This Rough Guide to Korea is one of a new generation of informative and easy-to-use travel-guide ebooks that guarantees you make the most of your trip. An essential tool for pre-trip planning, it also makes a great travel companion when you’re on the road.
From the table of contents, you can click straight to the main sections of the ebook. Start with the Introduction, which gives you a flavour of Korea, with details of what to see, what not to miss, itineraries and more – everything you need to get started. This is followed by Basics, with pre-departure tips and practical information, such as transport details and accommodation tips. The guide chapters offer comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the whole of Korea, including highlights and full-colour maps featuring all the sights and listings. Finally, Contexts fills you in on history, religion, film, books, the A-Z of contemporary Korea and includes a handy Language section.
Detailed area maps feature in the guide chapters and are also listed in the dedicated map section, accessible from the table of contents. Depending on your hardware, you can double-tap on the maps to see larger-scale versions, or select different scales. There are also thumbnails below more detailed maps – in these cases, you can opt to “zoom left/top” or “zoom right/bottom” or view the full map. The screen-lock function on your device is recommended when viewing enlarged maps. Make sure you have the latest software updates, too.
Throughout the guide, we’ve flagged up our favourite places - a perfectly sited hotel, an atmospheric café, a special restaurant - with the “author pick” icon . You can select your own favourites and create a personalized itinerary by bookmarking the sights, venues and activities that are of interest, giving you the quickest possible access to everything you’ll need for your time away.
Please note, this book displays place names and words in Korean characters alongside their phonetic translations. These characters may not display correctly on some e-readers.
Dangling off East Asia like a giant dewdrop, the Korean peninsula 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, Korea’s very existence is nothing short of miraculous; against all odds, and despite continued tension with its bellicose brother to the north, South Korea is turning into a little powerhouse of its own, and its traditions and customs have largely survived intact though troubled times. 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.
The two Koreas, now separated by the spiky twin frontiers of the Demilitarized Zone, went their separate ways in 1953 after the catastrophic Korean War – essentially a civil war, but one largely brought about by external forces, it left millions dead and flattened almost the whole peninsula. North Korea has armed itself to the teeth since 1953, stagnated in its pursuit of a local brand of Communism, and become one of the least accessible countries in the world. Unbelievably, many foreigners still seem to expect something similar of South Korea, which shows just how well kept a secret this fascinating place really is: despite the best efforts of Gangnam Style, relatively little except kimchi and taekwondo is known about the country in the outside world.
After the war, the South gradually embraced democracy and has since gone on to become a powerful and dynamic economy. Its 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 “Economic Miracle” of the 1970s, and pockets of islands exist where few foreigners have ever set foot.
And for all its new-found prosperity, the South remains a land steeped in tradition. Before being abruptly choked off by the Japanese occupation in 1910, an unbroken line of more than one hundred kings existed for almost two thousand years – their grassy burial mounds have yielded thousands of golden relics – and even the capital, Seoul, has a number of palaces dating back to the fourteenth century. The wooden hanok housing of decades gone by may have largely given way to rows of apartment blocks, but these traditional dwellings can still be found in places, and you’ll never be more than a walk away from an immaculately painted Buddhist temple. Meanwhile, Confucian-style formal ceremonies continue to play an important part in local life, and some mountains still even host shamanistic rituals.
As for the Korean people themselves, they are a real delight: fiercely proud, and with a character almost as spicy as their food, they’re markedly eager to please foreigners who come to live or holiday in their country. Within hours of arriving, you may well find yourself with new friends in tow, racing up a mountainside, lunching over a delicious barbecued galbi, throwing back rice beer until dawn, or singing the night away at a noraebang. Few travellers leave without tales of the kindness of Korean strangers, and all of them wonder why the country isn’t a more popular stop on the international travel circuit.
Korea is still something of a mystery to most non-natives, and more than half of all its visitors get no further than Seoul. One of the largest and most technically advanced cities in the world, the capital confounds many expectations by proving itself steeped in history. Here, fourteenth-century palaces, imperial gardens, teeming markets and secluded tearooms continue to exude charm among a maze of skyscrapers and shopping malls. From Seoul, anywhere in the country is reachable within a day, but the best day-trip by far is to the DMZ, the strip of land that separates the two Koreas from coast to coast.
