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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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War Memorial of Korea
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While most people are familiar with the Korean War, fewer realize how wrought with conflict Korea’s history really is. The War Memorial of Korea documents this history with a focus on the country’s relationships with North Korea, China and Japan. Calling it a memorial is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s actually a full-fledged museum housed in the former headquarters of the Korean Infantry.

The eight main exhibits house an extensive collection of equipment from the Korean War, including tanks, guns and military planes, as well as a series of sculptures and paintings depicting patriotic war efforts. If you only have time for one exhibit, make it the Korean War exhibit. Technically, the Korean War is still going on, and tensions run hot between the North and the South, rendering the information here particularly relevant.

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National Museum of Korea
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Not only is the National Museum of Korea the best in the country, it’s also free. In a sweeping introduction to Korean art, culture and history, the museum houses more than 150,000 artifacts with around 11,000 on display, so you’ll have plenty to see, even if you’ve been to the museum before.

The three floors are divided into six total exhibit areas. On the first floor, you’ll find the Prehistory and Ancient History section and the Medieval and Early Modern History section, each displaying artifacts from the beginnings of Korean civilization through the Joseon Dynasty. The second floor houses the Calligraphy and Paintings section as well as an area designated for pieces donated by private collectors. The third floor contains a Sculptures and Crafts section and an Asian Arts section with cultural and artistic artifacts from various Asian countries.

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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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Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
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Built during the Goryeo Dynasty in 1376, historic Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is one of only a few Korean temples on the coast, and it honors Haesu Gwaneum Daebul (Seawater Great Goddess Buddha), a goddess believed to live in the ocean where she rides atop a dragon.

Legends aside, the east-facing temple offers a spectacular view of the rising sun – a site that’s especially popular on the morning of the Lunar New Year when Buddhist devotees come to make a wish for a prosperous new year. At the heart of the temple sits a three-level pagoda with four lion statues that symbolize joy, sadness, happiness and anger.

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Bukhansan National Park
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If you need a green escape from Seoul, you don’t even need to leave the borders of the city, thanks to Bukhansan National Park. With more than 1,300 species of plants and animals, the park is rich in both ecology and natural beauty, and has held the Guinness World Record as the most visited national park by area. Due to its proximity to the city, you’ll likely stumble upon old temples and fortresses dotted throughout the park.

The park was established in 1983 -- Korea’s fifteenth national park -- with an area of 50 square miles (80 square kilometers) spreading over Seoul and nearby Gyeonggi-do province and surrounded by urban areas. The park has everything from easy hiking trails to granite peaks, so day hikers, free climbers and everyone in between can find that perfect trail. If you plan to stay in the park for multiple days, you can choose between camping or staying in modest mountain lodges.

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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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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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Dongbaek Island (Dongbaekseom)
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Deongbeak Island (Dongbaekseom), considered one of Busan’s most scenic places, isn’t really an island at all. The former island, now connected to the Korean mainland by a land bridge made up of accumulated sediment, gets its name from the abundant dongbaek trees that live there.

Located within an easy walking distance of Haeundae Beach, the island park is crisscrossed by a series of boardwalks and trails, some winding along the rocky shore and others climbing through the verdant interior, perfect for a fresh air escape from the nearby city. Follow the boardwalk along the shore, and eventually you’ll come upon one of the island’s most famous landmarks, a statue of a mermaid sitting on a rock amid the crashing waves.

