Split by a hair-trigger border, the Korean Peninsula offers the traveler a dazzling range of experiences, beautiful landscapes and 5000 years of culture and history.
Decorum plays a major role in Korean people’s generosity to outsiders, and their instinctive graciousness possesses a highly endearing quality. Helpfulness abounds, whether it’s at a tourist office, asking someone for directions or finding yourself deep in a conversation with a stranger. Time-honoured Confucian principles have set a template for strong civic pride in a society that is introspective, perhaps, but also decorous and affirmative. You may pass glorious landscapes and gaze out across dazzling seas but don't forget, half of your travel journey will be about the people, and the Korean tribe are a joy to be among.
Korea might be known as the Land of the Morning Calm, but dive into its capital Seoul, the powerhouse of Asia’s third-largest economy, and serenity may be the last thing you’ll perceive. This round-the-clock city is constantly in motion, with a work-hard, play-hard mentality that epitomises the nation’s indefatigable, can-do spirit. You can hardly turn a corner without stumbling across a helpful tourist information booth, a bustling subway station or a taxi in this multifaceted metropolis where meticulously reconstructed palaces rub shoulders with teeming night markets and dramatically modern architecture.
South Korea’s compact size and superb transport infrastructure mean that tranquillity is always within easy reach of urban sprawl. Hike to the summits of craggy mountains – some of which transform into ski slopes come winter – enveloped within densely forested national parks. Get further off the beaten path than you thought possible by sailing to remote islands, where farming and fishing folk welcome you into their homes or simple seafood cafes. Gaze up at the distant stars from serene villages surrounded by rice fields, sleeping in rustic hanok (traditional wooden house) guesthouses.
Festivals & Food
Rest assured the ROK also knows how to rock. A packed calendar of festivals and events means there’s almost always a celebration of some sort to attend wherever you are – it might be Boryeong for its mud fest, or Gwangju for its Biennale or its annual salute to that most Korean of foods: kimchi. Koreans are proud of their culinary culture and rightly so – there's a tantalising array of dishes, flavors, aromas and textures in the local cuisine, to be washed down with plenty of toasting involving a head-spinning array of alcoholic concoctions.
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Like a phoenix, Seoul’s premier palace has risen several times from the ashes of destruction. Hordes of tourists have replaced the thousands of government officials, scholars, eunuchs, concubines, soldiers and servants who once lived here. Watch the changing of the guard ceremonies at the main entrance Gwanghwamun, then set aside at least half a day to do justice to the compound, which includes a couple of museums, ornamental gardens and some of Seoul's grandest architectural sights. Originally built by King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, Gyeongbokgung served as the principal palace until 1592, when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasions. It lay in ruins for nearly 300 years until Heungseon Daewongun, regent and father of King Gojong, started to rebuild it in 1865. King Gojong moved in during 1868, but the expensive rebuilding project virtually bankrupted the government. Altogether the palace consisted of 330 buildings and had up to 3000 staff, including 140 eunuchs, all serving the royal family. During Japanese colonial rule, most of the palace was again destroyed – much of what you see today is accurate recent reconstructions. Once beyond the landmark Gwanghwamun, flanked by a pair of protecting, giant haetae, mythical lion-like creatures, head straight for the flagstone courtyard fronting the ornate two-storey Geunjeongjeon, the main palace building. This highly impressive building, with its double-tiered stone platform and surrounding open-sided corridors, is where kings were crowned, met foreign envoys and conducted affairs of state. West of Geunjeongjeon is the spectacular Gyeonghoeru, a large raised pavilion resting on 48 stone pillars and overlooking an artificial lake with two small islands. State banquets were held inside and kings went boating on the pond. A series of smaller meeting halls precede the king’s living quarters, Gangyeongjeon, behind which are Gyotaejeon, the queen’s chambers. Behind that is a terraced garden, Amisan; the brick chimneys decorated with longevity symbols on the garden’s top terrace are to release the smoke from the palace's ondol (underfloor heating) system. On the eastern side of the grounds is Donggun, the living quarters for the Crown Prince. To the rear, King Gojong built more halls for his own personal use and an ornamental pond with Hyangwonjeong, an attractive hexagonal pavilion on an island. An audio commentary and a free guided tour (at 11am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm) are available if you wish to learn more about the palace. The popular two-hour Starlight Tour (₩50,000; 6.30pm and 7.40pm daily mid-March to mid-April) includes a 12-dish modern take on Korean royal court cuisine, with a visit to the royal kitchen, and an evening visit of 10 locations across the palace including the pavilion for a live performance of traditional Korean music. Tickets, available from early March, must be bought in advance online (www.ticket.auction.co.kr).
