April 24, 2024

I am on the ground floor of slick, blingy Shinsegae, a 14-storey shopping emporium in Busan that claims (quite plausibly) to be the biggest department store in the world, a paean to South Korea’s position as the largest global consumer of luxury goods.

Upstairs the tills at Miu Miu, Prada, Valentino and Fendi are doing overtime. Down here, however, in Spaland, a sprawling spa the size of a sports ground, I’m lounging around, naked, with several hundred Korean women of all ages, shapes and sizes. In the country with the highest number of cosmetic surgeons per capita and a culture so looks-obsessed that it’s customary to attach your photograph to your CV when applying for a job, this collective public disrobing feels particularly liberating.

It’s not the first jjimjilbang (a traditional Korean spa and bathhouse) of my trip, but it is the most high-end and expansive, with nine single-sex, naked, pool-sized baths of different temperatures and about a dozen mixed, spa-issue-pyjamas-on hammam rooms and saunas. For Koreans jjimjilbangs are more like a cultural, social and entertainment complex than a spa. And at £12 for four hours it’s not a rare luxury, more a way of life. For me it’s a chance to sweat out of some of the mountains of fried chicken I’ve demolished on my whistle-stop week in the country.

Haeundae beach in Busan

Haeundae beach in Busan

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South Korea is having a moment. I know this from the excitement with which news of my impending trip was greeted by my 11-year-old goddaughter, who requested any and all “Korean stuff” to confer immense cool points at school. Adults are increasingly interested in the country too. With TV shows such as Squid Game (Netflix’s most-watched series, the second season of which is in production) and the Oscar-winning film Parasite, plus wildly popular bands including BTS and Blackpink, the country’s cultural output — the so-called “Korean wave” — has fuelled an uptick in international tourism, including from the UK. Then there’s the unstoppable rise of its street food, exported and replicated in London, New York and other culinary hotspots.

Beyond all that — plus a few rudimentary facts about the Korean War, which ruined North and South — I knew shamefully little about it before landing in the capital, Seoul. Thankfully, after a day spent dashing through some of its key sites — Gyeongbokgung Palace, Jogyesa Temple, the National Folk Museum of Korea — I feel a little more informed.

As a “modern” country, I quickly come to understand, it has only really existed since the end of the war in 1953 (technically a ceasefire, I am told several times; North Korea and South Korea are still officially at war). Since then, aggressive economic growth, industrialisation and rebuilding have lifted it from poverty to become the 13th largest economy in the world in the space of a generation. Koreans proudly call it “the Miracle on the Han River”.

Hosting the 1988 Olympics brought a huge profile boost, and much of old Seoul was rebuilt or restored in readiness, including picturesque Bukchon Hanok Village, a maze of hilly, historic streets formerly home to dynastic royalty that now serve as a backdrop for the horof locals in hired hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) posing for pictures on its pavements and in the “selfie studios” seemingly on every street corner across the country. (The upside of this obsessive selfie culture is that even if you’re a solo traveller like me there’s always someone nearby willing and able to take a decent snap.)

Seoul, the capital of South Korea

Seoul, the capital of South Korea

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The city is a rich, idiosyncratic mixture of old and new. The more contemporary, cutting-edge Korea is showcased over at Dongdaemun Design Plaza in a futuristic Dame Zaha Hadid spaceship-like structure. Across the street in the basement of an incongruously sketchy shopping centre I find Sparex, a small, traditional jjimjilbang (£6 for 24 hours) and my gateway to Korean spas, where placenta massages are on offer (I’m curious, but at £65 I pass).

At enormous Gwangjang Market (and similar sites I will visit in other cities, such as the Tourist & Fishery Market in Sokcho and Bupyeong Kkangtong Market in Busan) Korea’s street food scene is breathing new life into ailing retail spaces. Among the old-fashioned stalls of bedding and kitchen utensils, locals and tourists now congregate to sample delicacies such as tteokbokki (sticky rice cakes in spicy sauce), fish cakes, gimbap (rice rolls), pig’s trotters and sundae, the scary-looking Korean blood sausage. Perching at a cramped, low steel counter in Gwangjang to tuck into a lunch of mung bean pancakes and tteokbokki I feel like Anthony Bourdain.

There is also, of course, Korean-style fried chicken — everywhere, always — glass noodles, soupy noodles and bibimbap served with ten varieties of kimchi, all manner of fried, grilled and blow-torched squid, and hotteok, a heavenly fried doughy pancake filled with hot cinnamon syrup.

I’m sure there is bad food in South Korea, I just don’t happen to find any. Even a motorway service lunch stop serves a truly memorable sujebi (a traditional spicy noodle soup with hand-torn dough) plus kimchi and rice. Best of all, most dishes will set you back £3 to £5. An extensive lunch at a street food stall or local restaurant will cost little more (and often less) than a Pret baguette. Even a vast platter of Korean barbecue, with slices of pork and beef that you cook at the table yourself — as I did at the Oksang Byeolgwan (@rooftop_annex) one night in Seoul — is unlikely to cost more than about £20 a head.

21 of the best things to do in South Korea
Top things to do in Seoul

While Seoul has a thriving dessert bar scene (for perfect bakes in a bamboo garden setting try Cheong Su Dang in the atmospheric hipster hanok village of Ikseon-dong), I am more interested in actual bars. Euljiro, Seoul’s equivalent of Dalston in London or Bushwick in New York, is a series of narrow alleyways of former sewing machine shops and light-fitting stores, now nicknamed “Hipjiro” because of its burgeoning bar scene.

