South Korea Holiday Planning Guide
Though it boasts a history spanning thousands of years, South Korea ranks among the world's most urbanized and modernized countries, with nearly half of its population living in high-rises concentrated in the national capital. In this land of pristine mountain scenery, many South Korea vacations involve some form of winter sports--not surprising for the country that won the bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. Curious travelers wishing to get to know South Korea's heart and soul spend only a small part of their holiday in big cities like Busan and Seoul, devoting much of their attention to the tranquil countryside that seems largely untouched by the 21st century.
Places to Visit in South Korea
Regions of South KoreaJeju Island
: Offering hiking, caving, horseback riding, and plenty of relaxing beaches, the "Island of the Gods" features on many Korea itineraries as a popular vacation destination for domestic and foreign tourists.Gyeongsangbuk-do
: This region's rich cultural heritage, including Buddhist temples and folk villages with a long Confucian tradition, represents a major tourist draw in this cradle of the ancient Silla Kingdom.Gyeonggi-do
: Korea's most populous province offers a blend of historical attractions, outdoor activities, and kid-friendly spots, from a World Heritage-listed fortress and folk villages to theme parks and ceramics workshops.Gangwon-do
: In addition to tours of Korea's Demilitarized Zone, this northernmost province offers a wide range of outdoor activities, including excellent skiing in winter.
Cities in South KoreaSeoul
: One of east Asia's major cultural and financial centers, the South Korean capital offers a mixture of glass-and-steel skyscrapers, historical sightseeing, World Heritage Sites, and a vibrant food scene.Jeju
: The main town of the World Heritage-listed volcanic island stands out from mainland Korea with its matriarchal culture, evidenced in the exploits of haenyeo (female divers).Gyeongju
: One of South Korea's most popular tourist destinations, this "Museum Without Walls" combines World Heritage-listed cultural sites with pine-forested beaches and sport facilities.Andong
: The "Capital City of Korean Spiritual Culture" remains one of the top places to visit in South Korea for those wishing to explore the nation's folk and cultural heritage.Sokcho
: Known best for its UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this far northern city also boasts a local cuisine highly regarded on a national level.Jeonju
: Hailed for its cuisine and food festivals, the birthplace of "bibimbap" (a well-known Korean dish) serves as a popular base for exploring the scenic and rural Wanju County.Ulsan
: Gateway to the Yeongnam Alps, this thriving metropolis boasts black pebble beaches, whaling museums, and the world's largest shipyard.
Things to Do in South Korea
Popular South Korea Tourist AttractionsN Seoul Tower
: Offering sweeping views of Seoul, the 236.7 m (777 ft) tall tower boasts a teddy bear museum, French and Korean restaurants, and a roof terrace with thousands of "locks of love."Gyeongbokgung Palace
: A perennial favorite among South Korea attractions, this former residence of the Joseon dynasty rulers includes the royal family's private quarters, the National Folk Museum, and a number of traditional Korean gardens.Seongsan Ilchulbong
: A testament to the region's ancient volcanic activity, this "tuff cone" provides sweeping views of the surrounding ocean and coastline from its rim.Haeundae Beach
: One of the country's most popular waterfront spots, this 2 km (1.2 mi) long beach lets you to incorporate sun, surf, traditional games, and festivals into your South Korea vacation.Myeongdong Shopping Street
: Lined with high fashion houses and department stores, Seoul's major commercial and shopping district is popular among young, trendsetting travelers.Insadong
: Remaining at the heart of Seoul's cafe culture, this bustling neighborhood offers some of the best souvenir shopping.Changdeokgung Palace
: Explore the pavilions and gardens of this harmonious royal palace, designed according to feng shui principles and Confucian ideology.Everland
: One of the nation's premier amusement parks offers a diverse array of attractions, from fable-themed rides to replicas of famed landmarks--perfect for families on holiday in South Korea.Gamcheon Culture Village
: Decorated with elaborate murals and sculptures, the "Machu Picchu of Busan" invites you to visit the artist workshops, take pottery classes, or join a scavenger hunt.War Memorial of Korea
: Commemorating the nation's military history, these former army headquarters showcase historical records and relics with the purpose of educating future generations.
