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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Gukje Market
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During the 1950s, refugees of war-torn Korea began opening up small shops to try to earn a living. This modest collection of shops has transformed into what is now Gukje Market (International Market, or Kookjae Market), Busan’s largest traditional market with vendors selling practically everything under the sun – items both new and secondhand.

While Gukje Market is very much a place where local Koreans still shop, travelers will find plenty of interest as well, besides the atmospheric street market atmosphere. It’s a great place to find hanbok, the traditional Korean formalwear, small souvenirs, T-shirts and favorite Korean street snacks, all at bargain prices. Whether you’re looking for bargain clothes, vintage glasses, some new electronics, or dried seaweed, prices are cheap and bargaining is totally accepted. Korean culture is based around dignity and respect for one another, so do bargain with a smile and always be polite.

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More Things to Do in South Korea

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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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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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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National Folk Museum of Korea

National Folk Museum of Korea

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This national museum is an impressive collection of Korean culture and history as displayed in nearly 100,000 artifacts. It’s housed in the beautiful Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. Its halls and exhibits tell the stories of daily life in Korea across time and occupation. In this way, many of the Korean traditions that have existed for centuries come to life and continue to be preserved. The museum has been open since 1945, expanding the breadth of its collection when it merged with the National Museum of Korea in 1975.

In addition to exhibitions dedicated to history, way of life, and life cycles of the Korean people, there is an open-air exhibit featuring replicas of important items from village life. The exhibits range from prehistory to the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Korean arts and crafts, performance art, and a children’s museum supplement the excellent efforts to showcase Korean life and culture.

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Myeongdong Shopping Street

Myeongdong Shopping Street

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Seokguram Grotto

Seokguram Grotto

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Hongdae

Hongdae

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Many travelers visit Hongdae, the area surrounding Hongik University in Seoul, for its nightlife, the best in the city. On weekend nights, the district comes alive as Seoul’s youth come out in force to dance, drink and generally have a good time. With dozens of bars and clubs within a few block radius, Hongdae offers a little bit of everything, including easy-going taverns. Dance clubs where the music rages until the sun comes up, underground karaoke dens and themed cocktail bars.

If you’re in Seoul on the last Friday of the month, called Club Night locally, you can pay a flat fee to enter about a dozen different clubs, with one drink on the house in each. It’s a good deal even if you only plan to visit a few of the bars. While the city’s best nightlife spot, the area around Hongik University is quite charming by day as well, particularly on Saturdays and Sundays when markets spring up selling Korean handicrafts and souvenirs.

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Deoksugung

Deoksugung

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Situated along an old stone road and tucked between a handful of western-style buildings, Deoksugung is the only traditional palace in Seoul’s bustling neighborhood of Jung-gu. Visitors who enter the grounds must cross a picturesque bridge where the king’s carriage once traveled thousands of years ago. Tourists can explore the traditional palace buildings that dot the grounds, as well as venture into the ornate gardens and the National Museum of Art. Free guided tours are available for those interested in learning more about the history of Deoksugung, but visitors say the exquisite detail of the buildings’ interiors and vast grounds are still impressive without the back story. The changing of the guards, which takes place daily, is one of the most popular attractions at Deoksugung.

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Haedong Yonggungsa Temple

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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Taejongdae Resort Park

Taejongdae Resort Park

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Seoul City Hall

Seoul City Hall

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Tapgol Park

Tapgol Park

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Formerly known as Pagoda Park, this small public gathering place was once the home of a Buddhist Temple and still holds an important place in Korean history. That’s because the March 1st Movement, part of the nation’s move towards independence from Japanese rule, took place in Tapgol Park.

Visitors can wander the grounds, which offer a number of places for quiet reflection, including an old pagoda dating back to the 15 Century. Impressive stone statues dot the grounds, which most travelers agree can be seen in about 30 minutes. Tapgol Park is perfect for relaxing on the way to or from nearby Isna-dong.

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Gyeonghuigung Palace

Gyeonghuigung Palace

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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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