Why Korea is a Best Bet for 2019
In 2018, millions witnessed the Olympic flame light up the Pyeongchang sky. Local pride was palpable for an event years in the making. It was Korea at its most confident; a brilliant display of tradition and technology, of culture and K-pop, of progress and peace.
Fast-forward to today, and we think there’s never been a better time to visit. Flights and hotels are more affordable than during the Olympic rush, and years of investments have added attractions, hotels and infrastructure to an already wanderlust-worthy collection of heritage sites. Word-of-mouth is spreading – tourism to the peninsula has more than doubled in the last decade – and we expect the trend to continue.
But those aren’t the only reasons the country earned a coveted spot on Travelzoo’s 2019 Best Bets for Canadian travellers. Read on for only-in-Korea experiences that show why it should be on your bucket list.
See where old Seoul meets new Seoul
Around 60 years ago, Korea began one of the most rapid periods of growth and modernization in history. The results are on spectacular display in the nation’s capital, where UNESCO World Heritage sites share the landscape with ultramodern skyscrapers.
Seoul’s royal palaces (of which Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung are the most famous) are great places to start a visit. For around $12, you can see all five locations and take English-language tours that delve into the country’s dynastic past.
At the other end of the historical spectrum is Lotte World Tower, opened in 2017. Its sky-high observation deck is the main draw, but you could easily spend an afternoon visiting its other features, which include a huge mall, an aquarium, a concert hall and assorted eateries. The building is the fifth-tallest in the world, culminating 1.7 metres higher than the CN Tower -- sorry, Toronto!
Ride the bullet train
Korea’s entire landmass is smaller than Southern Ontario, making it an easy country to get around. And it’s blessed with the KTX bullet train, which means you can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
The best way to do it is to purchase a Korail pass – designed exclusively for foreign tourists – which gives you unlimited travel at speeds of up to 305 kilometres per hour. A five-day pass costs approximately $250 per adult and $125 per child.
Eat your way around Korea’s “food capital”
So you’re coming to Korea to eat? Food-forward folks flock to the capital of North Jeolla province -- “dine once in Jeonju and you'll be spoiled for life,” the local saying goes. It’s famous for bibimbap, after all.
The city’s Hanok village – a historic neighbourhood of more than 800 traditional houses – provides a gorgeous backdrop for sampling street foods such as shrimp dumplings, red bean mochi and a seemingly endless variety of barbecued meats on a stick.
Sit down for a some royal cuisine and you can say you literally ate like a queen or king. Just like olden-day monarchs, diners are treated to a banquet of small plates such as braised fish, steamed pork, hot pot, kimchi and pickled veggies. Goong is one of the better-known restaurants, though there are many to choose from.
Visit the DMZ
It may seem unusual that the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, one of the world’s most heavily-guarded borders, has become a tourist magnet. Some come out of curiosity, others to pay tribute to a painful past. All come away moved by the message of peace and tolerance expounded by local guides.
Due to the controlled nature of the area, some points of interest can only be accessed with an organized tour. It’s worth choosing one that includes the joint security area (JSA) in Panmunjeom, which is the closest point most tourists can get to North Korea – you can even cross the border briefly for a photo-op.
Other highlights include the DMZ museum in Goseong, the abandoned headquarters of the Korean Workers’ Party and wildlife-watching opportunities along an area which has been sealed off from human activity for over 60 years.
Check into a designer hotel
Among the legacies of the 2018 Olympics: a wave of acclaimed hotel openings. The 5-star Seamarq Hotel was in the heart of the of the action in Gangneung, a seaside city which hosted skating and hockey. Travel + Leisure calls it “a modern edifice as brilliantly white as a house on a Greek island.”
At SJCC Glamping Resort on Korea’s southern coast, guests sleep in brightly-coloured and luxuriously-equipped pods perched on a tree-covered mountainside. The eco-conscious design was intended to “minimise impact on the site,” according to Dezeen Magazine.
The L7 Hotel is a new addition to Seoul’s trendy Hongdae district, praised in Vogue for its glass-enclosed rooftop bar, which offers views over the city skyline. It’s one of several hotels that offer a tax refund to tourists – see the full list here.
Shop at a fish market
Unsurprisingly for a country mostly surrounded by sea, Korea has a lot of love for seafood. Visiting a fish market is a multi-sensory experience not to be missed.
The biggest is Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan, the country’s second-largest city. There’s an outdoor section facing the port, and an indoor section bustling with vendors known as “ajumma” (which loosely translates to “aunties”). You’ll see buckets with protruding tentacles, carts piled with red snapper and a variety of scaly, slippery and spiky creatures you never even knew existed.
Don’t leave without buying something -- once you’ve chosen your catch, you can take it up to the second floor and pay a modest sum to have the fish prepared and served to you.
Ski until dawn
Korea’s most popular ski resort, Vivaldi Park Ski World, is about 90 minutes from Seoul. A free shuttle makes day trips possible, but for a more novel experience, come at night. In peak season, most ski lifts remain open until dawn and cost less to ride than during the day. The floodlit mountain gains an otherworldly quality as darkness sets in, and the later it gets, the more you’ll have it to yourself.
Discover Jeju Island
What’s the world’s busiest air route? Don’t Google it, just guess. New York to London? Hong Kong to Shanghai? Wrong and wrong again. The correct answer is Seoul to Jeju Island – more than 13 million fly it each year.
So, what’s special about Jeju? For starters, it’s known as the “Hawaii” of Korea, due to a mild climate, spectacular volcanic landscapes and dramatic waterfalls. UNESCO designated the island a World Natural Heritage site, noting it possesses “outstanding aesthetic beauty” and “the finest lava tube system of caves anywhere.” You can visit the volcanic tunnels for just $3.75.
Despite the island’s popularity, the pace of life is far more relaxed than on the mainland. Spend a few days here and you’ll have ample time to explore beaches, nature hikes and quirky museums (including one devoted to K-pop) at your own pace.
Spend the night in a Buddhist temple
Nestled within the mountains of Seoraksan National Park lies Baekdamsa Temple, the origins of which can be traced back to the sixth century. It’s less well-known than the park’s prime attraction (the Seorak Sogongwon Cable Car) but is among the most scenic places in Korea for a “temple stay.” Guests experience a day in the life of a Buddhist monk, joining in spiritual ceremonies and meditation and receiving a bed for the night as well as vegetarian meals.
For more casual visitors, it’s a tranquil destination for a day trip. The surrounding hiking trails invite exploration, and there’s an abundance of scenic backdrops and smaller temples to discover along the way.
Thinking of going to Korea? Korean Air and Air Canada fly nonstop to Seoul from Vancouver and Toronto several days per week. Convenient connecting flights are available from other cities. Experiences listed above only scratch the surface of what a trip has to offer – for more ideas, check out the video below, as well as Visit Korea’s 100 must-visit spots for 2019.