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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.