It may not be as well known as its neighbors China and Japan but that’s all set to change as visitors to the Far East discover the variety and beauty of this small country
Separated from its infamous northern neighbour by the notorious DMZ (pretty different from BIG), South Korea is for all intents and purposes an island nation and the only way to get there is to fly. This means that most people’s first impression is of Seoul and often this huge, buzzing, bright, bonkers mega-city is where a visit begins and ends. But Korea is so much more than its capital; scratch the surface and you’ll find a totally beautiful, sometimes bewildering, incredibly friendly country just waiting for you to discover it.
12 Reasons to add South Korea to your to do list
Ok, we’re well known for mentioning food at every possible opportunity, but the eats in Korea are as delicious as they are varied. Ease yourself in with Korean BBQ (삼겹살 is my fave) where you cook the meat on the table and then rap it in lettuce leaves with garlic, veg and a variety of sauces and scoff in one. Bi Bim Bip (비빔밥) is another good starter dish with veg, rice, egg and sometimes meat mixed together with spicy sauce.
It’s customary in Korea to be served several side dishes with every meal (these are free and known as “service”). Make sure you take advantage and scoff and much as possible, especially kimchi which often needs a few tries to get on board with.
The street food is pretty awesome too. Ok it's all awesome.
The Demilitarised Zone marks the border between North and South Korea and is totally fascinating. You can stand on the hills and look through binoculars at people moving around the sham village of Kijong-dong, come face to face with North Korea guards at Panmunjom and even explore tunnels dug by the North deep into southern territory many meters underground.
Korean culture is HUGE in the rest of Asia and K Pop stars such as 2NE1, Wondergirls, G-Dragon and SHINee have massive and committed followings. If you have a chance to grab a ticket to a concert don’t pass it up – much like a night out in Romford it will be unique, flashy, loud and you wont have a clue what’s going on.
Hiking is pretty much a national sport in Korea and this mountainous peninsular is great for testing your mettle. Wolchulsan in the south has some amazing views from its cloud bridge, Bukhansan just outside Seoul is a great bet if you’re not able to stray far from the capital and Seoraksan in the East is totally stunning come autumn.
Some hiking trails are not for the faint hearted
5. Temple stay
Taking part in a temple stay in Korea is a unique experience. Waking up at 5am, trailing sleepily up to the temple hall to listen to the chanting monks before a communal breakfast and quiet contemplation will settle your mind and spirit. Sound dull? Some temples train their monks in awesome fighting skills and if you stay there you get to join in the sessions!
In a country with pretty rigid social structures and formalities, Busan can feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s a party town on the beach with a vibrant bar life, great gay scene and a spectacular fireworks festival.
Sand sculptures at the beach festival in Busan
7. Beach life
Lazing on a white sandy beach may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Korea, but it’s got them in (buckets and) spades! Jeju Island is Korea’s summer getaway of choice but you can find secluded coves all along the south coast.
8. Bang everything
No matter what your thing, Korea has a bang for it. Bang just means room (what? You thought? Oh honestly!) and you can wile away the time in a DVD Bang (little private cinema), Karaoke bang (a room for, well, karaoke), Wii Bang (guess) and loads more! Perfect for a cold winters day – and it doesn’t half get cold in winter.
From ancient burial grounds to the massive Namdaemun gate in Seoul to modern exhibitions on the Korean War, there’s more history here than you can shake a very old stick at. Don’t miss the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace and put aside at least an hour or two for a wander around the extensive grounds.
These guards know their colour wheel!
10. Perfect stopover
Korea sits between Japan and China and just a short hop from South East Asia. If you’re planning a trip to any other Asian destination, Australia or New Zealand, it’s well worth seeing if you can include Korea as a convenient stop over or as part of a multi-stop trip.
11. You can finally “sing along” to Gangnam style like you know what you’re talking about.
Saying “I’ve been there you know” every time the song is played is guaranteed to make you extremely popular.*
Sometimes it can feel like the world and their wife (dog, hamster etc.) have been to Thailand. While there’s nothing wrong with that (there’s a reason it’s so popular, it’s amazing) it’s a real thrill to explore somewhere no one you know has been to, discover a culture totally different to your own, find 2 minutes of peace in a mega city you never even realised existed…
*Popularity not guaranteed.