Gyeonggi, the province that surrounds Seoul, is a largely unappealing area dissected by the roads and railways that snake their way into the capital, but two of its cities certainly deserve a visit: Suwon, home to a wonderful UNESCO-listed fortress dating from the late eighteenth century; and cosmopolitan Incheon, where you can eat some of the best food in the country before making your way to the islands of the West Sea. By contrast, the neighbouring province of Gangwon is unspoilt and stuffed full of attractions: in addition to a number of national parks, of which craggy Seoraksan is the most visited, you can head to the unspoilt beaches and colossal caves that surround the small city of Samcheok, or peek inside a genuine American warship and North Korean submarine north of the sleepy fishing village of Jeongdongjin.
Stretching down from Gangwon to the South Sea lie the markedly traditional Gyeongsang provinces, home to some of the peninsula’s most popular attractions. Foremost among these is gorgeous Gyeongju; capital of the Silla dynasty for almost a thousand years, and extremely laidback by Korean standards, it’s dotted with the grassy burial tombs of the many kings and queens who ruled here. There’s enough in the surrounding area to fill at least a week of sightseeing – most notable are Namsan, a small mountain area peppered with trails, tombs and some intriguing Buddhas, and the sumptuously decorated Bulguksa temple, another sight on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Although less picturesque as a town, Andong is almost as relaxed as Gyeongju, and a superb base from which to access Dosan Seowon, a remote Confucian academy, and the charmingly dusty village of Hahoe, a functioning showcase of traditional Korean life. The region’s rustic charm is actually best appreciated offshore on the windswept island of Ulleungdo, an extinct volcanic cone that rises precipitously from the East Sea, and where tiny fishing settlements cling barnacle-like to its coast. Thrills with a more urban flavour can be had in Busan, Korea’s second city, which has an atmosphere markedly different from Seoul; as well as the most raucous nightlife outside the capital, it has the best fish market in the country, and a number of excellent beaches on its fringes.
Even more characterful are the Jeolla provinces, which make up the southwest of the peninsula. Left to stagnate by the government while Korea’s economy kicked into gear in the 1970s, they have long played the role of the renegade, though this energy is now being rechannelled. Violent political protests took place in regional capital Gwangju as recently as 1980, though the city has reinvented itself to become one of the artiest and most business-savvy in the land. Jeonju has a similar feel, plus a delightful district of traditional hanok housing, and is justly famed for its wonderful, flavoursome cuisine. Earthy Mokpo is the hub for ferry trips to a mind-boggling number of West Sea islands, dotted with fishing communities where life has changed little in decades, while inland there are a clutch of excellent national parks.
The Chungcheong provinces at the centre of the country are bypassed by many travellers, but this is a shame, as they contain some fine sights. The old Baekje capitals of Gongju and Buyeo provide glimpses of a dynasty long dead, Daecheon beach hosts a rumbustious annual mud festival that may well be Korea’s most enjoyable event, and there are temples galore: the gigantic golden Buddha at Beopjusa is surrounded by 1000m-high peaks, while the meandering trails and vivid colour schemes at Guinsa make it the most visually stimulating temple in the land.
Lying within a ferry ride of the mainland’s southern shore is the island of Jeju, a popular honeymoon destination for Koreans. While it’s undoubtedly touristy, it has its remote stretches and anyone who has climbed the volcanic cone of Hallasan, walked through the lava tubes of Manjanggul or watched the sun go down from Yakcheonsa temple will tell you the trip is more than worthwhile.
And finally, of course, there’s North Korea. A visit to one of the world’s most feared and most fascinating countries will instantly garner you some extra travel kudos – even experienced travellers routinely put the DPRK at the top of their “most interesting” list. Visits don’t come cheap and can only be made as part of a guided tour, but the country’s inaccessibility brings an epic quality to its few officially sanctioned sights.
