An Overlooked Gem: The South Korea Bucket List
If we’re being brutally honest, South Korea probably isn’t at the top of your Asian itinerary.
Hell, it might not even be in the top ten.
It’s a sad fact that South Korea is often overlooked in favour of its neighbours – Japan and China.
It’s true that China has it all over South Korea when it comes to historic landmarks. Korea just can’t compete with the likes of the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, or the Forbidden City. Especially since the Korean War bulldozed so much of the ancient nation’s history.
Likewise, South Korea’s vibrant and quirky culture doesn’t get the same international coverage than that of their former conquerors, Japan.
But to exclude South Korea from your Asian adventure would be a grave disservice to you.
South Korea is a country of delicious food, ancient temples, quirky K-Pop, breathtaking landscapes, friendly people, zany festivals, and much, much more.
Don’t believe me? I had trouble keeping this list to just 40 things you should do in South Korea.
40 Things You Should Do in South Korea
South Korea has a little something for everyone. Whether you’re a young adventurer looking to see and do remarkable things, history junkie wanting to see ancient temples, a foodie looking to indulge, or traveling with kids – there’s bound to be something below for you to enjoy.
The Korean capital and the nation’s largest city, cosmopolitan Seoul is a fascinating blend of old and new Korea. From quaint laneway communities to neon-lit bar streets to serene temples, Seoul has plenty to occupy even the most adventurous traveler.
With a huge variety of Seoul hotels to choose from, it’s a destination that works for budget travelers all the way through to high-end luxury types.
It goes without saying that Seoul will be a highlight of any trip to South Korea, and if you’ve only got 4-5 days to spend in the country – you’d be best advised to spend it all in the capital.
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Spring is one of my favourite seasons as a traveler. The return of blue skies, the cherry blossom petals drift lazily in the gentle breeze, and people are in high spirits. Wandering Seoul's Gyeongbokgung Palace in this atmosphere was a real treat. I had kids asking to interview me, girls wanting photos with me, and old guys quizzing me about where I'm from. I'd forgotten how friendly and fun South Korea is.
1. Tour Seoul’s palaces
Seoul is sometimes known as the city of palaces, with five ancient imperial sites in the Korean capital.
The grandest of these is undoubtedly Gyeongbukgung (Palace Greatly Blessed By Heaven), a sprawling complex that will put visitors in mind of Beijing’s Forbidden City on a smaller, quieter scale. Wandering this living museum and cultural park is a half day activity all of its own.
Completionists may wish to add Changdeokgung, Cheonggyeonggung, Deoksugung, and Gyeonhuigung to their ‘to do’ list – with each palace offering its own unique history and its own beauty.
Read more about Seoul’s palaces.
2. Browse Namdaemun and/or Dongdaemun Market
South Korea is well known for the nation’s love of shopping, and Seoul is the undisputed capital when it comes to shopping.
While locals might flock to the modern mega-malls, tourists will no doubt find the bustling markets such as Namdaemun and Dongdaemun to be a more rewarding experience.
Both market districts are named for the gates that stand nearby (Namedaemun was burned down in 2008 and has since been restored), and both sport a mixture of souvenirs, boutiques, malls, and street food.
Traditionally, Namdaemun is a day market and Dongdaemun is a night market, although both operate with more relaxed schedules these days.
3. Cheonggyecheon Stream
A strip of serenity through the bustling heart of modern Seoul, Cheonggyecheon Stream is a beautiful strip of shady trees, art, and history along the bubbling banks of the stream around which Korea’s largest city has sprung up.
Once the site for a massive immigrant camp during the Japanese occupation, Cheongyecheon is today a beautiful distraction from the towering skyscrapers that cast their long shadows over the area.
Wandering along the stream is an opportunity to relax, people watch, and snap a few photos before continuing your exploration of the city.
4. Hike to N Seoul Tower
One of the best places in Seoul to take in a view of the sprawling city, N Seoul Tower (otherwise known as Seoul Tower or Namsan Tower) offers a great panorama of the city.
