South Korea brings an incredible appetite of meaningful attractions to the table that ranges from visiting the pristine Jeju-si Island to the neon lit streets of Seoul to the hipper beach attitude of Busan. Travellers smile while walking through gardens with 500-year old trees, meditating at a 14th century Buddhist temple and viewing traditional hanok architecture at every turn of the head. The mixture of ancient and present-day culture permeates through the busy streets whether you want to shop, visit a palace or take a bicycle ride through the countryside.
Here are 18 things to do in South Korea to keep you busy exploring the exciting landscape it has to offer.
1. ENJOY DELICIOUS KOREAN FOOD
One of the best ways to experience South Korea’s culture is through the culinary delights that can be found in restaurants. Koreans love their barbeque and kimchi (fermented cabbage) is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity item. While in South Korea you can indulge in some of the tasty treats like bulgogi, japchae, and gomguk along with a variety of traditional banchan dishes such as flavoured kimchi, bap (rice) and gogumasun namul (sweet potato shoots).
While in Seoul, street foods are a pleasure within themselves. The variety of street foods will blow your mind and can be found at many of the major market areas within the city. The major market areas are packed with food stalls or pojangmachas which specialize in tasty treats from around the country. While you are shopping for that perfect souvenir or exotic high-end item, you can please your taste buds with a variety of flavours.
2. EXPLORE SEOUL ON FOOT
Many people visiting Seoul will set-out on foot to experience the sights and sounds of this chic urban city. Seoul is a dynamic city which offers travellers a wide variety of activities that can be bunched together to create a splendid walking sightseeing tour. Options range from visiting distinct Joseon Dynasty Palaces to traditional hanok villages to museums to shopping markets to present-day culture including K-Pop and filming locations of the ever-popular K-Drama Series.
3. WITNESS THE GRANDEUR OF CHANGDEOKGUNG AND GYEONGBOKGUNG PALACES
Delve into the ancient history and glorious culture of Korea by visiting the Changdeokgung Palace. Also known as the Eastern Palace your eyes will pop with pleasure when you gaze upon the 1405 C.E. palace. Situated on almost 58-hectares, the Changdeokgung Palace was the second palace constructed under the Joseon Dynasty and is the best-preserved example of the five palaces that dot the landscape of Seoul. Changdeokgung palace is now listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Good to know: While you at Changdeokgung Palace make sure to take a special tour of the Biwon or Secret Garden which boasts 56,000 specimens of trees that range from white oak to maple to plum to walnut as well as a gingko and zelkova.
Built in 1395 C.E., Gyeongbokgung Palace is the most ornate and largest of the five palaces constructed during the Joseon Dynasty. Situated on 40 hectares, the Gyeongbokgung Palace is composed of fourteen restored buildings that include the king’s main living quarters, Gangnyeongjeon. Other notable spots to see are the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion and Hyangwonjeong Pond, which have stayed mainly intact after the destruction of the palace by the Japanese in the 16th as well as 20th centuries.
4. LEARN ABOUT TRADITIONAL HANOK ARCHITECTURE
Nestled in between Changdeokgung Palace and Gyeongbokgung Palace is the quaint neighbourhood of Bukchon Hanok Village. This is a must-see side trip with it’s hundreds of traditional Korean houses called “hanok”. This is a great way to experience what the origins of the Korean architecture and housing started.
Many of the hanok houses are still lived in and some are also re-modeled into guest houses, restaurants, cafes, and other culture centers. The best part about visiting this village are the endless winding alleys that twist and turn. It’s in these alleys that you’ll see the true local experience with a mother hand washing her clothes, children playing in the streets, and their grandparents silently watching over each neighborhood.
Good to know: There are no charges to enter Namsangol Hanok Village so getting an available parking spot will be a tough fight. Travelling via public transport is recommended as there are very few parking spaces available in the premise.
5. BE A STREET ARTIST
While we’re sure you’re reading this because you want to travel around and see exciting places, but one of the must things to do in South Korea is to see the street artists perform on Insa Dong Street in Seoul. There’s everything from card tricks, to juggling, and much more. If you have a trick or two up your sleeve you can even join them and do your own performance to make a bit of cash.
Not only do they have great street artists, but there is also a great mix of old and new Korean culture including cafes, restaurants, and shops selling authentic souvenirs. Most people often come to Insa Dong to check out the art galleries, tea shops, and boutiques.
6. CHECK OUT FREE MUSEUMS
South Korea has so many great museums each with their unique style, charm, and history focus points whether that’s animals, agriculture, country/world history, art, and more. If you are travelling on a budget then visiting the free museums is a great thing to do in South Korea!
7. GLIDE DOWN THE SKI SLOPES FROM THE 2018 WINTER OLYMPICS
It’s 2018 and South Korea hit the international stage by hosting the incredible Winter Olympics and Winter Paraolympics in Pyeongchang! With the incredible investment they put into the high-speed rail line to the Olympic resorts in the Korean Alps (Taebaek Mountains) it makes it simple and easy to get to their skiing areas.
The Taebaek mountain range stretches along the eastern side of the country all the way from the southern Busan all the way up to Wonsan in the north. The highest point is in Gangwon-do with his highest point reaching 1,708 m making this the most sought-after location to go.
There are also quite a few ski resorts closer to Seoul which can be reached in a day-trip by taking shuttle busses including the Konjiam Ski Resort and the Elysian Gangchon Ski Resort both about an hour away from Seoul.
Good to know: The best time to visit Pyeongchang is during the winter months from December to March when the snow will be the most abundant.
8. VISIT THE TEMPLES
One of the must things to do in South Korea for all travelers is to visit one of the 900 Buddhist Temples that reside around the country. Each temple has unique tributes to Buddha that include statues, meditation halls and ceremonial tearooms. Temple stays are becoming very common in South Korea. During your stay you can meditate with the monks, learn more about Buddhism and talk philosophy with the monks over a nice cup of tea.
9. TAKE A TRIP TO BUSAN
Want to breathe fresh sea air during your trip in Korea? Take a short 2.5-hour bullet train ride to the bustling city of Busan. Busan offers a different experience than Seoul with a hipper attitude, beach resorts, 14th century temples and lots of superb food from sit down meals to street food. Being the second largest city of South Korea, Busan is the main port city in the south, known for its local seafood, urban nightlife, long modern bridges, infinite beaches and majestic mountains.
10. VISIT THE DMZ
A very popular thing to do in South Korea for travellers is to make the 48km trip north of Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where the remnants of the Cold War still flourish. Once at the DMZ you can peer into North Korea from a safe and secure location such as Panmunjom where you will find the Military Demarcation Line or the Joint Security Area (JSA). The JSA is the most visited area within the DMZ and visitors can expect a sombre atmosphere of steely soldiers on both sides of the barbed wire.
11. VISIT THE THIRD “TUNNEL OF AGGRESSION”
While most people visiting South Korea typically go to the DMZ which marks the boundary between North and South Korea. At present the DMZ is still an active aggression zone which you can take a tour to see, but you will remain quite far for your safety. A bit less well-known secret is that there are long stretches of tunnels underground which were made by the North Koreans near Panmunjom. From what the government knows there are 4 total tunnels discovered and it’s rumored that there are a dozen more undiscovered tunnels. Why not take a trip to the third discovered tunnel that is only 44 km from Seoul and is open to tourists and learn about what happened and how they found out about them?
12. EXPERIENCE A BOTANICAL GARDEN ISLAND
There are many islands that dot the southern coast of South Korea but one in specific was inhabited by a man and his wife. It was just a rocky little patch of island but they saw the potential in it to create an island dedicated to both botanical plant types and brightly colored flowers.
Today it’s a luscious green botanical garden open for visitors year-round to see not only the botanical gardens, but also some of its unique European Rome-style architecture/sculptures. Summer months can get quite busy so we suggest going either in the early spring or fall time.
Oedo Botania in Geoje is quite far from Seoul for a day-trip, but if you’re headed to Busan then this is a great side trip to take. You can get there by taking a ferry from the Jangseungpo Port near Busan. The cost of the ferry is USD 15* and includes your entrance to the gardens.
Good to know: Be sure to download the Oedo Island app before you go as it offers an English guided tour of the island.
13. RELAX IN LUXURY AT THE SUN CRUISE RESORT AND YACHT
While South Korea is host to many different cruise liners visiting its shores, these ships typically stay in the ocean waters. The Sun Cruise Resort instead is a cruise liner built on top of a rocky cliff. This unique mixing of architecture as a cruise liner gives it one of the most interesting designs in the world.
This resort is home to 211 rooms, 6 restaurants, a rotating lounge with a 360 view of the ocean, a glass floor observation deck overlooking crashing waves below and is situated next to a sculpture garden that you can wander through during the evening while enjoying the sunset. Why not try out a cruise line experience without getting sea-sick?
14. VISIT SEOUL’S BEST AMUSEMENT PARKS
If you’re looking for that adrenaline rush, then Everland is definitely the place for you! With their ever-famous T-Express ride that goes over 100miles per hour. But if you’re traveling as a family, there’s something for everyone with 5 unique zones including: Global Fair, ZooTopia, European Adventure, Magic Land, and American Adventure. It’s important to note that ZooTopia offers not only pandas, giraffes, and lions, but they also are home to the famous Korean speaking elephant who mimics the words from its handler.
15. VISITING JEJU-SI ISLAND
Located off the southwestern coastline of the Korean Peninsula is the picturesque island of Jeju-si. The 1,848km2 island is a haven of UNESCO awards that include a Geopark, a Biosphere Reserve as well as Cultural Heritage Sites. When you arrive on Jeju-si Island you will be engulfed in traditions, history and the natural beauty of this dormant volcanic island.
16. SEE THE BEAUTY OF SOUTH KOREA ON A BICYCLE
An intriguing thing to do in South Korea for a fitness enthusiast is to use a bicycle as your main form of transportation. Bicyclists are amazed at the extensive bike paths throughout the country that follow the Han and Nakdong Rivers. While you are cycling through the countryside you will become one with nature as you pass by numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Buddhist temples and traditional hanok villages.