South Korea Overview
South Korea is a country of juxtaposition. Serene mountain valleys bump against the pulsing lights and rush of 24-hour cities. Confucian tradition collides with the ultra-modern fashion and design. It's easy to focus on only one side of this dichotomy, but experiencing the depth and vibrancy of the country means seeing both the serene countryside and rapidly changing cities.
Korea is a country well-suited to travel, a place where people are welcoming to strangers. While cities like Seoul and Busan are strikingly modern, parts of the countryside seem strangely untouched by the past century. It's also a country whose hidden corners and valleys are as accessible to luxury travelers as they are to backpackers. In addition to the sights, the variety and quality of Korean cuisine offers a wealth of delights to foodies and food novices alike. Exploring Korea does demand one thing: openness to the new and unexpected, a willingness to rely on the kindness of others, and—above all—a sense of adventure.
Renowned South Korea Tourist Attractions
Nowhere exudes more local and traditional charm than Insa-dong, a quaint neighborhood in the center of Seoul that transports visitors back to a time when women wore hanbok and men rode horses. With its wooden tea houses, boutique galleries and street vendors selling traditional snacks, a stroll through Insa-dong is mandatory for all visitors, especially on Sundays when the streets become traffic free and come alive with street performances, buskers and throngs of young and old who have come to experience one of Seoul’s most fascinating and creative neighborhoods. While the entertainment here is free, Insa-dong is also one of the best places in Seoul to purchase traditional Korean art, products, and other souvenirs, as it is filled with antique shops, art galleries, traditional stationery shops, handicraft shops, pottery and porcelain shops, bookstores, and art supply stores. Insa-dong is also home to many traditional restaurants and teahouses.
Cheonggyecheon is an 11 km long modern stream that runs through downtown Seoul. Created as part of an urban renewal project, Cheonggyecheon is a restoration of the stream that was once there before during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The stream was covered with an elevated highway after the Korean War (1950-1953), as part of the country's post-war economic development. Then in 2003, the elevated highway was removed to restore the stream to its present form today. The stream starts from Cheonggye Plaza, a popular cultural arts venue, and passes under a total of 22 bridges before flowing into the Hangang (River),with many attractions along its length.
Gyeongbokgung Palace was the first royal palace built by the Joseon Dynasty, three years after the Joseon Dynasty was founded. Built in 1395, Gyeongbokgung Palace was located at the heart of newly appointed capital of Seoul (then known as Hanyang) and represented the sovereignty of the Joseon Dynasty. The largest of the Five Grand Palaces (the others being Gyeonghuigung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace), Gyeongbokgung served as the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty.
NamsangolHanok Village is a collection of five hanoks (traditional Korean houses) from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), recovered from different parts of the city and relocated to the northern foot of Namsan mountain. The interiors of each of these five houses reflect owners from different walks of life, from the middle class to the yangban (who were mainly high government officials, noblemen and aristocrats).
Namdaemun Market is the largest traditional market in Korea with over 10,000 stores that line the streets around Namdaemun (Gate), the main southern gate of the old city wall. It boasts one of the largest distribution structures in Korea, providing local products, daily living essentials, food products, medical supplies and more to retailers and consumers across the country. Due to the wholesale nature of the market, shoppers can comparison shop for the lowest prices on all sorts of goods. Namdaemun Market is also packed with interesting things to see and eat, making it a popular destination for both locals and international visitors alike. So whether you’re looking for traditional oriental medicine or imported drugs, traditional Korean food or imported snacks, hanbok attire or a Halloween costume, Namdaemun Market is the place to go.
During the summer, the white sands of Haeundae beach are crammed with umbrellas for as far as the eye can see (it's not known as Korea's most popular beach for nothing). With this in mind, a stroll along the shoreline is probably more pleasant in winter, after the crowds have left. Whatever the season, this gorgeous inner-city beach and the surrounding neighborhood are destinations unto themselves. Be sure to pop into the tourist information center for a free foot spa after exploring.
Even though it attracts fewer tourists and more locals than the neighboring Haeundae Beach, the sands here are equally beautiful and the views much better, especially with the Gwangan Bridge spanning the cove where the strand is located. The area is packed with cafés and bars overlooking the water, so it's an excellent place for a sunset or late night stroll.
Yongdusan Park and Busan Tower
Descend down a series of escalators from the busy Gwangbokno shopping street and into Yongdusan Park and Busan Tower. Though it is a tourist trap, there are some impressive views of the city. Signs of a charming local tradition can be seen here: locks are attached to the fence next to the tower by young lovers as a symbol of commitment. The keys are then places in a box atop the viewing platform at the nearby Lotte Department Store.
