As my time in South Korea is almost at its end, and since I have always been a huge lover of lists, I present here a list of my top 50 favorite experiences in this small but incredible country. It's by no means an exhaustive or definitive list, since there are lots of major sights here I haven't visited yet (I'll mention some of them at the end of the list).
In any case, I hope there's enough here to give readers a sense of the sheer diversity of experiences on offer. Korea doesn't have any big "wonder of the world" type sights. There's no Eiffel Tower, or Pyramids of Giza, or Taj Mahal. As a result, it doesn't have quite the fame or reputation that other Asian countries have acquired, and many backpackers often skip it in favor of Japan, China or Southeast Asia. That's unfortunate, because there is so much to see and do, and I've had some of the most enriching experiences of my life here.
Whether this helps you plan your own future adventures in Korea, reminds you of past adventures, or simply provides an entertaining glimpse of the unique and varied experiences to be had here, I hope you enjoy the list.
|50. Exploring an abandoned blacksmith's village|
In February 2013, I visited Goguryeo Blacksmith Village near Guri in eastern Seoul. Constructed originally as a set for several Korean TV dramas, the village was designed to resemble a village of the ancient Goguryeo Empire, whose settlements often centred around their blacksmiths and other metal-based industries.
Now the former film set is open to the public, and for 3000 Won you can explore this little village perched in a tiny valley in the outskirts of Seoul. I don't know if it was because I visited during the Lunar New Year weekend or because the village is relatively off the beaten track, but there was literally no one there when I went, and I got to have the whole village to myself. This is a very rare luxury in overpopulated, perpetually busy Korea, so I relished the experience.
Here's my original blogpost on Goguryeo Blacksmith Village.
|48. Taking photos at Seoul's Trick-Eye Museum|
The Trick Eye Museum is a gallery that exhibits numerous two- and three-dimensional art works that trick the eyes into seeing something else. These include famous classical paintings, interactive installations and historical backdrops with costumes to wear. It's all very gimmicky and silly, so of course Angela and I were always destined to fall in love with it.
Here's my original blogpost on the Trick-Eye Museum.
|47. Hiking Ganghwa Island|
Ganghwa is a large island located about a mile south of North Korea, which can be seen from the island. When I went there with Seoul Hiking Group, our main goal was to ascend the island's highest peak, Manisan, though we also visited a fort on the north coast, and a beach when our hike was finished. I got to see some stunning mountain scenery, hiked along some particularly challenging rocky terrain, and even caught my first glimpse of North Korea.
Here's my original blogpost on Ganghwa Island.
|46. Browsing wares at Dongdaemun Market|
The vast commercial district of Dongdaemun is Seoul's largest shopping area, and dominated by endless flea markets, shopping malls and fashion boutiques, many of which are open day and night. Tourists and locals flock here every day to find good deals on a variety of different products, ranging from clothes to jewellery to electrical products.I especially enjoyed exploring the open-air flea markets, which felt at times like shopping in a living junkyard. Though most of the objects on sale were made in the last thirty years, there was a very traditional, old world quality to the manner in which they were sold: old vendors haggled and bartered their retro power drills, calculators and sewing machines straight from the dirt of the pavement, the same way merchants would once have sold their spices, urns and foreign treasures in markets of the ancient world.
Here's my original blogpost on Dongdaemun Market.
|45. Basking in the glow of Seoul Lantern Festival|
This festival takes place every November, and sees hundreds of bright lanterns positioned along the Cheonggyecheon, a five-mile-long stream in downtown Seoul.
