Officially called the Republic of Korea, South Korea occupies the southern region of the Korean peninsula and offers travellers a dazzling range of experiences to pick from. With its booming economy, ancient culture, and increasingly prominent presence on the world stage thanks to a boom of its pop culture, the East Asian nation has become one of the most talked-about travel destinations on the planet. But, while we could list places to see, instead we’ve compiled a unique list of all the fun things to do in South Korea. This listicle will give you a brief run-down on the country’s must-dos helping you cut through distractions and get the most out of your trip.
Here Are Whats, Whys, Wheres And Whens Of The Best Things To Do In South Korea
1A Shopper’s Paradise
South Korea is well known for its shopping options, and here’s how you can make the best of it through local bustling markets that sport a mixture of souvenirs, boutiques, malls, and street food. Seoul is a mecca for shopaholics. You can spend days browsing through racks of clothes, electronics, accessories, jewellery, leather goods, beauty products, arts and crafts, and antiques, at its different shopping districts. Remember South Korea is known for its beauty industry, which is very advanced and therefore rife with variety. Look out for local pharmacies where excellent local brands retail at budget-friendly prices. South Korea is also a big exporter of cloth, which makes clothes shopping a massive delight. Like Japan, South Koreans love their graphics—so look out for cool stationery.
Best markets to visit in Seoul:
- Myeongdong Shopping Street: One of Seoul’s busiest areas, choc-a-bloc with stores selling beauty products and great street food.
- Namdaemun Market: One of Seoul’s largest and oldest markets—great if you want to pick up a hanbok or traditional Korean costume, or even modern clothes, as well as cosmetics and electronics, Asian medicine and spices, and crafts like pottery, lamps and vases. It’s known for its street food and the fact that it’s open 24 hours.
- Insadong Street for souvenirs: Vases, pottery, hanboks, and handicrafts. On weekends Insadong Street turns into a pedestrian-only street, making it all the easier to browse through its many art galleries too.
- Dongdaemun Night Market. Known to be one of Seoul’s biggest shopping districts, Dongdaemun comes alive at night (10 pm to 5 am). It features 26 malls, 30,000 speciality shops, and scores of wholesale stores, making this entire commercial area the best option to shop for just about everything imaginable.
2Take A Stroll along The Cheonggyecheon Stream
This 10.9-kilometre-long modern stream along with a recreational area, in central Seoul, was created as part of an urban renewal project. It starts from Cheonggye Plaza, just off Sejong-ro Avenue and provides an accessible escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. You can wander along the stream, enjoy the shade and dip your feet in the cool water. Or grab a quick picnic along the water’s edge, to relax before jumping back to explore the city. Some parts of it are beautifully lit at night, especially during festivals. If you’re lucky you might even find some cool art installation along the way.
3Try An Alternative Spa At A Jjimjilbang
Literally translating to “heated rooms”, jjimjilbang are traditional bathhouses and are an essential part of contemporary Korean culture. These large, sex-segregated public bathhouses in South Korea are furnished with hot tubs, showers, traditional Korean kiln saunas and massage tables. A full body scrub after a long day is an activity to experience in South Korea like a local. So, are you up for a good pampering session with a good soak and scrub?
If you are into K-drama, you can also reminisce all your favourite bathhouse scenes while enjoying a quick soak: ‘Secret Garden’ where Hyun Bin and Ha Ji Won visit the gender-segregated part of a sauna after they switch bodies. Or the funny sauna scene that takes place in ‘Boys over Flowers’ when Gu Jun-Pyo participates in a grand exercise of male bonding, scrubbing dead skin off each other’s backs.
Do remember that in some traditional bathhouses, tattoos are frowned upon, and showing them is considered extremely bad manners.
Best spas to visit in South Korea: Itaewon Land Sauna, Dragon Hill Spa & Resort in Seoul and Spa Land Centum City in Busan.
4Visit Incredible Museums
Familiarise yourself with Korean culture through South Korea’s museums that showcase everything from ancient folk traditions and royal artefacts to contemporary history and futuristic technology. If you are planning to travel to South Korea on a budget, remember that a lot of these museums have free entry.
Best museums to visit: National Folk Museum, National Museum of Korean Contemporary History and the National Museum for a taste of authentic Korean history. The extremely modern Dongdaemun Design Plaza is a hub of multiple museums that are both traditional and contemporary in nature. Designed by the eminent architect the late Zaha Hadid, the structure itself is a pleasure with its sweeping dome. Wandering around is always a delight because you never know what exhibition you might stumble into.
