Having spent the last three and a half years in South Korea, I feel more comfortable giving advice about this country than any other. Here is where I first contracted the infamous ‘travel bug.’ I make a point to try to visit something new almost every weekend, resulting in a wealth of information which I hope to share on this page. I have put together this ‘South Korea Travel Guide’ with first time visitors as well as expats / long-term visitors in mind. Since many of the suggestions assume knowledge of the Seoul Subway System, to start, here is the map:
South Korea has over 3000 years of civilized history packed into a tiny country of 50 million inhabitants. Because of its small size and geography, I have broken this page up into nine sections:
Sections 1-4: Things To Do – Based On Location (from Seoul)
(1) Within Seoul City (With a map of the top 30 things)
(2) Day-Trip From Seoul (Map provided)
(3) Two-Day Trip from Seoul (Map provided)
(4) Jeju Island (Map provided)
Sections 5-6: Things To Do – NOT Based on Location (from Seoul)
(5) Things With Multiple Locations (i.e. Food To Eat/ World Heritage Sites with Multiple Locations)
(6) Festivals (Full calendar provided)
Sections 7-9: Tips, Suggested Itineraries, and Accommodations
(7) Tips, Suggestions, and Extra Information
(8) Suggested Itineraries and Travel Routes
(9) Accommodations Feel free to skip down to whatever section fits your needs.
Section 1: Within Seoul City
Most likely, even if you aren’t planning it, you will have to pass by Seoul, the capital of South Korea because the two main international airports (Incheon and Gimpo International Airports) are located adjacent to it. Not only is this a good thing, but I would even make the claim that if you ONLY visit Seoul, your trip would still be worth it. (Of course, that is just my opinion)
Start by checking out this list of the top 30 things to do in Seoul, the most comprehensive list of its kind: *
Seoul Top 30 (1-10) [must do]
Seoul Top 30 (11-20) [should do]
Seoul Top 30 (21-30) [do if you have the time]
And check out this map to help you plan your trip:
View larger map
Some of the items on the top 30 list have their own, more detailed articles found here:
Jongmyo Shrine [UNESCO World Heritage Site]
Section 2: Day-Trip From Seoul
There are plenty of things to do near Seoul as well. While you can spend as little as a few hours or as much as a weekend on some of these places, I feel that geographically, they are far enough to warrant a full day trip, but not so far as to warrant an entire weekend. If you are passionate about World Heritage Sites, read this review first:
Royal Tombs of King Sejong and King Hyojong [UNESCO World Heritage Site] But also consider these places in no particular order:
1) Chuncheon – is the east-most stop in the entire Seoul Subway Network (Chuncheon Station). While I wouldn’t call any of its “to do things” (found in the station pamphlets upon arrival) world-class, the food is certainly worth the 2-hour subway ride. Dak Galbi (pic) was created in Chuncheon in the late 1950s with the first restaurant still in operation. To get here, take the “Gyeongchun/ITX/Chuncheon” (yes, it has 3 names) from any of its stops (look at the subway map in the intro) all the way to the last stop “Chuncheon Station.” From here, you can take a cab ($2 USD) or bus ($1) to “Myeong-dong” where the nearest “Dak Galbi Street” is located. I have eaten in about seven of the restaurants (~$8 a person) and have never been disappointed. If you see a long line, that is a good sign.
2) Suwon Hwaseong (Fortress) – Another UNESCO world heritage site is located in Suwon, a city directly south of Seoul. This is the best preserved fortress wall in Korea. Arriving is easy since it lies on the Seoul Subway Network (blue line 1) about an hour and twenty minutes south of Seoul Station. Get off on “Suwon Station” and take a bus (there is more than one, ask in the information desks at Suwon Station) or a cab ($2-3) to “Suwon Hwaseong, Jangan-Mun.” ‘Jangan-mun’ is the northern gate which has the best views of the fortress if you have limited time. However, I suggest you spend your whole day here and try to hike the entire wall (about 5km in circumference). The late night views are just as beautiful when the entire wall lights up. Furthermore, near the north east gate is an ‘archery range‘ where, for a small fee, you can try to shoot some Korean bows and arrows. Professional archers also frequent this range so if you call in advance, you can see the pros shoot the very distant targets. Near the center of the fortress, along the main street, there is also a small palace with amazing tile art on the floor, and a huge golden Buddha nearby.
