Travelling to South Korea had been on my original Asia itinerary, but I took it off due to budget. However, after being in North Korea, I wanted to visit South Korea in order to understand the differences between them. It was always a country that seemed a little out of reach and unknown; a country only talked about in great detail by expats. It remains a country that people do not extensively ‘travel’ outside the capital of Seoul and the beach town of Busan and that also appealed to me.
The thought of facing periods of isolation and dealing with huge cultural and language barriers due to the lack of tourism infrastructure didn’t bother me at all – I’m a hardened independent traveller and I like the challenges it brings. Plus, with five weeks to pass through the country, I had time for a few hiccups along the way. That’s often the best way to learn.
Except after a few days, I realised I wasn’t feeling much for South Korea – which happens in some places, although rarely. I mainly choose to visit countries based on personal passions or historical interest (I’m not a country ticker with no care of the outcome of my visit) and whilst certain parts of a country might not live up to much, my time there does still bring with it some fond memories and a desire to return to see it differently.
I wasn’t as excited about South Korea travel as when I first mapped out a rough route that would take me in a clockwise adventure, starting in Seoul. I adored parts of the capital, but overall, it wasn’t a city that really excited me in the same way as Tokyo or Beijing, or which kept me on my toes like Phnom Penh or Yangon. It lacked a certain buzz that I thrive on in Asian cities.
And 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 pride (which in itself is beautiful), but which in reality were nothing more than just another nondescript town with one or two areas of interest.
- 1 Korea vs Japan?
- 2 Travel to South Korea – Understanding the Reality
- 3 What to Love about Travel in South Korea
- 4 How to Visit Korea and Enjoy It
- 5 Planning a Trip to South Korea
- 6 Do You Want to Travel to South Korea? Pin It!
Korea vs Japan?
My biggest mistake was in visiting Japan first and the on-going Korea or Japan debate is inevitable, even though it’s wrong. Japan was incredible and after spending one month there, I was on a huge come down. Travel to South Korea was less appealing in comparison – it wasn’t as ‘seemingly’ vibrant and as mannered as its neighbour. I missed Japan and its madness and its juxtaposed politeness. I lamented the loss of the ordered beauty, the eccentricities, the ever-changing landscape and the fantastic infrastructure.
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 it is the opposite of listing all that is wonderful and 100% perfect. Yet, we are all guilty of comparing and it’s all too easy to dismiss travel to Korea without looking at its current state in context.
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 a 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 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, although rapid growth did come at the expense of culture, tradition and beauty.
Cultural Customs of South Korea
The people, who at times ‘appear’ cold and who can brush you away before you’ve barely finished a sentence, have lived through the rapid change from the aftermath of war.
Not only that, they are a ‘closed’ and private people – community and family focused and not needing to take you, the stranger, into their circle quickly. Therefore, welcoming tourists in South Korea with open arms is not something that will come naturally.
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 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); they are serious, yet switched on. Korea is Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with a high standard of living. THAT is their pride. 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 Both Sides
READ MORE: My Experience Travelling to North Korea – The Truth of Visiting the DPRK
With all this in mind, I made it a personal mission to NOT immediately dismiss travel to South Korea and leave too early. It deserved a chance. I cut my four or five weeks down to three and vowed not to leave a day sooner. 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.
What to Love about Travel in South Korea
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. For those interested in the coffee scene, Seoul’s array of cafes and coffee roasters will most certainly keep you occupied.
Day Trips and Tours in Seoul
- Enjoy a full-day Seoul city highlights tour
- You know the famous 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
I visited Andong with the purpose of checking out Hahoe Folk Village – one of Korea’s few ‘preserved villages’. While Andong lacked any particular highlight, it’s historical points of interest, reached by various long bus routes, didn’t 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 sprawling city, and that all the ‘historical’ structures, bar one cathedral, had no real ‘wow’ factor. However, it was an important insight into the different parts of the country and how the experiences of travelling in South Korea vary greatly.
The UNESCO Ancient Capital of Gyeongju was a highlight, boosting 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 my expat friend who teaches there, taking random bus trips to temples and scenic areas I would have otherwise found hard to come by. I also got to meet her high school students, which was an interesting insight into the new generation of Koreans who work so incredibly hard.
Jeju Island was hands down my most favourite part of 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.
How to Visit Korea and Enjoy It
A key part of enjoying Korea is knowing people who live there. I was lucky to be able to visit expats friends in Seoul and Yeosu and it made a HUGE difference. I lost count of the number of times expats and former expats told me that you can only really enjoy Korea when people can tell you or show you where to go. Many said that outside of working in the country, it wouldn’t be a place where they would choose to travel or encourage others to travel with enthusiasm.
Korea doesn’t shout about its beauty, and its ‘must see’ spots can be hard to find. Knowing someone really is key – take advantage of this if you are considering a visit there as they are also the stepping-stone to meeting lots of local people. When I got to spend time with locals, I used every minute as an opportunity to get some deeper insight into the country.
Friends, determination, context and an open mind – I made the most of what I had. Overall, travelling Korea didn’t enthral me. It didn’t touch my heart. It didn’t bestow on me a whole heap of treasured memories of being on the road. But, I’m still glad I went and gathered some great memories from both excursions and interactions.
Would I visit again? Yes, I would travel South Korea again but not for a very long time, and only if it was en route to another destination. There’s still parts of the country that I have yet to see, such as the National Parks, the mountainous areas and 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.
For now, I am content with letting South Korea go, for now. But I’m certainly open for one day trying again.
Planning a Trip to South Korea
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 journeys through the 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.