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Travelling to South Korea seemed underwhelming. Yet it’s misunderstood. Here’s how to see Korea and find the best of its tourism.
I had a multitude of reasons for going to South Korea.
Korea is a split peninsula. After being in North Korea, I wanted to visit South Korea in order to understand the differences between them.
South Korea always seemed unknown, a country that people rarely extensively travel outside the capital of Seoul and the beach town of Busan. I wanted to travel further.
South Korea is talked about in great detail by westerners who moved there. I wanted to see why.
South Korea remains a country marketed towards its regional neighbours who also flock here because of the world-renowned K-Pop and K-Beauty. Only until the recent success of K Drama’s like Parasite and Squid Game has South Korea been propelled further on the world stage. Pop culture is always a draw.
Altogether, South Korea can be tricky to unravel, harder to travel and harder to understand. Here’s why.
- Travelling to Korea For the First Time?
- Korea vs Japan? Don’t Do This. Ever
- Travel to South Korea – Understanding the Reality
- Places to Visit in South Korea
- How to Enjoy a Trip to Korea
- South Korea Travel Tips
Travelling to Korea For the First Time?
Being in Korea will bring a lot of cultural and language barriers, coupled with the lack of tourism infrastructure, but as a visitor, you should adapt. As a modern country, the general infrastructure is great, so there’s no issue with getting around, navigating or finding accommodations whatever town or city you find yourself in.
Fairly quickly I realised I wasn’t overwhelmed by South Korea – which happens in some places. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; more a matter of personal opinion but I like to try and understand why.
I came to realise that South Korea is a destination that needs adequate time and dedication in getting to know and understand it. Especially when you look at its history of oppression.
Seoul is a city that needs a deeper dive to find its hotspots and then it clicks. As I passed through new towns, I realised that locals had told me things prior to my arrival which were filled with an abundance of beautiful pride, but which in reality for a tourist visitor were nothing more than just a residential town with one or two areas of interest. However, food enthusiasts will find smaller towns pack a punch when it comes to localised Korean cuisine.
You need to research heavily on where to go in South Korea and what the cultural highlights are. You have to work hard to find it.
Whilst certain parts of Korea did not live up to my initial expectations, my time there did come with some great memories times and very particular destinations that stand out. I do have a desire to return to see it differently, but more so to really spend some time in some of the country’s 22 National Parks and seven mountains. That kind of nature accolade is impressive, and I only scratched the surface of it.
After one month in the country, I pulled together this guide on how to travel to South Korea and make the most of it, alongside my top picks on where to visit for your first time there.
Korea vs Japan? Don’t Do This. Ever
My biggest mistake was in visiting Japan first and the ongoing Korea or Japan debate is inevitable, but it’s also wrong.
Sure, Japan was incredible and after spending one month there and I was on a huge come down. Travel to South Korea felt less appealing in comparison – it wasn’t as ‘seemingly’ vibrant and eccentric as its neighbour. I missed Japan and its madness. South Korea feels much more relaxed and less hurried, so it just takes time to adjust to the different tempo.
Visiting Japan first is a hindrance to having a fresh perspective on Korea.
Especially when given the brutal history between the two countries, you can see how anti-Japanese sentiment is rife in Korea and it pays to have a better understanding of their differences.
Travel to South Korea – Understanding the Reality
This might be an alternative South Korea travel guide in that I’m not listing all that is wonderful and 100% perfect. Yet, we are all guilty of too easily dismissing travel to a destination without looking at its current state in context. In the case of Korea, this is important.
Japanese Colonial Rule
South Korea suffered under 35 years of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), which included ruthless military rule, censorship, discrimination and forced labour. It’s a part of the collective consciousness today.
The industrialisation of South Korea after Colonisation and the Korean War
Following the three year Korean War, which began in 1950 when the North invaded the South, the country was to grow into a major economy. That came after decades of invasion and colonisation of Korea by Japan during 1910–1945.
