South Korea, most known for sharing a heavily militarized border with its testy neighbor North Korea, is a land of diverse beauty and culture. From a cosmopolitan capital to flowering green countryside, to ancient Buddhist shrines and 5000-year history, to tropical island paradise, festivals and unique cuisine, South Korea offers travelers a wide range of experiences.
1. Seoul, South Korea
With a population of 10 million people, the capital of South Korea is a sprawling metropolis where ancient temples are just a stone’s throw from modern architecture, and street markets coexist with high-end dining.
The Namsan Seoul Tower was Korea’s first tower tourism venue and especially fun to visit at night. The top of the tower is 1575 feet above sea level and gives a 360° panoramic view of the cityscape.
Bukchon Hanok Village is the cultural and beautifully preserved 600-year old village. Tourists can meander through the narrow streets and get an insight into the Joseon Dynasty and traditional hanok Korean homes.
The National Folk Museum of Korea is an extensive park and museum located within the grounds of the Gyeongbokgung Palace.
One of the most unique places is the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) – a strip of land that cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It serves as a buffer zone between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Since 1953, there have been “incidents” in and around the DMZ, resulting in military and civilian casualties on both sides.
One of my favorite places to shop was the Namdaemun market – it’s a cacophony of vendors hawking inexpensive souvenirs and all manner of street food through a rabbit’s warren of stalls. My other favorite was the Insadong market for traditional Korean handicrafts and souvenirs. Unlike the chaotic Namdaemun, this market is one long, main thoroughfare with shops lining both sides.
For active pursuits, try kayaking on the Han River at dusk!
We loved navigating the mass transit to and from Seoul. It’s very efficient, but also very crowded, which was a major plus for Kary who is an avid people-watcher.
2. Suwon, South Korea
About 20 miles south of Seoul, Suwon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for the high, ancient walls which once fortified the city. The fortress was built in the Joseon Dynasty by King Jeongjo, who intended to move Korea’s capital from Seoul to Suwon. The fortress wall that surrounded the city was constructed but the king died before the capital could be transferred from Seoul.
After entering in the Paldamun Gate, we eventually found our way to the multitude of stairs which led us (huffing and puffing) up to the top of the walls. The birds-eye view at the top is worth the effort! There’s also a shrine and bell tower at the top.
We love wandering around the markets, so outside of the fortress in the town we found the Jidong Market with street food, fresh fish and seafood, produce, and a few souvenirs.
The Suwon Baseball Stadium is also here, where you may be able to catch a fun and festive game.
3. Busan, South Korea
On the southeast coast of Korea is Busan, a large port city known for its beaches, mountains, and temples. Haeundae Beach has a public square while Gwangalli Beach has bars and stunning views of the Diamond Bridge.
4. Jeju, South Korea
Sometimes called “the Hawaii of Korea,” Jeju Island is the place to go while in Korea, and just a short flight from most cities.
The azure water of Tewoo, the crystal-clear aqua of Gwamul, or the shimmering turquoise of Hyeopjae…you name it, the beaches are gorgeous and uncrowded. And the climate is sub-tropical. Can you say paradise?
The island has a dormant volcano, Hallasan, which rises 6,400 feet above sea level. There are several hikes you can take offering various degrees of difficulty. Be aware that the top of the craters have the capacity to hold a lot of mist, and depending on the weather, can the views below. Be sure to check the weather forecast before you go.
Jeju is nothing if not quirky. Loveland is an over-the-top adult theme park dedicated to sex. This park is not for the prudish. Oversized naked sculptures in the throes of ecstasy, statues sporting well-placed plumbing, and snacks in shapes that would make your grandmother blush are just the beginning.
There’s also a UFO dinner, bizarre-looking squid hanging up to dry, and stone gnomes-like grandfather statues scattered around the island.
5. Songtan, South Korea
The little city of Songtan surprised me. It’s just outside of Osan Air Base, a United States Air Force base, which contributed to the growth of the area and a positive impact on the economy. In fact, the main reason for my stay there was to visit Kary, my Master Sargeant boyfriend, who was on a four-month deployment with the Air National Guard.
To pass the time during Kary’s on-duty daytime hours, I thoroughly enjoyed strolling around town just outside of the base. The streets were lined with shops and vendors selling quick snacks, like deliciously deep-fried squid.
The food in Songtan was among the best that I had in South Korea. Korean BBQ and kimchi – a side dish made from fermented cabbage and radishes, garlic, scallions, chili powder, and ginger, were fantastic. I also tried bubble tea – sort of a fruit smoothie with chewy tapioca balls. Not my favorite. But I did get rather attached to soju – a vodka-like alcoholic beverage mixed with an orange-flavored liquid. The taste was reminiscent of the creamsicle bars I used to eat when I was little…. and dangerously went down just as easy.
And last but not least, another amusing experience we had was going to a hookah lounge. The only other time I had been to one was in Cairo some twenty years ago. We ordered a syrupy apple-flavored tobacco mix containing molasses and vegetable glycerol to smoke in our hookah. I’ve never smoked cigarettes but found the hookah pipe to be easy. This establishment also had an accessory that looked like a light bulb which we used to make large smoke bubbles. We had a lot of laughs here!
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