With the 2020 Olympics and 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan is preparing for a surge in its already booming tourist market – and this is also good news for Japan’s lesser-known neighbour to the west, South Korea. A two-and-a-half-hour flight connects the two capitals of these fascinating nations with unique cultures and entirely different cuisines and histories.
After hundreds of years of isolation, fighting off attacks from invaders and developing its own way of living, language and most importantly, food, Korea is now embracing travellers with a tourism sector that ranges from high end hotels, to cheap but stylish hostels, or even traditional “hanok” building stays.
Korea is often overlooked by western tourists in favour of Japan, but it offers a rich tapestry of tradition and modernity that is enough to leave any visitor with a sense of amazement and wonder. Here are a few ideas to tempt you to book a trip to South Korea.
One of Seoul’s coolest and busiest locations is Hongdae. The district is near Hongik University, after which it is named. It is known for its urban arts and indie music culture, clubs and entertainments and boasts endless bars, cafes and glowing pots of coal on the roadside waiting to be brought inside for the essential Korean BBQ.
Jeonju is a city in western South Korea. It’s known for the Jeonju Hanok Heritage Village. Jeonju also enjoys the bragging rights of being the home of bibimbap, literally translated from “mixed rice”. It a dish that is so simple yet mouth wateringly delicious. Bibimap is served in one big bowl, either sizzling in clay or in a heavy metal bowl. Simply, it is meat, vegetables, preserved vegetables and rice with an egg (raw or fried) with a hot sauce that is mixed together and eaten ravenously.
Gyeongju “the museum without walls” is historically known as Seorabeol. It is a coastal city in the southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang Province in South Korea with UNESCO World Heritage sites. The popular destination offers visitors the chance to stroll among ancient burial mounds of the rich and royals of Korea’s Silla Dynasty, buried between the 7th and 9th Centuries.
The night market serves mixes of Korean and Korean-fusion food. It doesn’t get too full of tourists and many locals gather there to browse through food stalls offering a variety of dishes. It’s a bare bones experience where visitors pick and choose their foods, then stock up on cups to share bottles of beer, makgeolli (Korean rice liqueur) or the most quintessential Korean drink soju a low strength, smooth Korean rice wine.
Korea’s second biggest city, Busan, with a population of 3.5 million, can almost be considered a Korean version of Barcelona. It is a city on the beach with a bustling cultural scene and distinctly laid back feel compared to the “work hard play hard” lifestyle of Seoul.
After Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite received one of cinemas highest honours this year – the Cannes Palme D’Or – you can expect big things from the famous Busan International Film Festival this October held on the equally famous Haeundae beach, surrounded by towering skyscrapers and streets lined with restaurants selling freshly caught octopus that is eaten while still wriggling. Not for the faint hearted!
During the summer months Busan treats visitors to free beachside cinema screenings with international family friendly movies. Summer 2019 saw the award-winning Pixar film Coco being broadcast with a great sound quality from wireless pa system amongst lanterns and the dim crackle of fireworks being lit by families at the waterfront.
Parks and cycle paths
Active visitors can take advantage of Korea’s abundant nature, with more than 70% of the country being covered in hillside and mountains adding up to an impressive 22 national parks within a country the size of Ireland.
For adventure tourists there is a cycle path that connects Seoul to Busan for 380 miles of riverside cycling through the heartland of Korea. Impressively, the vast majority of this path is completely segregated from cars and other vehicles. It even has bicycle tunnels going through otherwise impassable mountains before descending down into the busy streets of Busan.
Bukhansan National Park is easily accessible within a short subway or bus ride from Seoul and offers stunning strolls through cherry blossom-lined trails, up past ancient fortifications, before mounting a 2746ft peak to find Koreans picnicking on its rocky slopes.
There’s also no better way to relax after a hike than a visit to a jjimjilbang, a Korean bathhouse, where customers stroll barefoot in pyjamas eating ramen or smoked eggs with salt, lying on heated marble floors and visiting different saunas before scrubbing down in steam rooms.
Outside of Seoul, Korea still maintains a feeling of being relatively “untouched” by the heavy tourism of Japan and South East Asian countries. It’s ideal for the more budget savvy when compared to Japan.