5Drown Yourself In Stunning Cherry Blossom Festivals
By March, the cold subsides and plants begin to awaken and bloom, creating a sweet scent that is best described as spring. Japan is not the only place to walk through cherry blossom boulevards and avenues. South Korea gets its fair share, enough for it to curate a cherry blossom festival across its cities and provinces. One can snap gigantic cherry blossom flower petals in the volcanic island of Jeju, or join a cherry blossom marathon in Gyeongju. You can also walk under illuminated blossom-filled trees in buzzing Seoul.
Don’t miss: Jinhae Gunhangje Cherry Blossom Festival, Seokchon Lake Cherry Blossom Festival, Gyeongju Cherry Blossom Festival and Goyang International Flower Festival. Each of these festivals allows the visitors to stroll among the blossoming spring flowers and see the country at its finest.
6Delve Into History With The Five Grand Palaces Of Seoul
Hidden among Seoul’s high-flyin’ skyscrapers, shopping malls and busy markets, are Seoul’s four historic palaces of the Joseon Period, as well as the Jongmyo Shrine. Most of these unmissable historical landmarks date back to the 1300-1500s and make up the main traditional sightseeing spots in the Korean capital. The five palaces – Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, Gyeonghuigung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, as well as Jongmyo Shrine allow visitors a rare glimpse into the beauty and culture of the 500 years of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). History and architecture lovers are in for a treat. The palaces are preserved beautifully with rooms decked out to look as they would have centuries ago. They are also located in some of the most stunningly maintained gardens giving you an idea of what royal life might have been like all those years ago.
You’ll get to see that while the sites mostly date back to the 1300s – 1500s, the majority of the buildings standing on them today are actually recent reconstructions. The original structures were destroyed by the Japanese invasion in the 16th Century, and the reconstructions were then destroyed by Japanese occupation in the 20th Century, and repeatedly by fire. While they look similar to an untrained eye, you will see that each palace has its own charm and story. Do check out the “changing of the guard ceremonies” held at the gates of Gyeongbokgung and Deoksugung at various times throughout the day.
7Get A Bird’s Eye View From The Namsan Seoul Tower
Namsan Seoul Tower, or commonly called Namsan Tower was the first tower-type tourist spot in Korea. This iconic landmark in Seoul is both an observation and communication tower located at the top of Namsan Mountain in the geographical centre of the city. The tower is the highest point in Seoul and therefore provides a beautiful 360-degree view of the entire city.
The tower measures 777 feet from its base to its top but as it is situated on top of the Namsan mountain, it rises approximately 1,574 feet above sea level– making it one of the tallest towers in Asia. As one of the representative landmarks and multi-cultural venues in Seoul, the tower comprises N Seoul Tower Observatory, the Hanbok Culture Experience Center, Locks of Love, and multiple restaurants. The Namsan Tower has been immortalised in dozens of K-dramas, representing a meeting point for lovers (like the top of New York’s Empire State Building) and a hugely romantic date venue.
8Enjoy Lip Smacking Korean Street Food
The fastest, cheapest, and tastiest way to dive into South Korean is through its street food. Whether you’re vegetarian or not, like your food extra spicy or not, can’t choose between sweet or savoury—the variety on offer is mind-boggling. Almost all tourist streets are filled with stalls or cosy pojangmacha tents. They sell soups, barbecued meats, noodles, desserts, all served with Korean spirits and wines like soju and makgeolli, as well as beer. Don’t miss tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy sauce), skewers of tangy fried chicken, seafood pancakes with kimchi, golden fish-shaped waffles, mandu (Korean dumplings) and odeng (fish cake skewers).
Best Places to try street food in Korea: Gwangjang Market, Myeongdong Street Food Alley and Dongdaemun Night Market.
Also Read: Mouth-watering Korean food you HAVE to try
9Try A Twirl In A Traditional Hanbok In Hanok Villages
A tour of the palaces might have whetted your appetite for a little more of Korean culture. Step back in time to appreciate the understated glamour and traditional comfort of Hanok villages. Korea’s radical transformation hasn’t broken the cultural and traditional link with these excellent examples of timeless Korean architecture. If your trip is concentrated around Seoul, you must definitely pick Bukchon Village.