Accessible by either cable car or by hiking up the mountain, Namsan Tower is home to a number of attractions and amenities such as restaurants, stores, and museums.
A highlight for any visitor is likely to be the Locks of Love, where romantics hang padlocks to symbolize their devotion to one another. Even if you’re not clipping your own lock onto the pile, it’s a fun photo opportunity.
5. Nori Madang
For those wanting a glimpse into Korea’s culture prior to the Korean War and the nation’s subsequent modernisation, the open-air amphitheater of Nori Madang is a great way to see, hear, and experience the culture of the country.
A combination of traditional dance and music, Norimadang is a colourful display of Korean culture that is a great introduction for those who might not have the time to explore more deeply.
6. Visit the DMZ
It wouldn’t be a visit to South Korea without paying a visit to the mark on the map that makes it necessary to differentiate between ‘North Korea’ and ‘South Korea’.
The heavily guarded border between the two nations is regularly the subject of worldwide speculation, and a visit to the tense frontier is definitely an experience you’ll remember for a long time.
There are a variety of tour operators offering trips to the Demilitiarized Zone, but only the USO DMZ Tour takes you into the infamous ‘Blue Room’ in which you can stand in both South Korea and North Korea at the same time.
7. Seoul Grand Park
A massive parkland that well and truly lives up to its ‘Grand’ title, Seoul Grand Park is an excellent addition to a family trip to Seoul.
Home to the Seoul Zoo, a colourful theme garden, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, the Seoul Land amusement park, and all of the usual things you’d expect to find in a park – it’s a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
8. Lotte World and Everland
Speaking of places for the kids, Seoul’s two massive theme parks are themselves fun additions to your trip.
Whether you choose Lotte World, the world’s largest indoor theme park, or the more traditional outdoor thrills of Everland (located a short drive from Seoul), you’ll find rides for young and old alike.
Lotte World is a massive indoor recreation complex that includes a theme park, shopping malls, luxury hotels, a folk museum, entertainment, and much more. Located in downtown Seoul, the park is especially popular with kids, but has plenty to entertain grown ups too.
For more traditional theme park enthusiasts, Everland is a massive Disney-esque park located 30-60 minutes from Seoul. Big kids will find some thrills of their own here, with the towering T-Express being the world’s fourth tallest wooden roller coaster and one of the ten fastest.
9. Discover quirky Seoul
Seoul isn’t all palaces and parks, and there are certainly things for the more adventurous to discover if they’re willing to get off the beaten path.
There’s the Raccoon Cafe, where you can sip coffee and then pet a little Rocket of your own or the intriguing Owl Museum where you can see art inspired by (you guessed it) owls.
The Seoul Trick Eye Museum isn’t something you can’t find elsewhere in the world, but it’s a fun way to kill a rainy afternoon snapping silly photos of you and your friends.
10. Visit the War Memorial of Korea & The National Museum of Korea
The Korean War doesn’t get as much international recognition as The Vietnam War or even the Gulf War, but it’s very much a part of the fabric of the nation.
The War Memorial of Korea is a somber tribute to those who lost their lives fighting for the freedom that Kim Il-Sung sought to snatch away from them, as well as to Koreans who have lost their lives in subsequent conflicts.
It is also a museum of Korean military history, and visitors can wander the more than 13,000 item exhibition as well as a large outdoor area displaying aircraft, tanks, and naval vessels.
For those wanting to learn about South Korea’s history, the impressive National Museum houses exhibits dating from as far back as the paleolithic all the way up to the formative years of modern Korea.
The impressive collection came under threat during the Korean War, but was successfully smuggled to Busan and restored after the ‘conclusion’ of the war. Today, the museum houses the world’s largest collection of Korean artefacts and is a must for anybody wanting a window into the nation’s past.
11. Visit Insadong
It’s a little touristy these days, but the Insadong district of Seoul is a popular stop with tourists wanting a glimpse of Korean culture beyond its modern image.
