South Korea’s relatively compact size coupled with its superb transport infrastructure means that nature and tranquillity are always within easy reach of the more expected bustle and urban sprawl. For some reason, the Korean peninsula seems tantalisingly unexplored by mainstream tourism although it offers a highly distinctive cultural experience coupled with remarkable easy travelling.
Although it's troubled history has made South Korea's very existence and success nothing short of a miracle, what is even more amazing is to find how its traditions and customs have remained intact throughout. If you are expecting only futuristic, neon-clad, sky-scraper studded cities you're in for a huge surprise as this wonderful country has anything from pine-clad mountains, densely forested national parks, misty archipelagos to rice paddies of emerald green, studded with the odd urban pocket along a stunning, craggy coastline. Even so, the best part of the country is not its fantastic landscape, but your inevitable encounters with the delightful and welcoming Korean people. If you don't' watch out you will pretty soon be drinking a beer together shouting 'kampai!' or singing the night away at a noraebang karaoke bar.
During 2019 we managed to spend 6 weeks in various parts of this interesting and often overlooked country and can't help but wonder why this country isn’t a more popular stop on the international travel circuit.
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SOUTH KOREA QUICK FACTS
Currency: Won (₩, KRW)
Current conversion rate here. ATMs that accept foreign cards are common: look for one that has a ‘Global’ sign or the logo of your credit card company. ATMs often operate from 7 am to 11 pm but some are 24-hour.
Electricity: 240V AC electricity. (C & F type "German" plugs). South Korea uses the same dual round sockets as are found in most of Continental Europe. Be sure to carry a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic devices. If you are from a country with 110V as a standard be aware that you will need a voltage converter. Some hotels may provide an adaptor for you to use which you can ask for at reception.
Visa: The nationals of 109 countries and territories, including all the usual suspects, will receive a visa on arrival valid for 30 to 90 days. See Hi Korea for the latest details. Rules for visiting only Jeju are even more lenient, allowing everybody except citizens of 11 countries. Don't overstay though, even by a single day — this can incur heavy fines and even possible jail time, and you'll probably be banned from re-entering.
Safety: Most parts of Korea are incredibly safe to travel in and you should feel comfortable moving around almost anywhere any time of day. Frankly, you are more likely to be hit by a car in Korea! In a strange twist, you should not expect drivers to stop for you at the zebra crossings and it is important for you to always stay alert while crossing roads. Whatever you do, don’t travel without travel insurance! We would suggest checking out World Nomads, for travel insurance as they have the best coverage for active travellers.
Language: The Korean language is one of a handful that has no genetic relationship with any other language family. The language is drastically different from any Western language in grammar, and pronunciation is difficult for the English speaker to get right. English is widely taught in junior high and high school but in our experience, it is not spoken much outside larger cities. Due to lack of practice (as well as fear of mispronunciation), most Koreans have little more than a very basic grasp of English phrases in actual conversation.
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SOUTH KOREA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
1 March, Independence Movement Day (Sam’il-Jol)
5 May, Children’s Day
6 June, Memorial Day
17 July, Constitution Day
15 August, Liberation Day
3 October, National Foundation Day
The Summer vacation is the last week of July through the 1st week of August.
Also, Korean New Year, Chusok, and Buddha Day (Visakaha Day), which are moveable holidays.
FESTIVALS IN SOUTH KOREA
A packed calendar of festivals and events means there’s almost always a celebration of some sort to attend wherever you are in Korea. From an internationally renowned mud festival to lesser-known gatherings that commemorate nature, food, historical events or the changing of the seasons, there’s never a lack of celebrations in this highly diverse country.
Jeju Fire Festival (제주 들불축제): As part of the three-day Jeju Fire Festival, Jeju Island’s Saebyeol Oreum hill is set ablaze every spring to welcome good health and a good harvest for the new lunar year. The event represents the Korean tradition of burning old grass to wipe out vermin ahead of the new planting season. Apart from the awe-inspiring spectacle of the fire, the festival also features folk games and a magnificent fireworks display.
Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival (진해군항제): While neighbouring Japan may be more famous for its cherry blossoms, there are countless sites to witness their splendour in South Korea, too. The most famous of these is the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, spread across two popular locations – Yeojwacheon (Romance Bridge) and Gyeonghwa Station.
Lotus Lantern Festival (연등회): One of Korea’s most aesthetically beautiful customs is the Lotus Lantern Festival, held during the annual Buddha’s Birthday celebrations. The entire downtown area of Seoul is bejewelled with multi-coloured lanterns, creating a large, open-air lantern exhibition and every temple is transformed into a spectacle of light.
