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  • South Korea
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South Korea

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile

Wedged between China in the west and Japan in the east, the "land of the morning calm" is still a relatively unknown destination. Tourists who do travel to South Korea will find a culture still deeply routed in ancient Confucianism, a humanistic approach to life which highlights the importance of morals and the family. It is a fascinating way of interaction which combines with a decidedly forward-thinking and insatiable appetite for technological advancement. The country is rich with cultural assets: Buddhist heritage, preserved beaches, mountains and natural parks constitute the many aspects of a country that just begs to be explored, beginning with the capital, a megalopolis of almost 12 million inhabitants, offering an astonishing mixture of modernity and tradition.

Travel guide

Bukchon

The literal translation for Bukchon is 'northern village' which makes sense seeing as it is located north of two very well known Seoul landmarks Cheongyyecheon Stream and Jongmyo Shrine. Its home to just under 900 hanoks, (traditionally designed Korean houses), as well as a range of cafes and shops. A lot of them belong to the old aristocracy who were the ones who designed and built them and some even cater to guests.

Gyeongju National museum

There are various museums dotted around Korea but this one has some of the most noteworthy displays seeing as they enable not only the general public but also historians and archaeologists to discover more about the rise of civilization in the South Eastern parts of Korea. This national museum contains a variety of objects relating to national cultural heritage. For example the Emilie Bell is said to be one of the largest bells ever made in Asia; it's not only the biggest but also the loudest and when rung is said to sound like a child who has been sacrificed for its casting. A golden crown dating all the way back to the 5th century is also held in the museum.

Changdeokgung Palace

This palace, built in 1405, marks one of the five royal Joseon palaces still intact in South Korea. It was made specifically for the royal family who resided there until 1910. It is positioned just at the bottom of Mount Eungbongsan in a large park and towards the east of Gyeonbok Palace. There's a secret garden in the palace which features a lotus pool and pavilions. There are also more than 56,000 specimens of different trees and plants in this secret garden, for example walnut, white oak, zelkova, plum, maple, chestnut, hornbeam, yew, ginko and pine.

Gyeongju

This is the second largest city in the whole of South Korea, there are many things that can be explored here but the most interesting amongst them is probably the only underwater tomb in the world. Buried here is King Munmu, who died in 681 after having ruled for 21 years. In his will he made it clear that he desired his remains to be creamated and entombed in the East Sea hoping that he would then turn into a sea dragon in order to fight off anyone who posed a threat to the coast of South Korea. The rocks where his tomb lays are called Daewangam which roughly translate as 'Great King Rocks.' Gyeongju is not only a good destination for tomb visiting but for the seafood fans out there offers a very diverse selection of freshly caught fish.

Our Editorial team's advice

South Korea is an eleven hour flight away and has a six hour time difference but it's definitely a paradise at the ends of the earth that's worth a visit.

Incheon, an almost futuristic airport, is one of the best in the world. It is located 52km from the capital Seoul and there are often horrific traffic jams. It's probably best to take the train, as the journey is guaranteed to be 45 minutes between the airport and the central station.

Visit the DMZ (demilitarised zone) at Panmunjeom, north of Seoul. This is where the two Koreas confronted each other militarily for the armistice in 1953 (perhaps not for much longer, as the idea of unification has been in the air for a while now, with some predicting that it could happen as early as 2015).

In Seoul: do not miss the charming district of Insa-dong and its traditional tea houses, with tiny birds flying free inside them. In Seoul, you can shop any time of day in the huge shopping centers which are open all night and you can find some great bargains when it comes to electronic products in the Yongsan market.

In the region of the south-east, stop at the town of Gyeongju, the old capital of the kingdom of Silla, which has preserved numerous historical remains. We particularly enjoyed the temple of Bulguksa and the Seokguram grotto, both classified by UNESCO as world heritage.

We also recommend that you experience a Temple Stay for at least one night. This gives you the chance to stay in a Buddhist temple, living alongside the monks praying, eating, taking part in cultural activities and hiking. It truly is a memorable experience.

If you want to travel around South Korea and the journey that you want to take is quite long catching a flight is recommended since it's quicker than the train and quite cheap.

Don't worry about carrying that much cash around because paying by card is more common.

It gets very very cold in the winter! The transitional seasons are the best times for tourists to visit with autumn being the most highly recommended. Spring is nice but there's a higher chance of rainfall.

Don't take photos in the Buddhist temples. The monks don't like being photographed in temples and especially if they're not expecting it.

pros

  • +Getting around the country is easy, efficient and safe
  • +Korean culture is particularly interesting and the Korean sense of welcome makes it easily accessible.
  • +Korean cuisine is excellent and, in the main, healthy
  • +South Korea is a very modern country with some great technological features
  • +Despite being a relaitvely expensive place, it can still be done on the cheap

cons

  • -Koreans speak very little English so there is a large language barrier
  • -The hotels and trains can be expensive if not booked a long way in advance
  • -The Koreans share some unlpeasant habits with the Chinese, such as spitting in the street

Traditions

When meeting someone you do not know, you bow, and if the person is older than you make sure the bow is even more emphasised.

Even if you are just on a leisure trip, it's highly recommended to present a calling card to get the conversation rolling. Take the time to slowly read the card given to you by the person you are speaking to, showing your interest. After this first very formal stage, you do not need to dwell on excessive greetings since Koreans are naturally very sociable people. For example, a present would be welcomed if you were at a friend's house.

Be sure to take your shoes off when going into a private space (no bare feet; socks are preferable) when going into a private space, and into several restaurants, as you often eat sitting on the floor.

