It’s no secret that South Korea’s not exactly a tourist destination people are flocking to get to. For most people, dreams of coming to Asia consist of seeking out undiscovered beaches in Thailand or visiting bucketlist places like the Great Wall of China and Angkor Watt. While Korea might not have any iconic sights that scream “once in a lifetime experience”, it does have plenty to keep tourists entertained.
If you’re coming to Korea but aren’t sure what the country has to offer you, here are 21 quintessential experiences not to miss out on!
For most foreigners, the famous Korean BBQ is our first taste of Korean cuisine. Let’s be honest, if you didn’t get taken out for “samgyeopsal” or “galbi” during your first week in Korea, did you even come to Korea at all?
Over an open grill you cook your own meat at your table- usually the oldest or most experienced person would do this, so don’t worry about giving everyone food poisoning. As is tradition, Korean BBQ is always accompanied by mountains of beer and soju and it’s actually rude to turn this part down. (Well, if you’re insisting!) The best thing about it is that you can eat like a king, get pretty tipsy, and spend less than 15,000 won.
Also, vegetarians, don’t despair! Most restaurants also serve mushrooms that can be fried over the grill, as well as dishes like bibimbap (rice, veggies and chilli paste), doenjang jiggae (bean paste and tofu soup) and naengmyeon (iced noodles.)
Hate karaoke? I used to too, then I came to Korea and experienced karaoke done right! Noraebang wass one of my favourite past times in Korea and, luckily for me- but not so much for Veeran, there are at least 5 on every street (seriously.)
The word noraebang translates to singing room, and that’s essentially what it is.
You and your friends get your own private room where you can sing your heart for as long as your vocal chords can handle. You can even get drinks (lots of drinks) and food delivered to you in there. Most noraebangs charge by the hour but it never comes to much when shared among friends.
If there were ever an ideal country to be hungover in, Korea would be it! It’s pretty much the holy land of hangover cures- you can even find special drinks and ice cream to help you get the previous night’s soju out your system.
However, I like to keep things traditional and my absolute favourite cure is “haejangguk” which literally translates to hangover soup. This is a spicy soup made with pork spine and vegetables. At the end of a heavy night drinking it’s a bit of a custom to go for hangover soup to help fight off any potential hangover- I think of it like the Korean version of chips and cheese or a kebab!
There’s also a vegetarian hangover soup called kkongnamul guk bab which is made with beansprouts and is also delicious.
Visit an Ancient City
Seoul is Korea’s capital and most well known city. There’s a lot to love about it- it’s huge, modern and exciting but there is so much more to Korea than that.
I would recommend anyone visiting Korea to make sure that they get themselves to one of the ancient cities. It’s the best way to learn about the Korea of the past and to really appreciate the contrast between now and then.
My absolute favourite ancient city is Gyeongju! However, Jeonju is also worth a visit for lots of street food and opportunities to try on hanbok. Suwon isn’t far from Seoul so it makes a great side trip to a city break and has heaps of atmosphre and fun sights to see.
Stay in a Hanok Village
Take a step further back into time and immerse yourself in the history by sleeping in it. Korea is still home to a lot of hanok villages (villages with traditional homes), the most famous being Bukcheon, Namsan and Jeonju. Although some are just for spectating, a lot take guests. I stayed at a homestay in Jeonju over Christmas and it was an amazingly, cosy experience!
Have a Traditional Banquet Meal
Eat like a king from the Joseon Dynasty with a “han jeon shik” meal. This is one of the best ways to familiarise yourself with Korean food because, well, they give you so bloody much of it! Usually you’ll have a main dish in the centre of the table and about 20 different side dishes to have as well- these are almost always unlimited so don’t be shy to ask for more if you really like something!
Don’t forget to sample some traditional booze while you’re there too. (If you’ve not clocked on yet, you’ll be doing a lot of boozing in Korea!)
Get Naked at a JJimjilbang
Nothing says “welcome to Korea” like a naked scrub down by an old “ajjuma” (auntie) or ajeoshi (uncle) at the jjimjilbang. Leave your inhibitions (oh, and all of your clothes) at the door and soak in the piping hot and freezing cold tubs. This is one of my favourite things to do in winter here, and it’s great for your skin too.
