Best things to do in South Korea
Find out more about those top places in South Korea
All but swallowed up by Seoul, the city of Suwon now forms part of one of the world’s largest urban agglomerations. However, despite its proximity to South Korea’s futuristic capital and its compact UNESCO World Heritage Listed historic core, Suwon remains a hidden gem overlooked by most visitors to the country. Suwon’s star attraction is the vast Hwaseong Fortress, which encircles the city center. Built as late as 1796, the fortresses’ awe-inspiring walls are marked with ornate sentry posts and imposing gates and can be walked year round. Beyond the fortress, Suwon is best known for ‘Mr Toilet’, a scheme that has seen hundreds of individually designed quirky public restrooms built across the city.
The UNESCO listed fortress of Hwaseong is what brings most visitors to the sprawling city of Suwon. Built by King Jeongjo preparing for moving the dynastic capital from Seoul to the city, the vast fortifications were completed in 1786 and remain one of South Korea’s most awe-inspiring sights. The walls alone stretch for nearly 6 kilometers and encompass four grandiose gates, numerous royal pavilions and watchtowers. The interior of the fortress is now given over to the fascinating Suwon Hwaseong Museum, where guided tours of the complex begin.
While much of the ornate Haenggung Palace was destroyed during the Japanese colonial period, careful reconstruction has seen it return to its former glory. Comprised of multiple colorful pagodas, landscaped gardens and the tomb of King Jeongjo’s father, the sheer scale of the palace has to be seen to be believed. The best time to visit is during the summer months when traditional Korean performances are held in the courtyard.
To get a feel for what Suwon would have been like during its heyday as the capital in waiting for the Joseon Dynasty head to the Korean Folk Village. Set in a vast park, the village is a series of historical buildings that have been relocated from across Korea and guides in period costumes conduct tours.
If you are looking for a wacky change from the serious history of Hwaseong then look no further than Mr. Toilet House – a poo-themed museum. While it may be one of Korea’s most odd attractions, the museum does have a meaningful side as all proceeds go towards NGOs helping improve sanitation across the world. To cap it all off, it is housed in a building shaped as a toilet.
This gallery is home to the groundbreaking work of one of Korea’s most famous modern artists, Name June Paik. Housed in a sleek futuristic building, the collection spans the entirety of Paik’s career with a particular emphasis on her avant-garde installations.
Not far from the Nam June Paik Art Center is the fascinating Gyeonggi Provincial Museum, which houses an astounding collection of historical artifacts found in the province dating from prehistory to the Japanese colonial era. Guided tours of the complex are available that cherry pick the best of the museum’s enormous collection.
To experience South Korea’s neon-lit equivalent of Disneyland head to Everland, which is located just on the outskirts of Suwon. Encompassing world-class roller coasters, gorgeous landscaped gardens and a thrilling water park, the resort has something for everyone – particularly young children.
By turns traditional and futuristic, Seoul is where the old and new of South Korea collide in spectacular fashion. While the city seems to be racing towards the future, relics of Korea’s dynastic heritage are nestled among the glass and concrete jungle. Chief among these are the traditional ornate wooden houses of Bukchon where patterned walls and ornate roofs provide a dramatic contrast to the high-rises next door. Beyond this, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Changdeokgung Palace is Seoul’s most spectacular building and the city’s 14th century fortified walls are a reminder that the city was one of the most important of the medieval world. Despite this traditionalism, Seoul is also one of Asia’s most rowdy cities with a never-ending supply of grungy dive bars to drink soju in and neon lit K-Pop karaoke lounges. What is more, the country’s tumultuous contemporary history is never far away with the Demilitarized Zone separating the country from its hermetic northern neighbor within easy reach.
Seoul’s premier attraction is undoubtedly the UNESCO listed Gyeongbokgung Palace complex. While the eunuchs, princes, concubines and government officials that once inhabited the vast collection of palaces, courtyards, temples and fortified walls are long gone, it remains an architectural wonderland that will leave you speechless. A whole day is required to see the entirety of the palace.