3) Namhansanseong Fortress – Listed as one of the potential World Heritage Sites of Korea, this is another well preserved fortress that is original. It is mostly known as the hometown of the Baekje Kingdom founder, Onjo (more meaningful if you know Korean history). It is a fantastic wall that encircles the town in the middle as well as the ’emergency palace’ of Haenggung (map). One great thing about this particular wall is how few people actually hike it. I expected to see a lot more people considering how many were immediately outside of the subway station. To arrive, you can take the subway to “Namhansanseong Station,” take a local bus to the entrance, and hike (about an hour) to the wall (you will see a TON of people, but you can also ask for directions at the Namhansanseong Station). Another, more direct option is to go to “Sanseong Station” and take exit 2. Take bus 9 all the way to ‘Namhansanseong’ (the last stop where everyone will get off). This will drop you off very near the palace, and a 10 minute walk to the south or north entrances to the wall. (Here are more details)
4) Ganghwa Dolmen Sites – This is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and definitely the hardest one to access (out of all 45 I have visited). Complete directions are on the main link. About an hour and a half north-west of central Seoul are the ‘Dolmen Sites,’ dozens of pre-historic burial sites analogous to Stonehenge (the type of tomb, not the grandeur). Because they are considered sacred, they were restored but never moved, so they are scattered across the entire (quite large) region. This means that all tombs are about a 30 minute walk apart from each other. It is highly recommended that you rent either a scooter or a car if you want to visit them all as public transportation is extremely infrequent and unreliable in this area. Nonetheless, they are an integral part of South Korea’s history as they are the oldest signs of organized culture on the peninsula. In fact, this type of tomb, on a world scale, is the oldest known sign of higher-thinking for our species as a whole. (If you insist on checking this WHS off your list, but not going through the trouble, check out section 5 for an alternative)
View larger map
Section 3: Two-Day Trip From Seoul
While a lot of these are definitely do-able in a single day (and cheaper, read section 7), it is recommended that you take your time and not try to rush them into “day trips.” If you have an extended period of time in Korea just for traveling (and don’t have to work, like me), it is also possible to combine some of these without having to return to Seoul (see section 8).
Start by checking these out these detailed articles on World Heritage Sites far from Seoul:
WHS2) Gyeongju Historical Areas [UNESCO World Heritage Site]
But also consider these places in no particular order:
1) Hahoe and/or Yangdong Folk Villages: Recently listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (joint entry, see section 5), these folk villages show what a traditional town looked like during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911). Hahoe has a yearly mask festival (see section 7) and Yangdong is very close to Gyeongju, so a combined trip can be easily done.
2) Yeosu: As one of the southern most points in Korea, Yeosu is not exactly around the corner. However, in 2012, it was chosen as the site of the 2012 World Expo which prompted a bullet train (KTX) station to be built. Now, there are lines from Seoul which take about three hours (one transfer). Yeosu has three main things to see: -> Jinnamgwan Hall – was the headquarters of the Korean hero Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who is considered by some as pretty much the biggest bad ass in Asian military history. Yi Sun-Shin built his famous “turtle ships” in Yeosu to defeat the invading Japanese fleet. In the Battle of Myeongnyang, 13 Korean turtle ships led by the Admiral destroyed a Japanese Fleet of 333 warships, one of the greatest “against all odds” battles of all time. -> Yeosu Aquaplanet – is the second biggest aquarium in Korea. You can see Beluga Whales in this state of the art facility build for the 2012 Expo. -> Sado Fossil Sites – are a set of dinosaur fossils found on islands in the Yeosu Area. They are on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage List.
3) Kongju – used to be the capital city of the Baekje Kingdom, one of the powers during the three-kingdom period. It is surprising how many cool things there are in Konju which is why they are also on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage List. You can walk around the fortress wall (which is perfectly restored), visit the Tomb of King Muyeong of Baekje, check out the National Baekje Museum (next to the tomb), or visit Magoksa Temple, one of the most famous temples in Korea.
4) Busan: As the second most populated city in South Korea, Busan gets a lot of attention by locals and foreigners alike. Busan has some great market places (especially seafood), good views on some of its “sky-walks” along the coast, and a great nightlife which goes well with its overall laid back atmosphere. Don’t be fooled, however, by spotty advice (especially from the Korean Tourism Department) into thinking it’s a world-class beach city. Busan’s beaches are dirty, usually cold (like LA’s), and always extremely crowded. If you must go to a beach in South Korea, wait until you go to Jeju Island (section 4) or the east coast.
