May 24, 2024

Sticking out into the western Pacific like a rocky appendage, South Korea is one of the most rugged countries on earth, with 70 per cent of its landmass made up of mountains. Once seen as a sleepy backwater, South Korea has finally stepped into the spotlight, with an industrial, technical and pop-cultural output that boggles the mind. Just the size of Portugal, this densely packed nation of 50 million punches well above its weight when it comes to making things, especially the films, TV dramas and pop music that have captured the imagination of so many across the globe.

A visit to this vibrant country drives home just what a creative hub it is. Its cities are pulsating centres of neon-lights, humming sidewalks, glimmering high-rises and street markets bursting with sights, sounds and aromas that will both entice and hypnotise.

That said, the nation is more than just bright lights and hyperkinetic urban modernity. Occupying the bottom half of the Korean peninsula, South Korea is a land of sandy beaches, azure waters and over 3,300 islands. Much of its craggy landscape is blanketed in deep pine forests, and the countryside is home to timeless Buddhist temples, rolling hills, rice paddies and tranquil villages where – despite the trappings of modernity – the pace of life continues as it has for thousands of years.

With holiday experts InsideAsia reporting that bookings are up 40 per cent in just one year, now is the time to visit this dynamic, East Asian hotspot.



Seoul's buzzing streets


A walk down Seoul’s buzzing streets reveals a city in constant motion


Credit: Getty Images

Seoul

Most international flights land at Incheon International Airport, which serves the capital, Seoul. The city’s greater metropolitan area is home to nearly half of all of South Korea’s residents, and with good reason: Seoul is the political, financial and cultural centre of the nation. Most anything that happens in South Korea happens here first, and one walk down its buzzing streets reveals a city in constant motion, with packs of stylish young folks intermingling with colourfully clad old ladies and suit-and-tie salarymen enjoying a bottle or two of soju at outdoor tables after work. K-pop blasts out from kiosks and cell-phone shops, gruff street-food vendors tend their carts, and the smell of roasting coffee and sizzling barbecue fills the air. The city is also home to cool and quaint neighbourhoods, historic palaces and some of the most dazzling modern buildings in the country, including the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and 123-storey Lotte World Tower – a gleaming architectural triumph overlooking the Han River and the twisting urban tapestry spread out below.

Situated on the slope of Namsan mountain, the Grand Hyatt Seoul (double rooms from £300) offers an unbeatable central location and five-star sophistication without being stuffy or pretentious. Aloft Gangnam (doubles from £125) is a great choice for those seeking boutique chic in a neighbourhood synonymous with style, while – occupying the 76th to 101st floors of the Lotte World Tower – Signiel Seoul (double rooms from £470) sets the standard for excellence and modernity in a city already known to be on the cutting edge.



Gangwon-do province


Gangwon-do province is the heart of the country’s outdoor adventures


Credit: Getty Images

Gangwon-do

Now conveniently linked by the high-speed KTX train to the capital, Gangwon-do province is South Korea at its most outdoorsy. Host of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, this once-isolated region boasts miles of empty beaches, thick forests, surging rivers and ski runs on the slopes of the mighty Taebaek range. This rugged ridge reaches its zenith at Seoraksan, the country’s third-highest, and arguably most beautiful peak, whose national park overlooks the charming coastal city of Sokcho. Just down the road is laid-back Gangneung, renowned not just for its multitude of seaside cafes, but also Jumunjin Beach, where K-pop fans can pay their respects at what is now known as the “BTS Bus Stop”, the shooting location for the supergroup’s video, Spring Day.  

Overlooking Gangneung’s Gyeongpo Beach, the elegantly-designed Seamarq Hotel (doubles from £340) is one of Gangwon’s premier luxury spots with everything you can expect from a top-tier hotel, along with jaw-dropping vistas of the East Sea. The Sea Cruise (doubles from £50) offers clean and comfortable business sensibility with a convenient downtown Sokcho location, while the The House Hostel ( doubles from £32) is immaculate, friendly and a great base for local explorations. 



Gyeongju Unesco World Heritage Site


Gyeongju is home to three Unesco World Heritage Sites: Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto and Namsan Mountain


Credit: Getty Images

Gyeongju

Situated in the country’s southeast, South Korea’s most historic city is often described as a “museum without walls”, and is the perfect place to soak up the nation’s cultural heritage. Gyeongju was once the capital of the prosperous Silla Kingdom (57 BCE-935 CE), which, for a time, ruled over most of the Korean peninsula. This placid town is home to colourful pavilions, stone pagodas, an observatory tower and scores of royal tombs, as well three Unesco World Heritage Sites: Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto and Namsan Mountain.

