Look around any mock itinerary in Korea and what do you see? Travel in Korea: Four days in Seoul, two days in Busan. Some may get crafty and add Jeju. Boring! Seoul definitely has a TON to offer, so I wouldn’t really fault any traveler for being so capital-centric. Alas, the Busan bit will forever baffle me, but I’ll spare you my anti-Busan rant. Instead, I’d like to introduce five towns to get off the beaten path in Korea. It will definitely get you off the Seoul-> (train to) Busan bandwagon.
Situated on the east coast of the country, Gangneung has a lot to offer. While it has beaches of its own, it is also less than an hour from the beach towns of Sokcho, Yang Yang, Donghae, Samcheok with tons of secluded and popular sandy strips in between. If mountains are more your liking, Odaesan and the more famous Seoraksan National Parks await with tons of trails to explore. Finally, Gangneung is known for coffee and the Terrarosa Franchise finds its roots here. The city even hosts a yearly coffee festival. The vibe of the city is relaxed but with plenty to offer for those seeking a chill but not have a completely secluded vacation. Since the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics the KTX bullet train links the city with Seoul. This cuts your commute which could be as long as 6 hours in traffic from the capital, to just 2 hours.
Gyeongju may be considered the capital of Korean cultural sites, but Andong is its heart and soul. Andong is known for quite a lot of things including Andong soju, the delicious meal called “jjim dalk,” and of course my personal favorite, Hahoe Folk Village. The latter is a UNESCO world heritage site that will transport you to a village frozen in time a thousand years. To see it at full buzz, visit it during the Andong Mask Festival. However, if serenity is what you’re after, do a Hanokstay and experience it past the last bus or at first light when it is completely empty.
Geography has thankfully kept Suncheon a hidden gem. Located on the southern tip of the country, no one particularly “stumbles” upon Suncheon unless they were aiming to go there. Suncheon is best known for its wetlands which have gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2021. The stilts that form the over the mud trails are definitely worth a good long hike as is the sunset over the wetlands. However, Suncheon has a lot more to offer than that. Nearby is the Naganeubseong Folk Village (순천 낙안읍성) (also up for UNESCO WHS consideration) which is less known and visited than its more famous cousins in Gyeongju and Andong. If film is your thing, you can stroll by the Suncheon Drama film set where some of Korea’s old cinema was filmed.
Quickly rising in popularity for international visitors is Jeonju. Known mostly for its Hanok village, this outdoor museum may be a bit tacky, but still charms in its own way. Hundreds of people rent hanboks to stroll around along with other less typical “student uniforms” (pictured above) if a hanbok isn’t your thing.
Outside of the village though, Jeonju has more to offer. One of the less known and more charming claims to fame is its invention of “Ga-mek” culture, which is basically a combination of a beer pub and a convenience store. Ga is short of “Gage” meaning store and “mek” is short for mekju meaning beer. Jeonju hosts a yearly “pub crawl” of “ga-mek” in the old town.
Last but not least is JIFF, the Jeonju International Film Festival. 2 weeks, 7 theaters, non-stop movies from all over the world. Need I say more?
Kongju / Gongju
Gongju is another one for history fans out there. As one of the two capitals of the Baekje Kingdom, an off the beaten path guide is not complete without a visit to here. The fortress wall that lights up at night and shimmers as it reflects on the central river is really what draws most people to visit this otherwise sleepy town. However, for those of us who are into archaeological finds, nothing really beats the 1971 discovery of King Muryeong’s tomb, which laid untouched for nearly 1500 years.
Gyeongju is really cultural marvel with its historic areas and monuments all over town. Yangdong Folk Village right outside of town is also worth a visit. Calling Gyeongju “hidden” would be a misnomer as it gets millions of yearly visitors and is squarely on many foreigner itineraries.
Probably the best place to experience Korea outside of Seoul. While relatively few western visitors make the trip, tons of Chinese nationals make Jeju quite on the beaten path. Nevertheless, it is worth an honorable mention.
- Top 80 Things to do in Korea OUTSIDE of Seoul (2022) - September 12, 2022
- Mulu National Park Review | UNESCO World Heritage Site - August 7, 2022
- Off the Beaten Path in Korea: Beyond Seoul and Busan - July 14, 2022