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. Or 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. In this guide with have collected the best places to visit and best things to do in South Korea.
1. Visit Insadong Tearooms
Tea may have ceded ground to coffee across the nation, but Seoul’s traditional Insadong district still has dozens of secluded tearooms serving traditional brews.
Tea is big business in Korea. Unfortunately, most of the drinking takes place at home or work, though Insadong in Seoul has dozens of interesting tearooms and there are some gems outside national parks and in Jeonju’s hanok district. Green tea is by far the most popular, though if you find your way to a specialist tearoom, do take the opportunity to try something more special.
2. Enjoy the beauty of Huwon, Seoul
Relax by the lake as kings once did at this secluded “Secret Garden”, which nestles at the back of a UNESCO-listed palace in central Seoul. Seriously consider putting a visit to this place on your list of things to do in South Korea.
The palace’s undoubted highlight is Huwon (후원), usually referred to in Seoul’s tourist literature as the “Secret Garden”. Approached via a suitably mysterious path, the garden is concealed by an arch of leaves. In the centre is a lotus pond, one of Seoul’s most photographed sights, and alive with flowers in late June or early July.
- Best for location: Orakai Insadong Suites. Centrally located in Orakai Insadong Suites offers luxurious self-catering apartments with a well-equipped kitchenette and satellite TV. Facilities include an indoor swimming pool, fitness centre and sauna facilities.
Where to stay in Seoul:
- Best for backpackers: 57 Myeongdong Hostel. 57 Myeongdong Hostel is conveniently located 150 m from Exit 5 of Myeongdong Subway Station (Line 4) and offers private rooms with WiFi and city views.
3. Immerse yourself in Korean culture at Jeonju Hanok Village
One of the best things to do in South Korea for cultural purposes is visiting Jeonju Hanok Village. Here you can sleep in a traditional wooden hanok house heated from underneath by gentle flames, in one of Korea’s most agreeable cities.
Jeonju’s main attraction is undoubtedly its splendid hanok village, a city-centre thatch of largely traditional housing. Highlights here include a cathedral, an ancient shrine and a former Confucian academy, as well as museums for calligraphy, paper and wine; musical pansori performances are also frequent, and you may even be able to participate in traditional activities such as weaving or lantern making.
- Best for atmosphere: Sarangroo. Featuring a shared lounge, garden and views of the garden, Sarangroo is located in Jeonju, 600 m from Jeonju Hanok Village. The property is situated 800 m from Seunggwangjae, 700 m from Jeonju Fan Culture Center and 700 m from Gyodong Art Center.
Where to stay in Jeonju Hanok Village:
- Best for traditional setting: Jungdam. Set in Jeonju Hanok Village, Jungdam offers air-conditioned rooms and a garden. This property is situated a short distance from attractions such as Gyodong Art Center, Jeonju Korean Traditional Wine Museum, and Jeonju Fan Culture Center.
Discover the majestic temples of South Korea on our tailor-made tour to the Temples and Nature in Korea.
4. Get involved in Boryeong Mud Festival
Korea’s dirtiest, most enjoyable festival takes place each July on the west coast – don’t forget your soap.
English teachers and American soldiers across the land circle the Boryeong mud festival in their diaries, but there’s plenty going on by the beach for most of the year. For two July weekends, and the space in between them, the beach is a sea of mud splattered foreigners and their Korean buddies.
The stuff is everywhere, allowing participants to wrestle or slide around in it, throw it at their friends or smear it all over themselves, then take lots and lots of pictures – some will end up on TV, in newspapers or even on tourism posters.
5. Try Makgeolli
Get drunk the local way with this milky rice wine, which has undergone a huge surge in popularity of late.
The local drinking scene has recently been shaken up by sudden increases in demand for two particular alcoholic drinks. First of all came the makgeolli craze: for decades young Koreans pooh-poohed this delicious rice beer, but it has been given a new lease of life, and is now sold at mini-markets and convenience stores across the country; Seoul even has a bunch of chic bar-restaurants dedicated to the stuff.
