May 24, 2024

Is it just me or is everyone slightly obsessed with South Korea right now? If my FYP isn’t being flooded with K-beauty (an industry set to be worth $18.32bn by 2030) or clips of K-pop idols, it’s serving me Korean snack reviews. It’s no surprise, really: our collective South Korean fascination has been steadily bubbling for a few years now, what with Squid Game (which first aired three years ago) being crowned Netflix’s most-watched show – ever.

Yet, more recently, it seems that not only are we loving everything the country has to offer from a beauty, food and cultural standpoint, but we’re also keen to get out there and experience it all first-hand. And if you’re thinking of planning a trip to South Korea too, 2024 is the year to make it happen – usually, tourists are required to cough up for a K-ETA (visa waiver), however this has been temporarily scrapped as the country is keen to welcome more tourists with open arms.

But given it’s an entire literal country that we’re all going mad for, rather than a specific city or state, how do you begin to even scratch the surface? What are the can’t-miss activities to do on a trip to South Korea? And is there an easy way to get to grips with multiple parts of the country in one fell swoop?

How to plan a trip to South Korea

While it’s absolutely possible to pull together your own itinerary for exploring South Korea and get around using its reliable public transport (PS: the subways are slick and so clean!), we chose to explore the country with Intrepid, a responsible travel and adventure company that runs small group trips. It takes away all the faff and means you’ve an on-hand guide to answer questions to throughout your trip, share more about South Korea’s fascinating history and to help translate (shout out to our guide, Yong, who was a font of knowledge and a beast on the mic at noraebang).

Intrepid has recently launched a 9-day ‘South Korea essentials’ tour specifically for 18 to 35-year-olds (starting at £1,139pp – covering accommodation, some meals and activities, but not flights), which partners with local businesses to offer up a truly authentic experience. It covers the buzzing capital city of Seoul, before moving on to Jeonju (where you can stay in a traditional style hanok house), swings by Yeosu for a cable car ride giving panoramic views, then arrives in Busan, a coastal spot with an ancient cliffside temple (before capping off in Seoul once more). Seriously, the idea of youth travel being all about boozing and bad decisions couldn’t be further from what Intrepid’s offering consists of… although if you fancy a drink (soju, anyone?), that’s not discouraged either.

If you’re also keen to explore multiple areas of South Korea, we suggest flying into Seoul, then working your way down to Jeonju, getting the high-speed train over to Busan, and then head back up to Seoul for your flight home (imagine a triangle sort of shape being drawn on the map, if you will).

crowds of shoppers along the pedestrianised streets of myeong dong overlooked by the neon lights of stores in the heart of seoulpinterest
fotoVoyager

Seoul nightlife

Visiting Seoul

South Korea’s vibrant capital is often dubbed ‘the land of morning calm’ as it truly comes alive at night (shops and eateries are open well into the early hours and ‘noraebang’ (karaoke) is a popular activity with locals), but that’s not to say you’ll be hard-pressed for cool daytime activities.

What to do in Seoul

Explore the different neighbourhoods

Like any big city, you’ll find distinct pockets boasting a different vibe within Seoul, be it Hongdae (popular with uni students and home to a growing dining scene, ideal for sampling Korean fried chicken in), Gangnam (yep, of the song fame – this is the place for boujee buys) or Seongsu-dong (the ‘Brooklyn of South Korea’, packed with edgy cocktail bars).

In Hongdae, everything is open super late and there are themed photobooths on basically every corner. Why not spend an evening wandering with street food in hand, taking selfies and shopping for cute hair accessories in one of the many boutiques – then drop in to Su Noraebang to sing some pop bangers (in Korean or English, your choice)?

a group of people having fun in a private karaoke boothpinterest
Siena Nisavic

One of the private booths at Su Noraebang

Shoot your own K-pop video

HiKR Ground is a mix of museum – dedicated to all things K-pop, naturally – and studio backdrops, perfect for shooting content in (be it a K-pop video or just some cute outfit shots). Better still, it’s free.

Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace

It’s free to wander this impressive site, that once served as the main palace during the Joseon dynasty. Every day (bar Tuesday) between 10am and 2pm you can catch a changing of the guard ceremony too, which lasts around 20 minutes. See traditional costumes and instruments in action, and wave to the tourists dressed in traditional South Korean hanboks, which you can easily rent from special nearby shops.

a group of people in blue dresses holding flagspinterest
Siena Nisavic

Changing of the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Where to stay in Seoul

L7 Myeongdong

The Intrepid tour includes a bed for the night in a Seoul hostel, but if you’d rather a hotel we highly recommend the L7 Myeongdong Hotel – it’s in a hip area with vintage clothing shops and all the beauty stores you could dream of right on your doorstep (ditto a subway station). The hotel itself radiates a cool, modern feel that echoes its surroundings and has a chic rooftop bar and pool.

Rooms start at £110 per night

Where to eat in Seoul

Gwangjang Market
Head to Seoul’s most famous food market, where you can sample the country’s favourite dishes (like kimchi pancakes or the rice-based dish bibimbap, which is topped with an egg). Plenty of stall owners are happy to share samples too.

Pick a café, any café!

There are so many fun themed cafes in Hongdae (eg. Mint Heim, dedicated to all things mint and chocolate) that we’d struggle to narrow down our top picks. Elsewhere, in Jongno-gu, Mil Toasthouse was a firm favourite (it just does French toast and soft breads, but really well).

a cake with fruit on itpinterest
Jennifer Savin

Mil Toasthouse is certified delicious

Jayeon Shabu

South Korean’s love to gather with friends and family around a hotpot, and Jayeon Shabu offers a cosy place to give it a try yourself. The homegrown mushrooms are next level.

Visiting Jeonju

If you’re looking for incredible architecture and quaint streets packed with independent businesses, Jeonju simply has to make your list of where to go in South Korea. Whilst just wandering around and dropping into the craft stores, cafes and anything else that takes your fancy is an excellent way to pass the time, we also recommend the below.

What to do in Jeonju

Try your hand at kimchi making

Book in with the Kim Myeongok Kimchi School, to learn how to make South Korea and your gut’s favourite food (fermented cabbage in a spicy seasoning) from a certified kimchi master. You can take your spoils home with you too = perfect souvenir.

Palbok Art Factory

This abandoned factory turned art gallery is cool inside and out: check out the latest exhibition, then admire the colourful murals on the building’s exterior.

Catch a ride to Awon Gotaek

A real highlight, this gallery and cluster of 250-year-old hanoks (traditional houses) are up a mountain and boast stunning views, along with gardens to die for (it’s potentially the most tranquil place we’ve ever been). K-pop stans will likely recognise the space from BTS’ videos too…

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Jennifer Savin

Cosmopolitan’s Features Editor, Jennifer Savin, at Awon Gotaek’s open-air gallery

Where to stay in Jeonju

Jeonju Hanok Village

It has to be the Hanok Village, doesn’t it? Where you’re encouraged to sleep on the heated floor (as is tradition) of a converted 150-250-year-old hanok. This cluster of guest houses have been updated to included modern toilets and a shower, so fear not – all the essentials in that sense are covered. There are plenty to choose from, so do your research to see which fits your price range and has availability.

inside a hanok in jeonju's hanok villagepinterest
Siena Nisavic

Inside a hanok in Jeonju’s Hanok Village

Where to eat in Jeonju

Nambu Market

From fishcake skewers to bibimbap balls, this small but perfectly formed market is a great eatery that also gives back to the community, as it also it houses a youth entrepreneurship programme.

Waeng-i-jip

Drop by in the morning for ‘hangover soup’, a bean sprout-based dish that locals go wild for. Also serves moju, which reminded us of a mulled wine or chai latte (it’s around 1% alcohol and another much-favoured hangover cure by the Koreans).

Gajok Hoegwan

A family business that garners heaps of praise from locals, this is the spot to sample bibimbap (a rice, meat and vegetable dish topped with egg).

Visiting Busan

This port city is South Korea’s second city, with skyscrapers by the beach, ample seafood restaurants and TikTok’s new favourite beauty spot.

people walking in busan at nightpinterest
Jennifer Savin

Busan by night

What to do in Busan

Relax at SPA Land
You’ll have probably seen it all over TikTok, thanks to the infamous ‘sheep head’ towels and mandatory pyjamas people sport during their visits. We highly recommend getting an exfoliating body scrub and emerging feeling like a newborn; the women who work here don’t mess around… PS: if K-beauty is your thing, keep an eye out for the Olive Young stores dotted around Busan and Seoul too, and stock up on cosmetics and skincare treats.

Gamcheon Culture Village

Nestled up a twisty-turny hill, this village featuring hundreds of multi-coloured houses and shops is a non-negotiable. It’s the perfect place for picking up trinkets and checking out street art.

a group of colourful houses in gamcheon culture village busanpinterest

Siena Nisavic

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

There’s a reason this temple, built in 1376, that overlooks the sea attracts thousands of visitors a year, it’s a truly special place.

Where to stay in Busan

Felix by STX Hotel and Suites

A stone’s throw from the beach, this city chic hotel has a great vibe to it. We enjoyed our stay here and gave the breakfast buffet top marks, too.

Rooms start at £49 per night

Where to eat in Busan

Taejongdae YOLO Grilled Clams

Seafood fans, it won’t get fresher than this! Cook your dinner on a grill in the centre of the table, the Korean way. This dinner spot overlooks the waves, too.

a man feeding a woman at a korean bbq restaurant in busanpinterest

Siena Nisavic

Ashley Queens NC

If you’ve had your fill of South Korean dishes and fancy an international buffet (popular with students and local families), Ashley’s is the one… and even if you still want South Korean food, it has that in spades too. Plus, the robot waiters are fun.

Tips for travelling in South Korea

  • The subway: Get yourself a T-money card from a 7-Eleven and top it up as and when needed. It makes getting around so much easier.
  • Language: Finding people who are fluent in English will be a challenge, but you can just about get by. Getting some basic phrases down will go a long way – the locals really appreciate that – so download Duolingo or Babbel ahead of your trip.
  • Naver Map: Citymapper and Google Maps have nothing on Naver when it comes to getting around South Korea.

Intrepid Travel’s 9-day Essential South Korea for 18-35-year-olds starts from £1,139pp, including ground transport, accommodation, selected meals and activities, and the services of a local guide. Departure dates from April 2024. Flights and airport transfers are extra but can be booked through Intrepid. (intrepidtravel.com; 0808 274 5111)

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