Why Korea is So Much More Than You'd Expect
South Korea is a study in contrasts, making it a fascinating country to visit. In just one trip here, you’ll experience bustling cities and bucolic countryside; high-tech gadgetry alongside millennia-old culture; quaint hanoks standing tall near ultra-modern skyscrapers; soaring mountains and laid-back beaches; high-speed trains and health-boosting hikes; traditional cuisine and cutting-edge culinary marvels. This small Asian country—which is about the size of Indiana—punches well above its weight in the kinds of travel experiences it can offer.
Even better? Travel to Korea is straightforward. You can fly to the peninsula nonstop from 12 cities across the US, and once here, you'll find that it's easy to navigate—whether you choose to go with a group or your own—as most tourist destinations have English signage.
Read on for nine of our favorite things to do across four regions in the Land of the Morning Calm.
Your journey through Korea is likely to begin in its capital Seoul, a city full of its own contrasts. This energetic city has one foot in the future (tech, fashion, slick skyscrapers and K-Pop) and one in the past (shrines, temples, Seoul City Wall, and hanok villages).
To get acquainted with the nation's traditions and history, start at the storied, millennia-old Gyeongbokgung Palace. The largest of the Five Grand Palaces, it was originally built in 1395 and served as the primary palace until 1592. The palace has seen both glory days—as a literal home to kings—and suffered near-complete destruction followed by a 300-year abandonment before being rebuilt in the late-1800s (and almost bankrupting the country in the process).
Today, you can visit the entire palace compound which is complete with museums, gardens and some of Korea's foremost architecture. See the Royal Guard changing ceremony (which takes place every hour, on the hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and then spend a few hours roaming the complex via guided tour or on your own.
For a glimpse of modernity, take a stroll among the skyscrapers through the Seoullo 7017 sky garden. Often compared to New York City's High Line, this elevated highway-turned-park is filled with picturesque gardens, shops and cafes. Walk along the illuminated path at night for lovely views of the skyline.
For another look at Seoul's history, head to Bukchon Hanok Village. Filled with around 900 hanoks (a traditional Korean home that was first designed and built in the 14th century), this area has been preserved to showcase a 600-year-old urban environment. Traditional hanoks are revered by the eco-conscious for their use of natural materials and conservation-forward designs which help to insulate the home from heat and cold.
If navigating the area on your own, drop by the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center to pick up a map. The village's homes are occupied, so do explore respectfully.
After examining the ancient in Seoul, jump aboard the ultra-modern bullet train bound south for Busan—a 200+ mile journey that will take just over two hours.
Once you arrive in the maritime city, set out for Jagalchi Market for true cultural immersion at Korea's largest fish market. Here vendors hawk all manner of edible sea life, including Busan specialties eel and crab. The nearly two-mile market is lined with food carts and stalls outside of a large building where even more live, fresh and dried fish await purchase.
Next, set your sights on Busan's pastel-colored hillside village of Gamcheon. For much of its century-long existence, this area was dedicated to low-income housing, but in 2009, the country carried out a public art makeover to convert the village into a tourism attraction and cultural center. Residents, professional artists and students took to the streets to repair and decorate the buildings with color. The now-thriving village has been nicknamed Korea's Santorini.
Wander the narrow lanes to grab colorful, art-filled photos for your Insta and stop into shops and cafes along the way. If you're traveling without a guide, start near the top of the village and get a map from the tourism office.
Sometimes called "the museum without walls," Gyeongju is packed with tombs, temples, stone etchings and palace ruins—more than anywhere else in Korea. This region alone has four UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 31 National Treasures. Historians (or those that love them) should spend many days exploring this area, but if you have just a few days, don't miss the Bulguksa Buddhist temple complex on the slopes of Mount Toham.
Considered a crown jewel of Silla architecture, the Bulguksa Temple is an architectural marvel and UNESCO site that was built in the 8th century. As with Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, the temple was badly burned in the late-1500s during the war with Japan, only to be resuscitated centuries later.
In the temple's main hall are two pagodas (national treasures in their own right) that date back to 751 AD. During the restoration of the structures, one of the world's oldest woodblock-printed books was discovered inside one of these pagodas.
Approximately 2.5 miles away in the same complex is the Seokguram Grotto (a World Heritage Site together with Bulguksa Temple). The grotto represents a symbolic spiritual journey into Nirvana, and at its center sits an 11.5-foot statue of the Buddha looking toward the East Sea.
For the full transcendent experience, arrive early to watch the sunrise over the sea from close to the Buddha's perch.
Arguably the most beautiful place in Korea, Jeju Island is beloved by nationals for its beaches, lush countryside, waterfalls and geographic marvels that were formed by the extinct volcano (Mount Hallasan) sitting at the island's center. Despite Jeju's clear draws, the island welcomes relatively few international tourists. If traveling like a local is appealing to you, don't skip this spot. If eating like a local is appealing to you, order the grilled black pork—the island's specialty.
Climb the almost 600-foot-tall volcanic tuff—formed 5,000 years ago by volcanic ash—to see Seongsan Ilchulbong (aka Sunrise Peak) up close. As you might expect, sunrise is a popular (and sometimes crowded) time to summit, but the steep staircase to the top takes only around 20 minutes.
If you're looking for a more ambitious hike, head to Hallasan National Park and ascend the 6,398-foot extinct volcano. The climb will take close to 2.5 hours.
On exactly the opposite end of the spectrum, Hyeopjae Beach is an idyllic place to laze for hours. Take up residence on the white sand under a multi-colored umbrella, soaking in views of cerulean water and Biyangdo Island in the distance. This beach is especially nice for families due to the expanse of shallow sea.
If you're looking for a beautiful place to end your day, stay glued to this spot. The bright orange sunset over the sea is a sight to behold.