6. Visit Teddy Bear Museum
The epitome of kitsch, most notable for its diorama room portraying twentieth-century events such as teddies tearing down the Berlin Wall, landing on the moon and going down with the Titanic.
Although it may sound like the epitome of Jeju tack, the Teddy Bear Museum impresses even its most sceptical visitors. The main building is filled with floors of bears, but the diorama room is the museum highlight, with furry depictions of historical events – one for every decade of the twentieth century.
7. Take a walk in Guinsa
The most distinctive temple complex in the country, Guinsa’s paths wind snake-like routes up a tight, remote valley in Korea’s heartland.
Shoehorned into a tranquil valley northeast of Danyang is Guinsa, one of Korea’s more remarkable temple complexes. A great divider among Koreans, it’s viewed by many as the most un-Korean temple, which is emphatically true – the colours and building styles are hard to find anywhere else in the country, and the usual elegant restraint of the traditional layouts has been replaced by a desire to show off.
8. Experience tranquillity at Dosan Seowon
The wonderfully unspoilt countryside surrounding the city of Andong is studded with gems, and this former Confucian academy is one of the best.
Dosan Seowon is a Confucian academy, surrounded by some of the most gorgeous countryside that the area can offer – on the bus journey here from Andong, you’ll find yourself winding your way past rice paddies and some pleasantly unspoiled countryside, before ducking down to the academy’s entrance.
From here it’s a short walk to the complex itself; the wide valley to your right is simply stunning, the sound of rushing water from the stream occasionally augmented by the splutter of a faraway tractor. Walking through the valley in complete tranquillity is one of the calming things to do in South Korea.
9. Visit West Sea Islands
Over three thousand islands are sprinkled like confetti around Korea’s western coast – pick up a map in Mokpo, get on a ferry and lose track of time.
The Korean peninsula has thousands of islands on its fringes, but the seas around Mokpo have by far the greatest concentration. Though many of these are merely bluffs of barnacled rock that yo-yo in and out of the West Sea with the tide, plenty are large enough to support fishing communities; they’re all accessible by ferry from Mokpo.
The quantity of islands here is, in fact, so vast that it’s easier to trailblaze here than in some less-developed Asian countries – many of the islands’ inhabitants have never seen a foreigner, and it’s hard to find a more quintessentially Korean experience.
10. Take a stroll around Dongdaemun Market
A 24-hour market in a city that never sleeps, Dongdaemun is a Seoul institution, with sights and smells redolent of decades gone by.
Dongdaemun market is the largest in the country, spread out, open-air and indoors, in various locations around the prettified Cheonggyecheon creek. It would be impossible to list the whole range of things on sale here – you’ll find yourself walking past anything from herbs to hanbok or paper lanterns to knock-off clothing, usually on sale for reasonable prices.
Though each section of the market has its own opening and closing time, the complex as a whole simply never closes, so at least part of it will be open whenever you decide to come. Night-time is when the market is at its most atmospheric, with clothes stores pumping out music into the street at ear-splitting volume, and the
air is filled with the smell of freshly made food sizzling at streetside stalls.
11. Hiking in the Naejangsan National Park - one of the things to do in South Korea to admire the scenery
Shaped like a soft volcano, this national park’s ring of peaks provides the country’s most mesmerising displays of autumn foliage.
Naejangsan National Park is one of Korea’s most popular parks, its circle of peaks flaring up like a gas ring in the autumn. Maple trees are the stars of the show in this annual incandescence, with squads of elm, ash and hornbeam adding their hues to the mix.
The many trails and peaks across the park keep hikers happy year-round, though most visitors head to the amphitheatre-shaped mountain circle in the northeast, where the nearby tourist village has plenty of accommodation and places to eat.
12. Visit the DMZ
Take a step inside the 4km-wide Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea: the world’s frostiest remnant of the Cold War.
