This June we’ve spent two weeks traveling in South Korea, so here’s a writeup and a bunch of photos.
Caveats: my first trip there, and very likely I mis-planned something or missed some obvious “oh my god can’t miss that” things to see or do.
Our trip was two weeks; with myself, my wife and two kids (14 and 8yo). If you’re going alone, or for a honeymoon, or with a group of friends, the experience might be very different.
We did the itinerary ourselves, using the same old method of wikipedia + wikitravel + random blogs + asking around. Planning via writing rough outline in google docs and marking up places in a custom google map.
And here was the first challenge: Google does not have that much information on Korea, especially in the maps department. Apparently this is due to an old law that prevents mapping/GIS data to be exported for foreign countries & companies (see this quora answer). Does not make much sense these days, but oh well.
It’s not a big problem, but made me realize how much I have learned to depend on Google for planning trips. “A lot”, and that’s slightly scary.
What we came up with was this: in two weeks, we go to Seoul (3 nights), Sokcho (2 nights), Gyeongju (1 night), Busan (3 nights), Jeju (2 nights), Seoul (2 nights). Did not have any concrete goals, except “see some cities, nature, people, temples, food”. Wanted to check out some K-pop concert, but about the only one happening during that time (of Monsta-X) got sold out in like two minutes :|
We did not rent a car, instead were traveling mostly by metro & bus. T-money card for local transit works conveniently; metro goes often & on time. Both Seoul and Busan and really large cities, so getting from one place to another takes a lot of time. Outside of big cities, figuring out how exactly to get from A to B, is a bit of a challenge. For example bus terminal in Sokcho barely has any information in English, and not many people speak it either.
As mentioned before, Google Maps does not have exhaustive information, so I used a bunch of other apps to figure out buses, trains, places to go and so on. Some of them are Korean only, but after some fiddling I was able to semi-randomly get by.
Speaking of language… my older kid has learned to read & write Hangul (and some Korean words) as a hobby, and that was useful! The writing looks intimidating for someone who sees it the first time, but actually it’s fairly simple! There’s only a few dozen letters; they are just arranged in a non-linear fashion (instead each syllable is arranged into a square block).
I do recommend to check it out. If nothing else, know that ㅇ at top is silent (does not do anything), and at the bottom is “ng”. With just that you can already tell some words apart!
One place where we should have rented a car is Jeju. It seems small, but public transport there is… not terribly good, shall I say. Rare, slow and crowded buses, and fairly long walking distances from bus stops to anything. Do rent a car or hire a fulltime taxi!
Wow, Korean apartments are small! It makes sense since South Korea is one of the most densely populated countries. We mostly used airbnb, and learned the hard way that many listings with “two rooms” are actually one area with two beds tucked to the ceiling and a narrow staircase to get into them :)
Stayed a couple nights in a hanok in Bukchon, and that was nice!
Aside about airbnb: lately overall it feels kinda “meh”. A number of years ago airbnb meant you could experience places that are somehow personal; places where someone lives. These days, more and more airbnb apartments are rented full-time, with the same darn Ikea stuff in all of them. Often you don’t even meet anyone, just get a message with they keypad code and that’s it. It’s kinda like going to a hotel, without any of the advantages of a hotel. Meh!
We learned that selfies are important, especially if you’re showing V sign or some sort of heart symbol in them. Overall they are pretty serious about that stuff:
So we tried to blend in,
Cult of “youthful, perfect” beauty is fairly big here, it seems. At least it’s kinda equally divided among sexes. Maybe even larger part of ads & posters with “here’s someone beautiful” image had a guy in them. Makeup is important, clothes are important, etc. I’ve read somewhere that “if you go with just t-shirt and jeans, people will think you’ve given up on life”. We went mostly in t-shirts and jeans :)
Feels like Koreans love to write up instructions everywhere, especially about what you’re not supposed to do. Can’t stray from the predetermined path. Can’t take photos in that direction. etc. etc.
We were surprised at the amount of meat, specifically pork, that is everywhere. Being a vegetarian or vegan must be pretty hard there. Another surprise - lack of bread (something hard to imagine for an Eastern European). Food is generally rice, pork, seafood and kimchi, and fairly spicy.
Almost all photos are taken by my wife. Equipment: Canon EOS 70D with Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II and Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6. Some taken by iPhone 6 or iPhone SE.
Seoul, Samcheong-Dong 삼청동
The area where we stayed in a hanok village, close the old imperial palaces. Narrow, steep streets. Mountains in the background on one side, highrise glass buildings on the other side. And churros that are better than a boyfriend!
Seoul, Bugaksan mountain 북악산
The hiking trail goes along the old city wall, right north to the Blue House (residence of the president). Probably for that reason you need to fill out registration form, there are guards every hundred meters, and a few layers of barbed wire, cameras and stuff. I got used to not having all that back home!
Seoul, Cheonggyecheon stream 청계천
Very nice walk in the center of Seoul. Great contrast of the nature & surrounding highrise.
Went to Sokcho for a hike in Seoraksan national park nearby. After Seoul, this felt small and a bit empty? That said, after Seoul a lot of places can feel that way :) Apparently a lot of people go to Sokcho for the seafood, but none of us are big seafood fans, so that part was out. We walked around the seaside and went to the park the next day.
Seoraksan National Park 설악산국립공원
Sinheungsa temple (신흥사) is right at the entrance to the park.
We walked for couple hours in Ulsanbawi (울산바위) direction. Did not get to the actual rock formation since it’s a longer hike, and would probably be too hard for the kids.
Took a cable car towards Gwongeumseong fortress (설악산 권금성), around 800 meters elevation.
The photos above make it look as if there’s not that many people in the park. That was definitely not the case though. It was Saturday, and it was packed with visitors; apparently Koreans love walking or hiking in their national parks. We were very impressed by 2-4 year old kids walking and climbing stones on fairly long trails.
Used to be capital of the ancient Silla kingdom. A lot of tumuli and other olden things around.
There’s a big Bulguksa 불국사 temple nearby. Overall temples in Korea - at least the ones we’ve seen - feel more like museum sites than active temples. Very different impression from the buddhist temples that we saw in China, for example. South Korea is a fairly non-religious country, by the way.
We liked Busan a lot! However the city is very spread out so getting from one place to another took a lot of time on the metro. We stayed in Haeundae area based on some internet advice.
The apartment we stayed in was impressively tiny! Which is fairly typical for the whole Korea, I guess.
Busan, Haedong Yonggungsa temple 해동 용궁사
An hour bus ride from Busan, a nice temple on the seaside.
Busan, Gamcheon Village 감천문화마을
OMG the streets are steep there! This was lovely, just take a local bus there instead of climbing all the way up from metro stop like we did :)
Jeju Island 제주도
Took a flight to Jeju from Busan Gimhae airport, and we stayed on the southern part.
Jeju is often listed as a “must visit” type of destination, but frankly we were not terribly impressed. Maybe because we made a mistake of thinking that we can get by public transportation like elsewhere in Korea – do not do that; just rent a car or hire a fulltime taxi! Oh right, I already mentioned this above… Overall, the whole place felt a bit of “too touristy” for our tastes at least.
The volcanic ash/rock formations - Yongmeori Coast (용머리해안) - near Sanbangsan Mountain (산방산) were pretty cool! There’s a Sanbanggulsa Temple (산방굴사) right there too.
Seoul, Itaewon 이태원
Flew back to Seoul Gimpo airport, and our last stay was in Itaewon district. Generally in Korea you see very few foreigners; not so in Itaewon! We had nice food, went to the N Tower and the Leeum museum. Was nice!
And then the next morning it was a long flight home!