Here's my original blogpost on Seoul Lantern Festival.
|44. Exploring the colossal tunnels of Hwanseon Cave|
During our weekend in Samcheok, a city on Korea's east coast, Angela and I visited Hwanseon Cave, one of the largest limestone caves in Asia, and the largest in Korea. The cave is situated in a remote region of karst mountains and forests, and is filled with vast tunnels, chasms, flowstones, rimstones, rivers and waterfalls. It was by far the most impressive cave I've ever visited
Here's my original blogpost on Hwanseon Cave.
|43. Travelling to world famous sights at Aiins World|
When I said, at the start of this post, that Korea doesn't have an Eiffel Tower, Pyramids of Giza, or Taj Mahal, it wasn't strictly true, since the small amusement park, Aiins World, contains 100 of the world's most famous buildings all in 1/25 their original size. "Mini-parks" of this sort can sometimes feel a little cheap and gimmicky, but we found Aiins World an awesome way to spend a couple of hours, partly because of the variety and inventiveness of the models, but also because of the interesting backdrops into which they were placed. It was surreal seeing famous sights such as the Sacré Coeur standing in the shadows of a nearby fairground, Mount Fuji towering over Korean picnickers, or the Pyramids of Giza backdropped by the grey, concrete overpasses of Bucheon City.
Here's my original blogpost on Aiins World.
|41. Cycling three islands: Sindo, Sido and Modo|
In April we went with Seoul Hiking Group on a daytrip to three islands near Incheon: Sindo, Sido and Modo. We rented bicycles and cycled all three islands via connecting bridges. Along the way we saw quiet reservoirs, love story film sets and a surrealist sculpture park.
Here's my original blogpost on cycling the three islands.
|40. Celebrating Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)|
Korea has its own special celebration of autumn, a major festival known as Chuseok. Held in honour of the harvest, it has become one of the country's most important and widely celebrated holidays. During the three day vacation that surrounds the Autumn Equinox, Koreans from all over the country visit their ancestral hometowns and share feasts with their families. It's kind of a Korean equivalent to America's Thanksgiving. I was lucky enough to celebrate Chuseok on two occasions: firstly, at my school, and secondly, with Angela and her Korean family.
Here's my original blogpost on celebrating Chuseok.
|39. Exploring sleepy Hahoe Village|
As part of a trip to the Andong Mask Festival, we got to explore and sleep among the quaint, Joseon period-style houses of Hahoe. This village was established in the 1500s, and is one of the few historic communities in Korea to have retained this traditional architectural style that has been lost elsewhere due to rapid industrialisation.
Here's my original blogpost on Hahoe Village.
|38. Picking strawberries at Nonsan Strawberry Festival|
Located around halfway down the length of the country, Nonsan is South Korea's largest strawberry producing region, and holds a strawberry festival every year in spring. On our visit, the weather was very overcast and drizzly, but we didn't let that stop us having fun as we picked dozens of blood-ripe strawberries, danced with some locals, and sampled several strawberry-themed foods and drinks.
Here's my original blogpost on Nonsan Strawberry Festival.
|37. Ascending N Seoul Tower|
Located in the centre of Seoul, Namsan Tower, or as it's more formally known, N Seoul Tower, is the city's highest point, and allows wonderful panoramic views of the area. It's also great for getting a better spatial picture of the city. Seoul is so sprawling (it's probably the least the least walkable city I've ever visited) that it can be difficult mapping its shape in your head: you get used to navigating it via interlinking metro stations and bus routes, never managing to build a mental map of how each district fits in with the others. But from N Seoul Tower you can see everything. You get a sense of how the Han River arches around the lower half of the city like a loose belt. You can visualise Myeongdong and Itaewon's antipodal relationship at opposing sides of Namsan Mountain. You can see how the grounds of the royal palaces are nestled between the mountains of Bukhansan to the north and the skyscrapers of Jongno and City Hall to the south.
While I think there are more impressive views of Seoul to be found - such as from Building 63 or Inwangsan - none of them give you such an all-encompassing "living-map" panorama that Namsan Tower provides.
Here's my original blogpost on N Seoul Tower.
|36. Ice-Skating at City Hall|
During the winter months, there is a public skating rink at City Hall where you can skate for a small price. Despite neither of us having skated in a long time, we were pretty proud of ourselves for going our whole allotted ninety minutes without falling over once.
