South Korea is named “the land of the morning calm,” and will always be part of a traveler’s bucket list. With Seoul as the capital, this country in East Asia takes pride in offering a wide range of experiences for such a varied taste -- from the unique food and beautiful temples, to its tech-savvy people and its pop culture that’s been known worldwide.
If you plan to visit this place, the first things that will come to your mind are perhaps the distinctive interest of its people toward skincare, K-pop, and the spicy appetizer known as the kimchi. But there’s more to this country than it meets the eye.
In this South Korea travel guide, you will get to know South Korea from a visual perspective, with discussion and recommendations from those who have previously visited the country.
Here’s a rundown on what you will read about in our South Korea travel guide:
- Places to visit: What to do in South Korea
- Where to stay: Hotels
- Where to eat: Restaurants
- Events in South Korea
- Outdoor activities
- Budget, tips, and sample itinerary
South Korea seems to be the center of attention when it comes to everything modern. K-pop sensations, actors, and actresses in entertainment are also doing their purpose to promote the nation as what you see on television. Korean food such as the K-barbecue are being served not just in the country, but around the globe.
The people of Korea are among the most wired cultures anywhere in the world. They also represent an efficient workforce and are renowned for their love for drinking.
Covering 100,032 square kilometers of land area, the country is not as huge compared to its neighboring countries, or the United States. You may probably know that there’s also North Korea, which is completely different from its counterpart. But if you want to visit this northern part of the peninsula, there are also a lot of things to see.
South Korea is located at the far east of the continent of Asia, toward the Yellow Sea. Its northern boundaries are across the Korean Demilitarized Zone which it shares with the southern border of the north. Seoul is just about thirty miles south of the zone.
The country is surrounded by three bodies of water with coastlines that stretch almost 2,500 kilometers along the Sea of Japan to the east, the Yellow Sea to the west, and the East China Sea to the south.
The remarkable city of Seoul is the capital and the largest metropolis in this country. It is a must-visit destination for those who want to take a tour of Asia modernized, and learn about a city deeply rooted to tradition.
Compared with other major cities in the world, the area is larger, offering a very intimate experience. Walking around the city, you understand how Seoul interacts with many identities.
Places to visit: What to do in South Korea
Create your trip to a country filled with various surprises. Whether you are a business traveler, touring with the family and kids, or a solo adventurer thirsty to try new things, this place is home to centuries-old temples, restaurants offering delicious recipes, art galleries that present history, and events to look forward to each year.
1. Tour the city’s palaces
The moment you book your flight to South Korea, you’ll be claiming your luggage at Incheon International Airport, the primary airport serving the Seoul capital area. Whether you are riding a train, taxi or bus from the airport, the travel time to Seoul will take about 60 to 70 minutes. And once you’re in the capital, there are several things to see.
Seoul is both traditional and cosmopolitan, fusing together the old and modern Korea. You can see this evident in its quaint avenues, neon-filled street signs, beautifully-built temples, and more for the relaxed and adventurous traveler.
Take your time visiting Seoul’s magnificent palaces, right at the heart of the city. You can head over to the most popular palace known as Gyeongbukgung or Palace Greatly Blessed By Heaven.
Built in 1935, Gyeongbukgung Palace should be part of every Korea travel. It is the largest and the most beautiful palace among the rest of the structures in this city. A fire once destroyed the palace during the Imjin War or the Japanese invasion. However, the edifices of the Joseon Dynasty, Hyangwonjeong Pond, and the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion remained completely intact.
From this area, you can also visit the palaces of Deoksugung, Gyeonhuigung, Changdeokgung, and Cheonggyeonggung. Taking a tour of these places is one way to understand South Korean history without traveling long hours to the outskirts, or the provinces. Each palace offers a showcase of the nation’s history.