SpalandShinsegae, Centum City
With 22 different spas and water sourced from two separate natural hot springs, Spaland is a wonderful introduction to Korean spa culture if you're not familiar with it already. The system is simple and all essential information is displayed in English. Upon entering you will be given a locker key and a "bathrobe" similar to a set of pajamas to wear outside of the baths. For the spas themselves, simply strip off, shower, jump in, and relax.
Built in 493 at the foot of Mount Palgongsan, Donghwasa Temple was named after the paulownia that blossom in the wintertime (‘donghwasa’ literally means ‘temple of blooming paulownia’). Once inside the temple, you’ll find Daeungjeon and Geungnakjeon (ancient buildings which are designated provincial cultural assets), Maaebuljwasang (the rock-relief seated Buddha), the three-story stone pagoda, and the Dangganjiju stone pillars. The 33 meter-high Tongil-daebul Buddha Statue was built in 1992 as a symbol of hope for reunification and is a landmark of Donghwasa Temple.
Surrounding the northern part of Daegu like traditional folding screen, Palgongsan Mountain (1,192 meters at its highest point) is abundant with unique rock formations and carpeted with lush foliage. Its valleys run with clean, clear waters and the mountain as a whole provides visitors with perfect hiking conditions. Running east to west, Palgongsan is the center of Buddhist culture in the region with 50 or so temples and hermitages like Donghwasa, Pagyesa, and Buinsa. Numerous Buddhist statues and pagodas are scattered throughout its valleys. The mountain divulges a new kind of beauty during each of the four seasons and is full of attractions, making it a popular getaway for locals and tourists throughout the year.
Apsan is an easy hike with beautiful views of Daegu. It a perfect place to watch the sunset and come down in the dark along the lamplit trails and temples full of candles and chants.
E-World (formerly Wooband Tower Land) is a theme park built around Woobang Tower (Oct. 1987). The area around the tower was remodeled as a European-style park and opened to the public in March 1995. It features a waterfall, fountains, lighting displays, and flowers, as well as rides, exhibition and performance halls, and restaurants. E-World has several plazas characterized by different themes; major plazas include Entry Plaza (at the park entrance), Central Plaza, Children’s Plaza (playground), and Young Town Plaza.
Daegu National Museum
Daegu National Museum was built to preserve and exhibit the unique cultural heritage of Daegu and Gyeongsangbuk-do province. It is a neat brick building with two basement floors. There are three exhibit halls, a special exhibit hall, experiment study room, audiovisual studio and library.
Jeju Island Attractions
A popular attraction for tour groups and families during the day and a romantic stop for couples at night, the picturesque, 72-foot-high falls are surrounded by woods but still just a half mile walk down a paved path from the parking lot, so they're easily accessible. The area around the falls is known for its diverse plant life, migratory birds, and the water is home to marbled eel.
Seongeup Folklore Village
Go back in time and experience the traditional Jeju way of life in this preserved agricultural village. The thatched roof and lava rock wall homes have been passed down through the generations and locals still inhabit the 3,000 homes. Visitors gather here to watch villagers perform folk songs and listen to them speak in the Jeju dialect. Stop by the souvenir shop to pick up a harubang, the grandfather statue that has become the image of Jeju.
Hallasan National Park
A long extinct volcano, Hallasan towers 6,397ft (1,950m) over the island. At its base are forests, fertile fields, tangerine groves, and quaint villages. The hike to the top is challenging but views of the crater lake on a clear day are spectacular. The five most popular hiking trails varying in length and difficulty. The Gwaneumsa course goes all the way to the crater and takes 10 hours. The easiest course, the one-hour Eoseungsaekngak, is a staircase leading to the top of a small oreum (parasitic volcano).
Situated to the north of Jeju City, Yongduam was created by strong winds and waves over thousands of years. However, there are plenty of other stories of how it came to be. One legend has it that a dragon stealing precious jade from Mt. Halla was shot down by an arrow from the mountain deity. When he fell down on Yongduam, his body immediately sank into the ocean and his head rapidly froze looking at the sky. Another legend has it that a white horse, who dreamed of being a dragon and ascending to the sky, came to be caught by a soldier and froze into the rock.
Manjanggul Lava Cave
Designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, this cave was created many millennia ago when the island's volcano was still active. Manjanggul is the largest lava cave on the island and one of the longest lava tube systems in the world—it stretches out for 8 miles, though only the first half mile is open to the public. The path into the cave is well lit but it still feels dark and spooky. Manjanggul is part of the larger, 300,000-year-old GeomunOreum lava tube system and is packed stalactites, stalagmites, and a lava column—it's a photographer's playground.