While South Korea is often passed over for tourists in favor of a place like Japan or China, it’s a place that really has a lot to offer. Between its mostly mountainous landscape (+70% of the country), coastline dotted with beautiful islands, and ancient culture, it’s definitely worth a stop on your itinerary.
For most people, their first stop in Korea will be Seoul. While Seoul is a fascinating, lively city that could entertain you for weeks, if you have the time I highly recommend getting out of Seoul to see what else Korea has to offer.
*Note: But if you do only have time to visit Seoul, at the very least try to hit up some of the mountains within the city…. they’ll give you some incredible views! You can read about them here and here:
Over the course of our year in South Korea, we tried to travel as much as we could. A number of our trips were done through Seoul Hiking Group. Warren, the creator of the group, is always up for a good, though slightly chaotic, time. The prices tended to be pretty reasonable (and often not much more than they would be if we did it on our own) and the tours were full of great people. We’ll mark the places that we went to with Seoul Hiking Group with a *. We’ve also made this fancy little map so you can see where exactly these places are, numbered with the names of the cities. So, here goes:
Okay, so Busan is still pretty firmly on the tourist trail as the country’s 2nd largest city. However, we found the people to be friendlier and the city to be more chilled out and less overwhelming than Seoul. Plus, it’s on the coast so has a nice beachy feel. If I were to return to Korea and had to choose a single city to live in, it would be here.
Location: on the coast in the Southeast, not far from Gyeonju or Jirisan
Often called Korea’s most “Korean city,” Gyeonju’s position as an ancient capital for nearly 1,000 years has turned the entire city into a museum without walls. From the colorful temples, relics of Buddhism dotting the hillside, and burial mounds scattered throughout the city, it’s a must for anyone interested in history and Korean culture.
Location: about an hour north of Busan accessible by buses leaving many times a day
Extra tip: If you like both history and nature, don’t miss out on Gyeonju National Park! It’s a pleasant hike full of temples, shrines, and statues along the way.
3. Jirisan National Park
This popular National Park is home to South Korea’s 2nd highest mountain (the highest is on Jeju Island) at 1,952 meters (6,404.19 feet). The mountain is beautiful all year round and a favorite among Koreans. If you really want to hike Korean style, then you better bring your headlamps to start hiking at 4 in the morning as well as lots of soju and makgeolli!
*2 Days / 1 Night trip done through Seoul Hiking Group
Location: in the South of the country, most easily accessed via Busan or Gyeonju
4. Jeju Island
It’s impossible to talk about Korea without talking about Jeju Island. For whatever reason, we weren’t really that impressed with Jeju (though we had a good time nonetheless), but Koreans praise it endlessly and flights out of Seoul are cheap so it’s worth checking out if you have time. If you’re into hiking, Korea’s highest peak, Hallasan, is here as well. Though, to be frank, we also found this hike to be a bit boring.
Location: A short flight away from Seoul or a few hours by ferry from Korea’s southern coastline
5. Saryangdo Island
This was one of our very first trips in Korea and it remains one of our favorites. This small, unspoilt island placed on Korea’s southern coastline features a beautiful, relatively easy hike up along the island’s ridge giving you a view of the surrounding islands and the deep blue sea.
*2 Days /1 Night trip done through Seoul Hiking Group
Location: off the Southeast coastline catching a ferry leaving from Tongyeong
Sokcho is a pleasant little town on Korea’s eastern coast famous for its fish market and beaches. It’s also in a good spot for visiting a few other attractions. A mere 50 kilometers to the north is the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea) and the Goseong Unification Observatory which’ll give you a very clear view of some of North Korea’s mountains.
15 kilometers to the west is Seoraksan National Park and Sokcho often serves as the entry-point to this stunning National Park.
*3 Days / 2 Night trip done through Seoul Hiking Group including a visit to Sokcho, Seoraksan National Park Hike, and a 50 km bike to the DMZ
Location: on Korea’s East Sea, not far from the DMZ and near Seoraksan National Park
7. Seoraksan National Park
If you read our article about 22 interesting things I learned while living in South Korea, you’ll know that Koreans love to hike and Seoraksan is at the top of many people’s lists.