2. View the city from Seoul Tower
Another promising destination when heading over to the country is Seoul Tower, a landmark that never fails to impress visitors. It is also called Namsan Tower, which is actually an observatory and communication tower located at the center of Seoul capital. It stands at 236 meters, the second-highest point in the city.
You can ride a cable car or hike the mountains to the tower, with stops that include restaurants, shops, and museums. Once you are at Seoul Tower, you can stay on the observation deck and take photos of the city’s panoramic view. Visitors also hang padlocks at Locks of Love located around the vicinity. It symbolizes their devotion to each other, and if you are still searching, then the Locks of Love is a fun spot to take wonderful photos.
3. Indulge in sumptuous Korean food
If there’s one experience you should not miss when visiting any country, it should be a food adventure. Many tourists choose to order instead of at convenience stores or McDonald’s because their food choices are more affordable. But it won’t hurt to actually try the must-visit restaurants, and invest a few dimes on satisfying your cravings.
The journey won’t be complete without trying the local cuisine. From street food stalls, high-end restaurants, to exotic dishes, the country is a melting pot of gastronomic delights.
In Seoul, never miss out on the street food scene with the must-try dishes which include spicy rice cakes or tteokbokki, sweet pancakes or hotteok, seaweed rice rolls or kimbap, and the historic chicken skewers.
Where to eat in Korea for the native crispy chicken is at Kyochon Chicken Hongdae Store in the Hongdae neighborhood. Or, you can visit Myth Jakbol Hongdae in the vicinity for pork knuckles. For eateries where you can sit down and spend a few hours resting your feet from walking, you can visit Sinseon Seolleongtang Myeongdong or the Myeongdong Kyoja Main.
Looking for pork bellies or samgyetang? The Gyeongbokgung Palace at Tosokchon Samgyetang offers these recipes. Where to eat in Seoul for sweet potato cakes, rice rolls, Korean blood sausage, rice rolls, mung bean pancakes, and silkworm pupae are at Gwangjang Market and Myeongdong.
4. Shop at Myeongdong, Namedaemun and Dongdaemun Market
Several Asian cities are home to the busiest and most exciting night markets where you can find more street food, fruits and vegetables, souvenirs, and a whole lot more. From Mongkok in Hong Kong, the Chatuchak Market in Thailand, to the Delhi Night Market in India, these kinds of shopping is a staple in the continent. South Korea does not let it without their own take at these fantastic travel experiences.
Other locals may flock to the sophisticated malls for world-renowned brands, but you can find yourself in your own experience at Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets. These are named after the gates they are located with, and have stalls offering souvenirs, fashion items, and street food.
Namdaemun is mainly a day market, while Dongdaemun is a night market. However, both operate with a more relaxed schedule, so you don’t have to rush to the trains going to these markets after a full day tour.
South Korea is the home turf of famous cosmetic brands such as Innisfree, Tony Moly, and Etude House. In this country, there’s a market that is devoted to beauty products and cosmetics. You can find the best deals in Myeongdong for these items, and even meet local sellers that offer free samples of their products. It’s never authentic until you get to where your favorite facial creams come from.
5. Take a tour around Busan
Busan may send out chills since it is featured in a globally-renowned thriller movie. True to its image, this port city in South Korea is not for the faint-hearted -- but in a nice way. It is here where you can bring yourself to the hippier side of the country, far from how they do it in Seoul, with a vibrant nightlife, pristine beaches, beautiful mountains, local seafood, and modern bridges.
You can reach the place after a 2.5-hour bullet train ride that will take you to a mixture of cities and the outdoors. But of course, without any zombies or viruses involved.
The best months to visit Busan’s beaches are between July and August, particularly at Gwangalli and Haeundae beaches. They are amongst the cleanest beaches worldwide, where you can play around in various water sport activities. Among the must-visit attractions in Busan are the Jagalchi Fish Market, Gamcheon Culture Village, and Haeundae Beach.