Boryeong Mud Festival (보령머드축제): At the famous Boryeong Mud Festival on Daecheon Beach, millions participate in what has become Asia’s biggest mud party. Festival-goers bathe, wrestle, and party in Boryeong mud reputed to improve skin tone thanks to its high level of germanium and bentonite minerals.
The Seoul Lantern Festival (서울빛초롱축제): This event has become one of Seoul’s most iconic and most visited, with more than three million visitors annually. The colourful Seoul Lantern Festival takes place every fall at the picturesque Cheonggyecheon Stream in downtown Seoul. It showcases various types of lantern sculptures that follow a theme that varies each year.
BEST TIME TO VISIT SOUTH KOREA
Korea’s year is split into four distinct seasons. Generally lasting from April to June, spring is regarded as the best time to visit: flowers are in bloom, and a frothy cloak of cherry blossom washes a brief wave of pinkish-white from south to north. During this time locals will head for the hills and you will spot the making proper use of the country’s many national parks.
Korea’s summer can be unbearably humid and muggy, and you may find yourself sprinting from one air-conditioned sanctuary to the next. We spent 6 weeks in Korea from middle May to the end of June and found coastal areas to be pleasantly cool especially during May, but things can get hotter inland and towards the end of June. You should definitely do your best to avoid the monsoon season completely as more than half of the country’s annual rain falls from early July to late August.
Unless you want to see the cherry blossoms, the very best time to visit is autumn (Sept–Nov) when temperatures are mild, rainfall is generally low and festivals are plentiful. During autumn you will find the parks and mountains erupting in bursts of reds, yellows and oranges, with local picnickers flocking to national parks. It's still pleasantly warm well into October but you should be prepared for an extra layer especially at night.
Sadly the Korean winter is long, dreary and cold, and predictably worse the further north you go. However, travel at this time is far from impossible as there is no stop to public transport services.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN SOUTH KOREA
The snow sports season in South Korea can start in mid November and last until March. The best time is usually between December and February.
HIKING & CYCLING IN SOUTH KOREA
South Korea has hundreds of incredible hiking and cycling trails, varying from stunning coastal walks to high mountain peaks. The best time for these outdoor activities depends on your personal climate preference. You can enjoy outdoor activities all year round, however, the summer months of July & August can be uncomfortably hot and wet.
BEACH OPTIONS IN SOUTH KOREA
South Korea has some beautiful sandy beaches varying from natural to man-made. Although the weather may be suitable for relaxing on the beach from May to September, note that the official swimming season is only for the months of July and August at most beaches. These are also the busiest and wettest months of the year though, so we recommend the shoulder seasons rather!
SURFING IN SOUTH KOREA
Although South Korea has a few good surfing spots, there are often restricted surfing hours during the peak summer swimming season! Check out these surf spots: Songjeong Beach, Haeundae Beach, Jungmun Beach, Gisamun Beach and Chilpo Beach.
KITESURF IN SOUTH KOREA
South Korea has some good consistent winds for kite and windsurfing from the end of April until November. Jeju Island is a popular kitesurfing destination with over 20 suitable spots but very limited gear rental. The temperature is most pleasant from June to September.
SOUTH KOREA TRAVEL COSTS
Travel costs in South Korea can be a mixed bag as it's definitely much pricier than most of Southeast Asia, but still somewhat cheaper than Japan. We have found that if you can curb your accommodation cost and refrain from frequenting restaurants daily you can travel on a surprisingly tight budget. The standard of accommodation is generally high at a competitive price point and if you want to get an idea of how much we spend travelling South Korea see our Budget Report section.
SOUTH KOREA TRAVEL TIPS
Transport from one place to the next is fairly easy in Korea and is efficient and affordable. In larger cities, there are well-established public transport systems and although Google Maps is not available you can use the local alternative, Naver, to get around. We advise checking bus, boat, and train schedules ahead of time using BookAway or 12Go website. Skyscanner.com or Kiwi.com are handy tools for finding great flight deals.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF SOUTH KOREA
Seoraksan National Park
South Korea's most beloved and possibly its most beautiful national parks, Seoraksan is celebrated for its oddly shaped rock formations and ancient Silla-era temples. It's a hiker's paradise, with its stunning realm of rock formations, dense green forests, abundant wildlife, hot springs, and plunging waterfalls offering hiking trails from a few hours to overnight multi-day routes. Whatever you do, do not attempt to see Seoraksan as part of a day trip as there is no way to do it justice in just a few hours.
Travel Tip: If you plan on doing some hiking around Seoraksan leave yourself enough time - stay overnight in the nearby Sokcho. If you are short on time best would be to do a day trip from Seoul to take in the best of Seoraksan as well as Nami Island.