IJE Gyeongju (doubles starting at £300) is nestled in the pine-forested shadow of Bulguksa Temple and sets the bar for class, amenities and relaxation in the ancient Shilla capital. Soi Hanok Stay (doubles from £250) honours Gyeongju’s rich architectural tradition with while providing modern comforts in the heart of town, and the Lahan Select (doubles £220) looks out over placid Lake Bomun, whose shores burst to life every spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.  



Busan


Second city Busan is a must-visit on any South Korean itinerary


Credit: Getty Images

Busan

No longer content to linger in the shadow of the capital, the country’s second city of Busan has come into its own, and is a must-visit on any South Korean itinerary. With mountaintop fortresses, towering high-rises, funky hillside neighbourhoods and beaches galore, scenic Busan is where Koreans come to have a good time. A raucous, port town at heart, the city also shows off its glamorous side every October, when it hosts Asia’s largest film festival. Busan’s proximity to the ocean guarantees that its markets and restaurants are teeming with the freshest of seafood, and dwaeji gukbap – the city’s hearty, signature pork soup – delivers a kind of savoury satisfaction unmatched anywhere else in the country.

The Paradise Hotel (doubles from £312) sits right on Busan’s iconic Haeundae Beach and is famous for its spacious rooms, ocean views and rooftop swimming pool. Just down the street is the Haeundae Seacloud (doubles from £99), which pulls off sleekness while also managing to be budget-friendly, and the Lotte Hotel in Seomyeon (doubles from £188) is a go-to for both business and holiday travellers due to its central location, comfort and services.  



Jeju Island beach


Subtropical Jeju Island boasts black-sand beaches, tangerine groves and crystalline waters


Credit: Getty Images

Jeju Island

While officially Korean, Jeju sometimes feels like another country. Dominated by the crater-topped rise of Hallasan – a 6,388-foot extinct volcano that is also the country’s highest peak – the island’s subtropical climate means that it’s the only place where you’ll see palm trees. With black-sand beaches, tangerine groves, crystalline waters and the traditional female divers called haenyeo, Jeju Island offers up a taste of Korea that is distinct from the mainland. Once the premier national honeymoon destination, the so-called “Hawaii of Korea” now draws those wishing to engage with nature, including surfers, birdwatchers and hikers hitting the Jeju Olle Trail, a 272-mile walking path that rings the whole of the island. 

The Grand Chosun Jeju (doubles from £205) is the island’s premier accommodation, with multiple pools, top-tier restaurants and a gorgeous seaside location. The Bayhill Pool & Villa (rooms from £350) offers stylish family rooms with private terraces and swimming pools, while Zen Hideaway (doubles from £160) delivers class, comfort and windswept tranquillity right at the ocean’s edge.



Seoul, South Korea


Seoul is the international hub of South Korea, with Incheon Airport just 30 miles west


Credit: Getty Images

Both Korean Air and Asiana offer daily nonstop flights from Heathrow to Incheon, while British Airways has flights via connections with its partners Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways. 

Incheon Airport sits about 30 miles west of central Seoul, though it’s connected to the city centre by the Airport Rapid Express (AREX), which will deliver you to Seoul Station in about 40 minutes. From there, the whole of the city is at your doorstep, as Seoul is served by an immaculate, world-class subway system boasting 23 lines. The AREX shuts down before midnight, so if your plane arrives late, a good option is the late-night bus, with nonstop routes to Seoul Station, Dongdaemun, Gangnam Station and Jamsil.  

For greater convenience and comfort, you can also take a taxi. There are two main categories: standard and deluxe, and fares go up after midnight. While the language barrier can often be an issue, Incheon Airport also has “international taxis”, which cater exclusively to foreign visitors. These drivers will all speak at least basic English, though you’ll pay more for the privilege. Taxi fares vary depending on the type of cab, traffic conditions and the time of day, but expect to pay between £35-£65 to get to the city centre. 



 South Korea in spring


Spring is an ideal season to visit South Korea.


Credit: Getty Images

Like any trip planning, it’s best to book any flights or travel package deals as far ahead as possible. Things are busiest in South Korea in summer, when many Koreans holiday domestically, so take that into account. Things can also get booked up around South Korea’s two major holidays: Chuseok (which falls in early autumn on the lunar calendar) and Lunar New Year (late January or February).  

South Korea is a land of four very distinct seasons, and each has something to offer year-round. Still, the winters can be frigid and windy, while the summers are without fail hot and humid. Summer is also monsoon time, so from mid-June to the end of July, things are often quite wet, and August to September is typhoon season. This makes fall and spring the ideal time to visit, with warm days, cool nights and weather that is rarely extreme. 



