Korea can be a magical place for travelers who take their time to get to know the country. The first time we went there, we just expected that it would be all about shopping, eating and spending time in quaint coffee shops, so we just allotted a couple of days to explore Seoul and planned to take the next flight available to Japan. When we learned all the things that we could do in Korea, we regretted not being able to fully explore this beautiful country.
Although Korea may not be as popular among tourists as its Asian neighbors like Japan and China, it still ranks among the most memorable to visit for me when I prepared for the second time I went there.
From the colorful metropolis of Seoul, the culture and cuisine of Busan, to the tranquility and natural beauty of Jeju Island, a traveler with a penchant for exploration and adventure will never run out of things to do in Korea. Here are some of them:
Visiting Seoul won’t be complete without shopping! Myeongdong is known as the shopping place to be in Seoul if you are looking for international brands with middle to premium price range. K-pop fanatics will surely have a ball with the record stores found there.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a cheaper alternative, Dongdaemun Market is the place for you. It is considered as Seoul’s clothes shopping mecca, and you can find more than 20 shopping malls, and about 30,000 specialty shops in the area. Midnight shopping is also possible in Dongdaemun, as their night market have shops that open at 9PM and close at 4AM!
Not into trendy shopping? Namdaemun Market is the oldest (it’s over 400 years old) and largest traditional market in Korea, and the selection there goes well beyond clothes, as kitchenware, accessories and electronics are also available. If you are shopping for souvenirs and traditional Korean items, head to Insadong instead.
- First time in Seoul? Rent a pocket Wi-Fi device. Koreans are very helpful folks, but only few can speak in English. Having internet connection on your smartphone in searching for addresses and landmarks will really help bridge that language gap.
- Always bring your passport with you when shopping. Some shops offer traveler discounts!
Historical and Cultural Walks
Where: Seoul, Busan, Jeonju, Incheon
Whether you’re looking for historical places or quaint villages, Korea will not disappoint you. If you’re in Seoul, don’t miss the five grand palaces you can visit within the city – Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, and Gyeonghuigung. The hourly changing of guards at Gyeongbokgung from 10AM to 3PM is a popular attraction among tourists because of the guards who are wearing traditional Joseon outfit.
Korea also has several mural villages, or daldongnae; these are villages that were spruced up by street artists with quirky street art. The most notable ones are Ihwa Maeul in Seoul, Jeonju Jaman Village in Jeonju, Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan and Songwol-dong Fairytale Village in Incheon.
- If you do plan to go to all the Seoul palaces, get the integrated palace ticket – it grants you entrance to all the five palaces at a discounted price.
Korean food is not limited to bibimbap, bulgogi and Korean fried chicken. Just by strolling around the villages and cities, you’ll get to see and taste a variety of soups, stews, noodles, barbecues and fried food.
Among the most popular are buddae jjigae (also known as army stew), samgyetang, japchae, samgyeopsal and soft tofu stew – all of which are full of flavor, rich in texture and are also considerably healthy. Don’t be afraid of the red coloring of their stews – they’re not as spicy as they look… Well, not always (Koreans really like their spice).
Street food is also very common, especially in Seoul. Skewered meats, sausages (try soondae – they’re Korea’s version of blood sausage), tornado potato, tteokbokki (rice cakes in sweet chili sauce), mandu (Korean dumplings), and gimbap (Korean sushi) are commonly found in markets and sidewalks. If you’re on the adventurous side, try sannakji; it’s basically chopped octopus sashimi, but it’s so freshly-prepared that the tentacles are still wriggling!
- For the freshest food, go to the local fish/fresh produce market. Some will have restaurants within the vicinity that are willing to cook what your market haul for a small price.
Where: Jeju Island
Jeju Island is blessed with lush countrysides, beautiful mountains, caves, beaches and waterfalls. The wonderful landscape and the pleasant climate, as well as the lax visa requirements, make this island a prime destination for Asian tourists and honeymooners. Adventurers can try conquering Mt. Hallasan by hiking for 9 kilometers to the summit.
On the way, you’ll be gifted with amazing foliage, sightings of numerous animal species, and rock formations. Those who are less fit can settle for climbing the Seongsan Ilchul-bong volcano to watch the sunrise; the trek to the crater only lasts for a little over an hour.
Olle trails are also found all over the island. They are narrow pathways connecting houses and villages; they vary in length, and when followed, will give you a good view of Jeju’s green countryside. You can also visit Manjanggul cave, a UNESCO World heritage site, and explore one of the longest lava tunnels in the world.
Where: All over Korea
South Korea has many quirks, and one of the most well-known is their themed coffee shops. Form dog cafes, cat cafes and even sheep cafes, these shops allow you to play with furry friends while sipping your beverages.
If animals are not your thing, you can visit bike-themed or gameboard cafes, or if you are a photography enthusiast, you can head to the Dreamy Camera Café on the outskirts of Seoul and marvel at the collection of cameras found inside a building that’s modeled after the body of a twin-lens reflex camera.
There are also several out-of-the-ordinary museums and parks all over the country. The most notable ones are Jeju Loveland, an adult theme park that houses about 140 sculptures depicting humans in different sexual positions, Trompe l’oeil (also known as Trick Eye Museum), a museum known for its interactive optical illusions that are perfect for photo opportunities, and the Haesindang Penis Park on south of Samcheok City. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate the last one.
For a piece of Korean history, head over to the borders of North and South Korea and explore the Demilitarized Zone through an organized tour. It wasn’t initially on my list of things to do in Korea, but when I went there, I felt that it’s a place that people should visit in order to really get to know the country.
Although the Korean DMZ is still not inhabitable due to the military activities, it’s relatively safe for tourists, and the area also has teeming species of flora and fauna due to its natural isolation.
Where: Northern parts of South Korea
Snowboarding and skiing may not be the first things that’d come to mind when thinking about things to do in Korea, but the country actually has some pretty awesome ski resorts that are outrageously cheap compared to their European counterparts. You can even haggle with your resort in order to get a season pass for both skiing and snowboarding!
- The best time to ski in Korea is from December to March.
- Come Christmas season, South Korea turns into a beautiful winter wonderland, and ice rinks can be found everywhere.
Where: Busan and Jeju Island
You might be surprised that we included surfing on this list. True, Korean swells may not be as big and challenging as in other countries (the typhoon swells can be spectacular, though), but they are fun and there is the surf scene just taking off there.
Some local lifeguards will even warn you about going too far from the shore (not many Koreans can swim), but you’ll later find that the local folks are cheering you on as you catch one wave after the other.
- The best time to surf in South Korea is from June to October.
- When in Jeju Island, keep an eye out for haenyeos – they are the women free divers of Jeju who, inspite of their age (most of them are over 60), still dive everyday with minimal equipments for abalone, octopus, and other seafood. They are probably the last of their generation, so take the opportunity to get to know them… they are amazing!
That rounds up our list of the top things to do in Korea. I hope that this list will help you in making your itinerary. With so many places to explore and discover, make sure to allot at least a week – you won’t regret it!
Did we miss any activity, or got any itinerary to share? Put them in our comments section, so you can help our fellow travelers!
Have a safe trip!