Good places to visit in South Korea
If you’re visiting Korea, check out some of these recommended (and cheap!) places on your journey.
Hongdae (Hongik University) – This is one of the most popular districts in Seoul and one that is exceedingly popular among trendy youth and expats. While one can find their fair share of unique bars and clubs, Hongdae can also be enjoyed even by wallflower types. If drinking is not your thing, you can spend countless hours, day and night, browsing themed coffee shops and art galleries. Since Hongik University, an art university, is nearby, you can also find several art supply shops and vintage boutiques. The street near Hongdae free market (a market for artisans that opens during the day) is lined with several foreign restaurants. You can also release built-up stress at punk and rock shows with local indie bands for less than 10,000W a pop.
Itaewon – Speaking of foreign restaurants, Itaewon is the place you want to be if you wish to experience global Seoul. Home to hundreds of expats and military GIs from all over the world, the area is comparable to multicultural metropolises such as New York. You can find restaurants from every corner of the earth as well as foreign food markets and bakeries. If you start to feel frustrated by the language barrier, rest assured that nearly all shopkeepers in the district speak English, and this is the go-to place for matters involving remittances, currency exchange, or renting a pay-as-you-go phone on the cheap. It also used to be considered on the dangerous side in the evenings, and while it still has its share of shady areas, most residents feel that the atmosphere is gradually changing for the better.
Gwanghwamun/Jongno (Central Seoul) – If you’re into museums, you can find most of them in central Seoul. Directly in Gwanghwamun you can visit the newly-renovated gate of the same name as well as Gyeongbokgung Palace and the National Folk Museum nearby it – stop at the King Sejong monument and museum on the way. Travel closer to Jongno area to see the Museum of Modern Art. Travel a bit farther south and visit the National Museum in Ichon (the walls of which were built to withstand a 6.0 magnitude earthquake to protect its precious artifacts) and the breathtaking War Museum and Memorial in Yongsan, the latter of which includes an enormous outdoor exhibit of war-era airplanes and tanks.
Changdeokgung Secret Garden – Most tourist sites and companies tout palaces as if they were the only thing South Korea had to offer. To be honest, they can become pretty commonplace after you’ve seen the fifth or sixth one. Instead of wasting time visiting every palace in the country, just go straight for the best: Changdeok Palace and King Seonjeong’s “Secret Garden”. Much different from a botanical garden, the “garden” spans a 120-minute tour-only walk beyond the rear gates of the palace to a calming zen-infused sanctuary reserved only for the 9th Joseon-era king and a select few servants that is absolutely worth the 5,000W fee. Be advised that you can only access the garden with a tour guide and tours only run in the morning, so be sure to arrive early or book in advance.
Busan – As a country surrounded by sea on three sides, South Korea certainly has no shortage of beaches. But most will tell you – and rightly so – that Busan is the best place to experience these beaches. Located the southern tip of the peninsula, Busan is the second-largest city after Seoul without the hectic atmosphere. Although it might cost you some in train fare to get there from Incheon (you can also go by ferry from the port of Fukuoka in Japan), most everything in Busan can be enjoyed either cheap or free, from inexpensive “hui” (회) raw fish entrees to crystal-clear waters and white beaches to temple hiking paths. Taejongdae, a nautical hiking path and observatory, and Dadaepo, a beach at the very edge of the city that is probably the cleanest and least crowded of the city’s beaches and also host to the annual (no entry fee) Busan Rock Festival, are absolutely worthy of your time and energy.
DMZ – Perhaps pricey for the budget traveler’s tour guide, but a rather essential token of your South Korea adventure: the Demilitarized Zone. Possibility one of the most intense tours you’ll ever take, the DMZ, Panmunjeom Tunnel, and Joint Security Area bring you the closest you might ever get to the hermit state (although North Korea does actually offer tours now, with a vow of your allegiance to the Dear Leader). At $90 and rising, the most comprehensive tour of all three areas is offered through the USO; other tours might be a few bucks cheaper but usually only offer the DMZ and Panmunjeom. Remember that the country is still technically at war, so don’t pull any funny stuff here.
Andong – A far less-frequently traveled part of Korea, Andong is a quaint town southeast of Seoul famous for traditional Hahoe (하회) theatrical masks and a corresponding annual mask festival in autumn. It’s also South Korea’s proverbial “home of Confucianism” and has some of the oldest buildings and Buddhist relics in the country. In fact, the town itself doesn’t have a single hotel – you won’t have a choice but to shack up in a Korean-style hanok (한옥) guest house. This is definitely a place to visit if you want to experience the authentic Korean way of life from the past, and how many country-dwellers still continue to live.
Minsokchon – Located just outside of Seoul in the town of Yongin, Minsokchon traditional folk village is a pleasant day-long getaway from bustling city life. The entrance fee has climbed over the years to 15,000W, but it’s still a cheaper option than traveling to a rural city, especially if you’re short on time. Be aware that many of the bus signs to the village are outdated, so you might need to ask around until you find a bus that will actually take you there from the main bus terminal or from the subway station in Suwon. The village is open year-round and hosts several folk performances throughout the day, as well as delectable restaurants and teahouses. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to a Korean traditional experience without straying too far.
Jeju Island – Jeju-do is the number one travel destination for locals during the summer, and you can get cheap flights there from Gimpo airport – less than 80,000W, even during peak season. However, due to the availability and price of accommodation, if you can get there off-season, you’re golden. One fantastic way to go is through Jeju Eco Tours (http://jejueco.com) where for 240,000W you can get a robust 3-day tour of the island including accommodation and transportation, which is especially practical as it is difficult to get around Jeju without a vehicle. Spring is Jeju’s finest time during which you can revel in the island’s natural beauty free of tourists or chokingly steep prices. If you plan to travel without a tour, you can follow Jeju’s “Olle” walking path, routes lined with blue and yellow ribbons that guide you around the entire coastline.
For simple but comprehensive information on any of the above destinations, you can visit the Korea Tourism Organization’s website.
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