South Korea – a fabulous yet mostly unexplored travel destination!
You might not have yet considered South Korea as a travel destination but I’m hoping to convince you why you should. South Korea, an east Asian country on the southern part of the Korean peninsula, has its borders with North Korea, but it couldn’t be more different in lifestyle, culture, and openness – yet many people still confuse the two countries.
Having gone its separate way in 1953 after a terrible war, North Korea is now a hostile militarised zone, heavily armed, stagnated by its dictatorship and totally inaccessibility. South Korea, however, is a democracy. It has beautiful green hills, traditional coastal fishing villages, and tropical beaches. It also has stunningly impressive cityscapes, a thriving economy and world leading technologies.
Today South Korea is a fabulous place to visit and to explore. Interestingly, despite the external threat from North Korea, South Korea consistently features at the top of many ‘safest countries to visit’ lists. This is because the standard to living here is high and the crime rate is extremely low – plus guns are illegal.
I’ve been fortunate to have visited this fascinating country several times now and at different times of the year too. On each trip I’ve chosen not to fixate too much on the capital city of Seoul, but instead to head south from Incheon (in the northwest) stopping off in the almost midpoint city of Daegu before heading to Busan on the coast.
It’s easy to travel throughout the country using the KTX train, one of the newest, fastest, safest, transport systems in the world, making it possible to explore relics and temples and old towns one day and then cityscapes and shopping malls the next – all before heading down to spend some time at the beach at Busan or on one of the islands. Popular Jeju Island is often referred to as ‘the Hawaii of South Korea’.
The people are friendly and proud of their culture and their traditions as well as their high-tech achievements. They have so much to show us and so much to share – from their internet technology (the best in the world according to a new report by Akama, who analyses global internet speeds) to the brands we are all familiar with: Kia, Hyundai, and Daewoo/GM Korea, Samsung and LG to name a few.
But did you know that Korean fashion and cosmetics are now world renowned too? I’m guessing you do know that because the world’s women’s glossy magazines are constantly shouting about the latest Korean skincare products. In Korea, skincare has always come first and their products are now internationally coveted as ‘K-Beauty’. Natural and traditional has been incorporated with innovation and science creating the ‘perfect storm’ of the latest generation of synergised beauty products. I always make sure I stock up on the latest serums, creams and face mask treatments whenever I’m visiting South Korea!
Top Things To Do In South Korea
Visit Seoul: a sprawling metropolis of towering skyscrapers where neon lights and high-tech meet Buddhist temples and street markets. You can’t fail to feel the wow factor in South Korea’s largest city.
Take a trip on the KTX Train: your ticket to exploring Korea is best done by rail and this is no ordinary train. The Korea Train Express is one of the fastest and most advanced rail transport systems in the world.
Visit Daegu: Daegu is Korea’s fourth largest city after Seoul, Busan and Incheon. Here you can eat fabulous Korean food in restaurants where you will have a BBQ and chimney in the centre of your table. Sip on Go-Go Bags (cocktails to go) while you safely wander the streets at night looking to enjoy the vibrant nightlife that Daegu has to offer. The city is situated in a valley and is surrounded by hills and mountains, so if you tire of urban entertainment, you can always take to the hills and hike along the many walking trails. Apsan Park is one of the largest eco-park areas in South Korea and offers many leisure activities for tourists and locals alike.
Take the Apsan Park Cable Car: The city of Daegu is surrounded by mountains and a vast park. For the hikers amongst you there is a walkable, if demanding, trail to the top of Apsan Peak. I chose to take the cable car for its smooth ride and quick ascent. From the top you can then go on to the observation deck – a platform floating over the cliff’s edge giving a panoramic view of the entire city far below. Breathtaking!
Visit The War Museum: While in Daegu, I wanted to understand more about the 1950-53 Korean War between the North and South, a war that ended in an amnesty rather than a truce. The War Museum in the Apsan Park is a vast museum with many black and white photographs, maps and artifacts. Outside there is retired military hardware – tanks, missiles and planes. I found the war memorials and the sketches done by survivors both harrowing and heartbreaking. I was shocked to discover that there have been many further attacks on the South by the North since 1953 and I came away with a deeper understanding of South Korea’s determination to stand up to its hostile neighbour and to protect its people.
