It might often get overlooked in favour of Japan and China, but Korea is a must-visit destination for any Globetrotter interested in East Asia. However, don’t be worried about seeing the whole country on your first visit. While the whole country is worth exploring, there are a few spots you should focus on during an initial trip to Korea.
South Korea is often called the “Land of the Morning Calm,” but when you head there on Korea vacations, you’ll find the country can be anything but calm. This is a nation of medieval palaces and Buddhist temples and gardens, but it’s also a nation of cellphones, blazingly-fast internet speeds, and towering skyscrapers. Korea’s ancient and recent history is fascinating, no doubt, but its electric present is invigorating and also worthy of exploration on a trip to Korea.
Korea’s Imposing Capital
Most Korea vacations begin and end in Seoul, the nation’s capital. The city proper has just under 10 million people, while the greater metropolitan area is over 25 million. It’s one of the largest cities on the planet and as such, there is no end to the possibilities here. You could spend weeks in Seoul, on a trip to Korea, and not even scratch the surface of all you can do.
This is a city that never sleeps so you can find things to do at all hours of the day here. Find a Zen garden and meditate in the early morning. Spend your afternoon visiting art museums and touring medieval palaces. In the evening, you can dine on Korean BBQ and imbibe on some soju. Then in the late night, after the clocks have turned, you can while away the hours in a karaoke bar or engage in one of Korea’s national pass-times, online gaming.
Palaces, Museums, and Temples
Odds are you won’t have weeks to spare and wander the streets, on your trip to Korea, discovering small pockets of culture wherever you turn. In the interest of efficiency, there are some places in the city you should focus on to get the full tourist experience. One of your first stops should be one of the national palaces that grace the city centre. Head to Gyeongbokgung Palace or Changdeok Palace to get a taste for the medieval opulence of Korea. The latter palace has a secret garden from the 15th century and is the most gorgeous palace in the city. The red, yellow, and green paint job of the wooden buildings is stunning, as is the curated garden behind the palace. English tours are offered at 10:30am and 2:30pm every day of the week, so time your visit accordingly.
After touring one of the palaces, head to the National Museum of Korea to see artifacts from the 6th and 7th centuries, as well as lovely examples of medieval Korean artworks such as wood-carving and watercolour paintings. The modern design of the building is stunning in and of itself, while the treasures stored within are much more interesting than you’d find in many national museums in other capitals of the world. Best of all is the Goryeo Dynasty Ten Story Pagoda, which fills much of the main atrium between the floors and exhibition halls. Climb to the third story and gaze down upon this marvel of Buddhist design.
Jogye-sa also tops the bill on many itineraries for Seoul. It’s the largest Buddhist worship centre in the city and is actively used by practicing Buddhists daily, so it gives insight into the ordinary habits of Korean Buddhists. As well, it’s also home to three massive statues of Amitabha Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and Bhaisaiya Buddha sitting in a row. You’ll want to get a picture in front of these statues as proof of your visit.
If a few days of museum visits and palace tours have you yearning for a more modern touch, check out the New City Hall and the Dongdaemun Design Plaza Park to see stunning examples of urban architecture. As well, you could visit the famous N Seoul Tower, hiking up Namsan Mountain to enjoy the stunning vistas of the city. For some shopping, hit up Myeong-dong and Insadong to move with the crowds and haggle for souvenirs, antiques, and tokens of Korean culture.
Getting out of Seoul
However great Seoul is, you’ll want to head out of the city to explore some other Korean sights. The closest of these is the Korean Demilitarized Zone or DMZ, which separates South Korea from its combative and secretive neighbours in North Korea. After the Korean War ended in 1953, China, North Korea, and the United Nations agreed to create the zone to cut the peninsula in half and offer a buffer between the two countries so that the Armistice could be upheld. While visiting the DMZ, you can peer into North Korea and learn about life there in the North Korea Exhibition Hall. Visiting the DMZ can be a surreal experience, on your trip to Korea, as it’s the closest most people will ever get to visiting North Korea and experiencing its cloistered existence. The DMZ is easily accessible as a day trip from Seoul.
If you want to head further afield, consider a trip to Busan or Gyeongju on the southeast of the peninsula. Busan is a mountain and beach city on the southeast coast. It’s Korea’s second largest city and abounds with fish markets, so seafood dinners are a must here. In the summer, you can hang out on Haeundae Beach, enjoying the surf from the Sea of Japan. You can climb Busan Tower in Yongdusan Park or visit the UN Memorial Cemetery, which pays respect to the fallen UN soldiers from the Korean War. While Busan’s fishing industry continues to define it, the city is growing increasingly international. The Busan International Film Festival in October attracts films from all over the world and is arguably the biggest film festival in all of Asia.
Nearby Busan is Gyeongju, which makes for a good pairing with the port city. Gyeongju is essentially an open-air museum, as it has more ruins, tombs, pagodas, palaces, and temples than any other city in Korea. It was the capital of the Silla Dynasty for 1,000 years and served as the capital of the entire peninsula in the 7th century, when its population peaked at around 1 million. Almost everywhere in Gyeongju is worth exploring, but the Royal Tumuli Park, with its 20 royal tombs, and the nearby Buddhist sites of Bulguk-sa and Seokguram deserve your primary attention. Bulguk-sa is a temple defined by its stone terraces, while Seokguram has a grotto watched over by a giant Buddha statue.
Useful Tips for First-Timers
As you explore Korea, you’ll discover the ins-and-outs of the culture. However, there are some things to be aware of before you head on your trip to Korea that’ll help you once you’re there. First of all, the Hangul alphabet might look similar to Chinese or Japanese characters, but they are in fact alphabet letters. Each symbol is phonetic, meaning that you can easily learn the alphabet and read street signs and business names, which will help you immensely during your travels.
Knowing some of the alphabet will also help you to navigate the metro, which is extremely efficient in Seoul and the other major cities. The subway is cheap and goes almost everywhere in the city. You’ll save a fortune riding it instead of taking taxis everywhere. Buy an electronic T-Money Card and load it with funds to simplify your exploration of Seoul.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Korean culture is very community-oriented and influenced by Confucian social mores. Elders are to be respected, invitations to homes deserve gifts in return as tokens of thanks, and politeness in all social encounters is paramount. It’s important to keep in mind the importance of social politeness when traversing Korea’s cities, as you’ll likely find yourself annoyed as your personal space disappears. The fact is, personal space does not exist in Korea. It’s a country of 51 million in a geographical landmass smaller than most American states and Canadian provinces. So best get used to bearing sandwiched subway cars and crowded streets with a smile and an acknowledgement that everyone shares the space equally.
Korea is an ideal destination if you’ve never been to Asia before and don’t want to sacrifice comfort or convenience when exploring a foreign culture. It might be small, but it’s not old-fashioned and certainly shouldn’t be forgotten when planning a trip to Asia.