Once a famous street for Korean artisans dating back as far as 1392, Insadong today continues that trend as a bustling market for people wishing to buy locally made arts, crafts, and souvenirs. If you’re looking to take home a few gifts from South Korea, it’s likely to be Insadong where you spend those last few thousand won.
Festivals & Culture
South Korea is a nation that loves its festivals? There is a South Korean festival for almost every occasion, and they offer a great chance to immerse yourself in local culture that you won’t get just wandering the usual tourist trail.
You can read more about South Korean festivals, but I’ve highlighted the most significant below.
12. Attend the Jinju Lantern Festival
Jinju might not be on your itinerary at any other time of the year, but every October the unassuming southern town transforms into a city of lights as thousands of lanterns travel down the Namgan River in tribute to the 70,000 men and women who lost their lives fighting the Japanese during the Imjin War.
The festival’s somber roots aren’t immediately apparent, as the riverside is transformed into a festival of food, drink, and amusements until the main attraction – a procession of gigantic, inventive lanterns that proceed down the river each night in dazzling style.
It’s a visually stunning evening and well worth the detour.
13. Attend the Jindo Moses Miracle Festival
One of the weirder festivals out there, the ‘Moses Miracle’ festival (sometimes known as the Miracle Sea Road Festival), sees thousands of people descend on the quiet little town of Jindo to shuffle across a temporary land bridge that connects the main island to a smaller island nearby.
There’s a whole mythology behind the event that I won’t go into here, but if making the pilgrimage between two obscure islands with a few thousand of your closest friends isn’t on your bucket list, I’m not sure I want to know you.
The festival typically takes place in late April.
14. Attend the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
Sakura may be more closely associated with neighbouring Japan, but South Korea doesn’t lag behind when it comes to enchanting displays of these colourful trees and their lazily drifting petals.
Spring brings a burst of colour to the entire country, and Jinhae in the nation’s south is home to a particularly memorable display and the festival that celebrates it.
You can read all about my experience at the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival before planning your own trip to see the flowers in bloom.
15. Attend the Mud Festival
An especially popular event with expats living and working in South Korea, the Boryeong Mud Festival is a wild party that combines alcohol, a beautiful beach, oodles of therapeutic mud, and visitors from all walks of life into an orgy of fun.
While the majority of the festival tends to focus on the scantily clad foreigners who crowd the beach, there are activities for others as well such as kids play areas, markets etc.
At the end of the day, this is one for the young and the young at heart and is a must if you’re in Korea in July.
16. Make your own kimchi at the Kimchi Festival
Korea’s signature dish, kimchi, is one of those things that grow on you over time. Fermented cabbage might not sound like something you’ll come to love, but plenty of people have become converts to the church of kimchi over the years.
While it can be found virtually everywhere, only my former home, Gwangju takes its love of kimchi to the level of having a festival for it.
The Gwangju Kimchi Festival each October is not only a celebration of the staple, but also a chance for you to get your hands dirty and make it for yourself.
17. Rock out with your c**k out in a jjimjilbang
Korea’s massive public bathhouses aren’t glamourous, but they’re certainly an experience for those brave enough to strip down to their altogether.
Segregated by gender, these 24-hour bathhouses have saunas, lockers, public baths, sleeping rooms, and (in some cases) a variety of other entertainments.
Frequented almost exclusively by locals, jjimjilbangs are a cheap and interesting way to learn a bit more about modern Korea.
Learn more about Jjimjilbang etiquette.
18. Head out to the ball game
Baseball is far and away the most popular team sport in South Korea, and most major cities are home to a KBO franchise.
While the quality might not be up to scratch compared to the MLB in the US, Korean baseball games have a life all of their own. It’s not just about passionate supporters either – it’s the whole game day experience of grabbing a cooler of beers, a big order of fried chicken or pizza, and settling in to pay absolutely zero attention to the most boring sport in the world.