The route to Panmunjom follows the Reunification Highway from Kaesong. Your first stop will be at the KPA guardpost, which sits just outside the northern barrier of the DMZ; the southern flank is just 4km away, though it feels much further.
After being given a short presentation of the site by a local soldier, it’s time for the ride into the DMZ itself – note the huge slabs of concrete at the sides of the road, ready to be dropped to block the way of any invading tanks (this same system is in place on the other side).
A short way into the DMZ is the Armistice Hall, which was cobbled together at incredible speed by North Korean soldiers to provide a suitable venue for the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, a document which brought about a ceasefire to the Korean War on July 27, 1953.
Experience the highlights of Korea with our tailor-made trip to Culture & Island life. Fascinating Seoul with a day trip to the DMZ, followed by days in Gyeongju and Busan. Afterwards, leave the mainland and fly to Jeju Island. Enjoy the crystal blue waters and island culture.
13. Visit Buamdong
Seoul’s latest “secret” area is a quiet maze of roads tucked away behind the royal palaces. Here you’ll find elegant restaurants and cafés – and very few tourists.
Hidden from central Seoul by the mountain of Bugaksan, Buamdong is one of the capital’s quaintest and calmest corners. Recent years have seen its fame propelled by modern Korea’s number-one cultural catalyst, the television drama: ever since the picturesque café Sanmotungi was used as a set in hit drama The Coffee Prince, young Seoulites have been heading to the area in ever greater numbers.
Despite this, Buamdong retains a tranquillity that’s almost impossible to find in other parts of Seoul, as well as a smattering of galleries and excellent places to eat and drink.
14. Singing in Noraebang - one of the best things to do in South Korea for fun
A near-mandatory part of a Korean night out is a trip to a “singing room”, the local take on Japan’s karaoke bars. These “singing rooms”, found all over the country, are wildly popular with people of all ages; if you have Korean friends, they’re bound to invite you, as noraebang are usually sam-cha in a Korean night out – the “third step” after a meal and drinks.
You don’t sing in front of a crowd, but in a small room with your friends, where you’ll find sofas, a TV, books full of songs to choose from and a couple of maracas or tambourines to play. Foreigners are usually intimidated at first, but after a few drinks it can be tough to get the microphone out of people’s hands.
15. Treat yourself with Galbi
A fire at the centre of your table and a plate of raw meat to fling onto it – could this be one of the most fun things to do in South Korea?
Barbecued meat is one of Korea’s signature foods, and a whole lot of fun – for carnivores, at least. Here, you get to play chef with a plate of raw meat commonly placed on a grill over charcoal, and a pair of scissors to slice it all up. As excess fat drips off the meat onto the briquettes it releases the occasional tongue of flame, which lends a genuine air of excitement to the meal.
Two of the most popular meat dishes are galbi and samgyeopsal, which are almost always cooked by the diners themselves in the centre of the table. Galbi is rib-meat, most often beef (so-galbi; 소갈비) but sometimes pork (dwaeji-galbi; 돼지갈비). Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) consists of strips of rather fatty pork belly.
Find some top places to eat Korean food in our guide.
16. Visit Gongsanseong
Overlooking the river in sleepy Gongju, the walls of this fortress follow an almost caldera-like course; in the middle you’ll find dreamy pavilions and walking paths.
For centuries, Gongju’s focal point has been the hilltop fortress of Gongsanseong, whose 2.6km-long perimeter wall was built from local mud in Baekje times, before receiving a stone upgrade in the seventeenth century. It’s possible to walk the entire circumference of the wall, a flag-pocked, up-and-down course that occasionally aff ords splendid views of Gongju and its surrounding area.
The grounds inside are worth a look too, inhabited by stripey squirrels and riddled with paths leading to a number of carefully painted pavilions.
Find out more details about Gongsanseong in our guide about the Baekje dynasty in Korea.
17. Watch the sunrise at Jeongdongjin
Korea’s most surreal village has a train station on the beach, a ship-hotel atop a cliff, an American warship and a North Korean spy submarine.
