So You’re Going to South Korea…
What to pack and what to see in the Land of the Morning Calm
Paris. London. Rome. Seoul? South Korea has become one of the top tourist destinations in recent years, attracting tourists from all over the world who wish to see a mix of modern, technologically advanced cities and ancient temples and fortresses. If you wish to join the more than 12 million people who visited South Korea in just the past year, here is your ultimate guide for visiting Korea!
If you are planning a trip, your first stop will most likely be Seoul. But make sure to see the rest of the country as well; take the bullet train for the best views of the mountainous countryside. This guide covers Seoul, Busan, the historical city of Gyeongju, Suwon, and the village of Panmunjom along the border with North Korea.
What to Pack
Packing is always a challenge, no matter your destination. When heading to South Korea, the season makes all the difference when choosing which clothes to bring- winter is freezing and snowy, while summer- especially during the rainy season- can be hot, humid, and wet. Make sure to check the weather before you stuff your suitcase! Regardless of the season, here are a few things you don’t want to forget:
• Camera- you won’t want to miss anything!
• Tennis shoes- you may look like a tourist, but there is a lot of walking involved when you are in Korea, especially on long tours and day trips.
• Passport- this seems obvious, but if you are planning on traveling around or taking a trip up to the Demilitarized Zone, make sure to have it on you.
• Adapter- there is nothing worse than arriving in a new country and being unable to charge any of your devices, so make sure to get the right adapter!
• Rain boots- if you are traveling in the summer, particularly during July when the rainy season picks up, you’ll want your feet to stay dry.
• Medicine/toiletries- if you don’t speak Korean or need something very specific, bring it with you, as some American products will be more difficult to find than others.
The South Korean capital is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, bringing in millions of visitors and expatriates every year. The city is also one of the oldest, with settlements along the Han River dating back to 4000 BC and city walls dating to 18 BC. With thousands of years of history and culture, as well as the new metropolis that Seoul has become, there are too many things to see and do to put them all in one list. So, here are the must-see things in the capital:
• Deoksugung: one of the five main palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty, the palace sits smack dab in the middle of Seoul, across the street from city hall, making it an easy starting point if you want to explore Seoul.
• Cheonggyecheon: similar to the High Line in New York but with an old stream instead of railroad tracks; in 2003 the mayor of Seoul wanted to revamp the stream that had run through the city and encourage more eco-friendly spaces. The result is this half-natural, half-man-made stream, where people can relax, hang out, and stroll up and down.
• Kyobo: the largest bookstore in South Korea, where you can find absolutely anything and everything, whether you’re looking for Korean books, American novels, or souvenirs to take back home, Kyobo probably has it.
• Hongdae: the area around Hongik University is one of the trendiest spots in Seoul. Filled with restaurants, shops, bars, and nightclubs, Hongdae is tailor-made for college students. Peruse the stalls set up along the streets, pop in for bingsu, or grab authentic Korean street food- just don’t head over before noon, most things aren’t even open as the area caters to the late-night crowd.
As the country’s second largest city, with a prime location along the coast and great seafood, Busan is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Whether it is your ultimate destination or just a weekend getaway, here’s what you can’t miss in Busan.
• Jagalchi Fish Market: I was hesitant at first, worried about the overpowering smells or the sight of nothing but dead fish. However, I loved Jagalchi (if nothing it makes for a great photo-op). As the largest fish market in Korea, you can see every kind of sea food you could imagine- and then some.
• Shinsegae: Shinsegae is one of the major department store chains in Korea, and their Busan location currently claims the title of the Largest Department Store in the World! Including an ice rink, movie theatre, golf course, zoo, and more stores than you can visit in an afternoon, Shinsegae is something you can’t see anywhere else.
• Haeundae Beach: One of the most popular beaches in Busan, Haeundae becomes a wall of people during the summer season. When I visited it was pretty empty, but still a beautiful beach, lined with hotels, trendy restaurants and cafes.
• Jangsan Mountain: On our last night in Busan, we drove up to the top of Jangsan Mountain, where you can get the most spectacular 360 degree view of the entire city. At the top of the mountain there are old pits where fires were once lit to warn surrounding cities of attackers. It’s definitely worth the winding drive up!
Known for historical sites, the old city of Gyeongju is situated along Korea’s eastern coast. Your first stop should be Bulguksa Temple, a working Buddhist temple built in the 8th century. Then drive up the mountain to the Seokguram Grotto, where you can see a massive Buddha carved into the rock (it is still a working sacred site, so no photos!). The hike from the parking lot to the grotto is about 20 minutes (one way), and be careful because the pathway drops off on one side and there’s no guardrail! Gyeongju is home to countless more must-see spots, including several UNESCO World Heritage sites.
30 minutes from Seoul, the ‘suburb’ of Suwon is a bustling city all its own. Known for its history, Suwon is home to Hwaseong Haenggung palace and fortress, a giant golden Buddha, Namun market, and Minsokchon, a folk village similar to colonial Williamsburg. Suwon is great for a quick day trip or an entire weekend.
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
This wasn’t something I had planned on visiting when I arrived, but when the opportunity arose I couldn’t say no. North and South Korea have been divided since a cease-fire was signed in 1953, and the division still creates political and social problems today. The DMZ is a section of territory that includes the border (or military demarcation line), and extends about 2 kilometers from the border on both sides. The strictly guided tour takes you through the abandoned train station meant to take workers to the Kaesong industrial complex, the village of Panmunjom, and even offers a place where- inside the safety of one of the buildings used for negotiations- you can technically cross the border into North Korea.
South Korea provided me with two and a half incredible weeks. While this trip was planned less than a month in advance and I had no idea what would happen once I got there, I loved every minute of it. Korea should definitely be next on your list of destinations, it is an experience you will never forget.