It may not have the cachet of Thailand, the grandeur of China, or the mystery of Japan, but South Korea holds its own as one of the most intriguing, naturally spectacular, and welcoming countries in Asia. A cultural powerhouse and hot spot for any history buff, South Korea meticulously blends the ancient and the modern on a compact island known as the “Land of Calm”… which also happens to house the most militarized border in the world.
The manageable size and sophisticated transportation system of South Korea makes it easy to get around its biggest cities — and a breeze to escape them, too. Here are four places to fit in on your South Korean journey — each as different and extraordinary as the last.
As Asia’s third largest economy, Seoul is a dynamic, round-the-clock city that pulls off a delicate balance of pop culture and tradition.
A truly bustling metropolis packed with skyscrapers and well-heeled professionals, Seoul has everything you’d expect from a thriving city — incredible cuisine, vibrant nightlife, world-class shopping, and tower views. But it has a softer side, too, as the modern infrastructure amicably rubs shoulders with historic temples, palaces, and markets.
The Gyeongbokgung Palace, for example, which resides right on Seoul’s main boulevard, dates back to 1395, and was the main royal palace of the Joesean Dynasty. It’s been destroyed countless times over, but it’s also been magnificently restored and is one of your must-see stops in the city. You can also weave your way through the Namdaemun Market — the largest traditional market in Korea. Or, if you want a different vantage point, hike along Seoul’s ancient fortress walls and get a spectacular view of the city below.
A trip to Seoul wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Slicing the peninsula in half, the DMZ is the most heavily militarized border in the world, with more than a million solders on watch every day. At the same time, it has become a remarkable haven for wildlife, since the 2km (1.2 mi) stretch of land on either side of the border has been free of human disturbance for more than 60 years.
South Korea’s second-largest city is a seamless blend of contrasts — spectacular mountains and bustling beaches, teeming fish markets and boutique cafés, historic temples, and an emerging art scene.
If you can stand the powerful smell of fish, fish, and more fish, the Jagalchi Fish Market is a scene you don’t want to miss. The largest fish market in the country is home to an incredible variety of seafood sold by little old ladies (who are some of the fiercest negotiators around) out of rickety food carts and barely-standing stalls. For an extra fee, you can be served your purchase in the main building’s second floor.
If you’re looking for a different kind of powerful experience, trek up to the magnificent Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, which has been perched on a cliff overlooking the East China Sea since 1376. Many people come to this spot on New Year’s Day to make a wish for the new year as they watch the sun come up.
Often referred to as a “museum without walls,” Gyeongju is a remarkable concentration of tombs, temples, pagodas, and ruins. Among the thousands of buildings and objects dating back to 57BC are two not-to-be missed UNESCO World Heritage sites — the Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple. Watching the sun rise over the sea from the base of the Grotto’s monumental Buddha is a popular tradition worth experiencing.
And just a day-trip away is the Yangdong Folk Village — a 500-year-old UNESCO site that offers a look into life during the Josean Dynasty. Founded in the 1400s, it contains more than 160 homes in traditional Josean architecture within a gorgeous natural setting.
For a marked change of pace, take a short flight to Jeju Island, the largest island off the Korean peninsula. Chock full of dormant volcanoes, beaches, caves, and a massive semi-tropical forested national park, Jeju Island has something for everyone. While it’s rapidly gaining popularity as a vacation spot, it has maintained its laid-back feel and commitment to preservation.
If you like to hike your way through new destinations, try trekking to the top of a volcano, or along one of the dozens of Olle trails that criss-cross the island, which take you up close and personal with working farms, tiny alleys, and rocky coastlines. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can make your way to the top of Halla Mountain, the highest peak in South Korea (a five-hour hike one way). If you prefer to take it down a notch, there are other trails on the mountain ranging from 30 minutes to three hours that reward you with views almost as spectacular as Halla’s. Want something a little less physical? Hit one of the superb beaches, crawl through lava tubes, take in the giant grandfather stones, or even visit the adult theme park. Didn’t we say Jeju has something for everyone?
South Korea is a masterful balance of contradiction — modern office buildings meet ancient temples, traditional culture makes way for new art forms, and rugged mountains beckon to inviting beaches below. It’s a balance that its warmhearted citizens are intensely proud of, and eager to share with the world.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in South Korea encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.