Where to Start on Your First Korea Trip & Which Cities to Put on Your Must-Do List
A country of contrasts and a land of the times, Korea is a surprising blend of out-of-the-norm pairings and an appealing reflection of its past, present and future. From Buddhism and baseball to a demilitarized zone and digital billboards, the country serves up a setting that is both ancient past and beckoning beginnings.
Though only the size of Great Britain, the history of this East Asian country is long (5,000) years. Bounded on three sides by water (the Sea of Japan, Yellow Sea and Korean Straight), sharing a border with North Korea and counting amongst its neighbors China, Japan and Russia, Korea’s geography could be considered complicated. But this same geography yields all four seasons. To best delve into Korea, launch your journey in Seoul, the nation’s action-around-the-clock capital city of 10 million. Its efficiency is readily apparent, from its computerized bus stops to a museum’s rainy day solution for wet umbrellas, a customized shrink-wrap machine.
Reflective of the country’s complementary yin and yang, Seoul’s cityscape consists of age-old palaces next to soaring skyscrapers, a lively street culture alongside its family-first philosophy and a fashion-forward reputation accompanied by a diverse gastronomic scene.
Whether you cruise through the middle of town along the Hangang River, stroll along the city’s Cheonggyecheon Stream running between downtown’s towering buildings or visit N Seoul Tower (the city’s highest point from which clear days reveal North Korea), each presents the perfect preview of the city. The heart of Seoul, perhaps of Korea, is Gyeongbok Palace. Built in 1395, it was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty that today attracts thousands of annual tourists, especially during one of its three-times-a-day changing of guards.
Named by CNN as one of world’s best shopping cities, Seoul is synonymous with aisle action. The Myeong-dong area has been rated the city’s number one tourist destination. In addition to the flagship stores of mega-retailers Lotte and Shinsegae, it is also home to alleyways of boutiques and more than 100 stores specializing in skin care (including such Korean specialties as snail masks, BB and CC creams).
For night owls, there’s Dongdaemun Fashion Town, where modern shopping malls coexist with traditional wholesale markets and are open till dawn. Existing for more than a century, Gwangjang Market is your most authentic option. It’s the place to shop for a hanbok (traditional dress) and to sample Korea’s famous foods, especially bindaetteok (mung bean pancake). A bargaining tip for markets is to start at 50 percent and negotiate from there. When dealing with traditional outlets, ask about the luxury tax refund for purchases over 30,000 won (approximately $26 US). It’s a stamped document to be redeemed at the airport.
While Korea features such international cuisine as French, Italian and Japanese, it is best known for its street food. Among the addictive options are hotteok (sugar-filled pancakes), dak kkochi (glazed skewered chicken pieces) and ice cream. Baskin-Robbins is celebrated here, especially for its exclusive-to-Korea flavor called “Shooting Star,” named for its popping candy fizz-in-the-mouth sensation.
Seoul is a cosmopolitan conglomeration. While signage along its thoroughfares announces such internationally-acclaimed exhibitions as Ansel Adams and Botero, Korea House presents the country’s most traditional performing art. Showcased in a variety of vignettes, singers, drummers and dancers that seemingly float across the stage transport Korea House’s guests back in time. Korea’s most contemporary entertainment is K-Pop, an Asian musical phenomenon. A concert of boy (and some girl) bands, the style is defined by animated beats, choreographed group dance, catchy tunes and a youthful audience coming from such distances as Japan.
Though highly energized, Seoul is only one part of Korea. Quickly and easily reached by Korail, the country’s bullet train traveling up to speeds of 186 mph, you’ll arrive in Busan. Once a small fishing village and now a major shipping port, this is the country’s richest city. Home to the Jagalchi Fish Market (Korea’s largest) and Asia’s top film festival, the Busan International Film Festival, it also claims a Guinness World Record holder: Shinsegae Centum City is the world’s largest department store.
Busan is additionally complemented by Haeundae Beach, one of the country’s best known strands of sand. Lined with five-star hotels and premier restaurants, it transforms each summer to a magnet for sunseekers, attracting thousands of beachgoers and endless rows of beach umbrellas. To best appreciate the area, wander the Circular Promenade overlooking the well-known shoreline.
Continuing into the countryside, you’ll pass fields of locust flowers and rows of curved tile roofs in route to Gyeongsangbuk-Do province. Called “another Korea within Korea,” it’s like an open-air museum. As home to several of the country’s 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this is the address of Bulguksa Temple (established in 751), Korea’s oldest wooden structure where Buddhist monks remain active.
The province is also the setting of two major Confucian academies and Andong Hahoe Village, a centuries-old community and current home to 125 families. Famous for its masks, it hosts the annual International Mask Dance Festival. The village center’s 600-year-old Zelkova tree is a magnet for handwritten wishes (they’re attached to its surrounding fence). And its version of the country’s notorious high-octane proof whiskey Soju, is 45 percent alcoholic content.
A little known Korean factoid is that two-thirds of its land mass is 2,300 feet above sea level. Within this predominately winter-weather region is Pyeongchang county. Called the “Alps of Asia,” it will host the 2018 Winter Olympics. The Alpensia ski jumping tower is visible for miles, and for a pre-Olympic treat, visit the tower’s museum and its high-above-ground wall of locks. Here you can attach your own and the viewing platform for a personal preview of athletes’ pre-jump perspective (caution: not for acrophobics).
Stretching through three counties of Gangwon-do province, Korea’s most iconic mountain is Mt. Seorak. Serving up a picturesque presentation of Buddhist temples, lush green valleys, dense forests and towering granite peaks, it is best appreciated from the Seorak Cable Car for a ride to its top.
However, it is the shared border with North Korea that generates the most intrigue. An Armistice Agreement signed July 27, 1953, established the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the North and South. While only 35 miles from Seoul, it is not possible to visit North Korea; and though it is possible to visit the DMZ, it is recommended to do so with an established tour operator, such as HanaTour, Korea’s largest travel company. But no matter where your adventures take you, we have a feeling you won’t be disappointed.