The country was destroyed, and after a long period of political instability, General Park Chung-hee’s military takeover in 1961 led to the formation of a new government. To many, he was seen as a ruthless dictator, whose rule saw many waves of abuse of human rights, yet the economy under him developed significantly, known as ‘The Miracle on the Han River’.
This term refers to the post-war industrialisation of Korea and the modern-day success story Korea is known for. A period which saw immense technological advancement, rapid urbanisation (including the Seoul subway system in use today), booming high standards of living and educational reforms, the hosting of huge sporting events including the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup, as well as placing the country on the global stage with the formation of international companies including Samsung, Hyundai and LG.
Whilst many remain divided in opinion about his time in power, it is evident the country developed significantly. South Korea is an economic miracle in its own right.
Cultural Customs of South Korea
Older generations of people in South Korea here have lived through the rapid change from the aftermath of war, creating a solid work ethic in all generations. Not only that, but locals informed me that culturally they are private people – community and family-focused – and do not need to take an outsider into their circle quickly. Therefore, welcoming tourists in South Korea with open arms is not something that’s instant. And that’s ok too.
That doesn’t mean you won’t meet those who are an exception to the rule, who are so excited to see someone visit their hometown and want to show you every aspect of it. It’s just not an occurrence that happens in abundance.
South Korea Tourism – Is it a Focus?
Tourism in Korea isn’t a core lifeline, like how it is in say Thailand or Cambodia. South Korea rose from the ashes and became a strong and prosperous nation, albeit at great sacrifice. They are a nation of staunch hard workers; their children study all day (and most of the night). There’s huge pride in that.
Korea is Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with a high standard of living. Essentially, they don’t need tourism to thrive, and therefore the notion of tourism is misunderstood and rests significantly on those wanting to visit the DMZ border.
READ MORE: Visit the DMZ in North Korea and South Korea – The Story of Both Sides
READ MORE: My Experience Travelling to North Korea – The Truth of Visiting the DPRK
Places to Visit in South Korea
With all this in mind, I made it a personal mission to not immediately dismiss travel to South Korea and leave too early. I knew there were plenty of things to see and do in Korea emitting some level of cultural or adventurous interest and in each destination, I tried to find something positive, picturesque or historically relevant.
I didn’t have any particular South Korea itinerary, instead, I just landed in the capital ready for a sporadic adventure.
I grew to love the arty side of Seoul, choosing the funky student-filled Hongdae as my base and enjoying the atmosphere of Itaewon and Gangnam that is best seen when the sun goes down.
From huge markets, old villages, historical palaces, entertainment districts and shopping plazas, there was always something new to try to seek out daily. The neighbourhoods are diverse, and that alone, alongside the array of cafes and coffee roasters, will keep you occupied in the capital.
Day Trips and Tours in Seoul
- Enjoy a full-day Seoul city highlights tour
- You know the chart-topping song, so take a hop-on-hop-off bus around the neighbourhood of Gangnam
- Known for its abundance of nightlife, take a pub crawl tour of Seoul
- Visit Nami Island and the Garden of Morning Calm
- Save money to and from Incheon airport and your hotel with shared taxi transfers
- Visit the DMZ on a full-day tour
Andong & Hahoe Folk Village
I visited Andong with the purpose of checking out Hahoe Folk Village – one of Korea’s few ‘preserved villages’. While Andong itself doesn’t necessarily attract visitors, its historical points of interest, reached by various long bus routes, did not disappoint.
A local romanticised Daegu as a place full of old historical buildings and hidden picturesque spots – we sat for an hour marking key highlights on a map – but I was left deflated when I realised it was nothing more than a big city. However, it was an important insight into the different parts of the country and how the experiences of travelling in South Korea vary greatly.
Often a quick overnight stop in locals towns are a great way of breaking up a long journey.
Gyeongju Burial Mounds
The UNESCO Ancient Capital of Gyeongju is a highlight, with huge grassy tombs, temples and gorgeous parkland, surrounded by mountains. Definitely one of the more interesting cities of former dynasty times, with a lot of ground to cover. Visit Gyeongju on a day trip from Busan.