Here's my original blogpost on ice-skating at City Hall.
|35. Attending a Korean wedding|
Back in May, Angela was invited to the wedding of one of her Korean co-teachers, and I was lucky enough to be her plus-one. I'd never been to a wedding outside England before, so I was excited to see how it would compare. The ceremony was much shorter than I was used to - and perhaps a little tackier - but it still had a lot of charm, and I was glad that despite being westernised it still had its own distinctly Korean flavour.
Here's my original blogpost on attending a Korean wedding.
|34. Walking along "The Great Wall of Korea" (Hwaseong Fortress)|
Around 20 miles south of Seoul, in the city of Suwon, lies Hwaseong Fortress. Constructed during the 1700s, this world heritage sight stretches for over three miles around the city, dotted along the way with dozens of gates, pavilions and military facilities.
Here's my original blogpost on Hwaseong Fortress.
|33. Taking a Han river cruise|
One of the most romantic ways to enjoy the Han is by taking a cruise down the river. Seoul's bridges and buildings look beautiful at night from the middle of the sparkling river, and the ferry's speakers even play love songs to add to the atmosphere.
Here's my original blog post on taking a Han river cruise.
|32. Watching Seoul's Lotus Lantern Parade|
Seoul's Lotus Lantern Parade is held every year in honour of Buddha's birthday. During the parade, thousands of people carry lanterns and musical instruments down Jongno Street, marching alongside giant floats in the shape of lotus flowers, elephants, dragons, and other enchanting wonders.
Here's my original blogpost on the Lotus Lantern Parade.
|31. Posing for phallic photographs at Haesindang Penis Park|
During our weekend in Samcheok, we visited nearby Haesindang Park, famed for its erect, phallic statues that adorn the coast and hills by the sea. It's pretty tacky but completely worth it for the silly photo opportunities.
Here's my original blogpost on Haesindang Penis Park.
|30. Exploring the ancient palace of Gyeongbokgung|
I have to be honest; I wasn't expecting much from Gyeongbokgung Palace before I visited. I'd already seen Beijing's Forbidden City a few years ago and this looked like a somewhat lesser, blander version of that. However, the scale of the palace grounds, not to mention the variety of structures, architectural styles and attractions within its walls made me fall in love with the place.
Here's my original blogpost on Gyeongbokgung.
|29. Cycling the Han River|
It's far from the most scenic river in the world, but the Han does at least offer plenty of decent cycling paths, and these provide a great way of seeing the city via more tranquil, uncongested routes than your average metro or taxi ride.
Here's my original blogpost on cycling the Han River.
|28. Admiring Seoul from the top of Building 63|
Though not as famous as N Seoul Tower, I actually think the views from Building 63 are much more impressive, particularly at night. There's also a cool wax museum and 3D cinema inside that you can visit.
Here's my original blogpost on Building 63.
|27. Watching a Korean baseball game|
Baseball is one of South Korea's most popular sports, to the point that you'll constantly see it on TV screens in bars, restaurants and other public spaces across the country. During the summer, Angela and I got to see a baseball game ourselves at Jamsil Stadium. The game was fought between two major Korean teams: the Doosan Bears (the home team) and Samsung Lions (who are based in Daegu). I'd never seen a baseball game before, and knew little about the sport besides what I'd learnt from American movies. Fortunately, Angela did a great job explaining the rules to me, and I found it a lot more riveting than I was expecting. It really helped that the atmosphere was so electric, with crowds around us displaying such passion and dedication to their teams.
Here's my original blogpost on watching a baseball game in Korea.
|26. Exploring Noryangjin Fish Market|
Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market (or Noryangjin Fish Market as it's commonly known) is a huge, bustling indoor market where customers can buy food while it's still swimming, watch it get chopped to pieces in front of them and have it cooked at the nearby restaurant, ready to be eaten as fresh as is possible.