You can also take temple tours at the 1,300-year-old Beomeosa Temple overlooking the beach from the altitude of Mount Geumjeong. They allow tourists to spend overnight in the temple, learning about the faith and meditating with the monks.
For a Busan food adventure, you may head over the Jokbal Golmok, International Market, and the Pig Feet Alley. Take a rest with delicious meals at Dongnae Halmae Pajeon.
6. Visit Lotte World
You may not find an official Disneyland or Disneyworld in South Korea yet, but both children and young at heart should visit Lotte World while they are in this country. It is one of the best South Korea places to visit, mainly because of the legacy of the Lotte brand among consumers around the globe.
Hailed as the world’s largest amusement park, Lotte World is an indoor leisure complex that combines shopping malls, luxury hotels, entertainment venues, folk museums, and a theme park all in one destination. It is located in downtown Seoul.
They have a collection of shops, amusement rides, magical presentations, roller coaster rides, and the renowned floating hot air balloons that mimic the actual experience. They also have castles so you can feel like a Korean prince or princess in a day.
7. Walk around Bukchon Hanok Village
If you want to see and learn about how Korean neighborhoods looked like before the skyscrapers, then you must include Bukchon Hanok Village on your bucket list. This quaint community with traditional houses is nestled between the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Changdeokgung Palace.
The traditional house in Korea is called “hanok.” They were first designed and constructed during the 14th century in the Joseon dynasty. These houses were built from materials found in nature, such as wood, stone, and clays.
Many of the hanoks have been destroyed as a consequence of time, but many are also still intact until today. They are continuously being remodeled to retain their structure, and keep inviting guests to take a look. Some of these hanoks are refurbished to become lodging spaces, restaurants, cultural centers, and coffee shops.
You can always feel like an ancient Korean warrior moving around alleys, meeting the locals washing their clothes, children running around streets, and grandparents silently watching over the neighborhood.
Where to stay: Best hotels
Overnight in South Korea is great, but it will be more fantastic to spend a few more days up to over a week perhaps. Thus, you will need to find a hotel where you can check-in. The country is where you can find both affordable and high-priced lodging, based on your specifications. Here are the best hotels in South Korea to keep on your notepads.
1. Hamilton Hotel
Seoul is one of the cities in the world with cost of living at the higher end of the spectrum. However, this shouldn’t stop any budget traveler from taking on this great adventure. One of the most affordable hotels where you can check-in is Hamilton Hotel.
It is listed in many reviews as among the most affordable hotels in Seoul and lodging for tourists, without the low-quality amenities. It is situated in a neighborhood filled with restaurants and nightlife, so you won’t have to travel too far. For budget tourists, this is already an upscale option.
The rooms do not compromise on providing the most comfortable stay, with amenities including the rooftop pool and a gym. Other facilities include free Wifi, restaurant and bar, bathtub, and business facilities.
2. Imperial Palace Seoul
Now, if you are into something even more luxurious, book your stay at Imperial Palace Seoul. It is located in downtown Seoul’s Gangnam district. You get abundant options upon checking-in, where you can select between their modern business class room, day spa-inspired suite, club hideaway, or the deluxe guest room laden with elegant and sophisticated Korean interiors and decor.
Guests at the hotel can experience various cuisines at the Garden Terrace, or enjoy Japanese fusion dining at Restaurant Manyo. You can also visit their in-house bars, buffet table, cafe, and other restaurants within the hotel grounds. They also have a fitness center for your workout, an arcade for leisure and relaxation, or you can stroll around the hotel’s cultural center.
3. Hotel Leo
If you are stopping by the world-renowned Jeju Island, it is a must to also make your stay as pleasurable as possible with the best hotels. Known as “the island of the gods,” Jeju is also home to the world’s most satisfying places for lodging. Appearing in the top choice for travelers is Hotel Leo.
This Jeju Island hotel features more than 200 art pieces in its gallery-inspired building interior. During your stay, you can get access to their buffet restaurant and bar, as well as their 95 classic rooms. WiFi is available, and there’s also on-site parking.