Visit a traditional market: I love to visit these traditional markets for the sights and sounds and smells of Korea. The vendors are as interesting and as colourful as their stalls and I cannot resist buying steamed dumplings while I’m there. Mmmmm – my mouth is watering just thinking about them!
Eat Kimchi: Korea’s national dish is a fermented health food. (Bottom right in the above photo) I’m informed that there are over one hundred and eighty types of Kimchi and I did see lots of different varieties on sale at the markets. It is usually served as a side dish. The ones I’ve tried have been based on cabbage but Kimchi can also be made from radish and onion and cucumber. It is high on fibre and low on calories and can be mild or spicy. Mmmm – I love Kimchi!
Drink Soju! Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverage. It is a distilled, strong and clear, vodka-like, alcoholic drink made from rice. In 2014, Soju was the largest selling alcohol in the world – with reported sales of seventy one million cases worldwide – yet it is almost exclusively consumed in Korea. I guess South Koreans like to drink!
Try (or watch) Taekwondo: A Korean traditional martial art. Developed through Korea’s history, it is a sport that has gained an international reputation and is now included among the official sports of the Olympic Games.
Visit Busan: Busan is South Korea’s largest seaport. It is also known for its mountains, its beaches and for its Buddhist temples. Often called the ‘summer capital of South Korea’ it has a laid-back vibe. Restaurants and open air fish markets offer a variety of the freshest seafood.
While in Busan, visit historic Gamcheon Culture Village. Once a mountain side slum, the village is now a colourful tourist attraction of small quirky homes, boutique cafes and art galleries on stairs, lanes and corners. There is a fabulous view to be had of the city and of the port from the top streets. Well worth a look but do wear comfortable shoes.
When is the best time to go to South Korea?
Spring: April, May and June are some of the best months to visit: the hills are green and cherry trees are in bloom. Local people head for the great outdoors, making use of the country’s many national parks.
Summer: July and August can be a hot and humid time of year. I once visited in August and found the heat too oppressive in the cities. Summer is a time to head for the coast or to the islands.
Autumn: September and October are particularly good months of the year to visit South Korea, when temperatures are mild and rainfall is generally low. Festivals are easy to come across and locals flock to the national parks to picnic under the fiery canopies of trees. T-shirt weather can continue long into October, though you’re likely to need some extra layers by then.
Winter: November to March. The Korean winter is long and cold due to the influx of cold Siberian air. Heavy snow in the northern and eastern parts of Korea makes for favourable skiing conditions.
Travel Tips for South Korea
How to get there: There is no way to travel to South Korea by road or rail. Most people arrive by air to the new and very glamorous Incheon International Airport. The only other way is by sea and there are services from both China and Japan. If you’re travelling from elsewhere in Asia, it may be worth checking for flights to other Korean international airports. These include Busan’s Gimhae airport, Jeju, Daegu, and Gwangju; those at Yangyang (near Sokcho) and Cheongju are also able to handle international flights.
Where to stay: I recommend doing your research online and look to book hotels independently using online booking agents such as Booking.com, Agoda.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Hotels.com. There are also some great travel blogs on the internet that may recommend lesser known accommodations.
Currency: The Korean Won
Do check Visa Entry Requirements before you make any firm plans to travel.
Do check your government’s website for the latest travel advice.
Do check what travel vaccinations you might need for travel to South Korea.
Do get Travel Insurance: You should have adequate travel insurance before setting out on any trip.
South Korea is a fabulous place to visit and it really should be high on your travel destination wish list. The Korean people are friendly and genuinely happy to host visitors. Do bear in mind that outside the biggest cities, locals may not have seen many westerners and they may stare at you in amazement – especially if you have blonde hair. It’s a small country but it really has it all – hills and mountains, amazing beaches, vibrant city life and quiet cultural experiences. There are many festivals and fayres throughout the year – for example: there is an International Film Festival in Busan, International Fashion Week in Seoul during March and the International Book Fayre in June. So be inspired and do plan to explore this amazing country sometime soon so that you can discover for yourself a colourful nation and the beautiful people of South Korea.