5) Samcheok: The two most famous and probably most extensive caves outside of Jeju are found in Samcheok. While other gimmicky attractions exist in this tiny town (like a rail-car bike), the caves of Daegeumgul and Hwanseongul are the main reason to visit. There are also less crowded beaches nearby which are also far cleaner than the ones found in Busan.
6) Wolchulsan National Park: (click the link for the full article)
7) Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple: As the best known UNESCO World Heritage Site outside of Seoul, Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto get their fair share of visitors. Bulguksa is one of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist temples in Korea. It was first build almost 1500 years ago and contains more than seven Korean National Treasures. While it is very crowded, it is definitely worth it.
View larger map
Section 4: Jeju Island
There are only two main parts of South Korea that, while accessible over a weekend, realistically require more time. Those two parts are the Shinan Archipelago and Jeju Island. Let me be honest in saying that Shinan can be completely skipped altogether. Therefore, this section is mainly to talk about Jeju Island. Jeju Island is considered by Koreans as the “Hawaii of Korea.” The craze for this island is so great, that it was voted by as one of the New7Wonders of Nature, beating out the Galapagos Islands, The Great Barrier Reef, and The Grand Canyon. While those are all very deserving (some would say more so) places to visit, don’t scoff at Jeju just yet! I am the first to admit when a place is overrated, especially in Korea (i.e. Nami Island). Despite all the praise Jeju Island gets, it truly lives up to all expectations. Here are some things you can do in Jeju:
1) Mt. Halla: As the highest peak in South Korea, Hallasan has breathtaking views from the bottom, all the way to the top. Hallasan is a dormant volcano that last erupted over a thousand years ago. The top of the crater holds a freshwater lake where deer are frequently spotted. There are also some interesting species of animals and plants, including a strange, blue, cluster flower. If there is one thing you do in Jeju Island, hike Hallasan Mountain. Note: While all the hikes are awesome, not all trails go to the summit, which is a must see crater lake. The Jeju government rotates which trails reach the top for preservation, so make sure to find out before beginning your ascend. There are only 4 trails and usually 2 reach the top.
2) Beaches: Hamdeok in the north and Jungmun (check the map below) in the south are the two best beaches I experienced on my stay in Jeju (out of about eight of them). They are indeed world-class with a deep blue color from a distance and crystal clear water up-close. While Jungmun seems to be the more popular one, I thought Hamdeok was the better of the two because of its seclusion, and amazing views. Tip:If you walk to the right side of the beach (along the water), you will notice some rocks which seem like the border of the beach. The water is very shallow and you can go around these rocks to find a very picturesque section of the beach all to yourself.
3) Olles – Around the rim of the entire island are about a dozen hiking trails called ‘olles.’ They offer some of the best views of the shore. You can get complete maps of these Olles in Jeju Airport.
4) Volcanic Tubes – The main reason Jeju Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is because it is a volcanic island. Over a thousand years ago, insane amounts of lava flowed through these ‘lava tubes,’ feeding the mouth of Mt. Halla. Now, the tubes are dry and you can walk through what was once a river of molten rock. This is truly one of the most spectacular natural sites of South Korea.
5) Maze Park – I am usually not one to go for the tourist traps, but this one is hard to resist. Jeju Island is full gimmicks (teddy bear and chocolate museums, I’m looking at you), but this one is definitely worth the $3 entrance fee. Dozens of hedges were grown and designed to make a maze (for a good cause that I can’t recall), which is very similar to the one found on the fourth Harry Potter movie. It is very fun trying to get out without a map, and given its proximity to the lava tubes, you should definitely stop by.
6) Cheonjeyeon Falls – There are three famous waterfalls in Jeju’s southern region: Cheonjeyeon, Cheonjiyeon, and Jeongbang Waterfalls (why they decided to name two of them almost exactly the same, I will never know). Cheonjiyeon is the biggest (by volume) and most famous of the three, don’t go to this one. It is popular with Koreans because it is nicely cemented, they have installed lights, you can almost drive to it, and it is extremely developed. From the distance I was at, it didn’t even look like a natural waterfall anymore. Jeongbang is worth the hike if you have time, but the real attraction is Cheonjeyeon. This waterfall makes a very unusually bright blue pool, where you are allowed to dip your feet (you’re not supposed to swim in it). The waterfall also continues to another (far less crowded) fall, which (if you dare) you can hike to. I seemed to be the only one who did this, but the view was unreal from the top.
