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Have you ever dreamed of walking through an ancient village wearing traditional clothing or indulging in some of the finest street cuisine in the world? Perhaps you are dreaming of a pristine beach or spending the night with Buddhist monks? You can keep your dream alive and accomplish all of the above by visiting the Land of the Morning Calm better known as South Korea. A country steeped in tradition and ancient cultures, travellers will be thrilled with the plethora of things to do in South Korea.
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 16 things to do in South Korea to keep you busy exploring the exciting landscape it has to offer.
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.
- When in the Hongdae neighbourhood stop for delightful crispy chicken at Kyochon Chicken Hongdae Store or try some pork knuckles at Myth Jakbol Hongdae.
- If you are looking for a sit-down option in the Myeongdong area try Sinseon Seolleongtang Myeongdong or Myeongdong Kyoja Main.
- The best pork bellies or samgyetang can be found a short distance away from Gyeongbokgung Palace at Tosokchon Samgyetang.
- For mouth-watering street food in Seoul, go to Myeong-dong for hotteok (sweet potato cake), gimbap (rice roll) and beondegi (silkworm pupae); or Gwangjang Market for mayak kimbap (rice roll), bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) and soondae (Korean blood sausage).
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.
Insider’s tips: The best way to get a feel for the daily life in Seoul is to walk around in your free time. One of the best places to explore, where you can see the historical and contemporary cultures coexist, is in the Bukchon Hanok Village. Wander through the charming alleyways, gazing up at the stunning traditional architecture! – by Tamsin Foy from Bamba Experience
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.
Insider’s tips: Don't miss the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace! The palace is stunning and the museums interesting, but there is nothing quite like the leap back in time you'll take when watching the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony. They happen every hour, on the hour between 10 am and 3 pm, try and see the earlier shows before the heavy crowds arrive. If you're after an incredible photo opportunity why not try on one of the military uniforms in the Sumanjangcheong Building by the Gwanghwamun Gate, either before or after the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony. — by Tamsin Foy from Bamba Experience
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.
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.
Recommended streets to explore in Seoul
- Meyongdong: If you want to "shop til you drop" in Seoul then Myeongdong area is the place to be. The neighbourhood is filled mid to high end boutiques.
- Gangnam: If you want to see South Korea at its cosmopolitan best then a visit to Gangnam is a must. Check out the high end restaurants, cafes and malls that fills this area.
- Hongdae: The streets of this neighbourhood is filled with amazing art, cafes, clubs, live music bars and boutiques. Hongdae is also popular for its thriving nightlife. Hongdae Free Market comes alive every Saturday from March to November at Hongik Childrens Park.
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!
Recommended free museums in Seoul
- National Folk Museum
- National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
- Agricultural Museum
- National Museum
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.
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.
Recommended temple visits
- One of the more interesting temples to visit in Seoul is the Bongwonsa Temple. Here you can gaze at thirteen buildings including the largest wooden building in Korea which was constructed without nails.
- Situated near the Gyeongbokgung Palace is the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple. The temple is complete with locust trees, baeksong trees and numerous statues of Buddha. The temple is a fascinating place from May 6-8 when the annual lotus lanterns are lit in commemoration of Buddha’s birthday.
Insider’s Tips: Visitors to temples in South Korea must remove their shoes and headwear before entering and should refrain from taking photos. You should also bow to Buddha when walking in and out of the temple and exit the temple by backing out so as not to turn your back on Him. When leaving, it is good practice to place a small donation in one of the collection tubs that will inevitably be present. — by Kate Filer from On The Go Tours
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.
Recommended places to see
- Beach goers will be thrilled if they visit between 1 July and 31 August when the action heats up at Haeundae and Gwangalli Beaches. The beaches are known to be some of the cleanest in the world and there are plenty of onsite water sport activities.
- To have a complete overview of the city, the main attractions to see are Jagalchi Fish market, Haeundae Beach and Gamcheon Culture Village.
- Try a temple stay at the 1,300-year old Beomeosa Temple. Perched high on Mount Geumjeong overlooking Haeundae Beach, you can spend the night meditating while learning about Buddhism from the monks.
- Head to the International Market or Jokbal Golmok also known as Pig Feet Alley for some tasty street food. For a memorable sit down meal try Dongnae Halmae Pajeon.
Insider’s Tips: When you visit Jagalchi fish market, you can buy fresh seafood you like and have it cooked for you in a local restaurant of the market. – by Daehee Won from One Day Korea
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.
- Another popular spot within the DMZ is the Mount Odu Observatory also known as Unification Hill where binoculars provide for a 360-degree panoramic view of the Korean Peninsula.
- Located just south of the DMZ is Imjingak Nuri Peace Park. Somewhat out of place, the theme park is in stark contrast to the tension filled DMZ.
- You can visit on your own but we recommend that you take a guided tour of the DMZ. While on your guided tour you will learn interesting facts about the Panmunjom Peace Talks, the Korean Peninsula and walk through several museums.
Insider’s Tip: Be sure to bring your passport while visiting DMZ, you will need to present it to the UN military personnel before and after the tour. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes as your visit will involve a lot of walking. There are no age, gender or nationality restrictions to visit the DMZ. Avoid visiting the DMZ during high winter (December to February) or summer months (July and August) due to high possibilities of tours being cancelled due to heavy snow or rains respectively. — by Ashley NA from I Love Seoul Tour
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?
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.
Good to know: Be sure to download the Oedo Island app before you go as it offers an English guided tour of the island.
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?
While South Korea has many different amusement parks, you may not have enough time to visit them all in one trip. So here are our favorite two which stand out as the best to visit just near Seoul.
Recommended amusement parks
A. Everland Amusement Park
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.
B. Lotte World Amusement Park
Lotte World achieved it’s record of being the world’s largest indoor amusement park with shops, rides, magic shows, roller coaster, and it’s famous “floating” hot air balloons that coast along the side of the amusement park. They also feature an outdoor “Disney like” castle for all of your little princesses to visit and many outdoor adventure rides. It has two unique sections including Magic Island(outdoor) and Adventure (Indoor) and is open all year round with winter being an indoor only experience.
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.
Recommended things to do
- Sit on the beach and watch haenyo or traditional women divers who dive to depths of 10-20 metres without equipment in search of clams, abalone as well as octopus.
- Climb to the top of Mount Hallasan. This dormant volcano is the backbone of the island and soars 1,950 meters above sea level. There are excellent hiking opportunities on Jeju-si Island and the climb to the top of Mount Hallasan rewards you with panoramic views.
- Loveland is packed with numerous statues dedicated to love and sex. Don’t be shy because this is one of the most visited attractions in South Korea.
Insider’s Tips: The best season to visit Jeju Island is from January until May. From late March to May, you can enjoy canola flowers and cherry blossoms. The peak of blossoming only lasts few days from late March to mid-April so make sure to book at the right time to be able to enjoy beautiful spring landscapes. The sunrise from Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak is magnificent especially during springtime. Two hiking trails are available and take around 40 minutes to climb it. – by Daehee Won from One Day Korea
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.
If you want to explore the beauty of South Korea on a bicycle then this cycling tour is for you.
Recommended cycling routes
- Ride along the Nakdong River where you can stop for a break at the Sangju Bicycle Museum which features hundreds of bicycles from around the world.
- Start at Daeseongli and cycle south until you reach Dumulmeori. Along the way you will pass royal tombs protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 400-year old zelkova trees and the traditional hanok town of Yeojubo.
- Cycle along the Han River where you can see the Dasan Heritage Site, Hangang Park and Yeo-ido before stopping at Namyangju for a quick overnight stay.
Insider’s Tips: South Korea is actually one of the best countries in the world to explore by bike, and almost no one knows, not even cyclists! South Korea has built massive cycling infrastructure in the past few decades, including a network of cross-country bike paths. The most famous of these is a route called the “4 Rivers Bike Path”, that runs from Seoul to Busan, South Korea’s second largest city on the southern coast. Another route runs the perimeter of Jeju island, the country’s prized natural treasure. These bike routes are a mix of well-maintained paths through parks and along rivers, quiet country trails, and small roads. The vast majority of the paths, barring mountain passes and remote areas, are car-free. if you’re in a pinch, you can always stay at the jimjilbang! The jimjilbang is the Korean answer to the Japanese onsen, or hot spring. Sometimes referred to as “saunas,” jimjilbangs are communal spas, saunas, and hot springs all in one, and are found throughout the country. A jimjilbang entry fee usually means 24 hours of use, and it is acceptable and common to stay overnight. – by Will Shoubridge from SpiceRoads Cycling
In the different Han River parks, you can easily rent a bike. Besides, it is very common to order fried chicken in the parks to eat peacefully while talking with your friends and contemplating by the river. – by Daehee Won from One Day Korea
No matter when you visit South Korea, there are always new and exciting things to see and do. Never stop exploring it’s natural and man-made wonders!