My “Top 10” Favourite Places in Korea
Korea is a beautiful country, a wonderful mix of bustling, modern cities and calm, picturesque countryside. During the three years I spent teaching English in Korea, I was able to explore quite a bit of both. This post is a collection of my “Top 10” favourite places in Korea.
1. Seoul – I love this city! There is just so much energy and so many things to do. Plus, I love that it’s totally geared towards night owls like me. I could honestly do a whole post on just the things that I love about Seoul (and perhaps I will) but the highlights include: great restaurants, many of which are open 24 hours; fabulous shopping, from bargain to designer and everything in between (see #2 for my fav place to shop); history, Seoul is a wonderful blend of modern and historical – there are some great museums and historical sites (palaces, gates, neighbourhoods); and the nightlife, there is something for everyone from clubs to noraebangs (singing rooms, like private karaoke ) to theatre to live music. Seoul is always hopping!
Changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace
2. Dongdaemun – This is a neighbourhood in Seoul which is famous for its shopping and for a historical gate. I visited the gate once but I went shopping dozens and dozens of times. There is just so much variety – from chain stores to Korean-style shopping centers like Doota and Migliore, which are filled with small shops to open-air markets. There is definitely something for everyone and you can shop most places all night (or at least to 5 am). Now I fully admit, I love shopping so Dongdaemun was like paradise for me. I could literally (and did several times) spend hours wandering around Doota or Migliore (or both) until my arms (and my friend’s) were weighed down with our purchases. Check it out next time you’re in Seoul!
3. Gyeongju – This smaller city on the southeastern coast is famous for the many historical sites that surround it. I would recommend taking a couple of days to explore everything. It’s perfect for a long weekend or a mini-break. Some of the sites are within the city like the Tumuli Park and the Museum while others require a short bus or car ride. You can even take a tour of some of the more famous sites (which makes the transportation issue simpler) and there are a few different tour combinations so you can find one that works for you. Sites you shouldn’t miss: the Tumuli Park– it’s a nice, relaxing stroll; Bulguksa temple; Seokguram Grotto; and Gyeongju National Museum. For more details (and pictures) see my next post
4. Busan and Haeundae Beach– Busan is the second largest city in Korea and the place I visited the most during my first year in Korea(I lived in Ulsan which is really close to Busan). Busan is a port city and when you visit, I recommend going to the Busan Fish Market for fantastic fresh seafood. Haeundae Beach is a popular tourist spot in the summer and for sunrise on New Year’s Day. Yep, New Year’s Day! It’s a Korean tradition to greet the first sunrise of the new year at the eastern most point of land – and Haeundae Beach is one of the popular places to do so. There were literally hundreds of thousands of people of all ages waiting for the sunrise the year I watched it. No joke!
Busan at night
5. Sokcho – Sokcho is a smaller city in Gangwon province (on the northeast coast). I only visited it once but it made a lasting impression for many reasons. First, I went with a couple of my co-teachers who are fabulous company. Second, we ate great seafood – there is a very good fish market here, especially if you like sashimi. I don’t but my friends all declared the fish we selected delicious and I concurred after I barbecued it over an open-fire grill in the market. The third attraction is the sea – there is a nice beach which even in the fall made for a nice afternoon attraction. The last draw of Sokcho is the biggest and best (in my opinion) is Seoraksan National Park. A beautiful place to go for a hike and Seoraksan is the third largest mountain in Korea so the views are fabulous. If you visit, try the cable car ride – it’s worth the view!
Sokcho and Seoraksan highlights
6. Jeju-do – Jeju is an island off the southwest coast of Korea, which is known as the honeymoon capital of Korea. I went there with two friends but it was easy to see how it got its nickname. Jeju is famous for many things but the highlights include: Hallasan – the largest mountain in Korea; haenyeo – female (often older) free-divers who free-dive for seafood; love parks and sex museums (no joke, I’ve been); black pigs (delicious); halla oranges (delicious but expensive); the lava tubes; and dol hareubang (stone grandfathers), which are suppose to offer protection and fertility. To top off things, Jeju was chosen as one of the 28 finalists for the New 7 Wonders of Nature contest.
7. Jirisan National Park – I love the outdoors and Korea has some great parks and mountains. Jirisan National Park was the first one I visited, not long after I arrived in Korea and I was entranced by it. Three things in particular stood out. First, the natural splendour of Jirisan, which is the second largest mountain. I was there in the fall and the contrast of the rugged mountains with the brilliant bursts of colour was magnificent. We hiked up to a waterfall and the views were fabulous. The second thing that stood out was the sheer number of people hiking that day. It was a beautiful day – and a holiday – and people were out with friends and family enjoying it. The final thing that I remember was that you could buy soju half-way the mountain. It was the perfect addition to our picnic!
New friends hiking Jirisan together
8. Hongdae – I love dancing, I love shopping and I love eating good food! Hongdae is a neighbourhood in Seoul around Hongik University where I can do all three – and there have been nights that I did all three. There are a variety of clubs here that play everything from hip hop to trance to funk to rock, so there’s something for everyone. And if you don’t like the clubs, there are lots of bars too, including my personal favourites Tin Pan 1 and 2 (whose two locations are across the street from each other) and Ho Bar (which has six locations in Hongdae), offering up cheap drinks. As for the shopping, there’s lots of trendy small shops with cute clothes, shoes and accessories for everyone. It’s the perfect place to spend time with friends.
With my lovely friend Joohee in Tinpans (a Hongdae bar)
9. Boryeong – Boryeong is a small city on the western coast of Korea, about midway down the peninsula. There is delicious seafood to be had – and they have some fabulous all-you-can-eat deals on clams, oysters and mussels. But the best part for me – and the reason most foreigners is the Boryeong Mud Festival that happens every summer. I’ve been three times and it’s always been the highlight of my summer. It’s just a fantastic weekend trip. You can spend the day at the beach, apply free cosmetic mud all over your body, eat yummy seafood, watch out of this world fireworks and enjoy fun mud games like a mud slide or mud wrestling (no joke). If you’re in Korea in July, don’t miss the Boryeong Mud Festival.
Boryeong Mud Festival highlights
10. Bangi-dong – This was the neighbourhood in Seoul that I lived in for two years and I fell in love with it for many reasons. First, the people in the neighbourhood were super friendly. I got to know several people in my local grocery store, convenience store, coffee shop, and restaurants; I was even lucky enough to make some great friends. Second, I lived right off the Bangi market so there was always fresh fruit and veggies at good prices. Third, it is close to Olympic Park and Seokchon Lake – both of which are beautiful parks to walk or run around. Bangi-dong is also close to Jamsil station (on the green subway line) and Lotte World (an indoor amusement park with just about everything you need to have fun including a skating rink).
My old neighbourhood – Seokchon Lake & Olympic Park
Honourable Mention: Anmyeondo –Korea’s sixth largest island (on the northwest coast) is the home to many beaches and delicious shrimp/prawns. I spent a mini-holiday there with some of my favourite co-teachers and had an absolute blast learning how to cook shrimp on a bed of sea salt. Other fun things to do include: watching the tide & sunsets, eating other delicious seafood and four-wheeling around the island and beaches (with a tour guide). Great place for a mini escape from the bustle of Seoul!