7) Seongsan Ilchulbong – This small mountain, also known as the “sunrise peak” is on the east most part of the island (where the sun rises). It is a fairly easy 45 minute climb up with some great views of the ocean, as well as the town below. [Here is a map of these areas]
View larger map
There are many more things to fill up to a few weeks on Jeju Island. While these were my favorites, make sure to get more information at the airport. They will be happy to help you. Furthermore, while public transportation exists, Jeju is far less crowded than you would expect, making public transportation scarce. It is definitely doable by public transportation, but you would be much more comfortable in a scooter (about $25 a day) or a car ($40 a day). Unlike the rest of Korea, driving in Jeju is not hard at all.
Section 5: Things With Multiple Locations
This section is for things that can be done in more than one place, or where the location (besides it being in Korea) is not that important. For now, this mostly includes food, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but I hope to add more things in later versions of this South Korea Travel Guide. If you are one of those people that travel to try new kinds of food, South Korea should be at the TOP of your list: I must admit that I have also been guilty of the ultimate food traveler’s crime, eating Mc Donald’s while traveling. The shame! Many times, ordering food in a foreign country is not only intimidating, but confusing. “What should I order? Is that a single or a communal meal? Would I have even asked that question in a non-Asian country? I can’t even read the menu!” While it is tempting to take the easy way out to just eat something familiar. DON’T DO THIS IN KOREA! The food in Korea is divine, simply amazing, mouthwater… okay, you get the picture. If you only have a limited time, your stomach should have no room to spare for these fast food joints. I would even say that the food is so amazing, it would be a worthy time investment to make a list of what you want to eat in South Korea.
Here are some articles to get your mouth watering:
Five Best Korean Main Dishes [with links to the best places to have those meals]
Five Best Korean Snacks and Steet Foods [with links to the best places to have those snacks] … and while there is some overlap, here is another good list from Listverse:
There are some UNESCO World Heritage Sites where location isn’t as important: Wait what…how can a world heritage ‘site’ be ‘site unspecific?’ I don’t know how common this is world wide, but in Korea, some of the site entries are “joint-entries.” This means that multiple sites count as the same UNESCO World Heritage Site. These include:
1) Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty – Let me level with you: While I did recommend the tomb to King Sejong, they are all pretty much the same. The difference is so minimal that once you’ve seen one, consider this site checked off. The easiest one to access is the Seolleung Tomb on either the Green or Yellow Subway Lines in Seoul.
2) Dolmen Sites – While the one in Ganghwa is the one I have been to, there are three places to see them, scattered across the country: Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa (the one I talked about in section 2). A friend of mine who has been in Korea for over four years and has also extensively traveled around recommends the one in Gochang for its easier access and abundance of tombs.
3) Hahoe and Yangdong Villages – As they both are a joint entry, you can consider a visit to either one as mission accomplished! The trade offs are that Hahoe is better but farther and more difficult to access while Yangdong is easy to get to but less impressive (isn’t it always like this?).
This is another, must-do experience:
Templestay – The Templestay program allows you to live life as a Buddhist monk for a day. There are about 190 temples of the 900 in Korea that participate in this program. It is generally about 50,000 won per person, and includes a place to stay and 2-3 vegetarian, Buddhist style meals. Currently, 16 of the 190 Templestay temples offer services that are guaranteed to be in English (click the links below). The official Templestay office is in Seoul (map) and their official website is found here. It is highly recommended that you try this awesome experience, as it is one of the best things to do in South Korea. The office can give you additional maps, information, and even register you for a temple stay then and there. However, if you want to plan ahead of time, here is a list of all 16 temples with links: Myogaksa, Geunsunsa, Bongeunsa, Jeondeungsa, Woljeongsa, Yongjoosa, Donghwasa, Beomeosa, Jikjisa, Golgusa, Geunsansa, Milhwangsa, Seonunsa, Yakchunsa, International Seon Center, and the one I personally tried (thus highly recommend) Haeinsa (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Section 6: Festivals
Few things in traveling are as annoying as getting to a place, and having someone tell you “oh, you should have come last week because…” This happened to me in Venice (suggesting I come for Carnival), in Mexico (suggesting I come during the Monarch butterfly migration, or during the equinox in Chichen Itza), and I am sure it will happen again and again. While not many of us have the luxury to pick and choose when we have time off, fortunately for you, South Korea has an insane amount of festivals to accommodate all tastes and schedules. Here are some of my favorites that have already passed, and some of the more interesting looking ones for 2013. Keep in mind that many of these change yearly based on a number of factors, including natural phenomena (i.e. flower blooming times), but this will nevertheless help you get an idea of when certain festivals take place. Each festival has a link to either an article I’ve written, the event website, or the official Korean English Tourism website (usually a better resource for directions) with far more information.
