Updated on 11 July 2018: Added a new South Korea itinerary map.
In early 2016, I had the opportunity to visit South Korea, a country that had been begging me to explore for a while now. I was invited to visit the country by the government of South Korea and do a speech about my travel at a Digital Nomad event organized by J-Space, the best co-working space on Jeju island. I decided to take the opportunity to explore South Korea for 2 weeks before ending my trip on Jeju island. From lush nature to the vivid culture, here are all the information you need for the perfect trip to South Korea.
Note: I am not much of a K-POP fan so if you are expecting something related to K-POP, this article is not for you. If you like hiking and would like to experience the real culture, then this post is for you.
South Korea Itinerary Map
South Korea Travel Video
Why go to South Korea?
I have always thought that the only thing South Korea had to offer was its popularized K-POP culture but the more I explored the country the more I realized how wrong I was. South Korea is a country full of amazing natural reserves, technological advancement beyond belief and an attractive traditional culture unlike any other countries I have experienced.
And no, South Korea is nothing like Japan!
Even though, South Korea is not exactly a big country, there are quite a bit of national parks you can explore, some within the proximity of Seoul.
Seoul is the kind of city that blends modern and traditional cultures together perfectly. Walking around the city is like walking through a melting pot of hundreds of years of tradition surrounded by the future. The people of South Korea may seems indifferent at first (like in all big cities) but the more you get to know them, the more you will see how nice they are.
When it comes to Korean food, you can't deny that the Korean BBQ is something of a requirement to try before you leave the country. The smell of grilled beef together with Soju is something you will not forget. Not to mention all the weird food you can eat like live octpous (really delcious!) and all the raw fish and shells you can eat fresh at the fish market.
South Korea is the whole package and in this article, I'll be going through all the information you need to make your trip awesome.
How to Get to South Korea
How to Get Around South Korea
My preferred mode of transportation in South Korea is the bus because it is reliably fast, efficient, comfortable and usually easily accessible from the main part of the city. When you are taking a bus from a big city like Seoul, make sure you know where the terminal is because there are several terminals in Seoul and all of them are in different parts of the city. My suggestion is to ask your hostel for the information before you plan anything as they will know the best time and route to take.
For travelling around in Seoul, the Metro is the way to go. The city is widely connected and you can go almost anywhere with it. But one of the problem with South Korea is that Google Maps doesn't function fully due to some law enforcement but you can use other local apps to navigate the city like: iPhone | Android.
In some cases, it might be better to fly instead, for example you will save more time flying from the mainland to Jeju island rather than taking an overnight cruise. It might even be cheaper if you book the flight in advanced. There are plenty of cheap airlines you can buy from such as Jeju Air, Air Busan or even Korean Air sometimes.
When to Go to South Korea
South Korea has a very clear cut season and for most cases each offers a unique perspective of the country. The summer (June to August) can be hot and humid, Winter (December to February) can be extremely cold but less risk of rain, autumn (September - November) where the forests can turn reddish orange and the best time of all, spring (March - May) where flowers bloom and festivals are in full swing.
I was there at the end of Spring (5th May 2016) right in time for the family month with children's day followed by a Buddha's Birthday celebration. The streets became lit with laterns and full of colorful parades, traditional shows and concerts. I would highly recommend you to go to Seoul during the Buddha's Birthday festival.
Where to Stay in South Korea
Seoul - Seoulwise Guesthouse - 15 - 22 USD/night (The owner is really cool and he travelled around the world before so he knows how to treat fellow travelers. He also helped me plan my trip to South Korea, giving me all the information I needed. He even went out of his way to get me an extra bed when it was fully booked! Best owner ever! The hostel is also located in the young and hip part of Hongdae. Highly recommended!)
Sokcho - The House Hostel - 18 USD/night (One of the most well-decorated hostel I have ever seen. It feels like you are living in a traditional house!)
Gyeong Ju - The Blue Boat Hostel - 21 USD/night
Jeju - U & I Guesthouse - 17 USD/night (centrally located)
South Korea has the fastest internet in the world. Yeah, that's right! In the world! I've tested it on a regular hostel WIFI and it took 5 minutes to upload a 4 GB file. You will have absolutely no problem finding fast and reliable WIFI in South Korea. Every hostel has it, every cafe has it, everywhere you go, you will find it.
