This might be an alternative South Korea travel guide in that I’m not listing all that is wonderful and 100% perfect. Yet, we are all guilty of too easily dismissing travel to a destination without looking at its current state in context. In the case of Korea, this is important. 

The Korea rail network is extensive and makes travel around South Korea convenient, fast and cost-effective. Available only for foreign visitors, consider purchasing a Korea Rail Pass for unlimited use within two to five days on the following services:
The colourful Geomosan Hyangilam temple in Yeosu overlooking the ocean.
The ferry ride to get here is a bit rough on the choppy waters, but it’s all a part of the adventure. And there’s a lot of adventuring to do in Jeju as a core pristine nature hotspot.
The G Adventures South Korea tour takes you through Korea’s highlights over eight days, covering most of what’s been mentioned in this article. The trip costs include a visit to the DMZ, city tours in Seoul and Busan, alongside cultural villages and temples as well as accommodation in all destinations and transport in between.
Older generations of people in South Korea here have lived through the rapid change from the aftermath of war, creating a solid work ethic in all generations. Not only that, but locals informed me that culturally they are private people – community and family-focused – and do not need to take an outsider into their circle quickly. Therefore, welcoming tourists in South Korea with open arms is not something that’s instant. And that’s ok too. 
Sure, Japan was incredible and after spending one month there and I was on a huge come down. Travel to South Korea felt less appealing in comparison – it wasn’t as ‘seemingly’ vibrant and eccentric as its neighbour. I missed Japan and its madness. South Korea feels much more relaxed and less hurried, so it just takes time to adjust to the different tempo. 
That doesn’t mean you won’t meet those who are an exception to the rule, who are so excited to see someone visit their hometown and want to show you every aspect of it. It’s just not an occurrence that happens in abundance.

Travelling to Korea For the First Time?

Whilst certain parts of Korea did not live up to my initial expectations, my time there did come with some great memories times and very particular destinations that stand out. I do have a desire to return to see it differently, but more so to really spend some time in some of the country’s 22 National Parks and seven mountains. That kind of nature accolade is impressive, and I only scratched the surface of it.
The grassy royal burial mounds in Gyeongju are one of the best places to visit in Korea.
Whilst many remain divided in opinion about his time in power, it is evident the country developed significantly. South Korea is an economic miracle in its own right. 
I came to realise that South Korea is a destination that needs adequate time and dedication in getting to know and understand it. Especially when you look at its history of oppression. 

Day Trips and Tours in Busan
South Korea always seemed unknown, a country that people rarely extensively travel outside the capital of Seoul and the beach town of Busan. I wanted to travel further. 

The Traditional Korean Bukchon Hanok Village on a hillside overlooking the modern skyline of Seoul.
READ MORE: Visit Seoul – The Soul of South Korea’s Capital City

Korea vs Japan? Don’t Do This. Ever

Busan beach city.
Following the three year Korean War, which began in 1950 when the North invaded the South, the country was to grow into a major economy. That came after decades of invasion and colonisation of Korea by Japan during 1910–1945.
My biggest mistake was in visiting Japan first and the ongoing Korea or Japan debate is inevitable, but it’s also wrong.
After one month in the country, I pulled together this guide on how to travel to South Korea and make the most of it, alongside my top picks on where to visit for your first time there. 

Travel to South Korea – Understanding the Reality

Korea doesn’t shout about its beauty, and must-see spots can be hard to find. Knowing someone really is key – take advantage of this if you are considering a visit there. When I got to spend time with locals, I used every minute as an opportunity to get some deeper insight into the country. I have more recently heard that things have changed a lot and there’s much more information and guidance on how and where to find and access points of interest because tourism promotion has gained more steam. 

Japanese Colonial Rule

Especially when given the brutal history between the two countries, you can see how anti-Japanese sentiment is rife in Korea and it pays to have a better understanding of their differences.

The industrialisation of South Korea after Colonisation and the Korean War

Korea is Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with a high standard of living. Essentially, they don’t need tourism to thrive, and therefore the notion of tourism is misunderstood and rests significantly on those wanting to visit the DMZ border.
The country was destroyed, and after a long period of political instability, General Park Chung-hee’s military takeover in 1961 led to the formation of a new government. To many, he was seen as a ruthless dictator, whose rule saw many waves of abuse of human rights, yet the economy under him developed significantly, known as ‘The Miracle on the Han River’.
Would I visit again? Absolutely, I would travel to Korea again. There are still parts of the country that I have yet to see, such as the National Parks, the mountainous areas with hiking trails and much further down the line, the smaller towns which will one day be more accessible to travellers, rather than to those living there who take months to uncover it as they call it home.
Day Trips and Tours in Seoul

Cultural Customs of South Korea

Seoul metro and train station.
Haenyo Female Diver Statue on Jeju Island, South Korea.

