On first impression South Korea might come across as an enigmatic place; it is a land of stark contrasts and wild contradictions. Also known as the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ it is a place where the frantic pace of life is offset by the serenity of nature; where skyscrapers loom over ancient temples and where tradition and technology are equally embraced. The country’s unique customs and etiquette can seem like a trap laid for foreigners, but arrive with a smile and a respectful attitude and you will be welcomed with open arms by some of the friendliest folks on the planet.
Seoul: The vibrant, modern city of Seoul definitively lives up to the ‘24-hour party’ tag that other cities can only pay lip service to. A buzzing urban expanse that is striving to reshape its hardened concrete and steel edges with gorgeous city parks, cultural landmarks and tasteful design, one can easily find exciting places to eat, drink, shop and relax.
Whilst Seoul is embracing all that is modern, it is also rich in history. In the city there are five major palace complexes, which were built under the Joseon Dynasty and provide fine examples of traditional architecture. While all these palaces are worthy of a visit, Changdeokgung Palace with its beautiful Secret Garden and the ornate Gyeongbokgung Palace which has an hourly changing of the guard ceremony with soldiers dressed in Joseon-era uniforms are highly recommended.
Gyeongbuk: The surprisingly low number of travelers who choose to escape Seoul usually make a beeline to the Gyeongsang provinces and Gyeongnam, in the southeast of the country, and with good reason – a land of mountains and majesty, folklore and heroes, this area is home to some of the most wonderful sights that Korea has to offer. This was the base of the Silla kingdom that ruled for nearly a thousand years; though this came to an end a similar time-span ago, a horde of jewellery, regal tombs and wonderful temples provide present-day evidence of past wonders.
Jeju Island: The mass of islands draping off Korea’s southern coast fades into the Pacific, before coming to an enigmatic conclusion in the crater-pocked Jeju island. This tectonic pimple in the South Sea is the country’s number-one holiday destination, particularly for Korean honeymooners, and it is easy to see why – the volcanic crags, innumerable beaches and colorful rural life draw comparisons with Hawaii and Bali, a fact not lost on the local tourist authorities. This very hype puts many foreign travelers off, but while the five-star hotels and tour buses can detract from Jeju’s natural appeal, the island makes for a superb visit if taken on its own terms.
Gamcheon Culture Village: This historically rich, mountainside slum became a famous tourist destination after getting an arty makeover in 2009 when students decided to brighten up the neighbourhood with clever touches up the stairs, down the lanes and around the corners. Today it's a colourful, quirky community of Lego-shaped homes, cafes and galleries, ideal for an hour or two of strolling and selfies.
Lotte World: This huge complex includes an amusement park, an ice-skating rink, a cinema multiplex, department store, folk museum, shopping mall, hotel, restaurants and more. Kids and adults alike will love the place, which is basically an indoor Korean version of Disneyland, complete with ‘flying’ balloons, 3D films, laser and music shows, screen rides, fantasy parades and thrill rides. The outdoor Magic Island is in the middle of Seokchon Lake which may close in bad weather.
Olympic Park: This large and pleasant park was the focus of the 1988 Olympics. Strolling its paths takes you past its stadiums surrounded by plenty of greenery, ponds and open-air sculptures. Attractions built for the Olympics include the indoor swimming pool, tennis courts, three gymnasiums and the velodrome. Scattered like buckshot around the park are over 200 sculptures, some larger than a house. Designed and made by sculptors from around the world, most of the artwork is puzzling even after reading the artists’ descriptions of their work.
Bongeunsa: Located in the heart of ritzy Gangnam, the shrines and halls of the Buddhist temple Bongeunsa, with its tree-filled hillside location, stand in direct juxtaposition to its corporate high-rise surrounds. Founded in AD 794, the buildings have been rebuilt many times over the centuries. Entry to the temple is through Jinyeomun (Gate of Truth), protected by four king guardians. The main shrine, Daewungjeon has lattice doors and is decorated inside and out with Buddhist symbols and art that express Buddhist philosophy and ideals.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza and Park: Dongdaemun Design Plaza is architect Zaha Hadid’s sleek concept dubbed the ‘Metonymic Landscape’. The building, a curvaceous concrete structure with a silvery facade partly coated with lawns that rise up on to its roof, is a showcase for Korean and international design. It comprises of multiple undulating levels of galleries, exhibition spaces, design shops and event halls. The attached Dongdaemun History and Culture Park includes museums that highlight past uses of this area, such as a 16th-century military camp.
N Seoul Tower and Namsan: The iconic N Seoul tower (236m), atop the city’s guardian mountain Namsan, offers panoramic views of this immense metropolis from its observation deck. Come at sunset and you can watch the city morph into a galaxy of twinkling stars. Up top is the up market N.Grill and a cafe. Walking up Namsan is not difficult, but riding the cable car is popular for more good views.