The most popular and controversial day tour from Seoul is to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which is located barely 50 kilometres from the capital city’s centre. The undisputed highlight of the tour is to Panmunjeom where stony faced North and South Korean border guards face off against one another round the clock and you will get to see the room in which the 1953 truce was signed.
Although built as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, many think that Changdeokgung actually surpasses its big brother in terms of architectural splendor and tranquil gardens. The palace was originally built in the 15th century and remained in use well into the 1900s. Tours of the complex and the adjoining secret gardens, known as Huwon, are spread across the day but make sure to book in advance as they are limited to fifty people.
For those interested in the Korean War, there is no better place to visit than the gigantic War Memorial of Korea, which is the country’s largest museum. Richly documenting the 1950-53 conflict, the museum makes stellar use of documentary footage and original artifacts to create a gripping narrative that spans three floors. Guided tours are available twice a day and are one of the most rewarding experiences in Seoul.
Getting lost in Bukchon’s maze of traditional streets, which are lined with hanok houses, is one of Seoul’s most atmospheric experiences. While the area is one of the most popular with tourists, it has retained its graceful old world charm that stands at stark contrast to the fast-paced modernity exuded by the rest of the city. For the best experience, visit the Bukchon Cultural Center before embarking on a walking tour of the picture-perfect streets.
To sample some of South Korea’s most mouth-watering food, take part in a tour of the atmospheric Gwangjang Market. Containing upwards of 300 food stalls serving everything from kimchi to the fresh seafood and mung bean pancakes, tours will take you to the best stalls that are known only by locals.
Atop Namsan Mountain is the iconic N Seoul Tower, which provides panoramic views of the vast South Korean metropolis. For the best views, come early in the morning or at sunset, when the city is bathed in a delightful orange glow. What is more, make sure to take the cable car to the summit of the mountain, as this makes for an unforgettable experience.
South Korea’s premier art gallery strikes the perfect balance between contemporary and modern art in its vast collection. Amongst the highlights are installations by the late Korean artist Nam June Paik and Western masters, including Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. At the weekends free tours of the museum cherry pick the best of the collection and help you interpret these groundbreaking works.
Sliced through by precipitous mountain peaks and rocky inlets, Busan is South Korea’s dramatic second-city. Perched on the country’s southern coast, Busan is also one of the world’s largest ports, which lends the city an air of nonstop energy that can be seen in the ever expanding futuristic skyline and the rapid pace of the local dialect. Unsurprisingly, Busan’s main draws showcase the city’s connection with the East China Sea. Haeundae, South Korea’s equivalent of Brazil’s Copacabana, is the country’s most famous stretch of sand, which in summer becomes Busan’s living room. What is more, Jagalchi fish market is a chaotic warren of stalls selling some of East Asia’s finest seafood while the adventurous can sample some of the world’s most unusual underwater creatures in the market’s various restaurants. The best time to visit Busan is October when the weather is still warm enough to enjoy the beach and the buzzy International Film Festival is in full swing.
South Korea’s most famous beach becomes Busan’s front room by the sea during the city’s sweltering warm summers. To get immersed in the city’s vibrant culture, head to beach early in the day, sample the delicious street food and take in the breathtaking views of skyscrapers, suspension bridges and rocky islets.
South Korea’s largest fish market is a deep-sea phantasmagoria. It is guaranteed that when exploring its buzzing alleyways, decades old wooden stalls and grand halls you will see some fish that you did not even know existed and the best part is if you see anything you want to try simply take it to one of the in-market restaurants who will prepare it for a small charge.
Set in the midst of Busan’s urban jungle is the tranquil temple complex of Beomeo Sa, the city’s most historic location. The temple itself is over one millennia old and its landscaped gardens are the starting point for hiking trails across Geumjeongsan, which provides breathtaking views across the city. For the best experience, grab a ticket for one of the temple’s predawn chanting shows, which are hauntingly beautiful.
The one-time mountainside slum of Gamcheon has been transformed in the decade since 2009 into a mecca for South Korea’s burgeoning street art scene. The once deserted streets of the area are now lined with community run cafes, quirky bars and, of course, excellent street art that bedecks nearly every surface. For the best experience, take a guided street art tour of this remarkable neighborhood.