Joint Security Area (JSA)
Undoubtedly the highlight of any trip to the DMZ is the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeom. What should be an improbable tourist destination, the JSA is where the infamous Military Demarcation Line separates South from North Korea. Soldiers from both sides fiercely stand meters apart eyeballing one another from their respective sides of the blue-painted UN buildings. As part of the tour, you'll be taken inside the meeting room itself where the 1953 truce was signed. This is the only place where you can safely walk into North Korea.
Recently there were times where the JSA was off-limits so double-check the status and make sure to book your tour well in advance as spots fill up quickly!
Dating back more than 50 years since opening, this is the largest traditional market in Seoul. Although today, it is a huge tourist attraction it still functions as it did from when it first opened. Each section of the expansive market has hundreds of individual stalls, from clothing to handicrafts and obscure accessories. Its market food, though, is the biggest highlight with dozens of stalls selling sujebi (dough and shellfish soup), homemade kalguksu noodles, bibimbap (mixed rice, meat, and vegetables), and an alley dedicated to fish dishes. Different sections of the market have different opening hours – wholesalers are open all night and many shops open on Sunday. A good way to make the most of an afternoon in Seoul is to join a 4-hour tour taking in both the Namdaemun Market as well as Changdeokgung Palace.
Jeju is Korea’s largest island and only a one hour flight from Seoul. Thanks to its beautiful beaches and lush countryside it has long been the country’s favourite domestic holiday destination. With breathtaking natural wonders and hundreds of unique attractions, it is no wonder that Jeju Island always comes out on top of the list as the best travel destination in Korea. Return flights from Seoul for selling as low as USD$ 35, you'll be crazy for missing out on this part of Korea. Conveniently you can also fly to Jeju (and from) directly from a range of international locations.
Hahoe Folk Village
The name Hahoe (하회 – pronounced 'ha hway') means 'River Returning', which reflects the village's position at a bend in the Nakdong River. Although some Korean 'folk villages' can seem a bit artificial, Hahoe has retained its essence. The 230 residents give the place a sense of life and amongst the throngs of tourists, you will still find the spirit of a working community. This delightful riverside village – a Unesco World Heritage site – is a place to truly commune with the traditional fabric of old Korea.
Throughout the village, a variety of hands-on programs are available including tea ceremonies as well as a traditional mask dance performance at 2 pm on most days, depending on the season. If you find yourself in Andong, have a look at our guide on what to see and do in the area. It is also possible to make it a day-trip from Seoul if you join a tour but the best would be to stay over in Andong for a couple of nights.
The vast palace grounds once consisted of 330 buildings and 7700 rooms manned by up to 3000 staff members, including 140 eunuchs, all serving the royal family. During Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century, most of the palace was systematically destroyed and much of what you see today is accurate recent reconstructions.
It's a surprisingly scenic location and even with the throngs of tourists, you can still find a quiet spot without much effort. The Royal changing of the guard ceremony is held at the main gate Gwanghwamun every hour and you should set aside at least half a day to do justice to the rest of the compound, which includes a couple of museums, ornamental royal gardens, and some of Seoul's most impressive architectural sights. Another option would be to combine your visit with a day-tour of the best of Seoul. For more inspiration on Seoul see our Guide on What To See and Do On a Budget.
Igidae Coastal Trail
There's no shortage of spectacular coastal trails and hikes in the Busan area but this is one you should not miss!
The Igidae Cliff is a coastal rock formation at the foot of Yangsanbong Peak. The well-established 4.7km long Igidae Coastal Trail is incredibly scenic and highly recommended, just bear in mind that although the trail is not that long, it is fairly strenuous with changes in elevation both up and down as the path and stairs hug the coast.
We would highly recommend starting the trail at the Oryukdo Skywalk, walking towards Gwangalli Beach, as this gives you the best views over the bay, Gwangalli Beach, and the beautiful Gwangandaegyo (Diamond) Bridge.
WHAT TO PACK FOR SOUTH KOREA
Koreans generally dress very well and you’ll fit in much better if you are well-groomed with sharp, modern clothes than walking around with the (classic?) “dirty” backpacker look. Just remember that in summer it is going to be hot, humid, and often wet. If you’re visiting during the winter months, things will get really cold in Seoul so make sure to come prepared with proper winter-friendly gear.
Bring lightweight, comfortable walking shoes, breathable clothes, and pack a travel umbrella! Not only will you use it when it rains but it comes in handy to shield yourself from the sun. Keep in mind that Korea might be more conservative than you’re used to. Practice modesty as much as possible.
WHAT TO EAT IN SOUTH KOREA
There are two things that come to mind when one thinks of Korean food: the traditional Korean barbeque and kimchi! Luckily Korean food is a little more diverse than that, although we will be honest and say that they do seem to want to add their famous Gochujang (spicy red sauce) to almost everything.