It's certainly not the most pleasant place to visit if you're sensitive to animals, or squeamish in any way, but it's good to see some of the more communal, localised ways that Koreans like to sell their food, outside the supermarkets, fast food chains and department stores that have become almost as ubiquitous as they are in the west.
Here's my original blogpost on Noryangjin Fish Market.
|25. Visiting Bongeunsa Temple|
Dating back to the 8th century, this colourful Buddhist temple has undergone multiple repairs and renovations during its long history, suffering fires and damage from warfare, but today it stands as one of Seoul's prettiest temples. On our visit, the vivid decorations for Buddha's birthday made the complex especially fun to explore. Despite being located right in the heart of downtown Seoul and surrounded by highways and skyscrapers, it feels as tranquil as a mountaintop monastery, and the decorations for Buddha's birthday really added to its charm.
Here's my original blogpost on Bongeunsa Temple.
|24. Celebrating Saint Patrick's Day in Seoul|
I don't usually do much for St Patrick's Day but I was really glad I went to this festival in Sindorim, Seoul. It was a fun drunken day in the sun with some friends, with lots of great folk music, dancing and beer. It also seemed like every single foreigner in Seoul was there.
Here's my original blogpost on Saint Patrick's Day in Seoul.
|23. Exploring the world's largest indoor theme park: Lotte World|
We've visited this charming theme park twice now, and while it suffers from being perpetually overcrowded and lacking in truly great rollercoasters, there's plenty of rides, games, parades and other attractions to make it a fun place to explore.
Here's my original blogpost on visiting Lotte World.
|22. Watching Nanta Cookin' at the theatre|
Nanta Cookin' is a really fun performance that combines on-stage cooking with percussion, music, dance, singing, magic, kung fu and comedy. Angela and I enjoyed it so much we saw it twice!
|21. Relaxing at the Jjimjilbang|
In case you're not familiar with the concept, a jjimjilbang is essentially the name for a Korean bathhouse, though it offers much more than your average spa or sauna in the west. In fact, some of the larger jjimjilbangs have so many extra amenities - shops, cinemas, arcades - that they feel almost like miniature holiday resorts.
At its heart, the jjimjilbang is a place to unwind and chill out after a hard day's work, whether that means taking a hot bath, sweating it out in an aromatic sauna, or sitting and chatting with loved ones in an oak-panelled lounge. Most establishments are open for 24 hours and are popular for families and individuals alike, especially at the evenings and weekends. They're also extremely cheap, and during the weekend many drunk revellers will sleep off their hangovers in a jjimjilbang for less than $10 a night.
Our favourite jjimjilbang in Seoul is Dragon Hill Spa, though even better than that is Spa Land in Busan.Here's my original blogpost about visiting the jjimjilbang.
|20. Climbing Yeongchwisan: the Pink Mountain|
Following a trip to the southern coastal city of Yeosu, Angela and I climbed nearby Yeongchwisan. This mountain on the Yeosu Peninsula is famous in Korea for being one of the first places where azaleas bloom in the spring. At this time of year, the flowers turn the summit of the mountain almost entirely pink. It took us a few hours to ascend and descend the mountain, and on the way we saw some breathtaking views of the nearby valleys and islands.
Here's my original blogpost on hiking the pink mountain.
|19. Skiing at Yongpyong Resort|
In January 2013, some friends invited me to spend a weekend skiing at Yongpyong Resort, which is in Pyeongchang County, where the Winter Olympics of 2018 will be held. It was my first time skiing, and I'll admit I fell on my ass a bunch of times. Nevertheless, it was one of the most exhilarating - if occasionally terrifying - weekends I've had here.