Home to the 3rd highest mountain in Korea and the infamous “Dinosaur Ridge,” a trek 13+ hours of grueling ups and downs that’ll earn you serious points if you tell Korean hikers. It’s painful, but the views and sense of accomplishment are worth it. If that sounds a bit too intense for you, there’s plenty of shorter hikes as well as a cable car in the park.
* 3 Days / 2 Nights trip done through Seoul Hiking Group including a visit to Sokcho, Seoraksan National Park, and a 50 km bike to the DMZ
Though we just spent a single day here, there’s a nice beach as well as a lake that you can rent bicycles to ride around. Plus, it’s only 1 hour from Sokcho so it’d be easy to combine the two in a single trip.
Location: 1 hour south of Sokcho and Seoraksan National Park
9. Pyeongchang (home of the 2018 Winter Olympics!)
Though the city itself is not much to look at, Pyeongchang is home to a number of ski resorts (including Korea’s biggest and host to the next winter Olympics, Yongpyong) so it’s a pleasant little trip in the winter.
* 3 Days / 2 Nights ski/snowboard trip done through Seoul Hiking Group
Location: about 3-4 hours southeast of Seoul in the middle of the country
10. Ulleungdo Island
Arguably the most stunning place we’ve seen in Korea, words don’t really do it justice so you can take a peek at the photos in this article here: http://livetravelteach.com/2015/10/02/chuseok-at-the-striking-ulleungdo-island-in-korea-gateway-to-dokdo/.
It’s not really the easiest place to get to but I would certainly consider this to be the most impressive of Korea’s islands. If you’d like to visit Dokdo, Korea’s disputed island with Japan, you’ll have to get here to first to take the ferry.
* 5 Days / 4 Nights trip done through Seoul Hiking Group including a day in Gangneung while waiting for the ferry
Location: just under 200 km from Korea’s east coast
11. Jeonju + Maisan National Park
Though small, Jeonju is worth visiting for its cute little Hanok Village (a village of traditional Korean houses), pleasant atmosphere, and delicious Jeonju bibimbap.
Additionally, it’s serves as a gateway to Maisan National Park, home to what we believe to be the most beautiful temples we’ve seen (and trust us, we’ve seen a lot) while in Korea.
Location: 2 hours south of Seoul
Extra tip: don’t forget to visit the Reptile Café in Jeonju! Here, you can play with reptiles of all shapes and sizes (lizards, snakes etc..) while sipping on your coffee…. much more interesting than a visit to Starbucks. It was a bit hard to find so I think asking in your hostel, hotel or at the Tourist Info Center will be the best way to find it.
12. The Demilitarized Zone (the DMZ)
The most highly-fortified border in the world, this glimpse into the relationship between North and South Korea isn’t to be missed.
Location: less than an hour north of Seoul
Extra tip: You’ll have to take a tour leaving from Seoul to visit the DMZ… we found the cheapest way to visit the DMZ to be here: http://www.koridoor.co.kr/.
Okay, so Suwon might not be at the top of most people’s agendas, but seeing as we lived here and it’s only an hour from Seoul, it seemed a shame not to include it. Suwon is famous for its position as capital in the past and its well-preserved fortress looping around the city….you can read more about things to do in Suwon here: http://outofyourcomfortzone.net/how-to-visit-the-free-samsung-museum-in-suwon-south-korea/
Location: an easy 1 hour or less bus ride from Seoul
Safety tip: As you’ve noticed, many of the options above involve hiking in Korea’s mountains (which was our favorite thing to do!). On one of these hikes we witnessed a person being rescued by a helicopter due to heat stroke and exhaustion. You can see the picture below. Not that we expect you to have to be rescued by a helicopter but just in case, we recommend that you have a good travel insurance that covers hiking and climbing without equipment. Take a look at our article with the 3 best and cheapest travel insurances on the market to learn more about how you can protect yourself.
Though small, it’s clear that South Korea packs quite a punch. So really, whether you are heading off to Korea as an English teacher or simply as a tourist, do your best to get out of Seoul for a bit… I’m sure you won’t regret it!
P.S: We have been to all these places above, so if you have any specific question about any of them, please use the comments area below and we will answer as soon as we can.
To learn more about Korea, check out our other articles:
*This article was written by the website’s contributing editor and author, Nikki Elliott. Nikki is an American who has several big backpacking trips under her belt and is currently teaching English in South Korea. If you wish to contact her about her article, please comment below.
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