The Ultimate Travel Guide to South Korea
It’s becoming harder to ignore South Korea as a holiday destination these days. With hit programs on Netflix and Korean bands selling out worldwide tours in hours, Korea’s cultural wave, halyu, has gone mainstream. We’ve been banging the drum for South Korea since we first launched a range of tailormade tours of the country back in 2015.
No longer an overlooked destination, South Korea has stepped out into the limelight but knowledge of the country outside of the capital Seoul remains patchy. To showcase what this unique destination has to offer we’ve created this guide packed with useful information.
When is the best time to visit South Korea
South Korea has four distinct seasons, so South Korea can be a year-round destination. Generally, the best times to visit are the spring months (March – May) and autumn (September – November).
Winter: Winter in South Korea is usually very dry and bitterly cold with ideal conditions for skiing and snowboarding. Ski resorts such as Pyeonghcang offer excellent conditions for a range of winter sports. With temperatures never much above freezing throughout December, January, and February, the country receives few visitors and those who brave the cold will share sites, such as Gyeongbukgung, with fewer crowds. Christmas is a big occasion in Korea, so visiting in December, when the cities are lit up with winter and Christmas decorations, can be an atmospheric time to visit.
Spring: Clear skies, pleasant temperatures, and low levels of rainfall between March and May make it a great time of year to visit. The countryside suddenly springs to life from late March / early April with the pinks and whites of the cherry blossom rivalling those of neighbouring Japan. Yeondeunghoe, Lotus Lantern Festival, is a lantern-lighting festival in Korea celebrating the Buddha's Birthday which falls in Spring. A selection of lanterns of all motifs decorates the Cheonggyecheon Stream, Jogyesa Temple and Bongeunsa Temple making it one of Korea’s most photogenic festivals.
Summer: While the heat and humidity start picking up from late May, June can still be a pleasant time to visit South Korea. Temperatures and humidity levels increase considerably from late June until early September. July and August are Korea’s wettest months. Known as jangma it is a period of sticky humidity often punctuated by heavy storms. Travel is not impossible at this time as the summer can still be enjoyable if you are planning on spending time in coastal or island regions.
Autumn: The autumn months are generally a fantastic time to visit South Korea. While there is still a chance of downpours and the occasional storm in September, conditions in October and November are excellent. This is the best time of year for those looking for an active holiday. Many of the country’s National Parks are transformed into patchworks of autumnal colours in October making it the best time of year to hit the hiking trails.
A Guide to Seoul
Until recently Seoul bore the image of an industrial heartland, one of the world’s most densely populated places where economic efficiency ruled supreme. Since the dawn of the internet there has been a cultural shift towards the aesthetics of the urban environment and lifestyles away from the workplace. A revolution in town planning and urban design has created an abundance of green spaces, with industrial spaces requisitioned as landscaped parks and cycle routes now part of the fabric of Seoul. Cultural attractions are also thriving, with a notable modern art scene, a wide range of music venues and world-class museums. Along with all the modernity, tradition and history is ever present in the 14th Century palaces, wooden hanok houses and jjimjilbang bathhouses that no visitor to Seoul should miss. Like all the best-loved capital cities of the world, there is an ocean of places to explore in Seoul from the lively night markets, fashionable restaurants and bars, glitzy shopping malls and howling karaoke dens. And all Seoul has to offer is woven together with one of the most efficient public transport networks on the planet.
Seoul is best for:
- Museums and Art Galleries, such as The National Museum and Leeum Samsung Museum
- Lotus Lantern Festival (April or May), when the streets and temples are adorned with brightly coloured paper lanterns
- Relax in one of the city’s numerous parks, such as views of Seoul from Naksan Park
- Nightlife, visit the lively districts of Gangam and Hongdae to unwind with the locals.
Best places to stay in Seoul:
Our top pick: Step back in time with a stay in Rakkojae Seoul, an atmospheric hanok house, a traditional Korean building with 140 years of history from the days when it was an aristocratic residence in the village of Bukchon. The five rooms are immaculately presented with luxurious furnishings, and traditional Korean dishes are presented to you in your private quarters. And don’t forget to try out the traditional Korean Sauna to soothe your senses.
Top choice for luxury: A far cry from many of the city’s bland business hotels, the Four Seasons is a blast on the senses with its blend of sleek modern design and traditional Korean influences which reflects its location in the heart of the old district of Gwanghwamun. World-class in so many ways, including Michelin-starred restaurants, extensive health club and a highly personal service from all staff.
