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Things to Do in South Korea

Nicknamed the Land of Morning Calm, South Korea is a nation of extremes. Major cities like Seoul and Busan are abuzz with bright lights and a 24-hour lifestyle, while the pace of life in sleepy rural communities ticks by the same way it has for centuries. Seasonal weather changes see glorious sunshine, heavy monsoons, clear skies, and harsh humidity as the months pass, and South Koreans swing between their traditional hearty cuisine and the latest international fast-food chains. Travelers to South Korea can find new discoveries round every corner, with activities and adventures to suit all tastes and ages. In the capital city, Seoul, visitors can explore UNESCO World Heritage–listed landmarks such as Changdeokgung Palace and Gyeongbokgung Palace on sightseeing tours, and experience the bustling markets of Gwangjang, Insadong, or Namdaemun, where locals shop for everything from fresh produce to valuable antiques. Savor the diverse flavors of Korean cuisine on a food and craft beer walking tour, or visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where the tension between North and South Korea is palpable. In the countryside outside Seoul and Busan, day-trippers can rub shoulders with locals along popular hiking trails around Mt. Geumgangsan, Mt. Hallasan, and Mt. Taebaeksan, or relax in sunshine as the waves roll in on Jeju Island, South Korea’s popular paradise retreat.
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DMZ
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Nowhere is the tension between North and South Korea more palpable than in the no man’s land known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ. As the only divided nation on earth, only 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) separate the North from the South in what is the most heavily armed border on earth. The 150-mile (241-kilometer) long zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease fire that put the Korean War on hold.

The area is quite safe for tourists and is probably the most fascinating day trip you could possibly take from Seoul. While touring the DMZ, you’ll get the chance to visit the Joint Security Area, also known as Panmunjeom. When the North and South met for peace talks during the Korean War, they met in Panmunjeom, and it is here that you can really feel the tension as North Korean soldiers gaze down at passing tourists from their side while South Korean soldiers stare back.

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Namiseom (Nami) Island
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Namiseom Island, most commonly referred to as Nami Island, is a popular tourist attraction and somewhat of a curiosity just northeast of Seoul. It actually declared its cultural independence in 2006, has its own flag, passports and stamps and calls itself the Naminara Republic. You won’t need a passport though to visit the small, crescent shaped island in the Han River, but there is a small admission fee.

Nami Island offers a stunning scenery with chestnut, verdant and mulberry trees and big grassy fields where ducks, chipmunks, squirrels and peacocks welcome visitors. At night, all the lights are turned off to show the beauty of the stars and the moon and the inhabitants take care to recycle most waste. All in all, the tiny island could have been plucked straight out of an idyllic fairy tale dedicated to perfect harmony between nature and humanity.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace
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Most commonly referred to as the Northern Palace because of its location compared to the other palaces of Seoul, Gyeongbokgung is a stunning reminder of the Joseon Dynasty, with elements of the complex still intact from that time, despite the wars and occupations that have since happened. The Gyeonghoe-ru pavilion and Hyangwonjeong pond are gleaming examples of that reminder, helping Gyeongbokgung become arguably the most stunning of the five palaces.

Originally built in the 14th century, the main gate of the palace is the only thing dividing the once royal quarters from one of the busiest parts of the city. The grounds of the palace contain a number of structures you may not see all of on your first trip, including Geunjeongmun (the Third Inner Gate), Geunjeongjeon, (the Throne Hall) and Sajeongjeon (the Executive Office). The palace also contains a royal banquet hall, a royal study, and of course, the queen's and king's quarters.

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Gamcheon Culture Village
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Gamcheon Culture Village spills down a hillside just outside of Busan in a riot of colors. The village, with nicknames like “Santorini on the South Sea” and the “Lego Village,” started off as a relatively poor area until the Korean War, when refugees began setting up homes here. Many of these refugees were members of the Taegeukdo religious movement, a religion at the forefront of the Korean independence movement.

Today, few of the 10,000 residents are still believers, but it remains a popular destination for visitors who come to see the multicolored cubicle houses stacked one on top of the other up the hill. Wander through the narrow alleys and streets, and you’ll stumble across murals, art installations and old houses converted into galleries or cafes.

