Few destinations offer pristine beaches, an abundance of rich history and culture, mouth-watering cuisine and a vibrant shopping scene. That’s why 2023 is your year to explore South Korea – the country that has it all.
Whether you’re hoping to soak up some history in a breathtaking palace, tap into the tranquillity of a Buddhist temple or experience the electric energy of K-pop, there’s somewhere in South Korea that can deliver. Here are 15 of our favourite ways to explore the Land of the Morning Calm.
Glimpse the natural beauty of Bukhansan National Park1/14
Along with dramatic granite peaks and breathtaking scenery, there are more than 1300 species of plants at Bukhansan National Park, on the northern outskirts of Seoul. There’s more than just native foliage underfoot at the park; keep your eyes peeled for remains of ancient temples and historic relics as you meander through the imposing mountain range. Bukhansan National Park provides trails for all abilities, but specialist equipment is recommended for hiking during the winter months.
Spend up a storm in Seoul’s shopping districts2/14
Strap in for the shopping in South Korea: it’s a whole other world. From the infinite array of K-beauty brands to quirky fashion, there’s little you won’t find on a dedicated trawl through the stores of Myeongdong, Hongdae and upmarket Garosu-gil (or even your local metro station, which are often knotted with underground stores). Lotte Department Store, a widespread favourite on account of its sheer size, is packed full of international chains and local stores that will surely satisfy even the most avid Korean beauty aficionados. Lotte Hotel Seoul, a plush little spot with fabulous city views, is helpfully close, at just 300 metres away so you can shop until you need to drop your bags.
Marvel at the natural wonders of Jeju Island3/14
South Korea’s natural beauty is highly underrated. Jeju Do – an island south of the mainland – is home to many natural wonders, including Hallasan Mountain, a dormant volcano with a crater lake at the top, six different waterfalls and a plethora of jagged, dramatic cliffs and sandy beaches. Iho Tewoo Beach, just a few kilometres from Grand Hyatt Jeju, is as famous for its stunning sunsets as it is for its horse-shaped lighthouses.
Delve into old Korea’s fascinating history4/14
Step back in time at Bukchon Hanok Village. The ancient village, situated between Changdeok Palace and Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, dates back to the 14th century and boasts 900 hanok (traditional Korean homes) throughout its narrow, winding streets. The 600-year-old village is thought to have housed many members of the royal family during the Joseon dynasty, and it still retains its ethereal charm today. Avoid the crowds by visiting early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
Be inspired by Busan Gamcheon Culture Village5/14
Once a purpose-built village to house the city’s poor in the 1920s and ’30s, this village underwent a radical transformation in 2010. Thanks to the creative minds behind the public themed art restoration project, the village is now a colourful maze of pastel homes and art houses sat amongst a sloped landscape of painted murals, sculptures and narrow, twisty streets. Set aside a few hours and allow yourself to get lost amongst the vibrant street art, artsy cafes and endless craft shops.
Sample Seoul’s street food scene6/14
Kick off your culinary adventure at Gwangjang Market, one of Seoul’s oldest and busiest markets. Bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cake) or the mayak kimbap (a seaweed rice roll synonymous with the century-old market) are as traditional as they are hearty and delicious and all prepared in a lively atmosphere that’s somewhere between hospitality and showmanship. Keen to try something new? The Dongdaemun Night Market serves a post-shopping Korean classic: soondae (blood sausage).
See the blooms of Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival7/14
Japan’s cherry blossoms are legendary but South Korea has its own stunner of a season (without the crowds). Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, known locally as Jinhae Gunhangje, is one of the largest cherry blossom festivals in the world. Held for just one week over March or April, depending on when the trees bloom, the small naval town of Jinhae is a symphony of delicate pink buds, thanks to their estimated 360,000 Yoshino cherry blossom trees. Jinhae is a four-and-a-half hour scenic bus ride south of Seoul, or two-and-a-half hours from Busan.
Experience the peaceful palaces of Seoul8/14
Seoul is home to no less than five stately and intricately-decorated palaces, each with their own fascinating history, rituals and features. Don’t miss the changing of the guard at Gyeonbokgung or Changdeokgung’s secret garden, or a turn in the courtyard of tree-framed Deoksugung Palace. For a hotel that’s close to the action, Stanford Hotel, Myeongdong is just a few hundred metres away from Deoksugung Palace. The palaces are free to visit on public holidays, the last Wednesday of every month and for anyone wearing a hanbok (a traditional Korean garment).
See the glittering skyline of Busan9/14
Busan is the country’s second largest city, famed for its bustling atmosphere, stunning beaches, open-air restaurants, fresh seafood and arthouse cinema. Before you start exploring it, get a glimpse from above. At more than 100 metres tall, Busan Tower offers far reaching views of the city and is especially impressive at night, when the city’s glittering skyscrapers light up. The Lavalse Hotel, in the heart of Busan, is just a five-minute drive away from the tower, while the Arban Hotel is in Seomyeon, the city’s vibrant shopping and nightlife district.
Then, stroll into Jagalchi Fish Market, in the city’s south, where hundreds of vendors, all preparing, cooking and selling a seemingly endless array of weird and wonderful seafood from sea squirt to eel-esque hagfish.
Feel the energy of a K-Pop concert10/14
BTS might be on a mandatory hiatus for the next two years while they complete their military service, but there are plenty of other revered K-pop acts to see in South Korea. In Seoul, visitors can pop in for free to a TV pre-recording almost any day of the week to watch local acts perform live on shows such as M Countdown or The Show. For those seeking a fully-fledged concert, check out the upcoming listings at Olympic Hall, Seoul, or City Hall in Busan.
Find tranquillity at a traditional Buddhist temple11/14
For those eager to tap into their spiritual side, you can live like a monk during a temple stay. Hwaeomsa Temple is located at the foot of Jirisan Mountain in Jirisan National Park, a popular hiking destination in the country’s south. An overnight stay here includes participation in traditional ceremonies, including a pre-dawn chanting ceremony, drumming, simple monastic meals and meditation alongside the monks that inhabit the temple. Clothing is provided, but sensible shoes are recommended.
Visit the newly-opened Lotte World Adventure Busan12/14
Locals and visitors alike have been flocking to Seoul’s wild and wonderful Lotte World since the late ’80s but in March 2022, a brand new extension to this lively universe was added. Busan’s Lotte World Adventure is the expansive sister park to the beloved original, featuring the same frenzied fun with a whole new roster of rides and experiences. There’s a dizzying array of scream-inducing roller-coasters, along with magical turreted castles, storytelling trees, underwater adventure zones and lively evening parades. Both kids (and kids at heart) will find plenty to occupy them here.
Relax in a soothing Korean sauna13/14
A jjimjilbang is a traditional Korean bathhouse offering saunas, massages, communal sleeping rooms and hot and cold baths. Gender segregated due to a strict ‘no clothes’ policy, it’s a fascinating glimpse into traditional South Korean culture. It also can offer true wellness luxury: Spa Land in Busan has themed sauna rooms, varying temperature pools and chill-out zones for an elevated Korean bathhouse experience.