Annyeong! ~ 2018 arrived and the bigger trip this year for me was the land of Kpop. I planned a two week itinerary South Korea, visiting the places I really wanted to see: Seoul, Busan, Suncheon and Jeju Island. If you are planning a trip to South Korea yourself and want to learn more about what to see and to do in this super cool country, follow my itinerary below for inspiration and guidance!
Day 1-5 : Seoul
Where else to start exploring South Korea other than the super modern yet charmingly traditional capital?
What to see and do in Seoul
I will be writing a more detailed post about what you can see and do in Seoul using the Discover Seoul pass, but here are some places I believe you have to see!
Seoul has five grand royal palaces: Gyeongbokgung, Deoksugung, Changgyeonggung, Changdeokgung and Jongmyo (Royal Shrine).
I only saw Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is the oldest, largest, and most popular of the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul. It was built in 1395 and today it is still a focal point of the city. It is located at the end of Sejongno, one of Seoul’s most important central streets.
Your first impression of Gyeongbokgung Palace is through the massive Gwanghwamun gate (see pictures below). This is a popular spot for taking selfies and doing photo shoots in full traditional Korean dress, which I am guilty of.
The second must see palace is Changdeokgung. Compared with Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung Palace is quieter and more park-like, though there are still many buildings. It is the only UNESCO listed palace of the five.
The Namsam Tower or better know as the N Seoul Tower, was the first tower-type tourism spot in Korea. It is located on the Namsam mountain and reaches up to 480 meters above sea level.
You have to do a short climb to get to the actual tower. There you will not only find the observatory, but also the Seoul Tower Plaza. In this complex you find several shops and restaurants.
Food tip here: Try HanCook. After our visit it was time for lunch and when we saw “Korean buffet”, we could not resist. And let me tell you… it was amazing! The all you can eat buffet has all types of typical Korean dishes and it is the perfect way to try them all! Desserts and drinks included! The price was also reasonable for the quality.
Wear a Hanbok
The traditional clothing of South Korea is the Hanbok. In Seoul they have many places that offer you to wear it.
You can compare it to wearing a kimono in Japan. They can vary in quality, color patterns and social ranking. As I am not an expert on which ones to combine, just ask the shopkeepers and they will gladly help you out. You can also pair your outfit with a variety of accessories to complete the look and let them style your hair in one of their special styles.
There is also a male version, so if you feel like doing it as a couple, this is just perfect for it.
I totally fell in love with the hanbok which made me decide to dress up twice. My first look was from N Seoul Tower Cultural Hanbok Experience in the Seoul Tower Plaza. I picked a simple green and pink one. In this Hanbok center, you can also take some photos inside in old traditional Korean in-house settings.
My second one was just gorgeous with a red skirt and golden embroidered flowers from the rental place Hanboknam near the Bukchon Hanok village.
Tip: Wearing a hanbok gives you free entrance to the palaces! I took a shot with some lovely girls at the Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Visit a Hanok Village
A Hanok, is the name of a traditional Korean house built from the 14th century onwards. There are two Hanok villages in Seoul that you can visit.
The first one is Namsangol Hanok Village. The Korean traditional houses have been restored to preserve the original atmosphere of the area like how it was 600 years ago. They put a lot of effort into making this feel like a museum with workshops for visitors offering you the opportunity to experience the citizenry of that era. From commoners to Royalty, each hanok is accurately adjusted to the owners status. The entrance is free, but they close on Tuesdays.
The second Hanok Village is Bukchon. This village is not a visitor center like the first, but it is very beautiful. You can walk around but don’t enter all alleys as the village is still privately inhabited. Here you will have a super cool view of the traditional in front and the modern on the background. Which is a great spot for taking pictures in Hanbok!
The Korean Demilitarized Zone is the buffer zone between South Korea and North Korea. It was created by agreement between North Korea, China and the United Nations in 1953. The DMZ is 250 kilometres long, and about 4 kilometres wide, dividing the Korean Peninsula roughly in half.
