There are hundreds of attractions and lots to do and see in Korea – but here’s 20 things Travelife.ca writers suggest you put on your “must do” list when in Korea:
1 - Take a Kimchi Cooking Class
Kimchi is to Korea what rice is to the rest of Asia. The spicy vegetable dish which accompanies most Korean meals has been around since the 7th century and is now the country’s best known dish. During the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics many foreigners were introduced to the potent dish and cooking classes sprung up to show visitors how they could make it when they returned home – that’s because most airlines won’t let you carry the pungent kimchi aboard flights leaving Korea.
Above: Kimchi is very much a part of the Korean culture as well as the dinner table.
2 - Visit a Local Outdoor Market
There are lots of neighborhood markets in South Korea and some of the best are in Seoul and Busan, the country’s two largest cities. The Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan is one of the liveliest in Asia and is located right next to Busan’s busy harbor. The fish market is a beehive of activity most days and the freshest of fish are only sold here. The Namdaemun Market in Seoul is no less impressive – it covers 10 acres of space in the downtown core and its more than 1,000 stalls sell everything from toys to tableware.
3 - Tour the DMZ
No visit to Korea would be complete without a visit to the DMZ, a demilitarized zone that runs across the Korean Peninsula that acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea after the Korean conflict ended. Visitors watch as U.S. and Korean forces stare down each other from opposite sides of this no-man’s land. You can tour infiltration tunnels dug out by North Korean troops, watch North Korean troop movements from an observation tower, tour the military based manned by U.S. and South Korean troops, and witness the natural area which surrounds this always tense area of the world.
4 - Live the Life of a Monk
Because they ran out of hotel space during the 1988 Summer Olympics and again during the 2002 World Cup of soccer Korea co-hosted with Japan, South Korea asked monks to open their monasteries to foreign visitors, which the holy men did willingly. Word quickly spread about this unique experience and now many visitors to South Korea ask to stay with the monks, who charge just a few dollars for the no-thrills, but exhilarating experience that includes getting up at 4 a.m. for early morning prayers and enjoying simple vegetable-based culinary dishes.
Above: Korea has some of the most dynamic temples and palaces in Asia.
5 - Play a Game of Golf
The Japanese may have been the first Asians to embrace golf but the Koreans perfected it and now many South Korean professionals dominate pro tours, especially the LPGA Tour where Korean women are always among the top finishers. This fascination with golf has resulted in some wonderful golf resorts springing up throughout the country, and especially on the magical island of Jeju, where no less than 10 championship courses – many with beautiful ocean vistas – treat visitors to the best golfing experience in Asia.
6 - Visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site
South Korea has plenty to choose from – 11 in all! While all impressive, none are more important than Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla kingdom (57 BC to 935 AD) where a vast number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from this period remain in the city. Gyeongju is often referred to as "the museum without walls".
7 - Visit a Palace in Seoul
Because it has always been the seat of power in Korea, Seoul has plenty of reminders of its importance over the centuries in the form of great palaces left behind by previous generations. There are six main palaces in Seoul - Changdeok Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Kyongbokkung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, Gyeonghuigung Palace and Doseonsa Temple. They are all impressive and each has something unique to offer visitors. Changdeok is a World Heritage Site and the most impressive of this distinguished collection of palaces.
8 - Drop by the Teddy Bear Museum on Jeju Island
The fun-loving Koreans have erected a teddy bear museum on enchanting Jeju Island, where honeymooners like to vacation and the museum has become a major draw to the area. Periods of history are showcased with teddy bears taking on the role of historic figures from Napoleon and Marilyn Monroe. It’s a great place to visit and is a perfect addition to Jeju Island, a place that makes everyone feel young again.
9 - Learn Taekwondo
This martial arts exercise is the national sport in Korea and is the most popular martial arts worldwide in terms of numbers of participants. Taekwondo actually dates back to the earliest of Korean kingdoms, with each adding their own version. It is a large part of South Korean military training and there’s hundreds of schools spread throughout the country where foreigners can learn the intricacies of the sport.
10 - Relax on a Busan Beach
The industrial giant known as Busan is also recognized as the summer capital of South Korea, mainly because of its wonderful collection of beaches. There are six main beaches in Busan, which is often called the Rio of Asia. Busan is recognized as the largest port city in Korea – and fifth largest in the world – but because of its location on the southernmost tip of the Korea Strait vacationers from all over the country come here to enjoy the sugary sand and tranquil warm waters that come ashore here.
Above: Seoul is one of the most colourful and beautiful cities in all of Asia.