The rooms and the hallways feature Italian wallpapers and Danish carpets. In the rooms are flat-screen TVs, a mini-refrigerator for storing food supplies, and a wooden work desk. The windows open to stunning views of Jeju City.
Plus, a private bathroom is provided with amenities such as bathrobes, free toiletries, bath, and more. Aside from this, Leo Hotel also provides front desk services 24/7. The lodging also has banquet facilities and a business center.
Where to eat: Best restaurants
With the rich food culture in South Korea, the choices can be overwhelming. Organize your food adventure by learning a few of the best restaurants in the country. Most of the restaurants are welcoming guests for lunch and dinner, with a break time between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Some of these food establishments also provide entertainment at night with live music starting at 8 p.m. and onwards.
1. Gwangjang Market
If you are looking for a restaurant that’s noisier with the crowd and not too formal, Gwangjang Market is a must-try. Get yourself into one of Seoul’s busiest food alleys or meokjagolmok. With around 200 food stalls that sell fresh produce and delicacies, you will surely satisfy your cravings. These stalls offer kimchis, the mung-bean pancakes that are popular for tourists, the milky rice wine, and more.
Simply move into one of the benches with your group, while one or two of you goes around the market to buy the food. You can try Korean dumplings, braised pig’s trotters, boribap, bibimbap, and the default local recipe to try which is the sannakji. Sannakji consists of raw octopus tentacles that literally wriggle on your plate.
For a fine dining dining experience that deserves notice, Jungsik is the foodie place to be. Apart from being hailed as a Michelin-star restaurant, this luxurious diner is also voted in one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2018.
Named after the chef-owner Yim Jungsik, this restaurant presents contemporary fusion of old and seasonal ingredients over various course meals. You can choose from gimbap, bibimbap, napa wraps with pork, plates of nine delicacies, and more, not to mention a fine array of wines and desserts.
Tourists may have to book at least a month in advance because of the influx of patrons that the restaurant receives each day.
3. Korea House
You can find several more restaurants worth visiting in Seoul and around South Korea. Where to eat in South Korea really depends on your preferences and budget. The third best restaurant would be Korea House.
People visit this restaurant for its experience, aside from the food. They have performances and traditional music played live on zither, with hanbok-clad servers ready to take your orders. The food comes in boxes and platters, and as you eat, you listen to musical performances and watch traditional theater shows. You may also opt to just have the meal without the show.
Events in South Korea for 2020
More than the sightseeing, there are tourists who visit a location to attend a popular or important event. If you happen to be in South Korea during the day, week, or month these events are held, it won’t be too much to pass by, and plunge into the happening. This year, the country is also a melting pot of spectacular presentations to bring out your imagination.
1. Jongmyo Daeje
Celebrated on the first Sunday of May, Jongmyo Daeje is a vibrant traditional parade honoring the royal ancestors, featuring elaborate costumes, rituals, and cultural presentations. It honors the late members of the royal family during the Joseon Dynasty.
The event includes a parade of people in costumes from Gyeongbokgung up to downtown Seoul, before reaching Jongmyo’s royal shrine where attendees listen to traditional music, and become witness to the rituals.
2. Seoul Fringe Festival
Another event tourists can attend is the Seoul Fringe Festival, an annual festival bringing together different artists in the fields of theater, dance, video, music, and other performing arts.
This 10-day festivity gathers hundreds and thousands of people in a venue that houses several performing artists. There are also graphic arts and indie film presentations.
3. Sajik Daeje
Held on the first Sunday of the month of September, Sajik Daeje happens at Sajikdan, and is also known as the “Great Rite for the Gods of Earth and Agriculture.” It is also based on an ancient ritual that includes fresh meat offerings, traditional attire, and court orchestra music.
For several years, agriculture has been part of the Korean economy. Thus in Seoul, this event also is held as a prayer gathering for prosperity and peace.