The World Heritage–listed Changdeokgung is the most beautiful of Seoul's five main palaces. You must join a one-hour guided tour to look around. English tours run at 10.15am and 1.15pm; if you don’t care about the commentary, Korean tours are at 9.30am, 11.30am and 3.30pm. To see the palace's lovely Huwon (Secret Garden), join tours at 10.30am, 11.30am and 2.30pm (also 3.30pm February to November). Book online or come early as the Huwon tours are restricted to 50 people at a time. Changdeokgung 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 – good pungsu (feng shui). Enter through the imposing gate Donhwamun. Dating from 1608 it is the largest such entrance among Seoul's four main palaces. Turn right and you'll cross over a stone bridge (built in 1414, thus the oldest such surviving bridge in the city) – note the guardian animals carved on its sides. On the left is the beautiful main palace building, Injeongjeon. It sits in harmony with the paved courtyard, the open corridors and the trees behind it. Next door are the government office buildings, including one with a blue-tiled roof. Further on are the private living quarters of the royal family. Peering inside the partially furnished rooms, you can feel what these Joseon palaces were like in their heyday – a bustling beehive buzzing round the king, full of gossip, intrigue and whispering. Round the back is a terraced garden with decorative ondol chimneys. Over on the right is something completely different – Nakseonjae, built by King Heonjong (r 1834–49) in an austere Confucian style using unpainted wood. Royal descendants lived here until 1989. Walk through the dense woodland and suddenly you come across the Huwon. Further on are a couple more ponds and Yeongyeongdang, originally built in 1828 as a place for the Crown Prince to study. Ongnyucheon is a brook at the back of the garden where there’s a huge rock Soyoam with three Chinese characters inscribed on it by King Injo in 1636 – ong-nyu-cheon, which means ‘jade flowing stream’ – and a poem composed in Chinese characters by King Sukjong in 1690. Well worth joining are the monthly Moonlight Tours (April to May, and August to October), limited to 100 people and costing ₩30,000. Tickets can be bought online from Auction (www.ticket.auction.co.kr) or call 02-1566 1369 (English); book well in advance as it’s very popular.
This maeul (village) has more than 800 hanok (traditional wooden homes), making it one of the largest such concentrations in the country. Virtually all of them contain guesthouses, restaurants, cafes, and hanbok (traditional clothing) rental shops. Though super-duper touristy, the cobblestone lanes and unusual architectural lines coupled with wisps of smoke from octopus grills all come together to create an enchanting experience, especially at dusk when an orange hue paints the village with a soft light. If the thought of afternoon crowds makes the journey here seem less fun, escape to less-explored areas in and around the village. Head to Girin-daero, cross the road and admire the street art in Jaman Village. Walk down the hill and turn right on to the path that runs along the north side of the river. Take time to explore the back alleys and discover hidden gems like Cho Ga Jib. Continuing down the main path beyond Cheongyeonru's gazebo, head to the 2nd floor of the Nambu-sijang for a drink or meal. Some places in the village host workshops (on making traditional paper or alcohol, for example). These usually require advance reservations and a minimum of two people; ask at a tourist information centre.
Amid the celebrity-owned apartments on the leafy southern slope of Namsan is Korea's premier art gallery. Beautifully designed and laid-out, it balances modern and contemporary art with traditional Korean art across its three distinct areas. The big draw is Museum 2, a rusted stainless-steel structure designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, showcasing early- and mid-20th-century paintings, sculptures and installations by esteemed Korean and international artists, including Nam June Paik, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. Museum 1, a fortress of terracotta bricks by Swiss architect Mario Botta, has four floors of Korean painting, calligraphy, ceramics, metal and wood craft and Buddhist art covering the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties. The museum’s third area is devoted to special exhibitions. Getting an audioguide is highly recommended, or you can visit 3pm weekends for the free 1½-hour tours in English.
This majestic 182m-high, extinct tuff volcano, shaped like a giant punchbowl, is one of Jeju-do's most impressive sights and a Unesco World Heritage site. The forested crater is ringed by jagged rocks, though there’s 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 – expect plenty of company. To do the sunrise expedition, you’ll 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’re concerned, bring a torch. Not an early riser? It’s also a popular daytime hike. The Seongsan Sunrise Festival, an all-night New Year’s Eve party, is held here every 31 December.
The visual imagery of this temple is a feast for the eyes and, like any exquisite dinner, should be savoured with deliberation. Stone walls supporting multiple levels of buildings notched into the mountainside, combined with mature trees and a trickling creek, create a pleasant sensory experience. Three gates mark the path to the main hall – take time to read the signs to appreciate the symbolism of your visit. One of the most attractive temples in the province, it’s a long day trip from Busan. For a relaxed pace, consider an overnight stopover in Jinju or Hadong and an early morning departure to the temple. There are budget rooms and a few restaurants outside the temple entrance.