One thing that will strike you on a trip around Korea is hangeul, the peninsula’s distinctive, almost Tetris-like alphabet. Amazingly, this was a royal creation, having been the brainchild of King Sejong in the 1440s. Most of this creative king’s subjects were unable to read the Chinese script used across the land at the time, so he devised a system that would be easier for ordinary people to learn. Sejong was forced to do much of his work in secret, as the plan did not go down well with the yangban – Confucian scholars who were even more powerful than royalty at the time. As the only truly educated members of society, the yangban argued fiercely against the change in an effort to maintain their monopoly over knowledge.
Hangeul experienced periodic bursts of popularity, but was almost erased entirely by the Japanese during their occupation of the peninsula (1910–45). However, it’s now the official writing system in both North and South Korea, as well as a small autonomous Korean pocket in the Chinese province of Jilin.
The alphabet, while it appears complex, is surprisingly easy to learn, and demonstrating that you can read even a handful of simple words will generate gasps of admiration across Korea. Just a few hours of hard study should suffice – to get started, turn to the table of characters in the Language section.
Korea has plenty of local booze to get your teeth into, but the milky-coloured rice beer known as makgeolli (막걸리) is by far the most interesting. Drinking makgeolli is not really a case of “when in Rome…”, since Koreans themselves are far more partial to beer and soju (a clear spirit). However, this dynastic-era drink has been making a sustained comeback in recent years: trendy “mak-bars” have been opening up across Seoul, with the wave now slowly spreading across the land. Some serve the drink mixed with fruit juice, which may be too faddish for purists, but breweries have long mixed the main constituent rice with local ingredients such as black bean, ginseng and berry juice. See some of the varieties to look out for on your way across Korea.
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.
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 Korea from most of the area’s typhoons, but one or 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. 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-black pine trees and the earthy yellow of dead grass.
For more information on Korea’s climate, including average monthly temperatures and rainfall.
The Korean peninsula is split into South Korea, officially known as the Republic of Korea; and North Korea, officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK for short). Most of this book is about the former, which is referred to throughout as “Korea”; this is how locals refer to their nation when talking to outsiders, though in Korean they use the term “Hanguk” (한국). North Korea has, where necessary, been referred to as such, or as “the DPRK”; North Koreans’ own word for both country and peninsula is “Choson” (조선).
Also note that a uniform system of transliteration is used throughout this book. It’s the best and most recent one, but as older generations have been schooled with different systems you may well spot a few varieties of the same word on your travels – see the Language section for more information.
South Korea’s national flag – the Taegeukki – is one of the most distinctive around, and is heavily imbued with philosophical meaning. The design itself has changed a little since its first unveiling in the 1880s, though its fundamental elements remain the same: a red-and-blue circle surrounded by four black trigams, all set on a white background. The puritanical connotations of the white are obvious, whereas the circle and trigrams offer greater food for thought. The four trigams make up half of the eight used in the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of divination. Each can represent a number of different concepts: moving clockwise from the top-left of the flag, these may be read as spring, winter, summer and autumn; heaven, moon, earth and sun; father, son, mother and daughter; as well as many more besides.
The circle is split into the “Yin–Yang” shape (again, of Chinese origin), its two halves representing opposites such as light and dark, male and female, day and night. Though coincidental, connections with the divided Korean peninsula are easy to find, with two opposing halves forming part of the same whole – the red half is even on top.
Our intrepid author has crisscrossed South Korea multiple times, and made several trips to reclusive North Korea, in a quest to better understand the workings of this fascinating peninsula. These are some of his own, favourite experiences.
Local booze Sample a fantastic selection of unique local tipples, some of which may actually improve your health – a cup of makgeolli, a sort of rice beer, contains more “friendly” bacteria than a pot of yoghurt; while whisky-coloured baekseju is made with ginseng, liquorice, cinnamon and ginger.
Shellfish barbies Korea is famed for its barbecued meat, but it’s just as enjoyable to chuck a bunch of local shellfish on the flames instead. Those hauled from the west coast are best; try Daecheon beach.
Ferry rides There are almost 500 inhabited islands dotted around the South Korean mainland, and catching a ferry to one of them will give you both a pleasant ride and a trip back in time – islands such as Hongdo, Heuksando and Ulleungdo have changed little in decades.