Most people either love or hate Korean food but there's plenty of diversity to suit every palate!
If you really want to learn more about Korean cuisine the best would be to join a Cooking Class and discover first-hand its ancient recipes and complex flavours.
Keep an eye out for the following must-try foods:
Gimbab - Gimbap refers to a Korean dish of cooked rice (BAP) rolled or wrapped in dried sheets of nori seaweed (GIM). The traditional Korean Gimbap will be filled with vegetables, rolled and sprinkled with sesame seeds before being cut into slices which are both beautifully colourful and also easy to eat. There are many varieties of Gimpak and they can vary from about 2cm to 5cm in diameter.
Chimaek - This popular combination of Korean chicken and beer (mekju) can be found in many bars and Chimek diners, often for a set price for either a whole or half chicken and beer.
Tteokbokki - These spicy rice cakes (tteok) will be at almost every street food vendor and you can’t miss the bright red (and equally spicy) sauce. This gochujang sauce is made from fermented soybeans and red chillies and packs a punch. The chewy rice cakes are just a vessel for this Korean sauce and serving them on a stick makes for easy eating. We opted for the version where the rice cakes are served with sausages on a stick with a sauce of your choice.
Naengmyeon - Myeon are noodles, which you will find all over Korea. Naengmyeon is a dish of buckwheat or sweet potato noodles served with cucumber, radish, beef and boiled egg in a cold broth.
Mandu - Korean dumplings can be either boiled or fried and served either with a soy and vinegar dipping sauce or in a soup. They are usually filled with minced pork, glass noodles and sweet onion and may also contain either spicy kimchi or ginger. They are a warm, full of flavour dish which can be enjoyed either from a street vendor or in a fancy restaurant. We had the most delicious dumplings from one of the vendors at BIFF square.
Odeng - You can find fish cakes in all shapes and sizes throughout Korea. We found that most of the stalls at Gukje market had samples out for one to taste and we were surprised at how sweet and pleasant they were. The Koreans best enjoy their Odeng on a skewer, straight out of the steaming seafood broth.
Dakgangjeong - Deep-fried pieces of a whole chicken (usually with bone and all) with a sweet and spicy sauce, this is a favourite for both a snack or a meal. The sauce is laden with flavours of garlic and ginger and the chicken will often be sprinkled with chopped peanuts to give it some extra crunch. They say that the secret sauce keeps the chicken fresh for a few days, so even when they tell you it’s not spicy, trust us that it is! Luckily it is equally tasty and delicious and well worth sweating through!
Ssiat Hotteok - Busan’s style of Hotteok is cut open and filled with a variety of seeds and nuts, which just make it even more delicious and crunchy! You will find many stalls making these all over BIFF square in particular. Some are shallow grilled which give them a lighter, fluffier texture and others are deep grilled in butter which makes them both richer and crispier on the outside.
LGBTQ IN SOUTH KOREA
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in South Korea face unique legal challenges and discrimination that is not experienced by non-LGBT individuals. While same-sex sexual activity is legal, South Korea recognises neither same-sex marriage nor any other form of legal union for same-sex couples.
South Koreans have become significantly more accepting of homosexuality and LGBT rights in 2010 and the onward decade, however, conservative attitudes remain dominant. The Seoul Queer Culture Festival, also known as the "Korea Queer Culture Festival" or simply "Seoul Pride", is the largest LGBT event in the country, although every year conservative Christian groups still try to block the festival. There are also pride parades in Busan, Daegu, Gwangju and Jeju.
WHERE TO STAY IN SOUTH KOREA
Accommodation in Korea is likely to swallow up a significant chunk of your travel budget if you are not careful, especially for those who favour high-end Western-style luxuries. Luckily for budget-minded and adventurous travellers, there are plenty of ways to keep accommodation costs to a minimum. South Korea also has no shortage of options and finding a place is less likely to be a problem.
Luxury hotels can be found in all major cities and tourist areas, where budget travellers can choose from thousands of motels and guesthouses – many of which might have much larger and nicer rooms than the dedicated tourist hotels at far lower prices. Aside from a smattering of backpackers in Seoul, Korean hostels differ greatly from those that Western travellers might be used to as they are created for (and primarily used) by the nation’s youth.
We have found that if you can curb your accommodation cost and refrain from frequenting restaurants daily you can travel on a surprisingly tight budget. The best value accommodation we found was to use Airbnb pretty much all across South Korea. If you want to get an idea of how much we spend on our 39 night trip to South Korea see our detailed Budget Report here.
Airbnb Travel Tip: If you prefer to stay in apartments or villas, we recommend Airbnb. Check out our full article on how to get $65 coupon code for your booking or simply click here to get our coupon code to apply on your next booking.