Busan, with its lively beaches and mountainous terrain, was a refreshing and chilled break from the brash Seoul. I also got to check out Spa Land – one of Korea’s many ‘walk around completely naked’ spas and a rite of passage for any visitor to Korea!
Day Trips and Tours in Busan
- Busan is compact but with lots of highlights so consider a full-day Busan city tours to get acquainted
- Another lively hub when the sun goes down, visit four top bars on a Busan pub crawl
- Get the best shots on an Instagram tour of Busan’s most scenic spots
- Day trip to Oedo Island for the lush nature and longest cable car ride in Korea
I had an incredible few days in the small harbour town of Yeosu staying with a friend who was teaching there, taking random bus trips to start short treks in nature to reach the scenic viewpoint of the Geomosan Hyangilam temple I would have otherwise found hard to come by.
Jeju Island was hands down my favourite destination in Korea – a stunning domestic holiday spot scattered with stunning beaches and a whole host of UNESCO sites including lava caves, a mountain and incredible viewing points.
The ferry ride to get here is a bit rough on the choppy waters, but it’s all a part of the adventure. And there’s a lot of adventuring to do in Jeju as a core pristine nature hotspot.
READ MORE: All the World Wonder of Nature Things to Do on Jeju Island, South Korea
How to Enjoy a Trip to Korea
A key part of enjoying Korea is knowing the people who live there. I was lucky to be able to visit friends in Seoul and Yeosu and it made a HUGE difference because they could also introduce me to their Korean friends. I lost count of the number of times I was told you can only really enjoy Korea when people can tell you or show you where to go.
Korea doesn’t shout about its beauty, and must-see spots can be hard to find. Knowing someone really is key – take advantage of this if you are considering a visit there. When I got to spend time with locals, I used every minute as an opportunity to get some deeper insight into the country. I have more recently heard that things have changed a lot and there’s much more information and guidance on how and where to find and access points of interest because tourism promotion has gained more steam.
Would I visit again? Absolutely, I would travel to Korea again. There are still parts of the country that I have yet to see, such as the National Parks, the mountainous areas with hiking trails and much further down the line, the smaller towns which will one day be more accessible to travellers, rather than to those living there who take months to uncover it as they call it home.
South Korea Travel Tips
Korea Rail Pass
The Korea rail network is extensive and makes travel around South Korea convenient, fast and cost-effective. Available only for foreign visitors, consider purchasing a Korea Rail Pass for unlimited use within two to five days on the following services:
- KTX and KTX-Sancheon high-speed trains
- ITX-Saemaeul, Saemaeul, Mugunhwa, Nuriro and ITX-Cheongchun main network trains
- The O-train, V-Train, S-Train, DMZ-Train, A-Train and Westgold-Train tourist trains
This pass also includes discounts on first-class tickets for certain journeys as well as free or discounted entry into museums country-wide.
Guide Books and Further Reading
- The Korea Lonely Planet has recently been updated and is a great addition to travels throughout the country
- Read ‘Korea: The Impossible Country’ for further insight into Korea’s substantial economic and political growth. This book charts the rise of Korea as one of the best success stories of the post-war period and how it rose from the ashes and out of the shadows of Japan and China.
- ‘The Two Koreas’ is a contemporary history book that focuses on the history of the Korean Peninsula from World War II to the present day
- A fan of K Pop and keen to know how Korean Pop became a worldwide sensation? ‘The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture’ is a fun look at how “a really uncool country became cool”.
Book a Hotel in Korea
Don’t Want to Travel Korea Solo? Book a Small Group Tour
Not everyone wants to navigate a country solo and the complexities of a South Korea trip are no exception to those who might not know the Asia travel circuit extensively. Despite Korea having a great infrastructure and various stopping points of interest, some like to have smaller details organised and travel in a small group, for a big adventure. Plus, you will be with a local guide and South Korea is best experienced with someone who knows it as home.
The G Adventures South Korea tour takes you through Korea’s highlights over eight days, covering most of what’s been mentioned in this article. The trip costs include a visit to the DMZ, city tours in Seoul and Busan, alongside cultural villages and temples as well as accommodation in all destinations and transport in between.
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