For those bored with temples, war museums and national parks, the area around Jeongdongjin has some rather more unusual attractions to float your boat. Near this small, windswept coastal village lie two retired nautical vessels: an American warship from the Korean War, and an equally authentic North Korean submarine.
From Gangneung, trains make the short trip down the coast, much of which is cordoned off with barbed wire, before stopping at what is apparently the world’s closest train station to the sea. A short stretch of sand separates the track from the water, and it’s here that Korean couples flock to hold hands and watch the sunrise – the area was featured in Sandglass, a romantic Korean soap opera.
18. Explore the rich Korean history in Gyeongju
The former capital of Silla is the most traditional city in Korea and should be on every visitor’s list of the best things to do in South Korea.
Travellers seeking to delve headfirst into Korea’s rich and storied history should make little Gyeongju their primary target – here you can walk among kings from a dynasty long expired and view the treasures accumulated during a millennium of imperial rule.
If this sounds a little like Kyoto, you’d be half right – unlike Japan’s more illustrious ancient capital, Gyeongju remains decidedly semi-rural in nature and a little rougher around the edges.
- Best for budget: Maison Mini Hotel. Located in Gyeongju, within 9.4 km of Gyeongju World and 23 km of Seokguram, Maison Mini Hotel provides accommodation with a shared lounge and free WiFi throughout the property as well as free private parking for guests who drive.
Where to stay in Gyeongju:
- Best for friendly vibes: Doobaki Hostel is located just under 5 minutes’ taxi ride east of Gyeongju Station. Both private and dormitory-style rooms features Ondol, Korean floor heating, and an en suite bathroom with a shower and free toiletries.
19. Buy some socialist realist art
That which has become ironic in Eastern Europe remains iconic in the DPRK, with colourful murals found all across the country – send one home on a postcard.
Some tourists end up spending hundreds of dollars on Socialist realist art, often coming back for more – prospective owners (or dealers, since there’s money to be made) should ask to swing by the Mansudae Art Studio, though a shop down south in Panmunjom has cheaper, slightly lower-quality fare for sale too.
A visit to the stamp shop comes as part of many tours, and their socialist realist designs are really quite striking – a good purchase, even if you’re not a philatelist. Your hotel’s shop is also likely to stock a series of similarly cool badges.
20. Climb N Seoul Tower by cable car
If you climb the N Seoul Tower by cable car - the beautiful nature spreads out in front of you.
N Seoul Tower sits proudly on Namsan’s crown. The five levels of its upper section are home to a viewing platform, and assorted cafés and restaurants. For many, the free views from the tower’s base are good enough, and coming here to see the sunset is recommended – the grey mass of daytime Seoul turns in no time into a brilliant neon spectacle.
21. Head to the Jeju Island
An extinct volcano jutting out of the sea, Jeju is far more natural in feel than the mainland: think beaches, farmland, lava tubes and volcanic craters. And now you can walk around the whole island on the Jeju Olle Trail.
The mass of islands draped along Korea’s southern coast fades into the Pacific, before coming to an enigmatic conclusion in crater-pocked Jeju Island, known locally as Jejudo (제주도). This tectonic pimple in the South Sea is the country’s number one holiday destination, particularly for Korean honeymooners, and it’s easy to see why.
The volcanic crags, innumerable beaches and colourful rural life draw comparisons with Hawaii and Bali, a fact not lost on the local tourist authorities. This very hype puts some foreign travellers off, but the island makes for a superb visit if taken on its own terms; indeed, those who travel into Jeju’s more remote areas may come away with the impression that little has changed here for decades.
- Best for views: Grand Hyatt Jeju. Centrally located in the heart of Jeju City, Grand Hyatt Jeju is situated 1.6 km from Shilla Duty Free. The property is 8 km from Jeju National Museum and 8 km from Jeju International Passenger Terminal. Samyang Black Sand Beach is 12 km from the resort, while Hamdeok Beach is 20 km from the property.