The best food in Seoul:
- Gwangjang Market Seoul’s most loved street food venue is the city’s large textiles market, where over 200 food stalls have set up shop to cater for the traders and more recently food tourists. The most famous dish to try here is the mung bean pancake (bindaetteok) topped with kimchi, onions and peppers. There are also many other dishes to try here including rice bowls (bibimbap), blood sausage (sundae), steak tartare (yukhoe) and spicy rice patties (tteokbokki).
- Tongin Market: This general market located near Gyeongbokgung Palace dates from 1941 during the Japanese occupation. Head to Tongin for an inexpensive Korean lunchbox, which you can fill with a variety of traditional foods from various vendors which specialize in a wide array of delicacies including fried dumplings, pickles, veggie snacks, meat skewers and let’s not forget the kimchi.
- Namdaemun Market: Dating from the 1400s, Namdaemun is Seoul’s oldest and largest market with the total number of stalls exceeding 10,000. With so many vendors in one place it is not surprising that there is a huge range of food outlets which makes this one of the best places in Seoul to try Korean Street food. Visit the ‘Food Alley’ to try some of the locals’ favourites such as chicken skewers (dakkochi), and the more exotic such as pigs feet (jokbal).
Seoul’s best Michelin-starred restaurants
- Mingles: Located in the stylish district of Gangam, this contemporary restaurant serves Korean cuisine cooked in a blend of influences from France, Spain and Japan (hence the name!). The creative chefs focus on seasonal ingredients to prepare age old Korean recipes with a fun and modern twist.
- Jung Sikdang: With two Michelin stars and an outlet in New York as well as Sinsa-dong, Jung Sikdang is one of the Seoul’s fine dining hot spots. Some of Korea’s best chefs work tirelessly here to create a new level of traditional hansik cuisine. This is Korea’s national food at another level!
Best local restaurants in Seoul
- Nakdonggang: Located in the Mugyo-dong neighbourhood, Nakdonggang specializes in Korean BBQ. Here they serve wafer-thin slivers of high-grade grilled in seconds over charcoal. The meat is then covered in spicy pickles and salads then wrapped in a bed of lettuce.
- Hadongkwan: This Seoul institution is now located in the Myeongdong district location famous for its simmered beef soup with rice (gomtang), a warming dish served around lunchtime in traditional bronze bowls with a selection of crunchy and spicy condiments that can be added on top. A hearty and wholesome Korean staple that will cure many ills and add a skip in your step.
- Hanchu: Korean Fried Chicken is gaining worldwide acclaim, and this restaurant located in Sinsa has been named as one of Seoul’s top Fried Chicken venues by a local celebrity chef. A far cry from Colonel Sander’s namesake, Korean Fried Chicken is first marinaded in chili paste and garlic, then roasted and deep fried to give a lighter and crispier texture.
Best things to do in Seoul:
Stroll along Seoullo 7017: This 17m high overpass located near Seoul Station dates from 1970 was declared unsafe for motor vehicles in 2014, and was regenerated into a green open space that first opened in 2017. There are numerous plants and trees planted along the old road, and this pedestrianized zone provides tranquility and great views in the heart of the city. Several cafes are dotted along the overpass, and occasional exhibitions and activities take place here.
Brew some traditional alcohol: For something different you can learn how to brew Korean rice wine (makgeolli) in Seoul’s Gangam District. On this class you will discover the origins of the drink, and the many different varieties. Then learn how to prepare and then brew the rice wine mixture, then taste some that has been prepared earlier.
Visit the DMZ: An easy day trip from Seoul takes you to the DMZ, the most militarized place on the planet. Take a guided tour of the area for a meaningful insight to the conflict between the two sides of the Korean Peninsula.
Visit Suwon fortress and folk village: Located around 30km south of Seoul, Suwon fortress and folk village is one of the most popular day trips from the Korean capital. This model village has been reconstructed from the Joseon dynasty, and is ringed by original UNESCO World Heritage protected walls. Wander around and be taken back to a time when Korean buildings were thatched and tiled, and locals wore hanbok clothing as they tend to their small farmsteads.
Learn some K-Pop dance moves: Jump on the wave of K-Pop and learn the moves of all the latest tracks on a 1.5-hour dance lesson led by an expert.
Get on the Karaoke: There’s nothing the Koreans like more on an evening out than a karaoke session. Get involved with local culture and hire a noraebang, a private room equipped with TV screen and microphone, and bang out some of your favourites!