Festival Schedule for 2013
Jan 1st – Jeongdongjin Sunrise Festival [Official Site]
Jan 19th – 23rd – Inje Ice Fishing Festival [Official Site]
Feb 28th – Mar 3rd – Uljin Crab Festival [Official Site]
Apr 1st – 10th – Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival [Official Site]
Apr 11th – 14th – Gijisi Tug-o-War Festival [Official Site]
Apr 17th- 21st – Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival [Official Site]
Apr 25th-28th – Jindo Miracle Sea Road Crossing [Article Link]
Apr 25th – 28th – Ulsan Whale Festival [Official Site]
May 10th – 12th – Lotus Lantern Festival [Official Site]
Jun 1st – 9th – Muju Firefly Festival [Official Site]
Jun 20th – 27th – Danoje Festival [Official Site]
June 2013 – Haeundae Sand Festival [Official Site]
Jul 19th – 28th – Boryeong Mud Festival [Official Site] *Warning: Mostly a foreigner drinking festival. If you go, make sure to visit the mudflats so you don’t forget the purpose of the festival in the first place.
August – Gangjin Celadon Festival [Official Site]
Sept ~ 27th – Oct 7th – Andong Hahoe Village Mask Festival [Official Site]
October – Incheon Bupyeong Pungmul Festival (Traditional Music) [Official Site]
November – Seoul Lantern Festival [Official Site] NOTE: This was just a short list of some of the festivals in Korea. For a complete list, you can go here and search by date. There is something going on almost every single day.
Section 7: Tips, Suggestions, and Extra Information
These are mostly tid-bits of information to make your stay in Korea a lot easier. While some long-term visitors and expats might already know some of these, it doesn’t hurt to mention them anyways. First, if you’re thinking about working in Korea, read my: * 10 Things I wish I Knew Before Teaching English in Korea (Guest Blog for the Site: Art of Backpacking) Otherwise, here are some general things:
1) Buy a T-money card – ‘T-Money’ is the public transportation card used for any bus or subway in the entire country. It can also be used for some specialty trains like the ITX to Chuncheon, the Airport Express Train, or the ‘Airport Limousine’ buses. One of the best uses is that transfers from buses to trains are free within a 30 minute window, so if you don’t have one, and switch from bus to subway, you’re paying double. They are 3,000 won at any subway station (5,000 for the key chain type, 8,000 for the cartoon character ones sold in convenience stores).
2) Get Templed Out – With almost a thousand temples in Korea, it is easy to get overwhelmed with too many to see. While I’d like to say they are all the same, I am still charmed by any new and interesting one that I find. However, to narrow down your choices, here is an awesome article by CNN on some of the best ones.
3) Learn a Little Korean – I know it is a lot to ask for short-term travelers, but it will really make your life easier, especially with ordering food. For long term expats, trust me, it will come in handy. Here is a fantastic website for learning the basics. Start with the audio files on Level 1.
4) Free English Guides – There are hundreds of free English tour volunteers registered with the tourism department. All you have to do is sign up here. They will not only make your visit to a place more in-depth, but in my experience, these guides love the chance to speak in English so don’t mind just talking about non-official stuff. The line between work and social life is very blurred in Korea, so don’t be afraid to ask about things like theirday jobs of hobbies. Furthermore, in pretty much every museum you walk into, look in the information desk as many offer free English guides, too.
5) Palace Package – For 10,000 won, you can buy a ticket to all four palaces in Seoul and the Jongmyo Shrine. If you read section 1, you should know that I recommend all four of the main palaces. You have a month to use this, so you can same some money in the long run.
6) Palaces Close, sometimes – Most palaces and UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Seoul close on Mondays. The Gyeongbokgung Palace however closes on Tuesdays.