Beer and greasy food make everything better.
If baseball isn’t your thing (and I can’t blame you), the K-League is one for Europeans who love the round ball game. While it isn’t home to household names, the K-League is one of Asia’s most competitive and high-quality football leagues, and well worth a look.
19. Attend a K-Pop concert
K-Pop (Korean Pop) is another fascinating element of Korean culture. Not to be confused with J-Pop, K-Pop is a dizzying mixture of soda-pop, fashion, hyper-sexuality, bubble bath, and just a little R&B.
While the music itself might not be your thing, the spectacle is something that really needs to be experienced. Insanely choreographed dance routines, screaming fans, and frustratingly catchy tunes make for an unforgettable night out.
20. Visit Loveland
One of the more surreal attractions in South Korea, Loveland on Jeju is a museum of all things sex.
From the often graphic sculpture garden of various sexual organs and sexual positions to the detailed exploration of Korean sexuality within the museum, it’s the kind of place to turn straight-faced adults into giggling teens in a matter of moments.
Definitely one of the more fascinating glimpses into the Korean cultural tapestry.
Food is such a huge part of any country’s culture, and Korea is a nation that loves a good meal.
With many meals a communal affair in which friends or family socialize, it’s no surprise that Korean food is all about big servings and cheap ingredients.
21. Eat fresh seafood at Jagalchi Fish Market
South Korea’s largest seafood market, Jagalchi Market in Busan is a must-see if you like your seafood fresh.
How fresh? You can pick your fish from one of the many stalls and watch as they cook it up right in front of you.
It’s an old-fashioned style market experience: all shouting hawkers, jostling shoppers, and a mind-boggling selection of things both appetizing and confusing.
22. Eat dak galbi in Chuncheon
My absolute favourite Korean dish is dak galbi. A combination of spicy chicken, sweet potato, cabbage, and chewy tteok rice cakes – dak galbi is available across the country, but is best exemplified by Chuncheon.
The best part? It’s crazy cheap and crazy filling!
23. Eat bibimbap in Jeonju
One of Korea’s more instantly recognisable dishes, bibimbap (mixed rice) is a bowl of rice decorated with a variety of vegetables, a fried egg, and spicy gochujang sauce. Served either in a bowl or a hot stone bowl that cooks the egg in front of you, it is a delicious treat enjoyed all around the world.
You can’t walk more than a block in South Korea without finding bibimbap for sale, but its spiritual home is Jeonju where, you guessed it, there’s a bibimbap festival to celebrate.
You’d think rice + vegetables would be a pretty easy dish to do, but there’s plenty of debate as to where to find the best bibimbap in Jeonju too.
24. Eat BBQ anywhere
Aside from kimchi (which isn’t really a dish as much as it is a side), Korean BBQ is the country’s signature dish.
I guess you could argue a case for bulgogi, but the marinated beef just hasn’t proved as popular outside of Korea as bibimbap, kimchi, and BBQ have.
Whether you have it as samgyeopsal (pork), galbisal (beef ribs), dak gui (chicken), or one of the countless other options, it always does the trick.
Enjoyed over a hot plate with plenty of sides, lots of lettuce leaves, and liberal amounts of beer – BBQ is the ultimate communal Korean meal.
25. Drink soju, eat twigim, and rock some noraebang
My fondest memories as an expat living in South Korea were undoubtedly late, boozy nights with good friends.
Expat or Korean, it seems like everyone in South Korea knows how to have a good time. The recipe itself is pretty simple: drink, eat, and sing until you’re hoarse.
While beer was undoubtedly my drink of choice, it would be criminal to leave South Korea without subjecting yourself to the nation’s national spirit: soju.
Tasting something like a weaker vodka, soju is surprisingly palatable when served up with a mixer, and goes down a treat with some twigim (fried street food), tteokbokki (chewy, spicy rice cakes), or late night toasties.
Combine all of this with a little noraebang (Korean karaoke) and you’ve got recipe for one hell of a night and one hell of a hangover.