Here's my original blogpost on skiing at Yongpyong Resort.
|18. Watching a live Starcraft battle|
There are few countries as obsessed with video gaming as South Korea. Everyone, from infant to elderly ajusshi, seems to play games here. Probably the most popular game of all time in Korea is the PC real-time-strategy game, Starcraft. Not long after its release it grew to become the country's "national e-sport," and today there are several television channels dedicated to the game. Starcraft tournaments are often performed in front of live audiences and aired on TV, with its top players garnering dedicated fan bases, professional contracts and large tournament winnings
Watching a live Starcraft tournament is, I think, a quintessential Korean experience. Like seeing a Muay Thai boxing match in Bangkok, or a Gaelic football match in Dublin, it reveals a fervent sporting subculture unique to that country. While some (e.g. my girlfriend, Angela) might snort at the sight of exploding CG aliens, and while others may reject Starcraft's status as a national "sport", you can't ignore the passion and dedication that players and fans invest into the game. Both opponents had tears in their eyes at the culmination of the final. Both had proud parents watching them from the audience. And both had their share of fans cheering them on. While I'll never be a Starcraft fan myself, I loved the passion and energy surrounding us, enhanced by the howling and screaming of the overexcited commentators. Confused though I was, I could never claim that I wasn't entertained.
Here's my original blogpost on watching a Starcraft battle.
|17. Walking the length of the Cheonggyecheon|
The Cheonggyecheon is an historic stream that flows for about five miles through downtown Seoul. Originally used as part of the city's drainage system during the Joseon era, after the Korean War the stream attracted poor settlers and immigrants who built shantytowns along its banks. Due to the deteriorating conditions that followed, the government covered the stream with concrete in 1958, and later built a highway passing over it. In 2003, Seoul's then-mayor Lee Myung-Bak initiated a project to restore the stream. The highway was removed, the stream was dug up, and water from nearby rivers and other sources was pumped in daily to restore its flow. In 2005 the finished stream was opened to the public. The Cheonggyecheon was widely lauded for its beautification of the area, and for providing new semi-natural habitats for wild animals. It's also become one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Most visitors to the Cheonggyecheon only visit small portions of the stream, but I'd highly recommend walking its entire length if you ever have the time. It's an incredibly serene place, so far removed from the chaos of the cityscape surrounding it. It's also impressive to see how this formerly neglected place could be restored to such beautiful conditions in the space of just a few years.
Here's my original blogpost on walking the Cheonggyecheon.
|16. Making furry friends in Seoul's pet cafes|
A pet cafe is a themed café where customers can sit down and sip drinks in the company of dozens of animals. A fairly recent phenomenon, there are several of these establishments here in Seoul, most of them dog or cat cafés, though we also visited a sheep cafe in Hongdae (and Japan supposedly even has reptile cafes). In a country driven by hard work and long hours, these places have become popular for the temporary affection and companionship that the animals provide for their customers.
Here's my original blogpost on visiting a dog cafe, and another on various other animal attractions.
|15. Hiking in Seoraksan National Park|
Seoraksan is a popular hiking destination famed for its gorgeous autumn colours and its dramatic granite peaks, some of which look straight out of an old watercolour painting. I was sick when we visited, so we weren't able to hike anywhere near as far as I would have liked, but we still found plenty of stunning autumnal views during our brief visit.
Here's my original blogpost on Seoraksan.
|13. Visiting the colourful, cultural attractions of Paju|
Back in June, we spent a weekend in the city of Paju, which lies around 20 miles northwest of Seoul. The city itself is pretty unremarkable, but we had a fun time exploring its nearby cultural villages. First we visited Gyeonggi English Village, which is devoted to creating a language immersion environment for its students. Then we walked to nearby Heyri Art Village, a valley filled with numerous galleries and sculptures. After that was Provence Village, a bustling cluster of multicoloured shops and houses with European style architecture. We ended the weekend by visiting the beautiful Nuri Peace Park.
Here's my original blogpost on Paju.
|12. Celebrating Seollal (Lunar New Year)|
Around late January, early February, Korea celebrates Lunar New Year, or Seollal, as it's known here. Unlike New Year's celebrations back home, Seollal is less a time for fireworks and rampant drinking, and more a time for family and friends. Shops close, cities slow down, and the country's highways become jam-packed as people flock to see their loved ones.