7) KORAIL Pass – Two deals here for foreigners only. 1) There is 1 day pass for 58,000 won. This is great for people on a tight schedule who will be doing a lot of long distance traveling in a short time. There are also deals for multiple days. 2) There is also a deal together with the JR lines of Japan where you can buy a joint train ticket. If you are planning on visiting both Korea and Japan, this deal might be ticket for you. Check out the Korail Train Website for details.
8) Train Tickets Sell Out – Whenever there is a famous festival or event outside of Seoul, you can almost guarantee that the trains will sell out quick. If you know what you want to do ahead of time, book the tickets as soon as possible. You can always cancel up to the day of with no fee. You can even cancel up to an hour before the train with only a 400 won fee!
9) 1330 – Save the number. This is a hotline, from any Korean phone, to an English speaking person from the tourism department. They have been lifesavers many times with very accurate and up to date information. They can even help if you are lost, or need, well, pretty much anything. I also recently found out that the number is 24 hours and 365 days a year. 10) Reverse Rip-Off for Tourists – If you looked at the “free English guides” tip with skepticism, you can rest assured that there is no catch. Most countries have the ‘local price’ and the ‘tourist price’ meant to suck more money out of travelers who don’t know how much things are worth. This exists in Korea too, except that the tourist price is often the cheaper of the two. Huh!?!??!?! Many places in Korea offer discounts and special deals only to foreigners in an attempt to boost tourism. The general population is, overall, very honest and will almost never scam you if you don’t know the local prices or currency (with the exceptions of a few taxis). I have been offered additional discounts at the supermarket without even asking, how cool is that?
Section 8: Suggested Itineraries and Travel Routes
There was a lot of info in this South Korea travel guide, so maybe you don’t know where to start. Personally, I am a planner that likes to make his own routes, but I also like seeing ‘suggested itineraries.’ I saw this proposed itinerary when I was planning my first trip to Osaka, Japan. While I must admit that I didn’t follow it very strictly at all (especially since I didn’t even start in Tokyo), it gave me an insight as to what is possible in a given time frame. Here are some suggested itineraries for you to maximize your experience in Korea with whatever time frame you may have.
One Day in Korea
* Gyeongbokgung Palace – This is the single, coolest thing to see in Seoul. It takes about two hours to look around this huge complex, which is definitely time well spent. It’s central location and abundance of events make it the #1 thing I would recommend.
* Visit the National Folk Museum – This is a nice, mini version of the National Museum of Korea, the #2 best things to do in Seoul. It gives you a good run-down of Korean history, from 700,000 years ago to now. It is also conveniently located inside of Gyeongbokbung Palace.
* Stroll Around Sejong Street – This wonderfully picturesque street in front of Gyeongbokgung palace is one of the ‘postcard pictures’ you always see about Korea. It is lined with the statues of the two greatest Korean heroes, King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun Shin. I rated it the #5 best thing to do in Seoul on this list.
* Namdaemun Market – This wonderful market is a foodie’s paradise. It offers a huge range of typical Korean meals, along with some great shopping of either standard souvenirs, or more traditional Korean products. The recently opened Namdaemun Gate is also one of Korea’s most cherished treasures, listed as National Treasure No.1 (out of about 1000).
* (option) Hongdae – If you are up for some late night partying, head to Hongdae, where some places don’t close until 10 in the morning.
Three Days in Korea
Day 1: Copy the one day itinerary from above.
(morning – evening)
* DMZ Tour – Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that there are two Koreas. The DMZ, or De-Militarized-Zone, is the barrier dividing the two countries with countless landmines, barbwire, and multiple gates. The DMZ tour allows you to tour some of the more interesting areas along the DMZ such as Dorasan Station (a train that links the two Koreas), the 3rd tunnel (that the North Koreans were digging for invasion), and the famous (night)
* Gangnam – For some great food, shopping, and nightlife, head to Gangnam. The street from Gangnam Station (exit 11) to Sinnonhyeon Station is what hyper-consumerism is all about. There are dozens of brand name department stores along with many boutiques. Furthermore, any kind of food, Korean or otherwise can be found here. This area is why Seoul is a city of lights that never sleeps.
* National War Museum – After the DMZ tour, this museum gives you great insight and context into the Korean War, as well as the history of conflict on the Korean Peninsula over the last five thousand years. The outdoor part of the museum also has some awesome jets, tanks, rockets, and even a warship. While you could definitely spend a very long time, about 2-3 hours is enough to get a good feel for the museum.