If you are the type of person that needs 24 hours internet access, you can get a local sim card for cheap at the airport with unlimited data and no throttle. Yes! No throttle, no bullshit! I love this country!
Traveling here, on average, will cost you more than traveling in most countries out there. You can expect to spend around 45 - 65 USD per day per person with food, accommodation and transportation.
Keep in mind that this is just a suggested daily budget based on my style of traveling, which is leaning more toward the budget side of things. If you want to stick to this budget, expect to sleep in dorms, eat out only a few times, and be comfortable using the cheapest and most convenient way of transportation, which often times involves walking.
If you are looking for a travel insurance to go along with your trip to South Korea, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for a travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure. They have a simple and flexible search system that allowed me to find the right insurance for the right amount of time at an affordable price in seconds. If you need a travel insurance, give WorldNomads.com a try.
Two Weeks Itinerary in South Korea
Seoul (4 nights)
Seoul is a vibrant city that deserve your full attention, especially if you come during the family month (May) and you want to see the city's streets lit with lanterns and people coming out and enjoy the buddha's birthday celebration.
If you stay at the hostel I suggested above, you are already in the middle of everything. Fifth of May is a Children's Day and in the evening you can go and walk around Hongdae area to absorb the city's vibe. All the young people in Seoul like to hangout on the streets of Hongdae especially during the Children's Day where all the streets are filled with food trucks and activities for the youth to enjoy. I spent several hours here in the evening trying all kinds of street food and enjoying the live performances scattered throughout the streets.
The next day, wake up early and enjoy a delicious breakfast and a coffee at the Travel Maker restaurant, an excellent place to get yourself fixed with proper American breakfast. The location is shown below:
Once you are up and ready, take a metro to the Gyeongbokgung Palace and explore the heart of the Korean culture. If you are there during the Children's day, the entrace is free and there will be many performances for you to see. Another reason to go in May!
There were plenty of sight to see in the palace. You can spend around half day just walking around, taking nice photos all the parks and temples in theis palace.Gyeongbokgung is one massive palace!
Walk a little bit further up north and you will find the Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional village perfectly located on a slope of a hill. This is a good place to get the feel of what a traditional village is like in South Korea.
In the evening, go to Insadong, and find yourself a nice dinner. If you are there long enough in the evening of May 8th, you should see the Buddha's birthday celebration parade starting to go through the shopping street of Insadong. Follow them as they will lead you to where the celebration is being held.
Note: Location may change each year so do ask you hostel where to see the parade on the 8th of May.
While following the parade, you'd see plenty of performances that can occupy you for hours.
Once you arrive at the stage, the Buddha's birthday concert will begin and all you have to do now is dance with everyone. It was very fun to see the locals and foreigners enjoying themselves on the streets like this!
The next morning, you can change up a little bit and go and have a coffee and some pastries at Cafe Comma, a book-loving cafe located here:
After a good coffee, take the metro and explore the Gwangjang Market, a food market with all the wildest food you could imagine. Make sure you try the live octopus. It doesn't look attractive but it was delicious, I promise!
There are also plenty of food to try here so spend some time exploring what you want, and then find a seat and start pointing at all the food you want to consume.
Once you are full, take a metro to Dongdaemun market and do some shopping or if you are not into shopping, make your way to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza and admire the architecture and the design space they have there.
You can also go to the Museum of Modern Art and check out the art scene of Seoul or visit a temporary exhibition that seems to always be going on there.
If you have a day to spare, I would recommend you go and hike the Bukhansan National Park, just north of Seoul. On a clear day, you will be able to admire the view of the city from above.
Sokcho - Seoraksan National Park (2 - 3 nights)
Sokcho is a good base for you to launch yourself into the wilderness of Seoraksan National Park. The city is also near the coast so you can enjoy some fresh seafood while you are there.
Hiking is the reason why I was in Sokcho, and Seoraksan National Park offers many options to choose from for both day hikers and overnight hikers alike. From Sokcho, you can take a bus numbered 7 or 7-1 early in the morning to beat the crowds, buy the park ticket and start hiking the Ulsanbawi rock.