4. Seoul Lantern Festival
Each year it is held, the Seoul Lantern Festival and its organizing committee showcase a different theme reflected in the design of the lanterns. It takes place along Cheonggyecheon Stream every November.
The lanterns usually feature local characters from local folk tales. Made by the country’s best craftsmen, gigantic, beautiful lanterns illuminate the park as the world welcomes the winter season. In South Korea, things to do in winter should have you coming to this event.
Who says South Korea is just all about the temples and spicy food? For the outdoor enthusiast wanting to find South Korea things to do or when they are in South Korea, things to do in spring, and in other seasons, you may also try these outdoor activities in the East Asian destination.
Danyang and Yangpyeong are the most famous spots in the country for paragliding. Both offer fantastic views of nature from above your paraglide. If you’re headed for Incheon or Jeju, they also have areas for this activity. Tourists are advised to check the weather forecast before reserving for your trip.
The nation is also home to the clearest waters with a stunning biodiversity to explore under the ocean. The best season to dive is during the autumn, since the water gets warmed up in the summer. This creates a great environment for the aquatic species to roam around. Head over to Jeju Island, the South Sea, Uljin, or Gangneung for your scuba diving experience.
Prepare a budget for skydiving if you are including this outdoor activity on your bucket list. Skydivers also bring with them an appropriate camera for video recording the diving experience. Depending on the course, a skydiving routine takes about 20 to 40 seconds.
White water rafting
Another water sport to enjoy is white water rafting. It is one of the best experiences to have with the strong water current if you are in large groups. Or, you may enlist to participate in a group. The longest rafting course locally is around three hours long.
The finest surfing locations in the country are in Busan, Jeju Island, and Yangyang. The beach at Yangyang is exclusively visited for surfing. If you are a beginner, you can avail of quick surfing lessons, and if you are looking toward becoming a surf pro, you can enroll in one of the surf schools for long-term instruction.
Budget, tips & sample itinerary
Now we’ve come to the point where you will plan the actual trip, what you need when visiting Korea is the travel budget. How much should you prepare for a three-day, two night tour, or perhaps a five-day, four-night experience, or maybe an overnight in Seoul? Here are the South Korea travel tips you must keep in mind.
Per day, be prepared to spend around $124 on your trip in South Korea. On average, daily meals are at $24 while transportation is at $12. The average hotel price is at $150. Thus, for two people, you should be able to prepare around $2,000 for a week of travel. These are based on information from other travelers who’ve visited.
For one person, the cost is about $900 for a week. Two weeks of travel for two people should have them prepare about $3,500. If you are traveling as a family or bringing children, prices for kids in tickets and hotels may be cheaper.
On average, food in South Korea is at $24 for each day. Dining out for an average meal will cost around $10 for each person. Breakfast meals are cheaper than lunch and dinner meals. If you want to reserve a table in casual or fine dining restaurants, the cost can be higher than in fast food establishments and street food stalls.
Taxi ride as a mode of transportation costs higher than riding a public transportation such a bus or train. Past tourists have spent about $12 on transportation for each person per day in South Korea.
- Though not as advanced as the bullet trains of Japan, public transportation in South Korea is also very modern. You can take trains, buses, and planes (if you are flying to two or more cities). The larger cities have a systematic subway system that’s easy for you to navigate. You may also hail taxis and ride the public bus, if you prefer to. For affordability, you may take the bus but it will take more time to bring you to your destination.
- It is advisable to purchase the KR Pass, a ticket that will take you around the train stations and terminals without having to buy tickets from the booth every time you ride the train. It is ideal for foreign non-residents visiting the country. The pass does not cover first class rides and those with sleeping cars, with additional limitations during the holiday seasons and peak periods.
- Karaoke is also a famous past time in South Korea. This popular activity is a must-try for everyone looking for a more trendy cultural and travel experience.