The bill is never shared: either you pay, or you are paid for. At the table, you do not fill your glass yourself: you wait for your neighbour to do it, and you do the same for them. Food is never eaten with your hands; chopsticks (in metal, not wood) are used for this; the spoon is used for rice.

You should also be aware that the Koreans are quite superstitious, and a lot of them are still affected by very old shamanic rites originating from Siberia. Once you form a close bond with most Koreans, they will repay your friendship by inviting you to share meals or rituals with them.

Food

Korean cuisine, which is known as hansik, is said to provide not only physcial strength but also energy for the mind and soul. Most foreigners, if they know anything at all about Korean cuisine, will be aware of the national dish, kimchi, a spicy fermented vegetable dish of which there are 200 or so varieties, and bibimbap, rice cooked in beef stock topped with seasoned vegetables, meat and Korean chili paste which is all mixed together.

However, there is a lot more to Korean cuisine than this. Most meals will consist of several side dishes and depending on the number the name of the table will change accordingly. So for a meal with three side dishes, the table will be called 3-cheop, or 3-dish and a table with nine side dishes will be called 9-cheop. Examples of some of the side dishes you may find that come along with your main meal inclde gosarinumal, seasoned fern shoot, chwinamul, seasoned aster scaber, dorajinamul, seasoned bellflower root, and hobakjeon, small squash pancakes.

The basis for any Korean meal is, like in much of Asia, steamed white rice, or ssalbap. Although often served plain, it can also be cooked with oysters, abalone or soya bean sprouts and ground beef.

Each region in South Korea will have its own speciality and these differ wildly from area to area. So for example you may well eat ox bone soup (seolleongtang) while in Seoul, ginseng chicken soup (samgyetang)in Geumsan, a bamboo rice set menu (daetongbap jeongsik) in Damyang, leek pancake (dongnae pajeon) in Busan, and spicy grilled chicken (dakgalbi) in Chuncheon. But there are miterally hundreds more dishes around the country including many grilled fish and meat options (often grilled by the diner at his own table), noodle-based dishes, stews and soups.

Much of the above is easy to find in the country's restaurants, however, there is no need to have a sit down meal all the time. The street food in South Korea's bigger cities is delicious. You can easily fill yourself up on snacks bought in the street and the prices are pretty low. Every night of the week thousands of people, mainly youngsters, frequent the food stalls of Seoul, Busan and beyond and grab a bite to eat both before and after an evening spent at a bar. There is no stigma attached to walking in the sreet eating, although many people choose to eat at the stall, perched on a narrow bar. Some of the most popular street food dishes include gimbap, rice rolled in lamer, tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes, sundae, Korean sausage, as well as snacks such as dried octopus, spiral potato chips and Western-style desserts and beverages.

The two most popular alcoholic beverages, apart from beer (Hite and Cass are the two big brands), are makgeolli and soju. The former is a sweet fermented rice wine which is seen as the drink of the common people and has a low alcohol content. You can find it pretty much anywhere and there are even bars specialising in the tipple. Soju, a distilled liquor, has a higher alcohol content and if you see drunk Koreans struggling to walk soju will probably be the cause! South Korea also has a few different wines, including flower and fruit wine as well as medicinal wines.

Seeing as food holds a very important place in daily life, there is a strict etiquette that accompanies any meal. One must always wait for the elders at the table to pick up their spoon or chop sticks before eating and one should not continue to eat once they have finished. If drinking wine, one should turn their head away from the elders. Unlike in other Asian countries, it is considered bad manners to make noise when eating. One should talk softly while at the table and must not lift plates or bowls towards the mouth.

Reviewed hotels

Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin

Our journalists' reviews for you 12 hotels South Korea . Take a look at our hotels, their facilities or their value-for-money score according to your departure dates so that we can find the best offer to suit you South Korea . Book a hotel South Korea it's never been so simple !

Souvenirs

In Korea, shopping is a social activity in itself, so it will be easy for you to find something to satisfy your shopping instincts. The Lotte and Galleria stores in Seoul are two particularly good locations. For antiques, the district to explore is Insa-dong. For fashion, see Apgujeong. Also visit the very lively commercial district of Myeong-dong, very frequented by the young, and the huge market of Namdaemun. If you like traditional clothes, try and bring back a Hanbok, the outfit worn by all Koreans, before western style was imposed. Shops usually open very early and close late in the evening, even on Sunday.

What to see

The National Parks , Mount Wolchulsan , South Korea
The National Parks
The Cheonggyecheon River , The Cheonggyecheon river , South Korea
The Cheonggyecheon River
The Dolmen sites , The dolmen sites , South Korea
The Dolmen sites
The East Coast , South Korea
The East Coast
The Island of Jeju , Jeju Island , South Korea
The Island of Jeju
Jeungdo Island , South Korea
Jeungdo Island
Suncheonman Bay , The Bay of  Suncheonman , South Korea
Suncheonman Bay
Traditional Arts , Traditional arts , South Korea
Traditional Arts
Contemporary Arts , Contemporary arts , South Korea
Contemporary Arts
The Architecture , Architecture , South Korea
The Architecture
The royal sanctuary of Jongmyo , The royal shrine of Jongmyo , South Korea
The royal sanctuary of Jongmyo
Namdaemun Market , Namdaemun market , South Korea
Namdaemun Market
Dongdaemun Market , The market of Dongdaemun , South Korea
Dongdaemun Market
Yongsan's electronics market , The electronics market of Yongsan , South Korea
Yongsan's electronics market
Korea's National Museum , The National Museum of Korea , South Korea
Korea's National Museum