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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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More Things to Do in South Korea

Taejongdae Resort Park

Taejongdae Resort Park

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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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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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Gate Gwanghwamun

Gate Gwanghwamun

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Originally built in 1395 by the first Joseon king, Gwanghwamun serves as the main gate of Seoul’s Gyeongbukgung Palace, the largest of the five Joseon Dynasty palaces. The granite gate stood until the Japanese invasion of 1592, when the gate and the palace were burned and abandoned for the next 250 years. Further conflict with the Japanese and the Korean War led to the gate and palace being rebuilt, relocated and destroyed a second time. Gwanghwamun as it stands today was rebuilt in 1968 using concrete and steel instead of the original granite, though it was deconstructed and moved back to its original location during a major restoration project in 2006. Plan your visit to Gwanghwamun to coincide with the changing of the guard, a ceremony occurring hourly from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Visiting the gate and watching the changing of the guard is free, but you’ll have to pay an entrance fee to tour Gyeongbukgung Palace.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace

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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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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Cheongwadae Sarangchae

Cheongwadae Sarangchae

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Cheongwadae Sarangchae is a two-­story historical museum where visitors can learn about Korea’s political and cultural history. Originally the home of the public information hall of Cheongwadae and known as Hyojadong Sarangbang, the building underwent extensive renovations and reopened under its present name in January 2010.

On the first floor, the Korea Exhibition Center features displays depicting the country’s culture and tourism, including significant historical figures as well as its UNESCO World Heritage sites. There’s also a cafe and a gift shop on this level. The second floor is home to the Presidential Center, with photographs depicting scenes from Korea’s major political events from the past 60 years, along with information on past and present political leaders.

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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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Cheonggyecheon

Cheonggyecheon

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One of Seoul’s most ambitious revitalization projects of the past several decades has been to transform the Cheonggyecheon stream into one of the city’s best outdoor pedestrian areas. Cheonggyecheon, a small stream passing through downtown Seoul, was restored in 2005 to give the city a desperately needed outdoor area. The project included the installation of extensive walking paths, 22 bridges, a large central fountain and several murals and art installations featuring the work of local artists. The stream now stretches nearly 7 miles (11 kilometers), so you’ll usually be able to find a place to sit and relax.

In a city that was once largely devoid of natural spaces, Cheonggyecheon is one of the best places in Seoul for walking, people watching or simply taking a break from a walking tour of the surrounding historic district. During the summers, the city hosts cultural festivals and concerts as part of the Cheonggyecheon Cultural Festival.

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Myeongdong Shopping Street

Myeongdong Shopping Street

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Jagalchi Fish Market

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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Gwangjang Market

Gwangjang Market

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Gwangjang Market, Seoul’s first and oldest covered market, was originally the place to come to buy traditional Korean clothing items, like hanbok. While the market still specializes in textiles, it’s become one of Seoul’s biggest street food hot spots, where foodies can sample nearly any type of Korean cuisine under the same roof.

In the food court area, dozens of vendors pack tightly together, busily preparing a quick meal for shoppers passing through. The variety is astounding, but bibimbap (a Korean rice dish with ground meat and vegetables), dumplings and savory mung bean pancakes are always safe and tasty bets. If you happen to be in the market for a tailored silk dress or set of high quality bed sheets, head upstairs to the wholesale shops where you can get nearly anything custom made at a fraction of the cost you’d pay in some of Seoul’s high end shopping districts. Most of the shops close down on Sundays, but the food court remains open.

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Seokguram Grotto

Seokguram Grotto

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Namdaemun Market

Namdaemun Market

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If you need to do any shopping in Seoul, whether it be for clothes, housewares, jewelry, appliances or souvenirs, you’ll find it for a good price somewhere in the packed alleys and streets of Namdaemun Market. Ginseng, outdoors gear, imported goods and kitchenware can be bought throughout Seoul, but Namdaemun Market in particular seems to specialize in these items. For a uniquely Korean gift or souvenir, you can have a traditional stamp with your name spelled out in Korean made in minutes from one of many stamp stalls throughout the market.

Korea’s largest traditional market has been open since 1964 and hasn’t really closed since. Wholesale shops stay open throughout the night, and by early morning, the market is already busy as locals pass through to do their shopping. Namdaemun is also a great place to sample some Korean street food; you’ll find the greatest concentration of vendors in Noodle Alley and Restaurant Alley.

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