South Korea can come across as inscrutable at first glance. It’s a land of stark contrasts and wild contradictions; a place where tradition and technology are equally embraced; where skyscrapers loom over ancient temples; and where the frantic pace of life is offset by the serenity of nature. The country’s unique customs and etiquette can seem like a trap laid for foreigners, but arrive with a smile and a respectful attitude and you will be welcomed with open arms by some of the friendliest folk on the planet.
Koreans are fiercely proud of their country, and with good reason. The Korean peninsula has a storied history and this colourful heritage is woven into the fabric of this land. The capital, Seoul, is home to a number of historic highlights, including the spectacular Joseon-era Gyeongbokgung Palace, “the great south gate” of Namdaemun and the eerie Seodaemun Prison – all tucked away amid gleaming offices, giant shopping centres, world-class restaurants and hipster bars.
The rest of the country is also littered with fortresses, temples and palaces. Visitors will enjoy the grassy burial mounds of ancient kings in Gyeongju, the Seokbulsa Temple in Busan, which has been carved out of a rock, and the infamous demilitarised zone, a biodiverse no-man’s-land separating South and North Korea. It is a scary place, where acres of barbed wire are patrolled by heavily-armed guards on both sides, yet the tension is so trumped up it feels like you’ve stumbled onto a Hollywood film set.
But it’s not all about history. When it comes to nature, South Korea is wonderfully diverse, with spectacular national parks, remote sandy beaches, hot spring islands and rugged mountain peaks. Gastronomes are well catered for, too, but you may have to open your mind before your mouth; local specialities include kimchi (pickled cabbage) andmakgeolli (rice wine).
South Korea can sometimes seem like the most foreign place on Earth; an unfathomable destination of curious customs, strange food and jarring paradoxes. Ultimately, that’s what makes it so exciting.
When to Go
Spring and autumn are the ideal times to visit South Korea. The weather is mild and mostly dry. To avoid the hottest part of the year, don’t plan your trip between July and August.
– When entering a Korean home, you should remove your shoes before going in.
– Don’t beckon someone by having your hand palm up using a finger. Koreans call their dogs this way.
– Don’t write down anyone’s name in red ink. It symbolizes death.
– Electricity is generally 110 volts AC but most hotels now have 220 volts AC.
– Take an official tour out to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and the village of Panmunjeom. It’s a short trip of one hour from Seoul and you will see where the armistice negotiations took place in 1953.
– Take a cruise from Hallyeo Maritime National Park to see the archipelago and the 400 islands surrounding.
– See the Maritime Aquarium in Namsan Park and then climb the Seoul Tower to over 1.500 feet for some fantastic views. Afterwards, have dinner in the revolving restaurant so you can see Seoul by night from a great height.
– Go to the best-known temple in Korea, the Haeinsa, which contains 80,000 wood printing blocks with the engravings of the complete Buddhist scriptures.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
– Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon
– Jongmyo Shrine
– Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple
– Changdeokgung Palace Complex
– Hwaseong Fortress
– Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites
– Gyeongju Historic Areas
– Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes
– Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
– Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong