Separated from its infamous northern neighbour by the notorious DMZ, South Korea is for all intents and purposes an island nation; the only way to get there is to fly. This means that most people’s first impression is the buzzing, bright and bonkers capital city, Seoul.
But Korea is so much more than its capital; scratch the surface and you’ll find a totally beautiful, sometimes bewildering, and incredibly friendly country.
It may not be as well known as its neighbours China and Japan, but that’s all set to change. Thanks to these twelve awesome things (and trust me, there are a hundred more we could have added), South Korea is now well and truly on our travel map.
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 our fave), where you cook the meat right there infront of you on a BBQ they provide, and then wrap it in lettuce leaves with garlic, veg and a variety of sauces. Bim Bim Bip (비빔밥) is another good starter dish with veg, rice, egg and sometimes meat mixed together with spicy sauce. Often Koreans sprinkle a heap of cheese on top too before tossing, making for a seriously satifying, melty mess us Europeans wouldn’t be able to resist. Especially after one too many sojus (Korean rice wine).
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.
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.
3. K Pop
Korean culture is HUGE in the rest of Asia (yep, they really. Really. Love Gangnam Style), and K Pop stars such as 2NE1, Wondergirls, G-Dragon and SHINee have massive and committed followings. Think Japanese Harajuku… if it had downed three vodka Red Bulls. 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 won’t have a clue what’s going on.
Otherwise, head to one of the hundreds of karaoke spots across Seoul, known as noraebangs, to sing your heart out and dance on the sofas with locals.
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.
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!
After Seoul, Busan can feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s a party town on the beach with a vibrant bar life, a great gay scene and a spectacular fireworks festival.
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.
No matter what your thing, Korea has a bang for it. Bang just means room (what? You thought? Oh honestly!) and you can while away the time in a DVD Bang (little private cinema), previously discussed noraebangs (for 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.
10. It’s the perfect stopover
Korea sits between Japan and China and is 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.
Gangnam is Seouls most vibrant district, full of insane malls, crazy nights out, countless clubs and enoguh neon to give Shibuya run for its money. Saying “I’ve been there you know” every time the song is played is guaranteed to make you extremely popular.*
*popularity not guaranteed.
12. It makes you a bit of a hipster.
Well, provided you don’t go around singing along to Gangnam Style to people, trying to show off that you’ve been there.
The thing is, South Korea is a bit of a trend setter, with a seriously edgy undercurrent. Fashion, music, food… everything is fresh and exciting for those who are seeing something a bit different from the normal Asian experience.
Sometimes it can feel like the world and their wife (dog, hamster etc.) have been to Thailand. And heaps of people (rightfully) rave about Japan. While there’s nothing wrong with that (there’s a reason it’s so popular) it’s a refreshing thrill to explore somewhere no one you know has been to, discover a culture totally different to your own, turn every corner to new surprises in a mega city you never even realised existed.