The Farmers’ Dance A dynastic tradition, with colourfully clad gents whirling super-long head-ribbons to a cacophony of clangs and drum beats – a real “this is Korea” sight. The Korean Folk Village puts on daily shows.
Pyongyang Water Park A fun embodiment of the strides recently taken by the North Korean economy (and ignored by the Western press), this is one of the only places in the country in which you’ll be allowed to chill – and take selfies – with “regular” locals.
Our author recommendations don’t end here. We’ve flagged up our favourite places – a perfectly sited hotel, an atmospheric café, a special restaurant – throughout the guide, highlighted with the symbol.
It’s not possible to see everything that Korea has to offer in a short trip – and we don’t suggest you try. What follows, in no particular order, is a selective taste of the peninsula’s highlights: idyllic islands, spectacular temples and delicious food. All entries have a reference to take you straight into the Guide, where you can find out more.
1 Gwangjang Market One of Korea’s most earthily atmospheric places to eat, Gwangjang is a Seoul institution, with sights and smells redolent of decades gone by.
2 Changdeokgung Saunter, as kings once did, though this dreamy, UNESCO-listed palace in central Seoul.
3 Paekdusan The legendary birthplace of the Korean nation, this dormant volcano – the highest peak on the peninsula – rises up through the Chinese-North Korean border, its crater lake a preternatural blue when not frozen over.
4 Insadong tearooms Tea may have ceded ground to coffee across the nation, but Seoul’s traditional Insadong district still has dozens of secluded places serving traditional brews.
5 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.
6 Udo This bucolic, beach-fringed island makes the ideal spot for a cycle ride – race past flower-filled fields whose borders are marked with walls of hand-stacked volcanic rock.
7 Boryeong Mud Festival Korea’s dirtiest, most enjoyable festival takes place each July on the west coast – even if you forget your soap, you can buy a bar made of mud right here.
8 Gyeongju Dotted with the 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 Hongdae If you’re itching to dive into Korean nightlife, this Seoul ‘burb is the place to head – it’s like walking through an extremely noisy kaleidoscope, full of sozzled students.
11 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.
12 Barbecued meat A fire at the centre of your table and a plate of raw meat to fling onto it – could this be the world’s most fun-to-eat dish?
13 Arirang Mass Games Performers outnumber spectators at this feast of North Korean dance, music and acrobatics – one of the biggest and most spectacular events you’re likely to see.
14 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.
15 Sokcho The harbourfront of this pleasant city is a grand place to eat – sample some of its signature squid sausage on tiny Abai island, accessible on a ferry that you have to pull along yourself.
16 Walking the Jeju Olle Trail Get to know Korea’s largest island by tackling part of this wonderful trail, which passes beaches, temples and mini-volcanoes on its circumnavigation of the island.
17 Yakcheonsa This large, splendid temple on the southern coast of Jeju Island is almost unique among Korean temples in that it faces the sea – pop along for sundown and evening prayers.
18 Makgeolli Get drunk the local way with dongdongju or makgeolli, both of which have undergone huge surges in popularity of late.
19 Noraebang A near-mandatory part of a Korean night out is a trip to a “singing room”, the local take on Japan’s karaoke bars.
20 Jirisan National Park The largest of Korea’s many national parks, Jirisan offers some superlative multi-day hiking possibilities.
21 Bibimbap A delectable dish derived from the five principal colours of local Buddhism: red for the paste, yellow for the egg, white for the rice, blue for the meat and green for the veggies.
22 Beopjusa This delightful temple boasts one of the world’s tallest bronze Buddhas – a 33m-high figure surrounded by mountains that just beg to be hiked across.
23 Jeonju Hanok Village In Jeonju, one of Korea’s most agreeable cities, you can sleep in a traditional wooden hanok house, heated from underneath by gentle flames.
24 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.
25 Pyongyang The world’s least-visited capital – a rhapsody of brutalist architecture, and red hangeul slogans extolling the virtues of the government and its leaders.