A Guide to Jeju Island
Formed by a giant volcanic eruption over 2 million years ago, Korea’s largest island, Jeju has long been a popular spot for visitors, and with some of the country’s most stunning landscapes and nature, it is not difficult to see why. Indeed, Jeju, has recently been labelled as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’.
Jeju Island is best for:
- Scenic hiking on some of the Jeju’s many volcanic trails
- Relaxing on some stunning beaches and swimming in the emerald sea
- Indulge in some of the South Korea’s most delicious dishes (healthy and not so healthy!)
- Dive into the Culture at one of Jeju’s many festivals
- Paragliding, windsurfing, kitesurfing, diving and rafting. Jeju is perfect for an active watersports holiday.
Best places to stay on Jeju Island:
Top choice for Luxury: With unobstructed views out over the Pacific Ocean, the Shilla Jeju at Jungmun Beach near Seogwipo on the island’s south coast, is a fine luxury resort with great facilities. It is suitable for all ages.
Top choice for city: For those wanting to explore the bars restaurants and shopping on offer in Jeju city, the upmarket Ocean Suites provides a very comfortable rooms, fine sea views and a convenient base to explore from. For a cheaper hotel in Jeju city, the Best Western is also a reliable choice.
Top choice for relaxing: Another south coast property at Jungmun Beach is the Seaes Hotel & Resort, a characterful boutique hotel, much smaller than the Shilla and more traditional Korean in style, with stunning sea views. This is the perfect spot for relaxing at the end of a tour of South Korea.
The best food on Jeju Island:
- Seaweed and Sea Urchin soup – Those really wanting to get a taste of Jeju should be sure to try this soup, a true taste of the East China Sea!
- Black Pork – Gorge on succulent pork from the Jeju Black Pig, one of South Korea’s most prized delicacies.
- Sword-tipped squid – Often caught off the Jeju coast, the Sword-tipped squid is delicious and highly popular dish throughout South Korea.
Best things to do on Jeju Island:
Hiking – A visit to Jeju is an opportunity to enjoy some beautiful countryside and there is no better way to do this than to set off on a hike. There are hiking trails all over the island, but two of the most impressive are the climb up Mt Hala and to spend a day or two on the Jeju ‘Olle’ Trails.
Self-drive – the size of Jeju Isand, the generally quiet and good quality road and the sparse public transport mean that Jeju is somewhere that is ideal for exploring independently in your own hired car. Our consultants have first hand knowledge of self-driving tours around Jeju, so please do get in touch for more information.
Explore Hallasan – The centre of the island is dominated by the huge dormant volcano, Hallasan. Whether you decide to hike up the 2000m high volcano, do some light trekking around the bottom or drive around it taking in the views, the Hallasan National Park is a must see on a visit to Jeju Island.
Day trips to smaller neighbouring islands – Jeju has a number of smaller neighbouring islands which are well worth a day trip to. The most popular is the scenic Udo Island, off the east coast. It’s natural beauty have made it a popular setting for Korean films.
Chill out on the South Coast – With its impressive beaches, comfortable hotels and relaxed pace of life, Seogwipo, on the south coast of Jeju Island is a great place to base yourselves and to relax for a few days at the end of a busy tour of South Korea.
Paragliding – The more adventurous traveller might like to take to the skies and witness Jeju Island’s rugged coastline and volcanic beauty on a tandem paragliding experience. Paragliding is a popular activity in Jeju and it is not hard to see why.
A Guide to South Korea's National Parks
South Korea is famous as one of the world’s leaders in technology, and its capital Seoul is renowned for its fast pace of life and ultra-modern facilities. So, it is quite easy for the first-time visitor to overlook the country’s serene interior which offers diverse and beautiful landscapes in the 22 national parks that are dotted around the country. These national parks are designated as ‘areas that represent the natural ecosystem and cultural scenes of the Republic of Korea’, and they are managed by the government so as to protect these beautiful areas and ensure their sustainable use. South Korea’s first national park, Jirisan Mountain (see below) was awarded National Park status in 1967, and since then a further 21 areas have been designated as a national park leading to 6.7% of the country being protected in this way.
South Korea’s National Parks are best for:
- Hiking and walking - amidst some fantastic scenery.
- Communing with nature – with a chance to see some of South Korea’s bird and wildlife.
- Getting away from it all - a trip to the national parks gets you away from the exciting conurbations and adds a sense of balance to your trip.
- Photography - especially in the spring and autumn seasons, when the blossom, and colourful leaves, make for some stunning pictures.
- Temple visits and stays – in some of South Korea’s national parks you can stay in a temple giving you a chance to learn more about the country, the culture and maybe yourself!
Best places to stay in South Korea's National Parks:
Our top pick: A temple stay at Hwaeomsa in the Jirisam National Park. At Hwaeomsa you can enjoy the delights of accommodation within a serene temple complex, located amidst beautiful natural surroundings, and a chance to meditate and learn more about monastic life. This experience is covered in more detail in another blog on temple stays.
Top choice for hikers: The Kengsinton Hotel Seorak is a quirky property offering the best level of comfort within the confines of Seoraksan National Park just a few minutes' walk from Seoraksan's main entrance.
Best things to do in South Korea's National Parks:
Hiking: There is no doubt that getting out and about in the great outdoors is one of the joys of visiting South Korea’s national parks. Hiking is possible in all of the parks we have mentioned and there are a variety of trails on offer in each park with something to suit all levels of fitness! However one of the best places to hike is in Songnisan National Park where a stay of two days would allow you to compete a hike to the peak of Munjandae, which takes around three hours, and also a climb to the higher-still Cheonwangdong – a hike that will take nearer to five hours.
Temple stays: We have mentioned a temple stay previously, but this is also one of the best experiences on offer in the national parks. Time spent in one of the monasteries is a wonderful way to discover Korean, and Buddhist, culture and see some of the rural beauty that usually surrounds the temples. The accommodation will be on the basic side, but the experience will be rich and rewarding, and definitely something to write home about!
A Guide to Busan and the south coast
The southern coast of Korea is steeped in history – it was here, along the craggy coastline, that Korean hero Admiral Yi Sun-shin defeated multiple Japanese invasion fleets with his revolutionary turtle ships. Nowadays, the area is popular with domestic sunseekers, with Busan’s beaches being especially popular in the summer.
The area’s largest city, and South Korea’s second city, Busan is the main draw for the region. The city has a rich history and a more relaxed vibe than the nation’s capital. Its traditional markets and the quirky Gamcheon art district, not to mention the beaches, make it worthy addition on a South Korean itinerary.
Beyond Busan there are several small towns and cities which are worth making the effort to visit. They may be harder to reach but the hiking trails of Geoje island, the tea plantations of Boseong, and stunning scenery of Hadong County, await the intrepid traveler.
Busan and the south coast is best for:
- Diving into Busan’s seafood markets
- Stroll through Gamcheon art district in Busan
- Visit Haedongyongsa temple, one of South Korea’s most dramatic temples
- Walking through the tea plantations of Boseong
- Visiting the Naganeupseong Folk Village outside Suncheon
- The Namgang Yudeung Festival in Jinju
The best places to stay in Busan:
Our top pick: The Shilla Stay Haeundae enjoys an excellent position right on Busan's prime beach, Haeundae. The modern rooms come equipped with the full range of amenities and the rooftop pool and bar makes for a great location for a sundowner.
Top choice for luxury: An icon of Busan’s skyline, the Park Hyatt Busan is just a short stroll from Haeundae beach and remains the finest accommodation in the city.
The best food in Busan and the south coast:
Seafood: Busan’s Jagalchi market is a must for fans of seafood. Choose, and haggle for, some of the freshest seafood in the country before taking it to be sashimied in one of the restaurants on the upper floors of the market.
Best things to do in Busan and the south coast:
Stroll through the Gamcheon Culture District – This former mountainside slum has been transformed by local artists and students into one of South Korea’s quirkiest neighborhoods. Reborn as Busan's most artistic spot, the Gamcheon Culture Village is a colourful mosaic of homes with a thriving art scene.
Sample a Korean spa – Jimjilbangs, traditional local spas, play an important role in Korean society. Many members of Korean society often visit the traditional kiln saunas hot spring baths of their favorite jimjilbang to de-stress after a hard day’s work. The Hurshimchung Spa Complex in Busan is one of the largest, a best, in the country. There are around 40 different baths in the main hot spring area such as the Longevity Bath, Hoemok Bath, Cheongja Bath, Cave Bath, Outdoor Bath, and Event Baths, which combine hot spring water with oriental medicinal elements and seasonal herbs. So why not join the locals and enjoy a local spa after a day’s sightseeing?
We hope you found this travel guide to South Korea helpful, but don’t hesitate to get in touch if you need further assistance planning your trip to the ‘Land of Morning Calm’.