In the DMZ you have the Joint Secuity Area (JSA) where negotiations between the countries can take place.
Since 1974 South Korea has discovered 4 long underground tunnels in the DMZ zone. North Korea claimed it to be mining tunnels, but coal was never found. They believe it was built for possible military invasions going from North to South, without branches. Visitors can visit the second, the third and fourth tunnel.
There are different types of guided tours that you can book from Seoul. When we were there, the North Korean leader was about to settle an agreement and the JSA was closed for tours, so we only did the viewpoint zone, park and tunnel.
Experience some Kpop
If you love Kpop, Kdrama, KTV shows, etc… Seoul has a BUNCH of activities and places you can go see and visit. Ask the local tourist office or visit their website for the Hallyu Tourism.
I like to listen to some Kpop (when I was younger much more than now though so I am not an expert at all) and I wanted to see a concert of some sort. I quickly found out that being present in a live performance show was hard to do and concerts of bigger names were quite expensive.
With our Discover Seoul Card there was a concert included at SMTOWN. As I love EXO, I had to go see theirs. It was not a live concert but a 3 hour recorded one, showed on 3 huge screens giving you that feeling you were really there. There you can also see some exibitions, costumes, and buy or drink something from their gift shop.
Shop and eat!
I found Korea a heaven for shoppers. They have truly EVERYTHING.
South Korea is well kown for it cosmetics (and plastic surgery), and each big brand has cosmetics shops all over the country. In Seoul you will find a lot of them in shopping areas. Brands like: Tony Moly, Holika Holika, Skinfood, Club Clio, etc…
What will you find all over: Socks! Here is the perfect place to buy cheap and cute socks. How come they have so many socks shops? Well think about it… they have to take of their shoes inhouse, at some restaurants, etc… your socks got to be on point to so you can show them.
Tip: visit the store ARTBOX. This store as all kinds of cute, adorable and practical gadgets for very low or reasonable prices. I loved this store and the time (and money) spend there was worth it haha!
Another thing you will see everywhere you look: Food! Especially in Myeongdong you have outside food stalls in front of the shops where you can try traditional Korean street food like the spicy rice cakes Tteokbokki, dumplings, fried chicken,… but also new trendy things like Gold topping ice creams, Oreo churros, Pizza cones, etc…
What did I just LOVED about ordering food in restaurant in South Korea? … well you get many side dishes, soup, water and sometimes tea for free!
Dishes you HAVE to try in South Korea (may be very spicy though!):
– Kimchi: the Korean traditional side dish, eaten at every meal made from fermented vegetables, usually cabbage or raddish
– Bibimbap: hot stone bowl with rice and all kinds of veggie and meat toppings
– Gimbap: the Korean sushi
– Ttekbokki: spicy rice cakes
How to get around in Seoul
Just like Japan and many other world cities, Seoul has a great underground subway network. You can use a T-money card to charge money to it and just scan it at the gates. The fares will be then a bit lower when you use a card.
The lines have colors and numbers and each stop has it own number so it is very easy to find your destination.
Besides the trains also displays the stop names in English.
Where to stay in Seoul
I highly recommend to stay at an AirBnb or a cheaper hotel in one of these districts:
- Myeongdong (where we stayed, a very large shopping area with alot of food stands and cool places)
- Insadong (the arty cozy district near some palaces)
- Itaewon (the more westernized part of the city)
- Hongdae (the young student district with a cool shopping area and night life)
Day 6: Suncheon by bus
South Korea has a very good train and bus network that can span long distances across the country. We chose to take the bus from Seoul to Suncheon to save some bucks. The ride is about 4 hours, so you can leave around 9 am (or earlier if you prefer). If you get the prenium bus you will sit very comfortably and can even watch some television and charge your phone and other things through an USB.
You can pre-order a ticket online, but it was all in Korean and I gave up. We just went to the station and bought it at the booth.
What to see in Suncheon
So if you leave Seoul early in the morning, you can still go visit the famous Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve or the Suncheon Gardens.