Korean women in traditional hanbok clothing walking through a traditional village in South Korea.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links to handpicked partners, including tours, gear and booking sites. If you click through or buy something via one of them, I may receive a small commission. This is at no extra cost to you and allows this site to keep running.

South Korea Tourism – Is it a Focus?

South Korean Guards at the DMZ.
Daegu town centre, South Korea.
Life in the city of Seoul, South Korea.
This pass also includes discounts on first-class tickets for certain journeys as well as free or discounted entry into museums country-wide.

Three South Korean guards stand between two blue huts on the DMZ demiliterized zone facing North Korea.
READ MORE: Visit the DMZ in North Korea and South Korea – The Story of Both Sides

Places to Visit in South Korea

Korean women in hanbok (traditional Korean clothing).
Being in Korea will bring a lot of cultural and language barriers, coupled with the lack of tourism infrastructure, but as a visitor, you should adapt. As a modern country, the general infrastructure is great, so there’s no issue with getting around, navigating or finding accommodations whatever town or city you find yourself in.


South Korea remains a country marketed towards its regional neighbours who also flock here because of the world-renowned K-Pop and K-Beauty. Only until the recent success of K Drama’s like Parasite and Squid Game has South Korea been propelled further on the world stage. Pop culture is always a draw. 
I had a multitude of reasons for going to South Korea. 
You need to research heavily on where to go in South Korea and what the cultural highlights are. You have to work hard to find it. 
Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul.

Locals at a busy street of Namdaemun Market in Seoul, South Korea.
I grew to love the arty side of Seoul, choosing the funky student-filled Hongdae as my base and enjoying the atmosphere of Itaewon and Gangnam that is best seen when the sun goes down.
Tourists in Korea, some with sun umbrellas, walk towards the two-tier pagoda of Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea.

Andong & Hahoe Folk Village

A key part of enjoying Korea is knowing the people who live there. I was lucky to be able to visit friends in Seoul and Yeosu and it made a HUGE difference because they could also introduce me to their Korean friends. I lost count of the number of times I was told you can only really enjoy Korea when people can tell you or show you where to go. 

A traditional wooden house in Hahoe Folk Village in Andong - one of Korea's last preserved villages
From huge markets, old villages, historical palaces, entertainment districts and shopping plazas, there was always something new to try to seek out daily. The neighbourhoods are diverse, and that alone, alongside the array of cafes and coffee roasters, will keep you occupied in the capital. 
Tourists on a boat trip in a dense forest area in South Korea.
Travelling to South Korea seemed underwhelming. Yet it’s misunderstood. Here’s how to see Korea and find the best of its tourism.


Altogether, South Korea can be tricky to unravel, harder to travel and harder to understand. Here’s why. 
Visiting Japan first is a hindrance to having a fresh perspective on Korea.

A traditional Korean Pagoda in the modern Daegu town centre in South Korea.
I visited Andong with the purpose of checking out Hahoe Folk Village – one of Korea’s few ‘preserved villages’. While Andong itself doesn’t necessarily attract visitors, its historical points of interest, reached by various long bus routes, did not disappoint.

Gyeongju Burial Mounds

South Korea suffered under 35 years of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945), which included ruthless military rule, censorship, discrimination and forced labour. It’s a part of the collective consciousness today. 

The grassy royal burial mounds in Gyeongju South Korea to a backdrop of mountains.
Jeju Island was hands down my favourite destination in Korea – a stunning domestic holiday spot scattered with stunning beaches and a whole host of UNESCO sites including lava caves, a mountain and incredible viewing points.
Three grassy mounds in Gyeongju - one of the best places to visit in Korea.
Not everyone wants to navigate a country solo and the complexities of a South Korea trip are no exception to those who might not know the Asia travel circuit extensively. Despite Korea having a great infrastructure and various stopping points of interest, some like to have smaller details organised and travel in a small group, for a big adventure. Plus, you will be with a local guide and South Korea is best experienced with someone who knows it as home.


