South Korea has a temperate climate but in winter the mercury dips below zero and it’ll be especially cold in the mountainous north.
The weather is perfect in spring and autumn. It gets extremely hot and humid in August, when it makes a good time to visit the luxury beach destination of Jeju Island down south.
Is it safe?
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has been threatening nuclear war in the region for some time — and that threat level increased in 2017 following two intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
While the real possibility of an attack shouldn’t be underplayed, South Koreans have been living with threats from their neighbour since the Korean war ended in 1953.
More than 140,000 Britons go to the region annually and most visits are trouble-free. It’s always worth checking the FCO’s South Korea page for the latest travel advice.
International threats aside, South Korea feels like a very safe place to visit and foreigners are made to feel very welcome. It also enjoys one of the lowest crime-rates in the developed world.
What sights shouldn’t I miss?
Jirisan National Park, on Korea’s backbone – at the southern end of the Sobaek and Baekdudaegan mountain ranges – is a hiker’s paradise. Explore green and beautiful mountains via trails of varying degrees of difficulty, stopping to swim in rivers or popping into Buddhist temples.
In Seoul, the Gyeongbokgung Palace — the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty — is a must-see. You can also swot up on history at the National Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum in the same grounds.
Tea and nature lovers shouldn’t miss the striped and undulating Boseong Green Tea Fields of Daehan Dawon. You can walk for miles among the plantation, sipping takeaway green tea lattes.
Haeundae beach in Busan is great – although teeming — in summer. It is a curving smile of white sand on a built up and populated part of the city, where you can have a great meal or head to a museum or gallery within seconds of shaking the sand off your feet.
Across South Korea coffee shops are everywhere. Themed and quirky ones, like dog and cat cafés, proliferate. And if you have little ones, then a kiddie cafe is not to be missed — the toys and play equipment allow parents to relax uninterrupted for quite some time.
For evening entertainment you can’t beat a noraebang, essentially a small cupboard that you enter with friends to sing karaoke.
What’s the food like?
Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner a bibimbap is always delicious. A rice dish with finely shredded vegetables, rice, egg and zingy sauce — it’s also one of the least spicy dishes on the menu.
Food is central to South Korean culture and it’s rare to drink alcohol without eating so you’ll always be offered or expected to order a small dish with your soju (a rice spirit that comes in many flavours).
If it’s street food you are after you are in for a treat. Dishes not to miss are: mandu (dumplings fried or floating in soups); donkass (pork cutlet, order it with cheese); twigim (crispy fried anything); kimbap (like sushi roll but no raw fish); tokkbeokki rice cakes (like heavy gnocchi in a spicy red sauce); and naengmyeon (cold noodles in an icy broth that you snip with scissors before slurping).
Where should I stay?
For a break from ultra-modernity, escape to Yongwook Lee's Traditional House near Boseong. It is owned by a descendent of the man who built the house 182-years-ago. Ancient tradition is combined with maximum comfort.
People sleep on mats on the floor in South Korea, so hotels and motels charge more for Western-style beds. In Busan, the Blue Backpacker’s Hostel is comfy and homely with a good shared kitchen and a location close to the famous Lotte shopping mall.
For around 50,000Won per night you can stay in a working Buddhist temple. Mihwangsa, in Jeollanam-do province, dates back more than a thousand years and is situated halfway up the Dalmasan “Diamond” Mountain, with jagged, diamond-shaped rock formations overhanging it through the mist. During your stay you can join monks at prayer and partake in temple life.