Planning a South Korea Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in South Korea with Kids
Perhaps one of the most family-friendly destinations in the world, South Korea has a plethora of activities to offer to the youngest travelers. Seoul
alone boasts a variety of attractions, from amusement parks, aquariums, cycling paths, and ski tracks to interactive kids' museums and traditional villages. Combine culture and leisure in kid-friendly Busan
, with many historic temples and a wealth of beaches. Lesser-known Paju
may not immediately spring to mind when planning a South Korea vacation with kids, but it features a few must-see places for families, including a waterpark, a book city, and an art village.
For nature lovers, Gangwon-do
remains a favorite family vacation idea in South Korea. Children will appreciate its national parks, natural caves, and pristine white sand beaches. You can also consider visiting Jeju
and its botanical gardens, waterfalls, and caves.
Things to Do in South Korea with Kids
There are plenty of things to do in South Korea that both parents and children will love. Families can spend an entire day at Everland
, South Korea's largest theme park, or at the amusement rides, botanical gardens, musical water fountain, and zoo of Seoul Children's Grand Park
. The capital's famous landmark, 63 City
, not only offers a great view but also an IMAX cinema, art museum, and large aquarium. Step back in time on a replica of a 19th-century train, and take your kids for a ride around the perimeter of Eco Land Theme Park
Add more cultural experience to your South Korea holiday with a visit the children's section of the National Museum
, featuring an array of hands-on activities. Let your kids learn about the Korean way of life through fun, interactive displays at the Children's Folk Museum
. Meanwhile, little ones will adore Teddy Bear Museum Jeju
, which showcases collections of everyone's favorite stuffed animal from all over the world.
Tips for a Family Vacation in South Korea
South Korea's child-friendly culture features plenty of places designed specifically for families with children, such as cafes, restaurants, hair salons, and photo studios. That said, the capital's streets aren't stroller-friendly. Use baby carriers or baby backpacks while sightseeing in Seoul, and take advantage of the free strollers provided by many of the city's attractions and most of its stores. Most restaurants and fast food places provide high chairs.
To get from place to place on your tour of South Korea, consider taking a train if possible, since kids under the age of four don't need a ticket, while kids under 13 get a 50-percent discount. Also, if your children are fair-haired and blue-eyed you will have to get used to them being the center of attention.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in South Korea
Cuisine of South Korea
Eating local food is likely to be a highlight of your South Korea vacation. Like most of Southeast Asian cookery, South Korean cuisine is based on rice, vegetables, and meats, stir-fried or steam-cooked and seasoned with soy sauce, garlic, ginger, pepper, red chili, and doenjang (fermented bean paste). Since Buddhist traditions significantly influenced Korean culture, you will find many tasty vegetarian dishes on South Korean menus.
No matter where your South Korea trip might take you, the one dish essential for Korean cuisine is kimchi--spicy and sour fermented vegetables, usually cabbage. Samgyeopsal, slices of bacon grilled before you, is another South Korean foodie favorite. Bulgogi, a ubiquitous dish found in Korean restaurants all over the world, consists of barbecued strips of beef, pork, or chicken marinated in a sweet soy sauce. In summer, samgyetang (traditional chicken soup) makes a light and nutritious lunch option. After a night of partying in one of Gangnam's much-touted clubs, try the famous Korean hangover stew, a spicy broth with chunks of fatty pork.
Tasty street food makes a great option while sightseeing in Korea's big cities. Look for one of the many pojangmacha--street carts that turn into small tents at night--selling hoddeok, a kind of pancake stuffed with cinnamon, honey, and peanuts; and ddukbokkie, a combination of rice cake, fish cake, and vegetables.
Be aware that South Koreans have been eating dogs for centuries and still do, so exercise caution when ordering food from a Korean menu.
Shopping in South Korea
South Korea is a great place to shop for cute and unusual gifts and knickknacks, such as customized stamps or Obama socks. Begin your quest for traditional souvenirs at Seoul's flea markets. Both Insadong
and Dongdaemun Market
are lined with stalls offering pottery, arts and crafts, hanboks (traditional Korean costumes), and hanji (Korean paper). For traditional utensils and inexpensive yet modern glasses, go to Namdaemun Market
, the largest and oldest bazaar in the country. Other interesting souvenirs include Korean fans with colorful swirls, pillows stuffed with buckwheat husks, phone cases of unique designs, soju (the Korean national liquor), and Korean ginseng, which is world famous for its medicinal properties. Seafood enthusiasts should visit old fish markets in Busan and Jeju, while true shopaholics shouldn't end their South Korea vacations without visiting Myeongdong Shopping Street
, a major commercial and shopping district in Seoul.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to South Korea
Interesting Facts About South Korea
● In South Korea, a child is considered one year old the moment it is born.