(late-afternoon / early evening)
* Bongeunsa or Jogyesa Temples – Buddhism is a big part of Korean history and current values. In many ways, Korean culture has been shaped by Buddhism over the last two thousand years. The temples of Bongeunsa and Jogyesa are two of the largest in Seoul. Bongeunsa is bigger and a bit more beautiful. However, Jogyesa is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Buddhism, more centralized, and is itself, nothing to scoff at with three huge golden Buddhas in the main hall.
* Insadong – Located next to Jogyesa, insa-dong is the ‘cultural center’ of Seoul. While I have criticized insadong on past posts for being nothing more than a place to get souvenirs, my most recent visit (May, 2013) has changed my stance. I saw people smashing ‘Ttok’ (korean rice cake) with wooden mallet, a calligraphist showing off his skills in the street, and those ceramic and painting shops being more than just a facade for trinket stores. Many very small art galleries are also open to the public, and are usually free of charge. It was nice to see this site of Insadong, and I am sure you will enjoy it, too.
* Jongno – While Hongdae and Gangnam are definitely more popular, Jongno still has its charms. There is an insane amount of food options and cafes in this area. While there aren’t many (if any) ‘western-style bars,’ it is still a very Korean experience since few foreigners (by comparison) venture into this area. Grab something to eat for dinner, and sit down for a few drinks.
Eight Days in Korea
Now it starts getting a little interesting as you have time to venture out of Seoul. Also, you don’t have to cut corners too much in your list of what you want to see. If I already described a place, scroll up to read the description (instead of me writing the same thing again). Here are my suggestions for a 7-day itinerary:
* Gyeongbokgung Palace – (scroll up for description) *****SKIP THE FOLK MUSEUM*****
* Sejong Street – (scroll up for description)
(late afternoon / early evening)
* King Sejong and Admiral Yi Museums – Directly behind the statue of King Sejong (the golden one) is the entrance to the museums, which lie underground. These museums can teach you why these two figures are so revered in a fun and interactive play. The 4-D theater inside shows a hilarious animation on how the cool-headed Admiral Yi Sun Shin destroyed the Japanese armada, despite insane odds of 13 to 333 warships. This even prompts the Japanese commander to exclaim, “Is Yi Sun Shin truly INVINSIBLE!” (I swear this is the verbatim quote). There is also a scaled replica of a turtle ship which you can board, and a place where they can teach you how to write your name in Korean (you can try twice if you’re a foreigner). (evening)
*Namdaemun Market – (scroll up for description)
* Hongdae – (scroll up for description)
* Follow exactly as the Day 2 and 3 of the three-day itinerary (scroll up)
Days 4-5: (Outside of Seoul) It is time of a little road trip. While Seoul is awesome, there is much more to Korea than just one city. In fact, my #1 favorite thing I have ever seen or done in Korea is outside of Seoul and the basis for this short trip:
* Haeinsa Temple and the Tripitaka Koreana – If you don’t know what these are, check out the full review here. In short, Haeinsa is one of the three most important temples in Korea, and the Tripitaka Koreana is the oldest known complete and flawless Zen Buddhist scripture, dating back 800 years. The tripitaka is a set of 80,000 wooden blocks that have to be seen to be believed. Haeinsa is located within Gayasan National Park, near Daegu City. To access it, you need to take a train or bus to Daegu, then take a bus from the bus depot in Daegu to Gayasan NP. I suggest that you also do a ‘templestay,’ (see sections 5, 9) to fully appreciate this wonderful place. [Head to Gyeongju from here by taking a bus from Gayasan to Daegu, then a train from Dong-Daegu Station to Gyeongju Station. Note: There are two stations in Daegu, ‘Daegu Station’ and ‘Dong-Daegu Station.’ Only DONG-DAEGU goes to Gyeongju.]
Days 6-7: (Gyeongju – Still outside of Seoul) Since you already left the comforts of Seoul, might as well keep going. Head over to the city of Gyeongju, which was once the capital of the Shilla Kingdom, one of the first unified states in Korea. It is also the home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (morning) * Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto – (See Section 3 by scrolling up) [UNESCO World Heritage Site]
* Gyeongju Historic Areas – See this full review (or See Section 3 by scrolling up) [UNESCO World Heritage Site]
* Gyeongju Museum – When the Anapji Pond, hundreds of artifacts from the Shilla period were uncovered. Despite the looting, many of these items were preserved and are currently displayed in this new museum.