During Seollal 2013, Angela and I visited Seoul's famous village, Namsangol, where several festivities and special events were taking place over the holidays. We saw live performances, explored the village's traditional houses, and made a special Lunar New Year wish. We were also fed a sumptuous feast by Angela's Korean family, who welcomed us to their home. Despite the language barrier, they easily made us feel at home through their welcoming smiles, good humour and endless generosity. I will never forget how kind these people have been to us, not just during Seollal but throughout our time here in Korea.
Here's my original post on Lunar New Year.
|11. Ice-fishing at Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival|
Sancheoneo Ice Festival is held every year in the month of January. Located in the city of Hwacheon, in one of the coldest regions of South Korea, the festival holds a variety of events and activities, including sledding, ice-skating, ice sculpture galleries, and snowman-building. But its most popular activity is ice fishing, which takes place on the frozen river that runs through the city. Thousands of mountain trout are released into the river so that festival-goers can catch, cook and eat them as they please. Despite being sick with flu and uncomfortably cold for most of the weekend, I had an awesome time, and enjoyed the experience of catching my own fish and eating it, something I'd never done before.The festival takes place every January. If you go, make sure you wear lots of layers!
Here's my original blogpost on Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival.
|10. Exploring Korea's second-largest city: Busan|
One weekend in May, some friends and I travelled down south to Busan, Korea's second largest city. The coastal metropolis, populated by around 3.6 million people, is famed for its pretty beaches, its relaxed atmosphere, and its huge port. It was Buddha's Birthday when we visited, so the city was teeming with people, but despite this it felt so much more chilled out than Seoul ever does. Spending time by the cool, breezy coast was a welcome change from the fast pace of Seoul, and there seemed to be lots of cool restaurants, beaches, and sights to see. If I were to teach for another year in this country, I'd probably choose Busan to live in.
Here's my original blogpost on our weekend in Busan.
|9. Chilling by the beach-huts and mudflats of Muui Island|
Towards the end of our Chuseok vacation, Angela and I decided to spend some time on Muuido, an island on the west coast of Korea, not far from Incheon Airport. We got to spend the afternoon, night and morning on a beautiful beach, relaxing in a laid back island atmosphere. We slept in a quaint little beach hut, played drunken ring of fire in the sand, and - most exciting of all - explored some vast, sprawling mud flats.Muuido was a splendid place to kick back, chill out and enjoy our last warm days of summer. There was a really relaxed, beach community vibe there that we both loved, and if our school vacation time were longer we probably would have stayed another day or two. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone spending time in Seoul during the warmer months of the year, as it's hard to find such a peaceful respite from the city without going further afield.
Here's my original blogpost on Muui Island.
|8. Sampling a taste of Europe in Petite France|
During our weekend in Gapyeong County, Angela and I visited a cultural village called Petite France. We both have a big obsession with France, and so we'd been very curious to check this place out. Not only is it a French-style village resting in a gorgeous mediterranean-like valley, but it is also partly based on Angela's favourite book: Le Petit Prince. The Little Prince, as it's known in English, is a children's novella written and illustrated by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It tells the story of a young prince who lives on an asteroid and falls down to earth, where he meets a pilot in the Sahara Desert. Angela gave me a copy of the book as a birthday gift, and I, too, fell in love with its childlike innocence and whimsical characters. As you can imagine, we were both super-excited to visit a place not only based on France but also on a charming book we both loved, and Petite France did not disappoint.