Yup, it’s nerve wracking at first but once you’re in there you’ll not care about the ajjumas pointing at your big bum 😉
If nakedness isn’t your thing, you can enjoy sitting in the heated rooms, wearing your pyjamas and eating boiled eggs because, Korea.
Drink a Soju Ice Cup outside a Convenience Store
I always say that convenience stores are one of the best things about life in Korea. This might sound a bit strange, but these humble 24 hour shops serve as the perfect place to pick up a cheap eat on the go, emergency midnight chocolate and even spare socks or underwear!
In Summer, I often miss the UK’s beer garden culture. However, with a change of mindset, the 7/11 can be your new beer garden! My go to summer drink is an ice-cup with soju and a mixer. Think of it as the Korean version of Pimms…
Korea’s second city, Busan, is the perfect place for beach lovers. In Summer, the main beach, Haeundae, is transformed into a sea of umbrellas and hosts up to 1 million people on prime weekends.
Just be warned that Koreans do beaching a bit differently from the rest of us… So, get ready to see people swimming fully clothed, taking extremely well planned selfies and trying to stay as far out of the sun as possible! If you get hungry, it’s possible to get fried chicken delivered straight to your sunbed as well.
Go on a K-Beauty Haul
In my first year in Korea, I developed a bit of an extreme addiction to Korean products. They’re cheap, innovative and work just as well, if not better, than Western make up brands. Some of these might seem a bit strange (snail serum, anyone?), but there are plenty that will covert you! My favourite high street brands were Innis Free for skincare and Mischa for make up.
If you’re in Seoul, take a walk down the busy streets of Myeongdong where you’ll be able to stock up on all your goodies, and get some freebies while you’re at it.
North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that I would try to deter anyone from visiting. Yes, it’s fascinating and mysterious but, in this current climate, it’s completely unethical and irresponsible to go there since the only way to visit is on a state visit. What this means, is that your money goes straight into the government’s pockets. My friend, Sam from There She Goes Again, wrote a fantastic and informative post about North Korea highlighting all the reasons not to go.
If you still want a North Korean fix without heading to North Korea, make your way up to The DMZ. Just 40 km north east of Seoul, from here, you can learn more about the divide and even have a look at North Korea through binoculars.
All the while, not putting a single penny into the regime’s pockets.
Jeju Island, often dubbed the Hawaii of Korea, is the absolute prime holiday spot for Koreans looking to burn off steam. While it might not exactly live up tourism slogan, it’s still a gorgeous place filled with natural beauty that Koreans are very proud to show off! Plus, a trip here is a nice contrast to crowded life in the big cities.
You can spend your time here chasing waterfalls, climbing dormant volcanoes and eating my favourite- hallabong ice cream! It’s even possible to cycle around the perimiter of the island like Veeran and I did last summer.
With 75% of the country covered by mountains, it’s no surprise that hiking is Korea’s national past time. Almost every city has a peak which offers unrivaled panoramic urban views of the space around it. If you prefer the wilderness, Korea also has 21 national parks waiting to be explored.
The highest peak on the mainland is Jirisan, and from the top, you’re spoiled to a view of mountains and mountains for miles.
It’s custom in Korea to end your hike with a glass of makgeolli (traditional rice wine) and pajeon (a savoury pancake.) This is definitely a custom that you should adhere to on your trip because it’s pretty much the best custom ever!
If hiking is the national past time, then drinking coffee is definitely the nation’s second favourite past time. Strangely, in Korea, coffee shops don’t tend to open until after 10am and some even close later than bars! Coffee-fever is so strong that you’ll be hard pushed to find a street without at least one coffee shop on it!
Pairing their love for coffee with their love for all things cute, the birth of the themed cafe was completely inevitable! No matter where you go, you’ll always find a pet cafe. However, big cities like Seoul, Daegu and Busan are home to some crazy and inventive themed cafes.
Some of the themed cafes are based on characters like Hello Kitty and Charlie Brown. Others a bit more obscure like the racoon cafe and poop cafe.
Spend a weekend getting zen with some Korean monks up in the mountains. You’ll need to bring your alarm clock, because most templestays have a 4am wake up call- eek!
As some of you might remember, we did our templestay at Golgulsa in Gyeongju and were less than impressed due to the sheer amount of ego on display. However, we do wish we had time to fit another one in and try it out at a quieter, less touristy temple.