The best time to visit Busan is undoubtedly during its annual film festival, which is Asia’s most prestigious. Held throughout October, the festival screens over 300 films from across the world and showcases the best of Korea’s home-grown directing and acting talent. To best experience this glitzy event, tickets for screenings must be booked well in advance.
When you are in the sub-tropical city of Busan it is easy to forget that little more than 50 years ago the Korean Peninsula was riven by a bloody civil war that came to involve both the United States and the Soviet Union. To learn about this traumatic period in Korean history, head to the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, which is home to nearly 2500 graves and is the only of its kind in the world.
Much of Busan’s coastline is defined by rocky ravines and plunging cliffs, which are best seen at the spectacular Taejongdae Park on Yeong Island. Various hiking trails lead towards a picture-perfect lighthouse that looks out towards the East Sea while those who do not want to walk can get there via a narrow gauge railway.
Gyeongju is a city that deserves more attention than it gets. Undoubtedly the jewel in South Korea’s already dazzling tourist trail, this coastal city is one of the country’s most ancient attractions where treasures were accumulated over 1000 years of Silla dynasty rule. The city’s main draw is the Tumuli-gongwon, a huge and tranquil park within the city’s formidable walls that contains the grassy burial mounds of twenty-three Silla monarchs. Beyond this, the former palace complex of the Silla dynasty is one of South Korea’s most historic locations while the spectacular Bulguk-sa Buddhist temple is listed on UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list. In short, Gyeongju is a city that contains a clutch of world-class historical and cultural attractions that are the envy of far larger and better-known East Asian metropolises.
Bulguksa, the crowning architectural achievement of the Silla Kingdom, is one of South Korea’s most iconic attractions. Set on a series of stone terraces, the temple complex encompasses numerous ornate bridges, gilded pagodas celebrating the Buddha and landscaped gardens that are a joy to explore. Guided tours of this UNESCO listed site are easily arranged and help delve into the rich symbolism of the architecture.
The South Korean ministry of tourism likes to describe Gyeongju as an open-air museum, and they are not wrong. Tumuli Park, which covers a vast swathe of the city, is home to the burial mounds, known as tumuli, of 23 Silla monarchs. The tumuli are grassy mounds meant to represent that rounded hillocks that surround the city. Currently, only one tomb is open for visitors, Cheonmachong.
Not far from the Bulguksa temple is the UNESCO listed grotto of Seokguram, which contains numerous Buddhist sculptures. The temple’s position high in the mountains overlooking the East Sea has made it the symbolic protector of the Korean nation and the site’s history is palpable. Guided tours of this remarkable complex are available.
Right in the heart of Gyeongju’s shopping district are two of the largest extant Silla tombs, known as Noseo-dong. Both were erected in the 5th century and were excavated during the 1940s with archaeologists finding a plethora of historic artifacts, including two golden crowns. While the tombs cannot be entered, they are impressive to wander round and marvel at the engineering prowess of the ancient kingdom.
Often touted as Korea’s best museum, the Gyeongju National Museum has a simply astonishing collection of artifacts dating from the Silla period. The main exhibits have countless pieces of jewelry, weaponry and ceremonial items dating from the 5th and 6th centuries AD while an art hall focuses exclusively on the Buddhist art forms found at Bulguksa Temple.
Newly weds from across South Korea come to the idyllic Anapji Pond, which is surrounded by the imposing Donggung Palace complex. The pond itself is also a site of great archaeological importance. It was created to commemorate the unification of Korea under the Silla Dynasty and many historic relics have been dredged from the pond in recent decades, most of which are now displayed at the Gyeongju National Museum.
Thought to be the only underwater tomb in the world, the tomb of King Munmu is one of South Korea’s most unusual historic attractions. The burial site was chosen as King Munmu was thought to be able to transform in death into a sea dragon that could protect the Silla Kingdom. Today, little can be seen from the land bar the remains of the temple that once stood in the sea. However, the spot is popular for shamanic rituals giving it an unforgettable atmosphere.