Here's my original blogpost on Petite France.
|7. Discovering a giant, golden Buddha in the mountains of Bukhansan|
Located in the north of Seoul, Bukhansan is one of the most popular hiking spots in the city, and Angela and I became especially interested in going there because we'd heard there was a giant golden buddha statue sitting somewhere in the mountains. Despite searching online, we couldn't find a great deal of info about it, apart from the fact that it was the largest sitting Buddha statue in East Asia. A few expats and travellers had made blog posts about it but for the most part it seemed very much off the beaten path, undiscovered by the tourist offices or travel books. Unfortunately we couldn't seem to find any detailed directions to this mysterious statue, and figured the national park was too big for us to try and find it ourselves.
Fortunately, Warren of Seoul Hiking Group came to our rescue, as he organised a hiking trip with a route that passed along the gates of Bukhansan Fortress and by the giant buddha that we sought. We signed up for the trip and decided to go along regardless of the humid summer weather which had been putting us off hiking for so long. Fortunately, while it was a very hot and sticky day, the weather improved as we ascended to the cooler peaks of the national park, and it was more than worth it for the amazing sights we saw along the way.
Here's my original blogpost on the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan.
|6. Crossing the parting sea at Jindo Miracle Sea Festival|
The island of Jindo is famous for an annual festival at which visitors and locals gather at the coast to walk across a parting sea. The sea level only drops this low two or three times per year, and the phenomenon has been dubbed the "Moses Miracle" of Korea. Thousands of people flock from all over the country to walk across the small strip of land that becomes exposed as the sea level drops. This strip extends for two miles, connecting Jindo with the nearby island of Modo.
It was a long, bum-numbing bus ride from Seoul to Jindo, but it was absolutely worth it for the memorable weekend we had there. The festival was such a unique, magical experience - we walked for miles along a starfish-encrusted seabed wearing bright-orange wellies! - and getting to camp on the beach with a bunch of cool people was the cherry on top.
Here's my original post on the Jindo Sea-Parting Festival.
|5. Crossing the most militarised border in the world at the DMZ|
No trip to Korea is complete without a tour of the DMZ, the buffer zone between North and South Korea. We chose to go through the USO, a nonprofit organisation that provides morale and welfare to US troops around the world. The tour included visits to several different parts of the DMZ, including a North Korean invasion tunnel, an observatory, the last train station to the north, and the Joint-Security Area where historic talks between ambassadors of the two countries were held.
The whole thing felt like a highly immersive Cold War history lesson in a surreal open air museum. One of the most striking things was just how regimented and strict the tour was, with our American soldier-guide forming us into orderly single-file lines and forbidding us from gesturing or waving to the North Korean soldiers that watched us inquisitively from the other side of the border. And did I mention that we had to sign a form essentially absolving the USO of any blame in the event that we be killed by soldiers? These sorts of details constantly reminded me of the serious, sombre and utterly unique nature of this 150-mile-long land border, which remains the most heavily militarised border in the world, despite the Korean war ending sixty years ago.
Here's my original blog post on the DMZ.
|4. Getting ridiculously filthy at Boryeong Mud Festival|
One of Korea's most popular festivals, Boryeong Mud Festival takes place every summer, and sees millions flock to Daecheon Beach to partake in dozens of mud-themed activities, such as mud slides, mud baths, and mud assault courses. The mud is brought to beach from the nearby Boryeong mud flats, and is apparently rich in skin-enhancing minerals. But whatever health benefits one gains from it is probably cancelled out several times over by the large alcohol intake over the course of the weekend! In any case, this was one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences we had here, and I recommend it to anyone looking for a unique experience in Korea. The festival takes place every July.
Here's my original blog post on Boryeong Mud Festival.
|3. Wandering Nami Island|
During our weekend in Gapyeong, we caught a ferry to Namiseom, or Nami Island. This small, half-moon-shaped island rests in the Bukhan River near the border between the provinces of Gyeonggi and Gangwon. It's a popular retreat for families and couples, and is famous for its tree-lined pathways and breezy, relaxed atmosphere. It also presents itself as self-governing country called the Naminara Republic, with its own currency, flag, insignia and mock immigration facilities. We didn't really know what to expect from the place, but we pretty much fell in love with it the moment we got off the ferry. The island felt like a secluded, woodland hideaway, with tiny, exotic villages, statues and walkways nestled among its many poplars and sequoia trees. I'd highly recommend paying it a visit, and like most places in Korea, it's best seen during Spring or Autumn.