Despite Korea’s relatively diminutive size, you’ll need to do some planning if you’re to make the most of the country. Seoul demands at least a couple of days, but with a little more time on your hands you could soon be racing up mountains, hopping between far-flung islands or tracking down the peninsula’s best beaches and temples.
Korea’s compact size and excellent public transportation makes it very simple to check off its main sights, and a couple of quirkier ones – even a week in the country is enough to give you a good idea of what Korea’s all about. The number-one rule is to get out of Seoul – a great city it may be, but there’s just so much else on offer across the land.
1 Seoul Where to start with Korea’s fascinating capital? Ancient palaces and shrines, a beguiling array of galleries, a national park on its doorstep and some of the best food and shopping in Asia – and that’s just for starters.
2 Sokcho This east-coast city offers day-trips into the mountains, as well as some simply fantastic restaurants – a great place to expand your waistline.
3 Seoraksan National Park The undisputed number-one national park in a country full of mountains, Seoraksan delivers on lofty promises with a series of jagged, tremendously photogenic peaks.
4 Jeongdongjin This small coastal village is perhaps Korea’s best sunrise spot, and is also home to the country’s most distinctive hotel – a ship-shaped establishment perching atop a cliff.
5 Gyeongju If you’ve only got time for one place outside Seoul, make it quiet Gyeongju, dynastic capital for almost a millennium and still home to a mind-boggling assortment of treasures, as well as some superb temples and hiking routes.
6 Busan Korea’s second city is an easy place to love – if the beaches and seafood don’t get you, the nightlife will.
7 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.
Bypass the high-speed KTX services linking Seoul and Busan, and take the Jungang line instead – slower it may be, but it’ll take you to some beautiful places, and give you a far better perspective of Korea’s history and traditions.
1 Seoul Start out with a few days in Korea’s dynamic, open-all-hours capital, before catching the train south.
2 Danyang First stop, Danyang – a delightful town set along a lakeside and surrounded by mountains. Drink in the superb views, then drink down some local makgeolli.
3 Guinsa The most visually arresting temple in the land, shoehorned into a tight mountain valley a short bus ride from Danyang.
4 Andong Further down the Jungang line is Andong, a relaxing, traditionally minded city famed for its soju.
5 Hahoe Folk Village Step back in time at the quaint Hahoe Folk Village near Andong. Entirely made up of low-rise wooden buildings and surrounded by farmland, this charming village is a present-day sampler of Korea in dynastic times.
6 Gyeongju There are more echoes of the past in Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla dynasty for almost one thousand years. Explore the city’s regal burial mounds by bike.
7 Oksan Seowon Established during the Goryeo dynasty, this shrine was once one of the most important Confucian academies in the land, and remains a fantastic draw on account of its beauty and idyllic location.
8 Haeundae, Busan The Jungang line comes to an end next to Haeundae, Korea’s number-one beach – a fine place to kick back with seafood and cocktails after a rail journey across the country.
Korea’s west side is relatively off the radar, but features some of the most beguiling places in the land: national parks aplenty, ancient capitals, dazzling temples and more islands than you could ever count.
1 Gongju The one-time capital of the Baekje dynasty boasts a giant fortress, several regal burial mounds, a district of wooden hanok housing and a museum full of ancient riches.
2 Daecheon beach Not as pristine as Haeundae beach, but far more Korean in feel – come here to splash around in the sea and wolf down a yummy shellfish barbecue. Daecheon is also home to the Boryeong Mud Festival, by far the most popular festival in the country with international visitors.
3 Jeonju Most of Korea’s traditional wooden housing has been flattened in the name of progress, but this earthy city boasts a whole swathe of it. It’s also renowned for having the best food in the country.
4 Naejangsan National Park Achingly beautiful in the autumn, this national park’s circle of modest peaks makes for some great hiking at any time of year.
5 Mokpo A pleasingly odd city surrounded by a spray of unspoiled islands, salty Mokpo is the best place to comprehend the provincial nuances of the Jeolla area.
6 Hongdo Essentially as far west as Korea goes, this tiny, beautiful island juts dramatically from the sea – an emphatic full stop to your journey.