The park has the widest reed bed in Korea and the swampy area has super cool looking mudflats. The formation is over 8000 years old and it is home to about 150 bird species and 120 vegetation types. You can walk through the reed beds on wooden pathways and at the end you can do another 2 km hike to the top of a hill to have a gorgeous view over the area. You can watch the sunset from there too if you would like to.
Nagan Folk village
Naganeupseong is a Joseon dynasty castle/fortress (the dynasty from 14th century to the 19th century). Around that time there was a village built with over 100 houses and offices. Nowadays, there still are 85 households and 229 people living there.
It is open for visitors with many interactive activities and museums that show you how life must have been during that time. At the back of the village you can go up on the fortress wall and walk all the way to the next gate.
I found it super interesting, too bad it was raining so much that day.
During the weekend Suncheon has a local night market. We were there on a saturday and it was very fun to see it. There are alot of nice food you can taste and you can mingle with the locals in the middle.
There is also a stage where they perform and show the audience on a big screen. So you might see your head pop up once in a while.
Where to stay in Suncheon
We stayed at Namu Guesthouse. This guest house was very welcoming with adorable korean older couple and a very cute kitchen and chill area. BUT the matrasses were too hard for me. If you don’t mind, it is a great guesthouse near the Bus terminal.
I would suggest to stick around the bus terminal as this will be your point of getting everywhere else in the area.
Food tip Suncheon
TRY THE BBQ CHICKEN. Korean bbq chicken and how they make it, is a specialty on its own and definetely worth a try! One order is about 20 pieces, so don’t order a dish per person like we did… needless to say we couldnt finish and took the rest of the chicken to our guesthouse and gave it to some nice Korean ladies staying there.
Day 7: Boseong Green Tea Plantation
From Suncheon you can take the Bus from the Bus terminal to Boseong. Getting off there you can take another bus that goes to the tea plantations, Daehan Dawon Tourist Tea Plantation is the one you need to get off.
Leave early, but pay attention to the weather forecast! The green tea plantation is obviously prettier when the sun is shining. If the weather is better next day, you can still do it on day 8 before leaving for Busan.
At their gift shop you can buy all kinds of green tea goodies and snacks. And at their restaurant you can buy green tea ice cream and even green tea noodle dishes. We tried the green tea jajan myeong and bibim myeong and it was delcious. Of course we also had the ice cream!!
Day 8: Busan by bus
There are frequent buses from Suncheon to Busan. They take around 2 hours to get there. Both bus terminals are quite some distance from the center. So pick one closest to your accommodation maybe.
Day 9: Exploring Busan
What to see in Busan
Busan is a big seaside city. I only had a good 2 full day to explore it though. That is not enough time, but the main attractions we found worth visiting are:
Haeundea Beach area
This beach is a pretty one and favoured by many locals. The white sand beach and the tall building in the background are quite a sight. The main street going from the Haeundae subway to the beach is a very touristic place, full with restaurants, pubs, shops etc…
At the end, near the beach on the left , you will find the entrance of the Haeundae Market. This street market offers you all kinds of weird seafood: sea cucomber, alive eel and octopus, etc… You will also find normal local (seafood) dishes, making this place perfect for a relaxing stroll and having a nice local dish for lunch . Try pajeon (Korean pancake).
Gwangalli Beach and Gwangan Bridge
This beach is known for its fine sand and 1,4 km half-moon shape. On the background you see the Gwangan or the Diamond Bridge. This suspension bridge is 900 meters long and has a hell of light show during evening times. The area is full of restaurants and nightlife. It is a great way to finish your day.
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
This Buddhist temple was built in 1376. It was destroyed during the Japanese invasions but restored in the 1930s. It is quite a popular sightseeing spot, as it is one of the few seaside temples in Korea. During the birthday of Buddha ( April-May) the temple is decorated with paper lanterns.
Gamcheon Culture Village
This area is know for it steep streets, small and twisting alleys and colored houses.
