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Ever since it was first announced that the Winter Olympic Games would be held in South Korea in 2018, there’s been an increased global interest in visiting this exciting Asian country. Whether you’ve traveled extensively in Asia or are looking to take your first trip to the continent, South Korea is an ideal place to learn about history, get active in nature, eat delicious food, and shop ‘til you drop. There are so many exciting things to see and do here, but here are our top itinerary recommendations for your trip.
No trip to South Korea would be complete without seeing the famous Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul. This palace was built in 1395 and is the largest of five palaces build by the Joseon dynasty. The palace is open to the public today and is also home to the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea. There’s a changing of the guard ceremony that you can watch in front of the main gate, and tours are typically offered in English a few times per day.
If you love nature and hiking, then definitely plan to spend some time at Hallasan National Park. This is a great place to take a hike, although the mountain entrance hours vary by season and are restricted to the daytime hours only. Hallasan Mountain stands on Jeju Island and is also known as Mt. Yeongjusan, which means “mountain high enough to pull the galaxy.” The hike up the mountain is fairly easy, and it’s possible to complete the trip up and back down in a day, just as long as you’re prepared for wind and weather changes. There is no admission fee to enter the park, and various size campsites are available for a fee. Another excellent national park to visit is Dadohaehaesang National Park, which offers off-the-beaten-track islands like Cheongsando and more popular ones with boat trips like Hongdo.
One of the most popular beaches in South Korea is Haeundae Beach in Busan, which is ideal for swimming with its shallow bay and stunning coastline. It’s open year-round and has no admission fee. Parking is available in nearby lots, and there are luxury hotels and private guesthouses to stay at nearby. Onsite facilities include restrooms, shower booths, changing rooms, and a drinking fountain. Popular things to see nearby are the Busan Aquarium, driving courses, and Dongbaek Island.
One of the most unique experiences that you’ll have is to visit the Demilitarized Zone, known as the DMZ. This is the area between North Korea and South Korea that was created at the end of the Korean War in 1953. You can take a tour to see this zone in a safe way and learn about how the country was initially divided and still is today. On both sides of the dividing line is a one mile stretch of land where military activity is not allowed. Since this is a protected area, it has become an unexpected haven for wildlife as well. Top things to see here are the Imjingak Resort (Nuri Peace Park), the Third Tunnel of Aggression, the Dorasan Station, and the observatories.
This is a well-preserved village that dates back at least 600 years and takes you back in time to experience what life was like in South Korea many years ago. But conveniently, it’s actually located within the city limits of Seoul, one of South Korea’s top travel destinations. This is a sparsely inhabited area, but one with many traditional buildings that serve as tea houses, cultural centers, and restaurants.
The War Memorial of Korea was created to remember the people who served in the Korean War and preserve war-related materials that can be learned from. There’s a museum here that has at least 13,000 artifacts, six indoor halls, and various rooms dedicated to machinery, expeditions, and war history. You can see the large weapons in the outdoor exhibition and participate in educational programs and events. There is no admission to see this memorial and tour group interpretation services are available in English, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as Korean.
Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon is one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of South Korea. It was built in the 1790s and is impressively large, taking at least two hours to walk all the way around it. Today, the Hwaesong Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also worth checking out the Hwaseong Haenggung Palace while you’re in this area. Other top attractions in Suwon include the Hwahongmun Gate, Paldalmun Gate, and the Samsung Innovation Museum.
Myeongdong is the most popular shopping district in Seoul and definitely a place to splurge. This is a popular place to shop for high-end cosmetics and luxury brands, so be prepared for some high prices. Of course, you can also just window-shop at the anchor department stores of Lotte and Shinsegae and the malls in between. Locker rentals are available here to safely store your purchases.
Noryangjin Fish Market first opened up in 1927 and is one of the largest seafood venues in the entire country. It was moved to its current building in 1971 and handles a large percentage of the marine products traded locally every day. You can check the market’s website for pricing if you want to buy some fish, or just walk through in the early morning to experience the lively atmosphere for free.