11 - Hop Aboard a Bullet Train
Being one of the most advanced cultures in the world, South Korea has developed a transportation that is the envy of the world. The latest addition is the high-speed bullet trains, known as KTX, that zip along ribbons of steel at speeds in excess of 350km/h. The bullet trains allow fast trips between Seoul and Busan and Mokpo and new lines are being developed all the time. Who needs the hassle of airport security when you have these hi-tech wonders at your disposal?
12 - Visit Volcanic Jeju Island
There is much to see and do on this treasured island that has become famous for its female pearl divers and as the honeymoon hotspot for Korean newlyweds. Jeju is also one of the most beautiful spots in Asia because of its rugged volcanic good looks. From the highest point on the island, Hallasan Mountain, you get a great view of the remarkable lava tubes that now protected as a World Heritage Site. The island’s lava tubes are comprised of three sites and make up over 10 per cent of the island’s surface.
13 - Climb Bugaksan Peak in Seoul
South Korea’s capital is surrounded by dramatic mountain landscape and so it’s not surprise that one of its most beautiful spots in a mountain named Bugaksan, which affords visitors spectacular views of one of Asia’s most charming cities. From the peak of Bugaksan, which is perched 342 metres above the city, you get uninterrupted views of the presidential palace known as the “Blue House” , Seoul’s modern skyline and its great collection of palaces and temples.
14 - Visit an Olympic or World Cup Site
South Korea is one of the few countries ever to host an Olympic Games (Summer 1988) and a World Cup of soccer (2002) and the stadiums and other facilities built to accommodate those two world events remain legacies of their great success. Now you can visit the Olympic Stadium in Seoul or one of the World Cup venues scattered around the country by attending a Korea league soccer game – the South Koreans have become the strongest soccer nation in Asia.
15 - Unmask Korean Culture
Masks have a long tradition in Korea and have been used throughout history in a variety of contexts. Festivals are held throughout Korea to celebrate the significance of the mask in Korean culture and the best one of all is one held in Andong, where theatres present mask dances for the enjoyment of foreign visitors. Miniature masks can be purchased at these dance shows and they make great souvenir gifts for family and friends back home.
16 - Have a "Medical" Treatment
Traditional Korean medicine is easy to swallow because it involves soothing massage treatments that have been enjoyed for almost 2,000 years now. Buddhist monks were the first to use massage treatments as part of their traditional medical methods and the treatments worked so well people started booking doctor’s appointments more regularly. The massage is more holistic in nature and is still widely used to treat common ailments, relieve stress or induce relaxation – a perfect sure for our hectic modern lifestyle.
17 - Pull up a Seat at the Ice Bar in Seoul
Seoul’s Ice Bar may be the coolest spot in the world – that’s because the interior is kept at a bone-chilling -5C! Now in its third year, the Ice Bar, located in Seoul’s trendy Hongdae area, is packed with ice sculptures and patrons are kept warm with bar-supplied coats, gloves, boots and lots of hot rock ‘n roll music. Because the Ice Bar is located next to Seoul’s Hongik University, the clientele is mostly young and hip.
18 - Visit Seoraksan National Park
This is another of South Korea’s fabulous UNESCO World Heritage Sites and maybe the most revered among the Korean people. This is one of the most enchanting spots on earth and is at its most beautiful in autumn when the surrounding forest is turned a kaleidoscope of colors by Mother Nature. You can hike through the mountains which feature dramatic cliffs and wonderful waterfalls and see some rare plant forms not offered anywhere else.
19 - Stop by the Korean War Museum in Seoul
No one likes to be reminded about the horrors of war but the Koreans have established such a fascinating museum, featuring the artifacts from the conflicts they’ve endured – especially its struggles with North Korea - that it’s hard not to recommend a visit to this Seoul landmark. The museum actually traces Korean wars over a 5,000 year span and showcases the weapons used in those conflicts in six well appointed rooms. Planes, guns and tanks used in the Korean Conflict of the 1950s is what thrills visitors the most but the entire museum is a fascinating place.
20 - Enjoy a Glass of Soju
Japan has its saki and Korea’s national drink is soju – an intoxicating drink that tastes a lot like a sweet vodka. Soju comes in differing degrees of potency and is enjoyed at lunch and dinner. It first made an appearance in the 1300s and the Koreans liked it so much they made it their national drink. Tours of soju breweries are commonplace now and enjoying a glass of soju is the perfect way to begin and end an tour of South Korea.
That’s just 20 things we recommend you do in Korea, but there’s lots more to see and do in this most exciting and beautiful of Asian cities.