What used to be a poor part of Busan is now one of the main attractions. The city took upon the area as a project after several government offices started a founding for its urban regeneration, changing it into what is now an appealing art district.
Gamcheon is called the Santorini of Korea. But I really can relate it to a place in my homeland: Rio! If only the government there would do the same for the favelas, it would be wonderful.
Where to stay in Busan
We stayed at the Haedae beach area. The main street near the beach is FULL of touristic places and restaurants, supermarkets, a local seafood market and of course the popular Haedae beach.
We stayed at a very cheap and nice guesthouse I would recommend: the Haeundae Guesthouse. It is very simple but good enough to explore the area and the city.
Day 10: Flying to Jeju island
Day 11-12: Jeju Island
Rent a Car
So you have two full days and a half on this island. Best way to explore would be renting a car! I found it very easy to rent one online. There are shuttles from the airport to the renting office.
We chose for an automatic Kia morning (the simplest they had) and it was a super nice driving experience. very easy ( I never drove an automatic before) and practical for the traffic on Jeju. It came with a GPS that was in Korean, but spoke in English. But it was very easy to use as you can put a local phone number in of the place you want to go and Voila! Off you go!
What to see in Jeju
The highlights of this mega cool island during our trip were:
Not for under 18 year olds!
This park is a big garden full with erotic art and sculptures. There is a small museum and of course gift shops where you can buy sexual toys and gadgets. Or you can try a penis or boobie cake at their snack shop. 5 the pictures are pretty mild for what you will see inside)
We took a break from riding on this beach and we really enjoyed the views and walks. Here would be a great place to have lunch and try out their seafood noodles!
Hallasan park hiking
Mister Hallasan is the biggest mountain on Jeju. It is a huge protected park zone with several hiking paths.
We didn’t have time to do a long one so we took the shortest they had. Little did I know it was over 2400 steps all the way up! ( Yes I counted on the way back) The view was very nice and peaceful once you got there. We also saw wild deers on the way hiding in the bush near the hiking trail!
Jungmun lava colums
Jusangjeolli Cliff was formed when the lava from Hallasan Mountain erupted into the sea of Jungmun. They are rock pillars shaped like cubes or hexagons of various sizes and almost seem as if stone masons had carved them out.
Manjanggul Cave is one of the finest lava tunnels in the world, and is a designated natural monument. A lava tunnel is formed when the lava that was deep in the ground spouts from the peak and flows to the surface.
The 1 km tunnel has a variety of interesting formations inside, each with an explanation board. Including lava flowtsones, lava bridges,a 70cm lava stalagmite and the worlds largest lava column of 7.6 meters.
You can walk about 1 km inside till the end, which is the lava column. Take a jacket with you as it is a bit cold and wet inside!
Jeju has several waterfalls. Two that we visited were:
Jeongbang: the only one in Asia that flows directly into the sea instead of a river.
Cheonjeyeon: a three-tier watefall from cold water flowing out of the ceiling of a cave
Canola Flower fields
Jeju is rich in canola flowers! This yellow flower blooms from aroun end of March till mid April, depending on the weather.
We were there way too late for all the pretty flowers and the Canola festival, but we managed to find one small canola field still in bloom (and well kept by a local farmer that asks a small admission fee for it).
Ps: this stone statue below is called a Dol Hareubang. You will find this lil fella EVERYWHERE on the island. They are considered to be gods offering both protection and fertility. They are usually placed outside of gates as protection against demons.
Day 13-14: Going back to Seoul
If you know a bit more about my travelling style and how I plan my trips you know I like to return to the starting point and have at least one full day of rest before flying back home and face the jetlag. So fly back to Seoul and enjoy one final day visting places you couldn’t before or just relax, shop and eat some last Korean deliciousness in your favorite district.
I can already say: I left a piece of my Soul in Seoul and in South Korea for that matter. So much I am thinking of going to spend one year over there on a work holiday visa! I will keep you all posted on that!
But for now all I can say is if South Korea wasn’t on your list before, it is about time you add it!