South Korea occupies the southern tip of a tiny peninsula and is one of the world’s most densely populated nations, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an abundance of gorgeous landscapes to be explored.
South Korea is a land of mist-shrouded valleys, sparsely forested peaks, dark seas, and surprising serenity. It’s not hubris that the nation is sometimes known as The Land of the Morning Calm.
While Jejudo in the nation’s south gets the most attention, more and more people are starting to realize what an unspoiled paradise Ulleungdo is.
A volcanic island jutting out of the dark seas between Korea and Japan, Ulleungdo is an island of quiet fishing villages, sweeping vistas, and breathtaking volcanic terrain.
The best part? Ulleungdo remains relatively off the beaten path, with many tourists overlooking its natural splendour in favour of more crowded Jejudo.
27. Hike Seoraksan National Park
Home to South Korea’s highest mountain (for which the park is named), Seoraksan National Park is renowned for its floral beauty. It’s also a hugely popular destination for hiking, and its location near Seoul makes it remarkably accessible for those on shorter visits.
There are more things to do in Seoraksan than simply hiking, and the park offers a little something for everyone from the hardcore hiker to the avid photographer.
28. Visit Damyang Bamboo Forest
If wandering a gorgeous bamboo forest sounds like something you’d enjoy, Damyang in Jeollanamdo province is the place for you. It’s also home to some traditional Hanok architecture, and a picture of pre-modern Korea for those wanting a change of pace.
A place of sublime serenity, Damyang (not to be confused with Danyang) is close to Gwangju’s transport hub, making it an easy day trip from almost anywhere.
Don’t take my word for it – check out the picture above and let it do the convincing!
29. Take the Hallyeosudo Cable Car
At almost two kilometres in length, the Hallyeosudo Cable Car is Korea’s longest cable car and provides heart-stopping views of the nearby Hallyeo Maritime National Park.
For hiking enthusiasts, a one-way ticket gives you the view on the way up and the opportunity to hike down Mireuksan on the way back.
The top of the mountain even offers a view of Japan! Kind of. Sort of.
30. Visit Jeju
Undoubtedly South Korea’s most famous tourist attraction after Seoul, the volcanic island of Jejudo is justifiably one of the country’s most popular playgrounds.
Known as ‘Korea’s Hawaii’, there are certainly similarities between this tropical, volcanic island and the US state.
But travelers going to Jeju expecting to get leid, sunbathe, surf, and eat at buffets are going to be disappointed. Jejudo is undoubtedly beautiful, but it’s not on par with Hawaii or Southeast Asia when it comes to beach escapes.
What Jeju does do well is stunning landscapes. From towering Hallasan to the mysterious Manjanggul Cave to vast Sangumburi Crater to the island’s many beaches and waterfalls, it’s one of the most picturesque islands you’re ever likely to encounter.
If the view from atop Mireuksan and the cable car didn’t convince you to visit the Hallyeo Maritime National Park, maybe a little more information about Oedo Island will.
A true labour of love, Oedo is sometimes known as the Oedo Botania for the stunning gardens that have been nurtured onto what was once a barren piece of rock.
Surrounded by the Hallyeo Maritime National Park and its clear blue waters, Oedo is something completely unexpected in an area of craggy islands and relatively few tourists.
32. Upo Marsh
One probably doesn’t immediatley think of wetland when they think of Korea, but the Upo Marsh is a stunning sanctuary of more than 5,500 square kilometres.
Criss-crossed by walking and cycling paths, Upo Marsh is an exercise in tranquility located not too far from Korea’s second largest city, Busan.
33. Visit the Boseong Tea Fields
Green tea is perhaps more closely associated with China and Japan, but it’s every bit as much a part of Korean culture as kimchi and galbi.
Few places epitomise the beauty of tea plantations quite like Boseong, located just outside of Gwangju in the nation’s south.
