South Korea is rarely visited and relatively unexplored by tourists.
Occasionally, the odd cruise ship might dock on the southern shores of Busan for the day, or a group of twenty-something year olds might stop overnight in the capital city, Seoul, but generally it is rarely visited as a holiday destination. Korea deserves more holiday-goers, more acclaim and more coverage as a fantastically diverse country, that benefits from incredible weather and a stunning landscape. It’s the unknown gem of Asia, so, read on to hear all about what you’ve been missing out on.
World class beaches
The Korean coastline is home to many stretches of beautiful white sand beaches and calm, sparkling blue waters. Busan on the south coast boasts incredible beaches and excellent facilities-an ideal holiday destination for those looking for a vibrant place to stay, with plenty of nightlife. However, if you are looking for a tropical paradise, try the volcanic island of Jeju, Korea’s answer to Hawaii, or its smaller counterpart, Udo. You’ll more than likely have the sea to yourself and temperatures in the summer are scorching. The beautiful beaches of Korea are a well-kept secret, but it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world notices.
Having experienced great societal changes and advancements in technology since the Korean War, Korea is now in a fantastic position to welcome tourists. In recent years, Seoul has welcomed high end hotels such as the Hilton, Hyatt and Intercontinental onto its shores, inspiring luxury resorts to spring up all over Korea, ready to cater to the modern day traveller’s tastes and expectations. Although in the more rural locations you are unlikely to find five star luxury, you will still be able to experience excellent service and traditional Korean hospitality. If you’re feeling more adventurous, a number of themed hotels exist, where guests can spend the night comfortably sleeping in a pot of noodles, a cup of Starbucks, or in a ladies shoe.
Picture-perfect moments that just can’t be captured
Anapji Pond is one of the most striking displays of tranquility and beauty to be seen in Korea. Built in 674 by King Munmu, the pond was then drained in 1975 after a fire, revealing a number of historic artifacts underneath. Since then, groups have congregated here at dusk, eagerly awaiting the sun set in hope of still conditions, as at night, the pond comes alive. In darkness, a reflection of several temples can be seen in the water of the pond, perfectly formed as if it were a mirror. Although this display is enjoyed by many guests every day, it is a photographer’s nightmare, as it was designed so that the entirety of the pond can never be seen at once. Take a short moment to put down the camera, and take it all in.
Korea’s landscape is 70% mountainous, making the skyline a sea of jagged majesty. Wherever you travel in Korea, you’ll be sure to have great views of rolling green hills and soaring mountain tops, rising high above the cities that are dotted in-between. Mount Bukhan looms over the capital city, Seoul, and provides excellent panoramic views. Even the city’s observation tower, Namsan, is located on the highest point of a small mountain, in the very centre of the city. However, Korea’s tallest mountain is located on the tropical island of Jeju, and the bright blue waters of Halla Lake formed on the very top, are the perfect visual reward for the climb. Weeks could be spent exploring the mountains of Korea, and hiking is in fact one of the country’s most popular pastimes, so do as the locals do, simply grab your hiking boots and go.
With a plethora of mountains dominating the landscape, there are plenty of options for winter sports in the northern regions of Korea. The county of Pyeongchang is set to hold the 2018 winter Olympics, which might seem surprising, as it sits barely south of Beijing, the hosts of the 2008 summer Olympics, but, put simply, the harsh Korean winters bring plenty of snow. There are a number of resorts with cosy suites and well-styled rooms on offer, with luxury spas to match. Yong Pyong resort not only has excellent ski facilities that rival any resort around the world, but for the brave, there are outdoor hot springs to be enjoyed in the resort’s waterpark. World-class slopes, fit enough to stage the Olympics, what more do you need?
The Koreans don’t mess around when it comes to public transport, making it an incredibly easy country to navigate. No matter where you want to go, there will always be a way to get there. Buses run more frequently that you could ever imagine and the taxis in the capital city are some of the cheapest in the world (in relation to their economic status). The subway is extremely efficient, but let’s not forget the KTX, Korea’s answer to the bullet train, which covers the length of the country in a matter of hours. If you want to visit one of the far flung towns on the coast, there will always be a bus heading the same way. You might expect to encounter some lengthy journeys navigating through the mountainous, winding terrain, but, clearly nobody held back when the roads were built. Dynamite was undoubtedly taken to those mountains that stood in the way of Korea’s expansion, creating tunnels that save valuable time. The transport is modern, it’s efficient and it’s ridiculously cheap.
On the volcanic island of Jeju lies Manjanggul Cave, a natural wonder. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site, these lava tubes are some of the largest and most incredible in the world, with only 1km open to the public, it would take days to explore all 8,928m of them in their entirety. These formations are an amazing site to behold and will leave you in awe as you pass by the thousands of stalactites. Whilst you’re down there, make sure you keep an eye out for the famous ‘Stone Turtle’.
Although Korea is noted as having a temperate climate of four seasons, arguably, the four seasons are slowly merging into just two; summer and winter. Spring and autumn seem to last all but a week or two, so if you want to see Korea during its most attractive period, you need to get your timings right. During Korea’s increasingly short autumn period, the treeline’s appearance will change almost overnight, as the sea of green bursts into an incredible array of vibrant colours. Blink and you’ll miss it. Around April, Korea will experience its spring time, bringing some warmth for the first time in months, where the most incredible pink and white cherry blossoms line the streets, the mountains and the river banks, creating striking scenes of beauty, awash with colour. Of course summer and winter both have their own appeals for beach-goers and skiers, but spring and autumn really are when Korea’s landscape truly comes to life.
Korea loves your country’s food
Korea isn’t closed off to the rest of the world and its cuisines, in fact, Korea embraces food from beyond the peninsula quite heavily. Fusion food is a big deal in Korea and the Korean’s love to put their spin on internationally loved classics. You’ll find bulgogi pizza and kimchi burritos in restaurants all over Korea, and not only do they enjoy making cultural taste explosions, but in Itaewon, (the foreigner district) you’ll be able to lay your hands on the cuisine of your choice, from any country you can think of, and it might just be the best you’ve tried.
Note: Bulgogi is a marinated Korean beef and Kimchi is Korea’s national dish, a spicy fermented cabbage.
Rural Refuges in an Urban City
Korea’s cities aren’t all concrete high rise buildings and traffic jams, because inside these buzzing neighbourhoods, you’ll always find a little bit of nature. Seoul features as the world’s second largest metropolitan area, but inside you will find several large, tranquil parks. The majority overlook the Han River, where people gather for picnics, bike rides and for views of the sensational skyline. Seoul Forest features abundances of flora and fauna to enjoy and is a calm spot to take a break. However, no trip to a Korean park is complete without ordering order Korean fried chicken to your very location, which will arrive within minutes, on a scooter.