July 20, 2024

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South Korea, despite being relatively small, provides gorgeous mountain ranges, colour-popping temples and high-tech cities in one hit. The nation’s efficient system of railways and buses easily takes you wherever you need to go — perfect for spontaneous travellers who are eager to see the countryside without much planning. From the capital, an efficient system of railways and buses whisks you just about wherever you want. Take the KTX bullet train across the country from Seoul to Busan in less than three hours to sample milmyeon (Busan-style flour noodles) or venture to Gangneung, on the east coast, for a swim at Gyeongpo Beach in just half that time.

The best way to see the country’s smaller towns is through renting a car or by bicycle. You can camp out under some of East Asia’s cleanest skies in the town of Yeongyang, visit the ancient tombs of Gyeongju and — if you’re lucky enough — see the country in autumn fall under the spell of Naejangsan National Park in October.

Main photo: Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan (Alamy)

What to do

Start your visit to South Korea with a few days in the capital, Seoul, where you’ll find pockets of nature alongside every modern convenience you could dream of. Don’t miss the chance to swing by one or two of the royal palaces* — Gyeongbokgung or Changdeokgung — at night when they’re especially enchanting. It’s fun to get lost in one of the many hip neighbourhoods; try exploring the alleyways of Euljiro, having dinner at an old-school restaurant and discovering a hole-in-the-wall bar.

When you’ve had your fill of the metropolis, take a flight down to Jeju Island. A good first stop is Seogwipo, the southern tip of the island. Here, you can explore the volcanic formations of the Daepo Jusangjeolli cliffs and snap photos at the spectacular Bangju Church. Later drive along the emerald blue waters back to Jeju City by taking the northeast route and look out for Seongsan Ilchulbong, an incredible tuff cone rising 182 metres high with a bowl crater. There’s a chance to hike to the top and listen to haenyeo, local female divers, singing traditional songs at the foot of the mountain twice a day.

Make time too for the country’s second largest city, Busan*, and make a beeline for Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, a Buddhist institution originally built during the Goryeo Dynasty. Explore the Instagram-ready hillside of the Gamcheon Culture Village before topping off the experience with ssiat hotteok (a sweet Busan-style pancake filled with sugar and seeds). If it’s off-the-beaten track you’re searching for then try Andong or Gyeongju* for history, Sokcho to climb Mount Seoraksan and Yangyang for beaches.

Discover the best things to do in South Korea

Discover the best things to do in Seoul

Discover Scenic South Korea Tour

Where to stay

You’ll find the best accommodation in downtown Seoul. If you want to be within walking distance to most of the city’s top sights and have a tight budget, try the Tmark Hotel Myeongdong*. From here, you can stroll to Gyeongbokgung Palace, Namsan Seoul Tower and explore Euljiro. Alternatively, try the Nuwa Hotel in the Seochon neighbourhood; it’s a serene renovated hanok that permits only two guests at a time.

There’s lots of choice on Jeju Island. Most choose to bed down at a small Jeju-style home or save money with a stay at a guesthouse; Lefthander Guesthouse in Guwja-eup, has both shared and private rooms. Another great option is The Annex Hotel* — a three-star with hot springs and a beautiful swimming pool.

In Busan, there are a row of high-end hotels lined up along Haeundae Beach: the Park Hyatt Busan*, the Westin Josun*, the Paradise Hotel* and the Signiel*. Stay near Seomyeon Station if you plan to sightsee and you need public transport. Line 1 will take you to the city’s historical sites and Line 2 to the beaches. In this area, The Hound Hotel Seomyun* and the Arban Hotel* are two options for great value.

Don’t miss

Wherever you go in Korea, visit the local marketplace; even if you don’t have plans to buy anything, it’ll provide a perfect introduction to how the town or village operates. The nation’s most famous markets — Namdaemun and Gwangjang — are in Seoul and there are iterations devoted to electronics, fabrics, and of course, food from across the country.

Busan has two major markets worth visiting: Gukje is best for history and souvenirs and Jalgachi for its dozens of seafood varieties. Some smaller cities have a marketplace that opens every five days, and you’ll see dozens of grandmothers come out with produce they’ve grown on their home farms or fishermen with ice boxes holding the day’s catch. The most well-known “five-day market” is in Dongduil-dong in Jeju City, which is open on days that end in either a two or seven (the 2nd, 7th, 12th, 17th and so on).

More often than not, traditional markets serve up local delicacies. Try nokudjeon (mung bean pancakes) at Jeonju Nambu Traditional Market, marinated fried chicken at Mansuk Dak Gangjeong inside Sokcho Tourist & Fishery Market and flat mandu (dumplings) at Seomun Market in Daegu.

When to visit

With mountains covering 70 per cent of the country, South Korea is known for its foliage, which typically peaks in September and lasts through to early November. The country is also pretty when cherry blossoms bloom in April.


How much should I budget for a trip to South Korea?
Although backpackers often rave about how affordable South Korea is, a reasonably comfortable trip here is more comparable to Hong Kong or Shanghai than, say, parts of Southeast Asia. There are a range of accommodation options, from budget to high-end, but transport, eating out, drinks and most tourist attractions are relatively affordable. Avoid high-end Western restaurants, take the subway as often as possible and opt for the slow train instead of the bullet trains to save a little extra cash.

What should I know before travelling?
If you have specific dietary restrictions, you may want to have this explicitly written down in Korean before you embark on your travels as restaurateurs in rural Korea are not accustomed to making these changes.

The rail and bus systems are fantastic, but you’ll get a more in-depth grasp of the country if you have a car. Make sure to bring an international driving permit.

Which part of South Korea is best?
This completely depends on your personal preference, but trips to South Korea should ideally be a combination of city and nature. If your time is limited, we recommend a few days in Seoul, a few days on Jeju Island and a day or two in a smaller town of your choice.

Currency South Korean won

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Inspired to visit South Korea but yet to book your trip? Here are the best packages from Expedia* and BA Holidays*. These are the best tours of South Korea from our trusted partners*.

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