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Jagalchi Fish Market
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South Korea has become famous among travelers for its freshly caught seafood, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to sample it than at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan. The largest seafood market in the country, Jagalchi is unique in that its run largely by women who are known as Jagalchi Ajumma. This tradition dates back to the Korean War, when many of the men were off fighting and their wives took over the family businesses.

Walking through the market is like visiting an exotic aquarium, as many of the wares are kept live in tanks to maximize their freshness. You’ll find nearly any type of seafood you could want, including more varieties of shellfish than you knew existed. The market also houses a collection of seafood restaurants where you can bring your purchases to have them cooked up and served to you on the spot.

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Haeundae Beach
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A majority of the visitors to Busan come for its proximity to the sea, and the city’s stretch of sand known as Haeundae Beach is perhaps the most famous beach in South Korea. Nearly a mile long (1.5 km), the beach is made up of rough sand from shells eroded by the Chuncheon Stream.

Visitors looking to laze in the sand or partake in water sports can rent umbrellas, yellow inner tubes, surf boards and jet skis all along the beachfront. Besides the beach itself, this stretch of coastline is lined with some of Busan’s best international hotels, as well as an assortment of restaurants, shops and the Busan Aquarium.

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Seoraksan National Park
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With approximately 30 towering hilltops and over 2,000 unique species of animals the UNESCO Biosphere Preservation District of Seoraksan National Park is a gem among South Korea’s dozens of scenic reserves. Recognized for its vast array of flora, Seoraksan attracts botanists in search of rare pine trees, oaks and hanabusaya asiatica every year. But travelers agree the park isn’t just for biology buffs. Thick foliage populated with Asian black bears, Siberian flying squirrels, and Korean goral, as well as iconic Buddhist temples like Baekdamsa and Sinheungsa make for a memorable visit. Visitors can wander through well-marked trails, up steep mountain hillsides to incredible views of the South Korean countryside.

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More Things to Do in South Korea

Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower)

Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower)

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Offering one of the most beautiful panoramic views in the city, the 777 foot (236.7 meters) Namsam tower, or N Seoul tower, in Seoul is an opportunity for visitors to see just how much the South Korean capital has grown over the years.

Featuring a nice array of restaurants serving local food, including one that revolves, and a gift shop, you can take a cable car up the mountain the tower is located on and enjoy the views from various observation decks. Another option is to hike up to the tower through Namsan Park, which features paths and viewpoints. It's photographer's dream; try and catch the city flashing below the mountainous backdrop day or night.

Though it was first opened to the public more than 30 years ago, it was reopened as a cultural landmark in 2005 and now offers art exhibitions, movies, performances, a children's center and even a bakery, making it a cannot-miss destination.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

Bukchon Hanok Village

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Bukchon Hanok Village is a lovely residential neighborhood located between Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palaces, and is full of traditional hanok homes. It is a place that perfectly embodies the heritage and culture of South Korea.

Famous for once being the residences of high-ranking government officials, the village is now a peaceful destination for visitors looking to taking a stroll through its comforting alleyways and calm, picturesque scenery. Boasting more than 600 years of history, the village reflects that of the tranquil views and nature of neo-Confucianism. It currently houses a museum and various craft shops tucked away in its back alleys, built in a uniform way where gardens meeting on adjacent properties seem to make the whole idea of property go away. Located just at the mouth of the village, the Bukchon Traditional Culture Center is a great place to get the low-down on not only the village itself.

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Gwangan Bridge (Gwangandaegyo)

Gwangan Bridge (Gwangandaegyo)

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The cover star of just about every city tourism poster since it opened in 2003, Gwangan Bridge is the Golden Gate of Busan. Beautiful day or night, Gwangan Bridge is best viewed from popular Gwangalli Beach, where lots of families and couples come to enjoy the sea air and to watch Gwangan Bridge’s nightly light show, when colorful lights are set to the tune of famous songs like Offenbach’s Can-Can, or K-pop girl group Crayon Pop’s Pa Pa Pa.

South Korea’s second-longest suspension bridge, Gwangan Bridge links the ritzy Haeundae district with Suyeong. Also known as Diamond Bridge, another good spot to see the bridge’s pretty lights is from the astronomical observatory on Geumnyeonsan Mountain, and on the popular coastal walk around Dongbaek Island. This route will take you to ritzy Marine City, where you can see the bridge shimmer on the Pacific while enjoying a drink at one of the restaurants lining the water.

