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 andwhere 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.
Koreans are fiercely proud of their country, and with good reason. The Korean peninsula has a storied history and this colorful heritage is woven into the fabric of this land. The capital, Seoul, is home to a number of historic highlights, including the spectacular Joseon-era Gyeongbokgung Palace, ‘the great south gate’ of Namdaemun and the eerie Seodaemun Prison – all tucked away amid gleaming offices, giant shopping centers and world-class restaurants.
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.
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 neighborhood with clever touches up the stairs, down the lanes and around the corners. Today it is a colorful, quirky community of Lego-shaped homes, cafes and galleries, ideal for an hour or two of strolling and selfies.
Andong and Hahoe folk villages:
Set in the heart of Gyeongsangbuk-do region, the cultural warehouse of Korea, Andong is noted for having preserved much of its traditional spirit. A great place to see Korean traditions unfold is the cultural village of Hahoe, where the noble Ryu family originated and lived for the past 600 years. Traditional buildings, beautiful surroundings and a range of cultural activities makes a visit to Andong and Hahoe village a good opportunity to take in the local culture and learn a thing or two about Korea’s rich heritage.
Jeonju Hanok Maeul:
Lying in the middle of modern Jeonju, this maeul, or village, boasts of one of the largest concentrations of hanok — the traditional Korean house — with over 800 such buildings in last count. Most of these homes have been converted to guesthouses, restaurants, teahouses and boutiques. Some places in the village host workshops on making traditional paper and other local crafts. These usually require advance reservations and a minimum of two people.
Jagged ridges, high peaks, ropes, ladders and awe-inspiring views await travelers looking for a challenging hike. Most travelers depart the ferry on Saryandgo and catch a bus to the other side of the island to begin the five-hour trek.
This majestic 182m-high tuff volcano, shaped like a giant punchbowl, is one of Jeju-do's most impressive sights. The forested crater is ringed by jagged rocks though there is no lake because the rock is porous. From the entrance, climbing the steep stairs to the crater rim only takes 20 minutes. Doing it in time to catch the sunrise is a life-affirming journey for many Koreans.
To do the sunrise expedition, one will have to spend the night in Seongsan-ri, a sleepy village filled with motels and restaurants catering to the hiking crowd. The steps up the volcano are easy and clear, but if you are concerned, bring a torch.
Although it lies only 85km off the coast of South Korea, Jeju Island has developed its own unique history, traditional dress, architecture and linguistic traditions. With a moderate climate that differs surprisingly from the mainland, Jeju Island has a sub-tropical southern side and a more temperate northern region. On the island, which was recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, one will find exquisite botanical gardens, sandy beaches, lava caves, a folk village and the O’Sulloc Tea Museum where you can learn about South Korea’s famous traditional tea culture.
World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung, is one of the most beautiful of Seoul's four main palaces. It was originally built in 1405 as a secondary palace, but when Gyeongbokgung (Seoul’s principal palace) was destroyed during the Japanese invasion in the 1590s, it became the primary royal residence until 1872. It remained in use well into the 20th century. Like all Joseon palaces, it has a mountain behind it and a small stream in front.
National Maritime Museum:
This is the only museum in Korea dedicated to the country’s maritime history. The highlights are two shipwrecks, one dating from the 11th century and the other from the early 14th century. Thousands of priceless items of Korean and Chinese celadon, coins and other trade items were salvaged from them.
This is a famous Korean dish that mainly consists of thinly sliced or shredded beef, marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, sugar, scallions, and black pepper, cooked on a grill. Variations include chicken or squid.