Visit the many traditional houses, with tiled roofs and stone floors, called hanok, in Bukchon Village, in the heart of Seoul. This picturesque village is nestled between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace and has the largest collection of privately owned and beautifully maintained hanoks in the city. They date back to the Joseon Dynasty, and today operate as cultural centres, guesthouses, restaurants, galleries, and tea houses, providing visitors with an opportunity to experience, learn and immerse themselves in traditional Korean culture. It’s also where you can rent a hanbok or a traditional Korean costume and imagine you’ve been transported back to the Joseon Dynasty or even a historical K-drama.
Other best hanok villages that you can try are Songdo Hanok Village (Incheon), Namsangol Hanok Village (Seoul), Gongju Traditional Korean Village (Gongju) and Jeonju Hanok Village (Jeonju).
10Get A Thrill At The Amusement Parks
If you are planning on bringing your children along for this trip, remember you can go to a load of theme and amusement parks in South Korea. South Korea is also home to the world’s largest indoor theme park Lotte World, which has high-octane roller coasters like the Atlantic Adventure and attractions catering to youngsters like Lotty’s Kidstoria, Fantasy Dream or Fairytale Theatre which has the amazing “Sergio’s Magic Show” and children’s musical “Hansel and Gretel”.
Don’t miss Everland, South Korea’s largest theme park that houses its own zoo and water park. It is divided into five zones: Global Fair, Zoo-Topia, European Adventure, Magic Land and American Adventure. Check out the five roller coasters here, including the Intamin AG, South Korea’s highest, fastest, longest and steepest one yet.
11Experience The Quintessential Nightlife Of South Korea
South Koreans know how to play hard. Their unique drinking culture isn’t for someone with a weak stomach, so put on your party pants and grab a soju for the road! Koreans love to drink and do so more than any other country in Asia. It’s also why it has one of the most dynamic nightlife scenes in Asia, making it an ideal destination for party animals and night owls. If you can keep up with the locals that is.
The best bars and clubs are in Seoul and Busan.
12 Hit Up Popular Hiking Trails For A Quick Workout
While South Korea is a relatively small country, it is blessed with a beautiful topography that offers a great variety: 70 per cent of its landscape is mountainous, making it the perfect hiking destination. As hiking is one of the most popular activities in South Korea, you will spot many brightly-clothed hikers at all the popular national parks and mountains. They all have well marked and laid out walking trails, which are usually pretty crowded during weekends or sometimes even on weekdays.
Best hiking trails in Korea: If you’re planning to go off the beaten path in South Korea, check out some of the most gorgeous mountain hikes in Bukhansan, Jirisan, Seoraksan and Hallasan.
13Plan A Beach Getaway
Surrounded by the ocean on three sides, South Korea offers countless beach getaways to splash around in. Of these, some beaches are commercialised to offer water sport activities and great dining options, while others are quiet and secluded. You can pick accordingly and enjoy a perfect beach vacation in Korea.
Best beaches to visit in South Korea: Sokcho Beach, Jeongdongjin beach, Daecheon Beach and Songho beach.
14Where The Borders End: Visit The DMZ
The Demilitarized Zone in the Korean peninsula demarcates North Korea from South Korea. This 148-mile-long, 2-mile-wide swath of land represents one of the few stretches of land that is off-limits—a buffer zone—for both countries. Located just 35 miles north of Seoul, the DMZ runs close to the infamous 38th Parallel (the final front in the Korean War) and was set up in 1953. This no man’s land is also one of the most popular travel draws in Korea. It’s a great place to understand Korean history and the culture of the war that has been going on for almost 60 years and has divided countless families across the border.
On the South Korean side, you can even peer out into the most politically isolated nation on the planet through mounted telescopes. But keep in mind that the DMZ can only be visited on a guided tour. Don’t forget to carry your passport as you’ll need it to access key sights and pre-book your tours online.
So, Now You Can Plan Your Itinerary To South Korea With Ease
With its green, hilly countryside dotted with cherry trees and centuries-old Buddhist temples stretches of coastal fishing villages, sub-tropical and volcanic islands and ultra-modern cities like Seoul and Busan, South Korea has something for every kind of traveller. South Korea is filled with rich culture, history, its famous Kpop and cosmetics, but fair warning to the first time travellers: it might fall into a little expensive side of the budget. But for those on a budget, we’ve got you covered. Check out our article on budget travel to South Korea. If you’ve visited, let us know about your favourite activity in South Korea, in the comments below.