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Insadong

Insadong

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Insadong (Insa-dong), Seoul’s cultural and artistic hub, is the place to go to shop for local crafts, visit a traditional Korean tea shop or catch an impromptu street performance. The quaint neighborhood, located in Jongno-gu district, houses one of the largest antiques and craft markets in the country.

The area’s name dates back more than 500 years when Insadong was two separate towns divided by a small stream. The wealthy Korean residents who called the towns home were forced out during the Japanese occupation, and the new residents established Insadong as an antiques trading post. Today, Insadong’s collection of cafes, galleries and shops attract domestic and foreign tourists to the area. Many of the restaurants and shops are housed in the original historic buildings. You’ll find nearly half of Korea’s antique shops and nearly all of its stationary shops in Insadong. Keep in mind that many galleries in Insadong close on Sundays or Mondays.

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Petite France

Petite France

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Jeju Glass Castle

Jeju Glass Castle

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Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae)

Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae)

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Named for the blue tiles that cover the roof, Seoul’s Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae or Cheongwadae) serves as the presidential home, much like the White House in Washington, DC. Set in an old Joseon Dynasty royal garden, the Blue House sit with Mount Bugaksan as its backdrop in a spot deemed auspicious. Built in the traditional Korean architectural style, the Blue House has more than 150,000 tiles on its roof, each formed and baked individually and thought to be strong enough to last for centuries.

On a tour through the grounds of the Blue House, you’ll get to visit some of the gardens, as well as the main building where the President of the Republic of Korea lives and conducts business and the State Guest House, all while learning about the tumultuous history of the country. You can see the Military Honor Guard and Band perform every Saturday at 10am just outside the Blue House as well.

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UN Memorial Cemetery

UN Memorial Cemetery

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The 35-acre (14-hectare) UN Memorial Cemetery is one of Busan’s most peaceful spots. Established in 1951, the quiet park and cemetery honors a total of 2,300 United Nations soldiers representing 16 countries who were killed during the Korean War. Manicured hedges and flower bushes add to the beautiful and somber sight.
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Yongdusan Park

Yongdusan Park

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Yongdusan Park, a mountainous park in the center of Busan, is one of the city’s most popular green spaces. Its name translates to “dragon’s head mountain,” as it’s thought to resemble a dragon poking its head above the surface of the sea. The park is dotted with various monuments to battles and Korean heroes.
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Jogyesa Temple

Jogyesa Temple

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Famous for being the only major temple within Seoul, Jogyesa Temple serves as the center of Zen Buddhism in Korea and houses Daeungjeon, the largest Buddhist shrine in Seoul. The temple was established in 1910 but the main shrine wasn’t built until 1938. Many of the trees in the courtyard in front of the main temple have been standing there for more than 500 years. Each June, Jogyesa Temple hosts Buddha’s birthday celebration, sometimes called the Lotus Lantern Festival, when the whole complex gets adorned with colorful lanterns. The temple is colorful even without the extra decorations, and is well worth a visit any time of year, particularly given its convenient location near many of Seoul’s historic attractions. If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism in Korea, stop by the Central Buddhist Museum to see a sizable collection of paintings and artifacts and the Center for Foreign Visitors where English-speaking Buddhist guides will gladly answer your questions.

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Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple

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Just outside Gyeongju, South Korea’s Bulguksa Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s known for its beautiful gardens and pagodas. Completed in 774, during the golden age of Silla architecture, the huge temple complex is said to have been commissioned by chief minister Kim Daeseong as a way of pacifying the spirits of his parents. Bulguksa Temple is home to seven national treasures, including the original Dabotap and Seokgatap stone pagodas and bronze Buddhas.

Korean for Temple of the Buddha Land, Bulguksa still acts as a working temple for the 11th district of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, and you’re likely to see monks performing ceremonies on your visit. Look out for the patio covered with stone stacks, too. It’s said that if you can add a stone to the top of a stack without it toppling over, your wish will come true. Keep a lookout for the local chipmunks who hang out on the patio, too.

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