(The Next Day)
* Yangdong Folk Village – (See Section 3) [Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site] [Head to Seoul in the afternoon / evening. It is at least 3 hours away and requires a transfer in Dong-Daegu Station. If you take the slow train, expect to take 5 hours.]
Day 8: (Back in Seoul)
* National Museum of Korea – This museum is listed as the #2 thing to do in Seoul, this museum will give you an overwhelming amount of detail about Korean history from 700,000 years ago when humans first appeared in the region, to 1911 when Korea was annexed by Japan. I have heard many people scoff that it doesn’t measure up to ‘elite’ European museums. In my opinion, the experience is far more enjoyable here because you aren’t rubbing elbows just to take a picture (The Uffizi), and the artifacts aren’t stacked on top of each other (Vatican Museums). While I do admit that those are elite museums, I would definitely put the National Museum of Korea up there in the mix. (night)
* Myeongdong – As one of the major ‘hyper-shopping districts’ of Seoul, it is great for street food, and street vendors as well as big department stores and sit down restaurants. It is a great way to end an 8-day tour of Korea.
Section 9: Accommodations (especially in Seoul)
For me, where I stay is more of a matter of location than the actual luxury of a place, and I think I’ve made my position on luxury hotels quite clear here and here. While there is nothing wrong with staying at a nicer place if it is cheap, I personally have never done so in Korea, so instead, I will talk about your budget options. I think staying as close to Seoul Station or Gwanghwamun Station is your best bet [if you are staying in Seoul]. If you are traveling from abroad, the airport express train takes you directly to Seoul Station, which is both a Seoul Subway stop, and an intercity train hub. Gwanghwamun Station is also a good location (check the subway map in the introduction) since it is close to many of the things to see that I mentioned (in section 1).
Option 1: ‘Love’ Motels Personally, I never plan hotels/motels ahead of time in Korea unless it is absolutely necessary. When I arrive somewhere, I simply search “모텔” (motel) on my google maps app (works best if you search in Korean), and I get at least a dozen results within any bus terminal or (intercity) train station. If you have wifi (free in any Korean coffee shop), feel free not to book, really. I have only been turned away from a motel once because it was full (out of dozens of trips), and even in that case, the one across the street had rooms. If you’re an expat living out of Seoul, chances are that you will also arrive by train to either Seoul Station or Yongsan Station or to one of the three bus hubs [Express Bus Terminal, Nambu Terminal, or Dong-Seoul Teminal]. If you have a phone that can type in Korean, I suggest you try the “모텔” typing approach near whatever you plan on doing. Motels are pretty much everywhere in Korea, so this tip works outside of Seoul as well. Typical budget price: ~50 USD
Option 2: Hotels / Hostels Good resources are hotels.com, hostelbookers.com, or hostelworld.com. While it might be cheaper to get a hostel, I have found that hotels.com is overall a cheaper option for 2-3 people traveling together as a room is less than the cost of 2-3 beds. Most of the places listed on these sites will speak English while the motels in option 1 most likely will not…your call. Typical budget price: ~ 25~60USD
Option 3: Couchsurfing Couchsurfing might also be a great option for people wanting to get to know locals better as Koreans are quite active on that site. Typical price: Free
Option 4: Templestays A second thing to consider is a Templestay. I already mentioned this at the end of section 5 (scroll up), but Templestays are not only one of the best experiences you can have in Korea, but could also be considered as an accommodation option for a day. Typical price: ~50-60 USD (includes vegetarian Buddhist meals) **The biggest tip I can suggest here (and I guess this goes for many other countries too) is to stay as close to a Subway Station (if in Seoul) or a Bus/Train terminal (out of Seoul) as possible. It will make your travels a lot easier** Finally: This travel blog is continuously changing, and I often post about places I visit in South Korea. Check out this “South Korea category” for the most up to date posts on Korea. There is also a YouTube channel where I post many videos on South Korea, as well as the rest of the world.
[Version 1.01: Updated June 2013] (1.01: Highlighted every link blue so they are easier to see) Late Update: (This is the first version)
Thank you for reading this South Korea Travel Guide. If you notice inaccuracies, grammar mistakes, something I omitted, or you simply have a different opinion, leave a comment or email me [maximuz04(at)gmail.com]. I’ll be sure to update this every so often to make it as up to date as possible. If you enjoyed this guide, make sure to like it on Facebook (on the right side), and share it with your friends.