At 7.8, a low-key bar filled with locals in black polonecks and specialising in makgeolli, a traditional fermented rice wine that’s enjoying a renaissance among young people, I meet Geusen, one of the owners, who has just been dumped by his girlfriend and is keen for drinking company. Thanks to Geusen and his hospitality I sample most of the many varieties of makgeolli on the menu, and am saved from falling over only by the fried potato pancake, an excellent example of anju, the to-the-point Korean term for “drinking food”. Coincidentally the only time I struggle navigating the Seoul subway (cheap, spotlessly clean, and where riders queue in single file before trains even arrive) is the morning after our night on the makgeollis.

The orderliness extends well beyond the subways too. The absence of street crime, hassle or harassment is tangible; as a woman travelling solo I’ve rarely felt safer. In fact, the only mildly acrimonious interactions I have are with older women who reprimand me in Korean for not tapping in and out properly while changing subway trains (I blame the hangover, but my remonstrations are lost on them).

Quiz locals (as I do whenever I find an English speaker) about this law-abiding and dutiful national character — as well as how this small country, less than half the size of the UK, has achieved such cultural standing — and they generally invoke the legacy of Confucianism. Imported from China in the 14th century and retooled to become Korea’s guiding philosophy, it emphasises the importance of the group over the individual, deference to age and authority, and, crucially, education and personal development. At the spectacular Naksan Temple, set on cliffs above the Sea of Japan, I ask one local what the ceiling of prayers fluttering on pink paper are asking for. “Health, wealth and the top exam grades,” comes the deadpan reply.

Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul

Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul

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In spite of the interest in South Korea from UK tourists, refreshingly, beyond Seoul, I don’t hear another British accent. Not in Sokcho, the east coast city two and a half hours by express bus from the capital and the gateway to the spectacular Seoraksan National Park, where I hike to the Towangseong Falls. For all its cultural output and K-pop, Korea has abundant nature too: 70 per cent of the country is mountainous, and hiking is hugely popular.

I hear no English spoken at all in Andong, a collection of heritage sites in the southeast of the country, where I spend the night in a traditional hanok, a single-storey thatched home, in the Hahoe Folk Village, a perfectly preserved (but not twee) working village where about a dozen or so of the 150 buildings offer rooms to tourists. Try Rakkojae Hahoe Hanok Hotel (room-only doubles from £164; rjk.co.kr).

Nor do I catch a single British accent in the southern port city of Busan, Korea’s sprawling, high-rise second city and the country’s favourite weekend break destination. But at Gamcheon Culture Village, a shanty town built by refugees in the 1950s and 1960s and now a brightly painted, Insta-friendly collection of arts projects and commercial outlets, I do meet a veritable UN of other travellers, including from the US, Spain, India and South America, many dragged here by their teenage offspring on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of their K-pop heroes BTS (its members are completing their compulsory 18-month national service).

Because of the national focus on rebuilding Koreans worked a six-day week until 2002, and are only now starting to embrace the idea of leisure. Busan is teeming in summer, and even on a blustery November weekend it’s busy, particularly over in Haeundae Beach, the newly built, gleaming, good-times side of the city, with its candy-coloured elevated railway, vast beach and promenade, and wide boulevards of bars, restaurants, karaoke joints and fortune tellers.

Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan

Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan

ALAMY

The older city is well worth a visit too, not least for the outdoor Jagalchi Fish Market, run almost entirely by women (and accordingly neat and well ordered), selling everything from stingray and dried squid to shark’s tail. You can have the juice extracted from eels and turtles to drink, should that be your jam. It is at this point I realise I am not Anthony Bourdain.

It is testament to the delicious difference of the country beyond Seoul that when I make it back to the capital it feels suddenly western and familiar by contrast. Sadly I run out of time to make it to the DMZ, the demilitarised zone close to the border with North Korea, but vow to get there on a day trip next time. And I’m confident there will be a next time. Not least because I rashly made a bet with my goddaughter that if she tried the dried squid I brought back I’d take her with me. Not only did she try it, she tried it on TikTok.
Jane Mulkerrins was a guest of Inside Asia Tours, which has 12 nights’ B&B from £4,443pp, including local transport, some private guiding and a range of cultural experiences (insideasiatours.com). Fly to Seoul

Three other holidays to South Korea

By Andrew Eames

1. Savour the flavours

South Korean food is making waves over here, but far better to taste the real thing in the place itself. Join a small group tour that starts with the best food stalls in the vast Gwangjang Market in the capital, Seoul. Learn how to make kimchi in the Jeonju and experience seafood in Busan, visiting its fish market before devouring clams in an oceanfront restaurant. The tour includes a monastery stay with a plant-based dinner, but otherwise is not ideal for vegetarians.
Details Eight days’ mostly full board from £2,178pp, including guides and transfers (intrepidtravel.com). Fly to Seoul

2. A group classic

Comprehensive tours of South Korea all touch on Seoul, the DMZ in the north and the fishing port of Busan in the south, but this one adds in spectacular natural locations in both west and east to complete the circuit. That means Seoraksan National Park, with craggy peaks and pine forests, and the staggering number of tombs, temples, statues and ruins of the city of Gyeongju. It also includes the tea plantations of the south, and the bamboo forest of Juknokwon.
Details 12 nights’ full board from £6,140pp, including guides, transfers and flights (wendywutours.co.uk)

3. On your bike

There’s no better way to get a feel for a place than on two wheels. This guided group trip from Seoul to Busan starts on a popular cycleway that cuts through the city, and then follows the Han river. It passes through mountains at Suanbo and fertile rice growing areas close to Andong, before hitting more challenging sections near the hot springs mountain area of Cheongsong. The final section is a mix of coastal miles and temples and ruins.
Details 12 nights’ full board from £4,545p, including guides and transfers, departing April 20 and October 19 (skedaddle.com). Fly to Seoul

Is South Korea on your travel wishlist for this year? If not, where is? Please let us know in the comments

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