Whether you’re interested in learning about green tea production, photographing the landscape, or sampling green tea icecream – Boseong is a delicious day trip from almost anywhere in Korea thanks to the country’s fantastic KTX rail network.
Korean history might not be as well known as Chinese or even Japanese history, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.
Humans have called the Korean peninsula home for thousands of years, and the rise and fall of Korea’s empires is often eclipsed by more modern tales such as the Korean War, the Japanese invasion, and the ongoing tensions with North Korea.
Nevertheless, any visit to Korea without soaking in some of its history would be criminal.
34. Visit Yonggungsa Seaside Temple
Hands down my favourite temple in South Korea, the seaside temple of Yonggungsa in Busan is one of the more breathtaking places of worship you’ll ever come across.
Clinging to craggy rock at the edge of often rough seas, Yonggungsa is a serene communion between sea and land.
As Busan was one of the only places in South Korea not to fall to North Korea during the Korean War, Haedong Yonggungsa also has the selling point of being one of the oldest temples in the country.
35. Bulguksa Temple
Speaking of must-see temples, Bulgulksa is a World Heritage listed temple site that is considered South Korea’s most important historic site and is also home to seven of the country’s national treasures.
One of the most impressive temples to Korean Buddhism, this stunning site may have been reduced over time by fire and war, but remains a must see in South Korea’s ‘Museum Without Walls’, Gyeongju.
36. Jeonju Hanok Village
For those wanting a glimpse into Korean life before the high rises and factories, the Hanok Village in Jeonju is a great way to step back in time.
Home to more than 800 traditional Hanok style homes, this section of the otherwise modern village is a popular tourist attraction with those wanting to see Korea as it was prior to the last century.
For those wanting to see traditional Korean architecture and to experience a (somewhat watered down) old Korea, it’s an invaluable resource.
37. Explore Gyeongju, the Museum Without Walls
Korea’s ‘Museum Without Walls’, Gyeongju is the nation’s former capital and a haven for those with a passion for Korean history and architecture.
The city is home to more tombs, temples, pagodas, statues, and ruins than any other site in South Korea, making it something like a huge, open-air museum.
The capital of the ancient Shilla empire before becoming the capital of the entire Korean peninsula, Gyeongju was an important city in this corner of the world for more than 1,000 years before eventually falling.
It’s also home to Bulguksa, #34 on this list.
38. Hwaseong Fortress
An impressive example of Imperial Korea, the vast fortress in Suwon was constructed in the 1700s as part of a mooted plan to relocate the Korean capital away from Seoul.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, Hwaseong’s five and a half kilometre wall is a testament to Korean ingenuity and determination. While it has seen hard use over the centuries (especially during the Korean War), it remains as one of Korea’s most beloved historic sites.
39. Goryeo Celadon Museum
One of the real history and culture buffs, the Gangjin Goryeo Celadon Museum is a museum dedicated to the Goryeo style of celadon pottery and porcelain.
While this might seem like an insanely specific niche for a museum, the pieces within are an excellent example of the near four hundred year dynasty that helped to shape not only Korean culture, but Buddhism as a whole.
Goryeo (greenware) remains one of Korea’s most distinctive artistic mediums.
40. Independence Hall of Korea
The Japanese occupation of South Korea remains arguably the darkest period in the nation’s history, surpassing even the horrors of the Korean War in the eyes of many.
Built originally as a government building for the government-in-exile in China, the Independence Hall was relocated to Cheonan in Korea after the nation was liberated from its Japanese invaders.
The hall today stands as testament to the Korean nation’s indomitable desire to be free of oppression, with seven exhibition halls dedicated to different facets of Korean history and their long feud with their warlike neighbours.
As you can see, there is a wealth of options when it comes to things to do in Korea.
Whether your bucket list is populated with cultural immersion, extreme adventures, breathtaking views, or fascinating history – there’s something for everybody on the Korean peninsula.
What is on your Korean bucket list?
Looking for more bucket list inspiration?
Don’t forget to check out my other comprehensive bucket lists!
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