South Korea beach


Summer is a busy season for South Korean travel, with lovely weather to enjoy the country’s beaches


Credit: Getty Images

While not a budget destination, South Korea doesn’t have to break the bank either. Things like food, transportation and even drinks can prove surprisingly inexpensive, and a relatively weak Korean won will guarantee that your sterling stretches far. Luxury hotels will set you back £200-£300 a night, while business and boutique hotel rooms can be had for a fraction of that. This means that it’s quite easy to travel well in South Korea for less than £1,500 a week. 

South Korea makes it very possible to do things on the cheap. The best way to save is to travel independently and book hotels on sites such as Booking.com or Agoda, where decent rooms can regularly be had for as little as £30 a night. Another option is staying at the ubiquitous “love motels” which are almost always clean, comfortable and easy on the wallet, though don’t expect the owners to speak any English.

South Korea’s cities and towns are packed with great little mom-and-pop restaurants, making eating out surprisingly cheap. A home-style, filling meal will often set you back £5 or less. The country is also flush with convenience stores that offer coffee, cold drinks and loads of ready-to-eat food options, complete with tables and chairs both inside and out front where you can sit and take down a quick meal.



Korean noodles


Find delicious meals for under £5 at charming small restaurants


Credit: Getty Images

While the high-speed KTX remains the most popular option for train travel, there are cheaper alternatives, including the ITX and Mugunhwa, the old-school train that – while slower – features roomier, fully reclining seats and even has tiny karaoke rooms where you can pass that extra time belting out your favourite tunes. The country is also served by an extensive network of intercity buses that – like so much in South Korea – are fast, efficient and affordable.



Grand Hyatt Seoul


Grand Hyatt Seoul is located right in the centre of the city, making it easy to explore the surrounding areas

Dive into the capital

The “Seoul in Depth” tour offered by Goaway Travel includes visits to major attractions such as Gyeongbokgung Palace, Insadong Arts and Craft Street, Gwangjang Market and Suwon’s Hwaseong Fortress, as well as a full day at the demilitarised zone (DMZ), the world’s last outpost of the Cold War. Four nights and five days with a room at the Mercure Ambassador Seoul Haeundae starts at £2,543, not including airfare. 

When it comes to booking trips in the Far East, it’s hard to top InsideAsia, a company with a sterling reputation for both knowledge of the region and really looking after its guests. It offers a 12-night/13-day “Best of South Korea” tour that highlights Seoul, Busan and many points in between, including the DMZ, Seoraksan National Park, Gyeongju, Andong and a stay in a traditional hanok village. Prices start at £4,500, per person, not including airfare. 



traditional architecture Korea


Explore the blend of traditional and modern architecture in Seoul and Busan


Credit: Credit: Keitma / Alamy Stock Photo/Keitma / Alamy Stock Photo

Discover Jeju Island

South Korea’s largest island certainly warrants exploration, and Core Travel specialises in guiding visitors around this unique piece of real estate. Its four-night/five-day tour includes the Women Diver (haenyeo) Museum and Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, both Unesco sites, as well as Hallasan mountain, Cheonjiyeon Falls, Jeju Stone Culture Park and a green tea plantation, from £950 per person, not including airfare.    

Headed up by longtime Seoul resident and veteran food writer Joe McPherson, ZenKimchi is all about delivering authentic dining experiences by avoiding the obvious tourist choices. Their most popular tours feature Korean pork barbecue as well as the raucous chicken and beer joints ubiquitous throughout the capital. Joe and company also lead full day food tours and build custom itineraries. Prices vary, but all-day outings start at £288 per person.  

As a nation of mountains, Korea is a trekker’s paradise, and Roger Shepherd has been guiding clients up and down the ridges on both sides of the DMZ for over 15 years now. Shepherd offers exclusive, top-end, expertly researched packages that not only include bagging some of Korea’s most iconic peaks, but also exploration of local temples and sites, along with down-home meals of great regional Korean fare. All itineraries are custom-created and prices differ based on numbers, days and other requirements. Contact Roger at Hike Korea for details. 



Busan trams, South Korea


In Busan, enjoy proximity to the beach and mountains


Credit: Getty Images

While South Korea is an extremely safe place when it comes to crime and public safety, it also occupies one of the last flashpoints of the Cold War. The country has been partitioned since 1945 and, while the Korean War ended with a ceasefire in 1953, a peace treaty was never signed. Over the decades there have been periodic flare ups and provocations between the North and the South. While a large outbreak of hostilities is extremely unlikely, it’s best to keep abreast of the news and contact the British High Commission (00 82 02 3210 5500 / 020 7008 5000) in case of any emergency. Also, while UK citizens are granted 90-day visa-free travel to South Korea, they are required to obtain Korea Electronic Travel Authorisation (K-ETA) before entering the country.

link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *