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Offbeat and vibrant, South Korea doesn’t seem to get the international travel attention of neighbours like China and Japan. Never considered a visit? We reckon we can change your mind with these nine excellent reasons to plan a trip!
Sometimes known as the City of Palaces, it’s home to five ancient imperial sites. The grandest has to be the convincingly titled Gyeongbukgung (Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven), a massive complex that feels like a smaller, quieter sister to Beijing’s Forbidden City. It’s like a living museum and cultural park, offering fascinating insight into the country’s turbulent history.
Barbecue is the standout on any street food tour, and banchan (side dishes) can actually compete with meat for the spotlight. They’re that good, says House of Travel’s Georgia Pell-Johnson. In case you’re wondering, the proper way to eat Korean barbecue involves wrapping a touch of meat and your choice of banchan into a leaf of kale or shiso. Devour this pocket of goodness in one bite, like an efficient mini-taco, and start composing the next one. The trick is not overstuffing the leaves, which is easier said than done when everything is delicious!
Widely considered the peninsula’s most beautiful beach, it sits in the Haeundae district of bustling port city Busan. Go for a swim in its turquoise waters, then fill up on street foods from Jagalchi Market. If you’ve got energy left, we recommend a visit to the fourteenth-century Buddhist temple Haedong Yonggungsa, which offers sweeping view over the sea you’ve just come from.
The fabulous Insadong district of Seoul is home to the quirkiest elements of South Korean culture. It’s a fantastic spot to shop for local art and seriously funky clothing. While street food options abound here, we recommend a stop into the irreverent Poop Café, definitely one of the city’s strangest. Try one of the famous poop breads (Don’t worry – it’s actually filled with red beans) crafted in the shape of the beloved emoji. Admire the themed décor as you sip what will turn out to be delicious coffee.
Shopping is something like a national pastime in South Korea, and while locals might head to modern megamalls, visitors might find the busy market districts more interesting. Make a visit to Namdaemun and Dongdaemun, both named for the gates that stand nearby, and take in the cocktail of boutiques, malls, stalls and street foods. These are the spots to best admire South Korean ingenuity when it comes to putting fried foods on skewers. Look out for French fry-covered corn dogs – on sticks, of course.
The unassuming southern town of Jinju may not feature on most visitors’ lists. But if you travel in October, you won’t want to miss the breath-taking sight of thousands of lanterns floating down the Namgan River. Begun as a tribute to the 70,000 people who died fighting the Japanese during the Imjin War, it’s a surprisingly happy atmosphere. You’ll find an unmissable festival of food, drink, music and celebration.
Hands down the most popular sport in South Korea, baseball has a home in most major cities. Even if you’re not a sports fan, the atmosphere at these games is something to behold. In fact, it’s not really about passionate supporters. You’ll see most people spend the game grabbing cold beers, huge orders of fried chicken and paying absolutely no attention to what’s happening on the field.
The sprawling public bathhouses of Korea aren’t always glamorous, but they’re certainly an experience. Segregated by gender, these 24-hour bathhouses have saunas, locker rooms, public baths and sometimes even entertainment. Almost exclusively used by locals, these jjimjilbang are a cheap and fascinating way to peek into modern Korea. They’re also incredibly relaxing: You’ll leave feeling totally refreshed.
South Korea boasts stunning national parks and mountain ranges. While Jejudo in the south often gets the most attention from visitors, we recommend the unspoiled paradise of Ulleungdo. A volcanic island piercing the sea between Korea and Japan, it’s home to simple fishing villages, gorgeous panoramas and rocky volcanic treks. The best part is how few other tourists will be there.
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