- If you are in South Korea during the mid-year, particularly in the month of July, you can visit Boryeong city in Chunchungnam. The reason is, they host a popular Mud Festival where attendees participate in mud wrestling, body painting, and covering their body in thick mud. If this isn’t your type of event, then you can also visit the South Korean beaches that also host parties. Be sure to book your stay at a hotel in advance since these resorts tend to fill up with people.
- Pay attention to withdrawing your money from ATMs in the country. While they are generally safe, there are ATMs that may not accept cards from a foreign land. It is recommended to look for special global ATMs or Citibank ATMs. Stop by airports, convenience stores, or subway stations that usually have these machines. It is better to carry adequate cash when you are traveling abroad as a tourist.
First time travelers in South Korea may find the choices overwhelming, reason they spend a few days just finalizing the itinerary they will use while in the country. There are several blogs, videos, reviews, and community discussions about a well-recommended itinerary. Here is a sample one-week itinerary you may follow.
Day 1: Seoul
- Myeongdong Cathedral
- Myeongdong Shopping Street
- Seoul World Cup Stadium
- Haneul Park
Day 2: Gapyeong
- Seoul station going to Yongsan station toward Gapyeong station (via ITX Chuncheon)
- Buy your Gapyeong City Tour Bus ticket, covering Nami Island, Petite France, and Garden of the Morning Calm
- Nami Island
- Petite France
- Garden of the Morning Calm
- Board the City Tour Bus and drop off Cheongpyeong station
- Cheongpyeong station toward Seoul station
Day 3: Seoul
- Travel to Seoullo 7017 near Seoul station
- Seoul station going to Gupabal station
- Gupabal station to Bukhansan National Park (via bus #34)
- Trek to Baegundae Peak
- Watch the sunset at the Peak
- Descend to the opposite side where Doseonsa Temple and the nearest subway station is located (Bukhansan Ui station)
- Bukhansan Ui Station toward Seoul station
- Transferred to Bong House near Jongno (Seoul station to Hyehwa Ssation)
Day 4: Sokcho
- Hyehwa station to Gangbyeon station, where the Dong Seoul Bus Terminal is located
- Dong Seoul bus terminal to Sokcho Intercity bus terminal
- Buy a take-out lunch to be eaten on the trail
- Bus to Seoraksan National Park (bus #7-1)
- Trek to Ulsanbawi Rock
- Lunch and take a rest
- Descend and get back to Sokcho city proper
- Abai Village
- Get back to Seoul (Sokcho Intercity bus terminal to Dong Seoul bus terminal)
Day 5: Seoul
- Rest and relax the body from trekking
- Buy combination ticket for the palaces and Royal Shrine
- Gyeongbokgung Palace
- National Folk Museum
- Explore Samcheong-dong and Hanok Village
- Dongdaemun Design Plaza
- Ehwa Womans University Shopping Street
Day 6: Seoul
- Changgyeonggung Palace
- Changdeokgung Palace with Secret Garden
- Jongmyo Shrine
- Myeongdong Shopping Street
Day 7: Seoul and departure
- Deoksugung Palace
- Seoul Museum of Art
- Lotte Mart
- Hyehwa station to Incheon Int’l Airport Subway Station
- Departure from South Korea
The country is also a territory of contrasts despite the reality that it seems to be a unified land when it comes to its culture and Asian roots. Modernity has already influenced many of the traditions in present times, embracing technology and where skyscrapers exist in one plane alongside the historic temples.
The Korean etiquette is a culture shock for most foreign tourists, but begin to immerse yourself and you will understand this distinctive hospitality that brings the country forward. In South Korea, there are several things to do and explore, from the food, to the outdoor activities, and the tours back to its tradition.
More than tradition, you also get to see nature in this part of the world, from national parks, the finest beaches, hot springs, to rugged mountain peaks and more. It is also a paradise for foodies with a recipe recognizable anywhere in the world. Visit South Korea, and get ready to be amazed.