A templestay is, undoubtedly, the best and most immersive ways to learn about Korea’s own unique branch of Buddhism. It’s something that I recommend all foreigners try out at least once for themselves! Even if you don’t “find yourelf”, I can assure you that I will be eye opening.
Hit the Slopes
Korea is well known for a lot of things, but winter sports don’t seem to be one of them! In 2018, Korea will host the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang- one of the country’s most popular ski resorts.
Skiing and snowboarding in Korea is very cheap in comparison to western prices and lots of resorts are easy to access from major cities.
Plus, is there any better apres-ski than K-BBQ and noraebang?
Have a Photoshoot
To reiterate: Koreans LOVE all things cute! The country is filled with photobooths where you can go for a photoshoot with your friends and airbrush your face until you look like an alien!
Lots of these places will have props and outfits for you to dress up in and you can embellish the final results with lots of cheesy stamps. I love all my cheesy photobooth pictures because they’re the perfect keepsake and pretty much embody everything I love about Korea!
Sample some Bing-Su
When the temperatures in Korea starts to rise and things start to get a bit too sticky, head indoors to feast on some bing-su! Bing-su is a Korean dessert consisting of shaved ice, condensed milk and a whole host of toppings.
These days, lots of coffee chains seem to be competing for the crown of having the most extravagant bing-su. I’ve seen melon bing-su which is served in a canteloupe melon, chocolate bing-su, berry bing-su, mango bing-su and even candy-floss bing-su! My favourite chains are Sulbing and Wicked snow- you’ll wonder why we even bother eating ice cream when there’s this for an alternative.
Fried chicken is big business in Korea- so much so, that there are actually more fried chicken shops in Korea than there are McDonalds in the world! Going out for chimaek- chicken and “maekju” (beer), is loved by everyone from families to groups of university students and even K-Pop groups. If you’re in Korea for any length of time, you’ll definitely get invited out for chimaek on at least one occasion.
There are a wide range of chains and you can choose oven baked chicken as well as fried and even have flavoured beer if you prefer! It sounds weird to say but chimaek is almost like a dining experience in Korea- it’s absolutely nothing like the greasy chicken spots you might be used to in your home country.
Following on from this theme, the next quintessential experience to have in Korea goes perfectly with chimaek!
Watch a Baseball Game
You might be thinking that watching baseball doesn’t really sound like a quintessentially Korean thing but, hey, this is 2017 and baseball is big news in the old Daehan-Minguk!!!
Almost every major city has a baseball team- mines had NC Dinos, and game tickets are usually under 10,000 won. Even if you don’t know anything about baseball, Korean fans are so enthusiastic and the atmosphere is so fun that you’ll be sure to have a great time.
Vendors around the stadium will be selling chimaek (which you know all about by now) but it’s perfectly fine to bring in your own snacks and booze, making it a cheap days out.
Also, guys, every team has cheerleaders and they all look like K-Pop stars so there’s that as well!
Go to a “Bang”
DVD bang, PC bang, multi bangs, noraebang.
As soon as you start learning to read Korean, you’ll notice that this word bang is everywhere! Basically, bang means room. So if you see bang tagged on to the end of a word, then it’s a room to do that thing in.
PC Bangs are filled with, you guessed it, PCs. Lots of students are obsessed with these since the fast internet makes them perfect for gaming- but some take their obsession too far and forget to leave! Expect to see lots of game obsessed teenagers drinking huge cans of energy drinks, trying to get to the next level. (Some of them might not have washed for a while….)
Multi bangs and DVD bangs are more of a private affair: like a noarebang, you rent it out with a group of friends. A DVD bang is just what you would think it is- a room where you can watch DVDs. The set up is like an old-school video shop but there are rooms in the back to watch them in. So simple but such an ingenious idea.
A multi-bang has everything to keep you entertained- games consoles, movies, noraebangs, and lots of snacks and drinks.
Since Koreans live with their parents until they get married, a lot of the time, these rooms are full of young couples looking for a bit of *ahem* alone time. So, don’t be surprised if you get to your DVD Bang and find that it consists of a bed and a box of tissues….
These are just some of the things that make Korea the unique coutry that it is but I’m sure that you’ll find even more things to love about it.
If you’ve been before, I’d love to know what you’re favourite quintessental experience is! Leave me a comment and join the conversation.
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