Where to stay at the Jeju Island:
- Best for beach location: Y Resort Jeju. Featuring beautiful views of the ocean just a 5-minute walk from Hwasoongeum Beach, Y Resort Jeju features a spacious outdoor pool for guests to lounge in. Free Wi-Fi access is available throughout the property.
22. Take a stroll through Seoraksan National Park
Koreans gush about Seoraksan National Park, and with good reason. The nation’s northernmost park, it contains some of the tallest peaks in the country, with mistfringed bluffs of exposed crag that could have come straight from a Chinese painting.
The name gains ambiguity in translation, but roughly translates as “Snow-cragged Mountains”; these bony peaks are pretty enough on a cloudy day, but in good weather they’re set alight by the sun, bathed in spectacular hues during its rising and setting. Seoraksan is one of the highest parks in the country and, as a result, usually the first to display the reds, yellows and oranges of autumn.
23. Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul
The glorious palace of Gyeongbokgung is, with good reason, the most popular tourist sight in the city, and a focal point of the country as a whole. The place is absorbing, and the chance to stroll the dusty paths between its delicate tile-roofed buildings is one of the most enjoyable experiences Seoul has to offer.
Gyeongbokgung was ground zero for Seoul’s emergence as a place of power, having been built to house the royal family of the embryonic Joseon dynasty, shortly after they transferred their capital here in 1392.
The complex has witnessed fires, repeated destruction and even a royal assassination but careful reconstruction means that the regal atmosphere of old is still palpable, aided no end by the suitably majestic crags of Bugaksan to the north. A large historical complex with excellent on-site museums, it can easily eat up the best part of a day. Try to time your visit to coincide with the colourful changing of the guard ceremonies.
From the skyscrapers of Seoul to traditional villages - this tailor-made tour to the Highlights of Korea packs culture, history and cuisine in one compact itinerary. Enjoy a two-night temple stay as well as in-depth guided excursions in Seoul, Gyeongju, Yeosu, and Jeonju.
24. Visiting amusement parks - one of the best things to do in South Korea with kids
One of the best things to do in South Korea with your kids is to visit one of the fascinating Korean amusement parks.
The local version of Disneyland is incredibly popular – the Lotte World complex receives over five million visitors per year, and it’s hard to find a Korean child, or even an adult, who hasn’t been here at some point. While it may not be quite what some are looking for on their visit to “The Land of Morning Calm”, Lotte World can be a lot of fun, particularly for those travelling with children.
It comprises two theme parks: the indoor section is known as Lotte World Adventure, and this is connected by monorail to Lotte Water Park, an outdoor section located in the middle of a lake, and also home to a spa. Also within the complex are a bowling alley, an overpriced ice rink and a large swimming pool.
Check our guide to the best places to go with kids and find some inspirational ideas for the family holidays.
25. Immerse yourself in the study of history at the National Museum of Korea
The huge National Museum of Korea is a Seoul must-see for anyone interested in history. It houses over eleven thousand artefacts, including an incredible 94 official National Treasures, but only a fraction of these will be on show at any one time.
Among the many rooms on the ground level are exhibitions from the Three Kingdoms period, which showcase the incredible skill of the artisans during that time – gold, silver and bronze have been cast into ornate shapes, the highlight being a fifth-century crown and belt set that once belonged to a Silla king.
Move up a floor and the focus shifts to paintings, calligraphy and wooden art, and there’s usually a colossal Buddhist scroll or two, over 10m high; some were hung behind the Buddha statue in temples’ main halls, while others were used for such purposes as praying for rain. The museum owns quite a few, but due to the fragility of the material, they’re put on a rota system and displays are changed regularly.
Quite unexpectedly, South Korea is an attractive Christmas destination. Read our guide about Christmas in South Korea and you might want to spend the winter holidays here.
Ready for a trip to South Korea? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to Korea. If you travel further in South Korea, read more about the best time to go and the best places to visit in South Korea. For inspiration use the itineraries from our local travel experts. A bit more hands on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.
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