● The war between North and South Korea has never officially ended.
● The South Korean obsession with beauty drives South Korean men to spend 900 million US dollars on cosmetics annually.
● Almost half of South Koreans bear identical surnames and people with the same surname are forbidden to marry each other.
● South Koreans believe that your blood type determines your personality type.
● South Korean buildings often don't have a fourth floor--because of its resemblance with the word for death, four is the South Korean number 13.
Things You Should NOT Do in South Korea
South Koreans maintain a high level of formality in social relations, leading to several potential ways for foreigners to be unintentionally indecent or disrespectful. If invited to dinner during your trip to South Korea, wait for elders to start eating before you do (that goes for finishing the meal also), don't refuse a shot of soju, don't blow your nose at the table, and above all don't stick your chopsticks in your rice. Deny a compliment instead of saying "thank you," don't reveal your shoulders or your back if you're female, and don't show the bottom of your shoe, such as when crossing your legs with one foot resting on the other knee. Finally, don't raise your voice in public, especially in buses and subways, and don't touch anyone other than children on the head or shoulder.
Holidays & Festivals in South Korea
South Korean traditional holidays and festivals are seasonal and organized by the lunar calendar, as in the rest of Southeast Asia. The most important traditional festivals include Seollal (the lunar New Year's Day), Daeboreum (Greater Full Moon), and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day), which is celebrated in the eighth lunar month when people from all over the country visit the homes of their ancestors. Special festival food is central to all of these festivities, and the celebrations make an enriching addition to any South Korea itinerary. When planning your trip, you should check the dates of the 15 public holidays when offices and businesses close. These include Independence Declaration Day (March 1), Children's Day (May 5), Memorial Day (June 6), Liberation Day (August 15), and Christmas (December 25), as well as the aforementioned Seollal and Chuseok.
Useful South Korea Travel Tips
Common Greetings in South Korea
When meeting someone for the first time on your South Korea holiday, it's customary to use both of your hands in a handshake to show respect. "Anyoung haseyo," which means hello, is a good phrase to learn since it can be applied regardless of the time of day or the company. "Anyoung" is a more informal way to say hello between younger people and close friends. Other useful phrases include "kamsahamnida" (thank you), "sille hamnida" (excuse me), and "mian hamnida," which will get you out of trouble when you're sorry about something.
Climate of South Korea
In general, South Korea enjoys a temperate climate with four distinct seasons and is less susceptible to typhoons than neighboring countries. The best times to plan your South Korea holiday are spring (end of March to beginning of June) and fall (mid-September until November), when it's mainly dry with average temperatures hovering above 15 C (59 F). Summers can be quite hot and humid, bringing typhoons and heavy rains to the southern cities and the resort island of Jeju, usually during August. Siberian winds bring frosty weather to Seoul as early as November, occasionally lowering the temperature to -10 C (14 F).
Transportation in South Korea
Whether you decide to use buses, trains, or planes on your South Korea vacation, you will have no problem getting around the country quickly and easily thanks to the efficient, reliable, and reasonably priced transportation network. All major cities have subways with signs and station names written in English. City buses are also inexpensive and frequent, and taxis can be found almost anywhere. If crossing larger distances, consider traveling with one of the local airlines. Dozens of airports throughout the country cover a range of destinations. Trains are fast but won't get you to every corner the way rural buses will. The only disadvantage of the latter is that destination signs and timetables are in Korean. Ferries are indispensable when island hopping.
Tipping in South Korea
Tipping is not part of the South Korean culture, even in bars and restaurants. On the contrary, you may expect to receive a complimentary drink or food as a loyal customer on your South Korea vacation. If you still wish to reward excellent service with a tip, do it with respect and don't insist--otherwise you may seriously offend your server. Many tourist hotels may include an obligatory 10-percent service charge. If you wish to tip a taxi driver, you can tell them to keep the change.