The Ulsanbawi rock is one of the most well-known rock in Seoraksan and from up there you can see all over the national park and even the city of Sokcho itself. The view is impressive and totally worth the hike. The hike itself is quite easy at first but got steep half way in and continue to be steep until you reach the top. It took me 4 - 5 hours 2 ways so starting with this trail early allows you to do another impressive trail in the same day, which is the waterfall trail.
The waterfall trail is another half day trail you can do and while I found the waterfall itself to be mediocre, the observatory lookout point is one of the best lookout point I've seen. It made the waterfall trail worthwhile. Once you are at the waterfall, there will be a stair going up to the observatory deck, which would take around 45 minutes more. So all in all, it should take about 3 - 5 hrs for 2-ways trip. Trust me, the observatory deck is definitely worth the last stretch!
If you are there during the right season, some other cool trails may open up as well so you can try doing a full-day trail through the park if you have another extra day in Sokcho.
Gyeongju (2 nights)
After a few days hiking in Seoraksan, you will need a few days of rest and Gyeongju is a good place for that. Gyeongju is an old capital city and you will be able to see many historical remnants such traditional villages, temples and structure all over the city.
Spend a day walking around all the burial sites such as the Daereungwon complex and the ancient temples of Gyeongju while admiring the history of the place.
Walk a little bit down south from the burial site and you will find the oldest astromical instrument in the far east, the Cheomseongdae observatory.
Within that park, you can walk down south to find a nice traditional village where you can endulge yourself in their home-made food and snacks that they sell in front of their houses.
At night, go to Donggung Palace and enjoy the beautiful light work and reflection of the temple above the Anopji pond.
You should be hungry by now, so walk back to the city and head to the area west of the main train station. The location is shown below:
This area is where the cool kids like the hang out nad you will be able to find many cool restaurants to go to.
Jeju Island (4 nights)
Jeju island is where all the adventures are at. With easy access to volcanos, stunning beaches and several hiking trails, the island is turning into the adventure capital of South Korea.
First day, if the weather permits, go off into the mountain early in the morning and summit the 1950m high mountain Hallasan, the highest mountain in South Korea. The trail is 9km one way and it should take you at least 5 hours one way so do prepare accordingly.
The next day, head to the main bus terminal and take a bus to Seoqwipo, another big city in the south of the island and explore the stunning rock formation of Oedolgae.
There are a few small hikes you can do at the Oedolgae rock so do spend a few hours there exploring all the cool volcanic rock formation along the coast.
Once you are done, take a bus and head west to Jusangjeolli cliff. The Jusangjeolli are stone pillars that piled up along the coast which were formed when the lava from Hallasan Mountain erupted into the sea.
Once you are done, take the bus back to Jeju and head to the Town Hall area. The area west of the Town Hall (across the main street) is where the cool kids like to hang out. You will be able to find plenty of food there to indulge yourself in.
Another day, another adventure. Today we will explore the east coast of Jeju island. From the city main terminal, take a bus to Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak and start hiking up this massive volcano.
The hike itself only takes 15 to 30 minutes one way, and it goes straight up to the top. The view on top offers both the view of the vast ocean and the island and its cities.
If you are there during mid spring, it is also worth while for you to go down south more and drop by at Seopjikoji, a coastal area with beautiful landscape and you will be able to get a view of the Seongsan Ilchulbong peak from afar.
Once done, make your way back to Jeju but before you go back, stop at the Hamdeok Beach and enjoy a nice cup of coffee or a beer at the Del Mundo cafe.
To end the trip in Jeju and South Korea the right way, make your way to the fish market (Jeju Dongmun Traditional Market) in Jeju. The location is shown below:
From this market, you can find all kinds of fresh fish, shells and squids and you can eat them right at the market. Simply go into one of the shops with seatings and sit. They will ask you to choose the things you want to eat right from the fish tank and then they will prepare it for you. Most of them will be raw though, but they were delicious even to those who don't like raw food (a few people I was there with love it despite the fact).
For more info: Road Tripping Through Jeju Island, South Korea.
And there you have it, a comprehensive 2 weeks itinerary for a great trip in South Korea. From Jeju, you can either fly back to Seoul or fly directly back to Bangkok (very convinient!) and continue your journey elsewhere.
What do you think about the itinerary? Do you have any suggestion? Do let me know if I miss anything in the comments below.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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