Most itineraries on Travel Made Simple are built around places we have actually been to. We try to go to a new place, or several new places, every year and have to do research on the trip. This itinerary is based on that kind of research. We asked our newsletter subscribers if anyone needing help with an itinerary, and we got South Korea from one. We have never been, but it amounts to a challenge to my research skills. This is the South Korea itinerary we came up with.
This is exactly the kind of document I would put together as the first step of planning a trip to South Korea. There is a lot of information here, with links to remind me of where I found it.
Seoul is the capital of the Republic of Korea and the center of a megalopolis that encompasses several other cities including Incheon. This is one of the most densely populated places on the earth, folks. While there is plenty to do in this area, if you have a chance, try to get out and see at least one other part of the country.
In my research I found, The Seoul Guide, which has a lot of really detailed pages on places in town.
Palaces and a Shrine
As the capital, Seoul has palaces built for the royal families at the time. These top the list of things to see in town, especially as they are aesthetic so different from the European or Western ideas of a palace. There are 5 in town, but these are the most popular. Definitely look at the websites, as they are all closed one day a week. There is a combo ticket if you plan on visiting a lot of them.
- Gyeongbokgung Palace – The largest of the palaces in Seoul and the first built. Website
- Changdeokgung Palace – East of the Gyeongbokgung, this palace is well preserved and blends into the natural surroundings. Tours are required to visit the palace and the gardens. Website
- Huwon – The rear-gardens of Changdeokgung have their own name and occupy 60% of the land of the palace. Website
- Deoksugung Palace – Royal Guard Changing Ceremony several times a day. Website
- Jongmyo Shrine – The royal shrine built at the same time as the Gyeongbokgung Palace. A guided tour is required and available multiple times a day. Website
Mt Namsan and the N Seoul Tower
A Cable Car from town makes getting to the top of the hill easy. The top of the hill has parks, walking trails, and a TV tower that has an observatory for even better views of the city from above. Website
Bukhansan National Park
A large, heavily visited park lies just north of the center of Seoul. There are plenty of hiking trails among the rocky crags, just don’t expect to be alone. This is apparently the Guinness World Record holder for the most visited park in the world. Website
Food & Markets
Ok, now we are getting to my thing, food. Korean food is getting to be pretty popular in the world, so now is your chance to see it from the source. When we travel, usually the first thing we do is hunt down and book a food tour. It gets us into food that might have frightened us and often a list of restaurants we can try later. At first glance on Viator, this nighttime small group tour looks really good.
Beyond those tours, I found a few references to street food markets.
- Gwangjang Market – This is a huge street market with tons of traditional food stalls. I like reading that, although foreigners visit, it is not a purely tourist thing. Website
- Insadong tearooms – I’ve found a lot of references to the area Insadong and its tea houses. Insadong-gil is apparently the main street of the district and is lined with shops, but I know enough that there should be some good places just down the side streets. I found a post on 5 teahouses in Seoul.
- Dongdaemun Market – A crowded sprawling market area that is open 24hrs and apparently more busy at night than during the day.
- Namdaemun Market – South Korea’s largest traditional market selling everything from food to clothing and other goods. More info
Exploring the different neighborhoods of a new city is one of my favorite things. Just exploring and wandering to see how people live somewhere else without a specific destination in mind can be really interesting. In addition to Insadon above, these sections of town stand out for me.
- Samcheong-dong – This is the neighborhood around the grand palaces. Boutiques and restaurants proliferate.
- Bukchon Hanok Village – Near Samcheong-dong, this is an area of traditional houses(Hanok). This is a neat look of the area.
- Gangnam – A higher end neighborhood made famous by a song.
Even if you don’t have time to explore another end of South Korea, definitely leave the city on a day trip. It is harder to leave the city than it might seem as they blend together in a constant stream of buildings, but still get out and explore other areas.
- Suwon – An hour outside of Seoul is the town of Suwon with a Unesco listed Fortress called Hwaeseong. It sounds like a cool castle even though it sounds like a bit of a hike. This blog post shows a little trolley with a dragon face, so cool.
- DMZ/JSA – So North Korea is only 55km from Seoul and is such a fascinating thing, I expect this is a day trip we would do. There are various options from houses actually on the North side to just looking through binoculars.
- If you have more time here are some other ideas for day trips.
This is one of South Korea’s top destinations. The city itself is home to large number of tombs, temples, statues, and ruins, more than anywhere else in South Korea. Nearby is the impressive temple complex at Bulguk-sa. This is a UNESCO listed site and contains a number of individual places to see, including two bridges and a grotto with Buddha sculptures.
The city has Jeonju Hanji Museum (a traditional paper museum) and a Hanok (traditional house) district, as well as their own palace. This is also the home of the bipbimbap, and food is a big part of being in this city. This is also the town for Makgeolli, which is a rice wine that sounds like it is served almost Tapas style with a ton of food.
Mokpo is the port where ferries head to the islands off the coast. There appears to be a ton of different island choices. If we got to actually planning a trip, I would do more research to see which one we really wanted to go to. They do all seem to be some variation on natural beauty/hiking and beach islands.
Jeju is a volcanic island halfway between Korea and Japan, described with the moniker of Korean Hawaii. It has some autonomous features like different visa rules, but still seems to be a super popular destination for Koreans. From what I’ve read, the main city is crowded and resort-like, but the rest of the island has plenty of hidden trails and places to explore. Jeju is also home to Seongsan, the coolest-looking volcano I have ever seen.
There are ferries from Mokpo, but also an international airport on the island. Apparently this is one place where renting a car could be really useful to get around to the different sites.
- Seongsan Ilchulbong “Sunrise Peak” – A small wide volcano filled with greenery on the eastern tip of the island near the tiny island of Udo. This is an account of the hike.
- Manjang cavern – Actually a dormant lava tube complex that you can explore. Make sure you have a coat, it can be cold.
- Numerous other trails, waterfalls, and volcanic peaks are strewn across the island.
Planning a Trip to South Korea
As I mentioned in the intro, this is the kind of research I would do for on of our own trips. Reading through this, I would probably look at 2-3 weeks, with a full week in and around Seoul and then a few days to Jeonju and a few days to Gyeongju, with whatever was left of our time on an island. That feels to me like we would get a good few of the country, both the big city and the small town. I’m sure there are plenty of things that I missed in the research, but such is travel.
Traveling around Korea seems to be mostly by bus. Jeonju is 3.5-4 hours from Seoul and Gyeongju is a bit over 4 hours. There are fast trains, but they don’t run quite as often as the buses from what I found. Internal flights exist, especially between Jeju and Seoul. There’s some great info on transportation in Korea here. I’d look through the different options (train, flying, etc.) and compare prices and times. That would help me decide which day trips are practical and how many destinations I could fit into a trip without spending half my vacation in transit.
South Korea Reading
Travel books are a great way to inspire, inform, and entertain. Here are some guides and other interesting books to help you learn about South Korea and its history before your trip.
- Lonely Planet’s Korea guidebook
- Korea: the Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor – An in depth look at South Korea’s transition over the past 50 years, from being overshadowed by Japan and China to its successes of today.
- A Geek in Korea: Discovering Asia’s New Kingdom of Cool by Daniel Tudor – An interesting guide to Korean pop culture.
- New Korea: An Inside Look at South Korea’s Economic Rise by Myung Oak Kim – An analysis of South Korea’s economic development from one of the poorest countries in the world at the end of the Korean War to one of the wealthiest.
- The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim (fiction) – A story of a daughter who defies tradition to live the life she wants instead of what her father demands.
Help us out! Have you been to South Korea? What would you add to our South Korea itinerary?