Jagged ridges, 400m-high peaks, ropes, ladders and awe-inspiring views await travellers looking for a challenging hike. Most travellers disembark the ferry (return ₩10,000, 40 minutes, departs 7.30am, 9.30am, noon, 2pm and 4.10pm) on Saryandgo and catch a bus to the other side of the island to begin the five-hour trek. From Tongyeong's bus terminal, catch bus 10-5 (₩1200, 40 minutes) or a taxi (₩14,000, 20 minutes) to the Gaochi ferry terminal (가오치 사량도행 여객터미널).
The World Heritage–listed fortress wall that encloses the original town of Suwon is what brings most travellers to the city. Snaking up and down Paldal-san (143m), the fortification wall stretches a scenic 5.7km past four majestic gates, command posts, pavilions, observation towers and fire-beacon platforms. Built by King Jeongjo and completed in 1796, it was constructed of earth and faced with large stone blocks and grey bricks, nearly all of which have been restored. It takes around two hours to complete the circuit. Try to go outside the wall for at least part of the way, as the fortress looks much more impressive the way an enemy would see it. Start at Paldalmun (팔달문), also known as Nammun (South Gate); the most iconic of Hwaseong's four main gates, it stands at the heart of the city on a busy roundabout. From here follow the steep steps off to the left up to the Seonam Gangu (서남각루, South-west Pavilion), an observation point near the peak of Paldal-san. At the top of Paldal-san, near Seojangdae (서장대, Western Command Post), is the large Hyowon Bell which you can can pay to ring (three tolls for ₩1000) and Seonodae (서노대, West Crossbow Platform), an octagonal tower on the summit that was used by crossbow archers, and offers spectacular panoramic views of the city. On the north edge of the fortress wall is Hwahongmun (화홍문), a water gate that bridges the Suwon-cheon gurgling beneath it. Nearby Dongbukgongsimdon (동북공심돈), the northeast observation tower, has a unique rounded, oval shape and stands three storeys tall (8m), with a spiral staircase threading the centre of the structure. Further on, the Bongdon Beacon Towers (봉돈), a row of brick chimneys, were used to send messages and alerts around the country using a system of fire and smoke signals. They would have had a clear line of sight to Hwaseong Haenggung in order to alert the king of various threats. If you don’t fancy the walk, head up the hill at the rear of the palace to the find the Hwaseong Trolley that winds in and out of the fortress wall to the archery field at Dongjangdae (동장대, East Command Post), also nicknamed Yeonmudae, a reference to its second function as a training camp. The grassy area was used as a sword and archery training ground for 200 years after the fortress opened. Other notable structures in the fortress complex include Janganmun (장안문), the main north gate of Hwaseong and the largest gate of its kind in Korea. Visitors coming from Seoul would have entered the city here. It was reconstructed in the 1970s. The northwest watchtower Seobuk Gongsimdon (서북공심돈) stands guard next to Hwaseomun (화서문), the west gate, surrounded by its own fortress walls in miniature. If you want to find out more about the fortress, including how detailed court records aided the 1970s reconstruction process, check out the Suwon Hwaseong Museum. In August the fortress is illuminated with light shows at night.
One of Seoul's five grand palaces built during the Joseon dynasty, Deoksugung (meaning Palace of Virtuous Longevity) is the only one you can visit in the evening and see the buildings illuminated. It first served as a palace in 1593 and is a fascinating mix of traditional Korean and western-style neoclassical structures. The palace’s main gate is the scene of the entertaining changing of the guard ceremony at 11am, 2pm and 3.30pm. Free one-hour guided tours in English start at 10.45am and 1.30pm. Deoksugung became a palace in 1593 when King Seonjo moved in after all of Seoul’s other palaces were destroyed during the Japanese invasion. Despite two kings being crowned here, it became a secondary palace from 1615 until 1897 when King Gojong moved in after leaving the nearby Russian legation. Although he was forced by the Japanese to abdicate 10 years later, King Gojong carried on living here in some style until he died in 1919. His son, Sunjong, reigned as a puppet emperor until 1910 when he too was forced to abdicate by the Japanese, who then annexed Korea, bringing the Joseon dynasty to an undignified and abrupt end after more than 500 years. The palace used to be three times as big as it is now, but it still contains small gardens and ponds amid an extraordinary potpourri of contrasting architectural styles. Junghwajeon, the palace’s main throne hall, was used for ceremonial occasions such as coronations, and is adorned with dragons and has golden window frames. Behind it is the grand neoclassical-style Seokjojeon, designed by British architect GR Harding and completed in 1910. Today it houses the Daehan Empire History Museum which displays the mansion's opulent interior. The equally grand western wing was designed by a Japanese architect in 1938. It's now the MMCA Deoksugung, with a collection of permanent and temporary contemporary art. King Gojong’s living quarters, Hamnyeongjeon, was where he died in 1919, an event which sparked off nationwide protests against Japanese rule. Behind is the interesting fusion-style pavilion Jeonggwanheon. The stone mythical creatures in the main courtyard are haetae, which are supposed to protect the palace from fire, but in 1904 they must have fallen asleep – the palace burnt down.
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