Travelling to South Korea? What Seems Underwhelming is Misunderstood.
READ MORE: All the World Wonder of Nature Things to Do on Jeju Island, South Korea

The curved sandy coastline and modern city of Busan, South Korea.
A woman holding a blue umbrella, with three family members, walks towards the two-tiered boat roof entrance of the imperial palace in South Korea
A yellow sand beach lined with red umbrellas in front of the modern building of Busan, South Korea.
Seoul is a city that needs a deeper dive to find its hotspots and then it clicks. As I passed through new towns, I realised that locals had told me things prior to my arrival which were filled with an abundance of beautiful pride, but which in reality for a tourist visitor were nothing more than just a residential town with one or two areas of interest. However, food enthusiasts will find smaller towns pack a punch when it comes to localised Korean cuisine. 


Busan, with its lively beaches and mountainous terrain, was a refreshing and chilled break from the brash Seoul. I also got to check out Spa Land – one of Korea’s many ‘walk around completely naked’ spas and a rite of passage for any visitor to Korea!

The colourful painted wood roof of Geomosan Hyangilam temple in Yeosu, with a view overlooking the ocean.
I had an incredible few days in the small harbour town of Yeosu staying with a friend who was teaching there, taking random bus trips to start short treks in nature to reach the scenic viewpoint of the Geomosan Hyangilam temple I would have otherwise found hard to come by. 
A walking path lined with small houses in a forest covered village in Yeosu South Korea.
This term refers to the post-war industrialisation of Korea and the modern-day success story Korea is known for. A period which saw immense technological advancement, rapid urbanisation (including the Seoul subway system in use today), booming high standards of living and educational reforms, the hosting of huge sporting events including the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup, as well as placing the country on the global stage with the formation of international companies including Samsung, Hyundai and LG. 

Jeju Island

I didn’t have any particular South Korea itinerary, instead, I just landed in the capital ready for a sporadic adventure.
Forest walks and temple treks in Yeosu, Korea.
Namdaemun Market in Seoul.

People walking on narrow paths on a green mound of Jeju Island's Sunrise Peak, looking down onto red-roofed houses, coastal rocks and the vast ocean.
Often a quick overnight stop in locals towns are a great way of breaking up a long journey. 
A woman in blue shorts and vest poses next to a Haenyo Female Diver Statue on Jeju Island. The statue sits upon rocks on the white sand coastline, and behind in the ocean and another stone statue.
READ MORE: My Experience Travelling to North Korea – The Truth of Visiting the DPRK

How to Enjoy a Trip to Korea

Korea is a split peninsula. After being in North Korea, I wanted to visit South Korea in order to understand the differences between them.
South Korea is talked about in great detail by westerners who moved there. I wanted to see why.
Visiting Jeju Island’s Sunrise Peak.

Locals on a busy street in Seoul, South Korea lined with tall buildings and markets stalls.
The Gyeongju Burial Mounds – one of South Korea’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

South Korea Travel Tips

Korea Rail Pass

One of the traditional houses in the preserved Hahoe Folk Village near Andong.

  • KTX and KTX-Sancheon high-speed trains
  • ITX-Saemaeul, Saemaeul, Mugunhwa, Nuriro and ITX-Cheongchun main network trains
  • The O-train, V-Train, S-Train, DMZ-Train, A-Train and Westgold-Train tourist trains

With all this in mind, I made it a personal mission to not immediately dismiss travel to South Korea and leave too early. I knew there were plenty of things to see and do in Korea emitting some level of cultural or adventurous interest and in each destination, I tried to find something positive, picturesque or historically relevant.

People sit on a bunny decorated bench inside Seoul's metro station in South Korea.
Nature in South Korea, accessible from Andong.

Guide Books and Further Reading

Book a Hotel in Korea

The mdoern coastline city of Busan, South Korea.

Don’t Want to Travel Korea Solo? Book a Small Group Tour

The UNESCO Ancient Capital of Gyeongju is a highlight, with huge grassy tombs, temples and gorgeous parkland, surrounded by mountains. Definitely one of the more interesting cities of former dynasty times, with a lot of ground to cover. Visit Gyeongju on a day trip from Busan.
Fairly quickly I realised I wasn’t overwhelmed by South Korea – which happens in some places. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; more a matter of personal opinion but I like to try and understand why.

Plan and Pin It!

A local romanticised Daegu as a place full of old historical buildings and hidden picturesque spots – we sat for an hour marking key highlights on a map – but I was left deflated when I realised it was nothing more than a big city. However, it was an important insight into the different parts of the country and how the experiences of travelling in South Korea vary greatly. Tourism in Korea isn’t a core lifeline, like how it is in say Thailand or Cambodia. South Korea rose from the ashes and became a strong and prosperous nation, albeit at great sacrifice. They are a nation of staunch hard workers; their children study all day (and most of the night). There’s huge pride in that. 

Similar Posts