Occupying the southern half of the Korean Peninsula is the country of South Korea. Completely distinct and independent from neighboring North Korea, South Korea is a thoroughly modern, engaging and thrilling destination for travelers. Major cities like Seoul offers the buzz of an urban metropolis along with fantastic nightlife and a chance to discover the latest technological marvel. However, South Korea is also home to scenic national parks and plenty of places where you can slow down and enjoy the atmosphere. From islands off the coast to the fearsome border zone in the middle of the Korean Peninsula, there are countless things to do, see and explore on your next trip to South Korea.
The city of Suwon is the capital of Gyeonggi Province, and it is just 30 km (20 miles) outside of Seoul. It is easily accessible from Seoul by car or train, but it often skipped over by travelers. If you visit, you’ll be able to see the World Cup Stadium, affectionately called Big Bird, that hosted the quarter finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. If you’re not a soccer fan, head instead to the historic 18th century Hwaseong Fortress, where you can tour the architecture and even try your hand at archery on the premises.
Surrounded by scenic lakes and towering mountains in Chuncheon, the capital city of Gangwon Province. Chuncheon is the location of a popular Korean soap opera called Winter Sonata, and a lot of visitors in the city come to see some of the most common filming locations. Other travelers come for the food, because Chuncheon is known as a foodie’s paradise. After touring major attractions like the Soyang Dam, Statue Park or Cheongpyeong-sa Temple, head to Dakgalbi Street. This street features the dish dakgalbi, a grilled chicken meal with spicy vegetables and rice. Dozens of restaurants on the street offer the same iconic dish, each offering slight variations on the recipe.
The second largest city in the entire country is Busan. It’s also a major port, and it is known for boasting beautiful beaches as well as hot springs and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Busan’s Gamcheon Cultural Village, known as the Santorini of Korea, is a stunningly colorful hillside community overlooking the water. While in Busan, you’ll also have the chance to visit several temples, the most popular of which is Beomeosa Temple. While the city boasts all the shopping and museums you might expect from an urban area of its size, some of the most popular attractions include Haeundae Beach, Taejongdae Park and the beautiful Nakdong River Estuary Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
At the peak of the Joseon Dynasty, Jeonju was its spiritual capital. Today, Jeonju is filled with temples and museums and is one of the best places to visit in South Korea. If you want to embrace the local culture and get to know its history, make your way to the Jeonju Hanok Village. There, you can see traditional homes from the early 20th century, make the traditional Hanji paper or sip the locally made soju. Another popular attraction in the city is the impressive Jeonju National Museum, home to a staggering collection of artifacts. While in Jeonju, try the famed Korean dish Bibimbap, which originally comes from this region.
If you want to go hiking, see the best known mountain range in South Korea or just get some epic photos, then make sure you visit the Seoraksan National Park. Within the park you’ll find pine forests, jagged and rocky mountain peaks, crystal clear streams and stunning lakes. Seoraksan National Park is also home to over 2,000 animal species. Start your visit at the National Park Visitor Centre, where you can pick up free maps in English and Korean. Then, enjoy the miles and miles of signposted hiking trails that crisscross the entire park.
At more than 2,000 years, Andong is sometimes referred to as the Capital City of Korean Spiritual Culture. Perhaps the main attraction in the city is the Andong Hahoe Folk Village, where local cultural heritage has been preserved and is shared with visitors. However, it is foodies that will most enjoy a visit to Andong. The city boasts all kinds of local specialties, starting with a famed chicken and noodle dish called jjimdak. Andong is also home to a special type of alcohol called soju, so have a sip before you depart the city.
Off the southern coast of South Korea is Jeju Island, the country’s only Special Autonomous Province. Nicknamed Island of the Gods, Jeju is a subtropical destination known as one of the top honeymoon and vacation spots in South Korea. In addition to beautiful beaches, lava tubes and lush green scenery, Jeju boasts a long list of tourist attractions and amusement parks. You can get to know the local culture at the Seongeup Folklore Village, or you could visit Glass Castle, a theme park that revolves around glass sculptures. Perhaps the oddest and most controversial attraction in Jeju is Loveland, a theme park featuring romantic and adults-only attractions.
The DMZ, or demilitarized zone, is the boundary area between North and South Korea. It is considered a cease-fire zone. While travelers can visit the DMZ, not all areas of the zone are safe. Only a small portion of the DMZ, known as the JSA or Joint Security Area, is open to the public. In the JSA, you can physically stand in North Korea, although you will be within a building that also houses South Korean soldiers. You can also visit a North Korean gift shop that sells stamps, wine and currency from North Korea. Be aware that the only way to visit the DMZ is on an authorized and guided tour.
Gyeongju is the ancient capital of what was once the Silla Kingdom. This makes the city more than 2,000 years old. Gyeongju is an incredible destination that boasts a number of temples and cultural festivals. Start your trip at the Bulguksa Temple, a true masterpiece of Buddhist religion and art that dates back to the 8th century. Then, hike up from the temple to the Seokguram Grotto for even more Buddhist culture and artifacts. Don’t miss the Covered Market, a collection of vendors selling everything from Silla souvenirs to freshly made Korean delicacies.
Seoul is by far the largest city in South Korea and a major destination in East Asia. If you’re spending any time in the country, there’s a good chance you’ll be visiting Seoul at some point. There is no end to the attractions in the city, but many visitors start with some of the many palaces located in Seoul. Top picks include the incredible Gyeongbok-gung and the 15th century Changdeok-gung. You’ll also find ancient temples and shrines, beautiful public parks, cutting-edge design, shopping malls and some of the best cuisine in all of Asia.