Here's my original blog post on Nami Island.
|2. Exploring the Ancient Capital of Gyeongju|
Though I have a lot of fond memories of my time in Seoul, and I loved the relaxed atmosphere of Busan, my all-time favourite city in Korea is Gyeongju. This ancient capital is filled with archaeological treasures and ancient monuments, lending it the nickname "The museum without walls." We chose the perfect time to visit, with the fall colours adding a lot of charm to the old tombs and temples. It was also a lot quieter than most Korean cities we've visited, with plenty of greenery and pleasant walking spaces instead of the usual concrete highways and apartment blocks that characterise most cities here. As a centre of Korean historical heritage, Gyeongju is comparable to Kyoto in Japan, or Xi'an in China, making it an essential place to check off on any South Korean itinerary.
Here's my original blog post on Gyeongju.
I hope the list was a fun read. Looking over it has reminded me just how lucky I am to have had so many exciting experiences over the course of little more than a year.
Before I finish off this post, here are a few honorable mentions that didn't make the cut:
- The Korean War Memorial - a really fascinating war museum in Seoul, which includes a hangar full of planes, tanks, ships and other military vehicles.
- Busan Fireworks Festival - this was way too crowded for my liking, but it was absolutely one of the most impressive fireworks displays I've seen.
- Everland - a theme park just on the outskirts of Seoul. Really lacking in rollercoasters , but the T-Express was a fun ride, and there are some cool attractions dotted around in a nice setting.
- Incheon - Korea's third-largest city is kind of overshadowed by the nearby capital, but it's worth visiting for its Chinatown and the beachfront area of Wolmi Island.
- Ewha Womans University - this is one of the most prestigious universities in Korea, and has a cool, chasm-shaped main building, plus some pretty gardens to walk around.
- Achasan - this is a popular hiking spot in Seoul, and makes for a pretty easy climb. You get some nice views of the Han as you go up.
- Seonyudo - a sewerage plant turned into a park; it's pretty cool seeing the remnants of water treatment vats and concrete pylons turned into botanical gardens and vine-covered sculptures.
- The Garden of Morning Calm - we went here during our trip to Gapyeong; a pretty garden with some very colourful floral arrangements.
And while I'm here, a quick list of places I wanted to visit, but didn't find the time or money:
- Jeju Island - supposedly the "Hawaii" of South Korea, it's a tropical island getaway for couples and newlyweds, and we would totally have gone there if we could have found more affordable flights.
- Ulleungdo - another popular island getaway, I was really excited to walk around the cliffside path that runs around the edge of some of this island, and it would have been cool to see nearby Dokdo Island. Again though, the cost to get there didn't quite win us over.
- Boseong Green Tea Plantation - these tea fields near the south coast look incredibly lush and green, but we decided we were probably going to see plenty of this sort of thing when we go travelling in Southeast Asia.
- Digital Media City - a newly developed, futuristic area of Seoul, this is one of those places we just never got round to visiting. Maybe we'll go during our last few weeks here.
- Damyang Bamboo Festival and Cheongsong Apple Festival - we really enjoyed the strawberry festival we went to, and these sounded equally fun. Can't remember why we didn't try these out.
- Jinhae - we wanted to go here to see the cherry blossoms in spring, but it's a long way from Seoul, and it didn't really seem worth going all that way when there were plenty of cherry blossoms in our area.
- Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital - this abandoned asylum is probably one of the creepiest places in Korea, and for a while I was really eager to try and go there. Unfortunately, it was difficult getting a bunch of people to go with us, and we didn't really feel like breaking in by ourselves. Maybe some other day.
Well, that's all for now. I expect this to be my penultimate Korea blog post, with one final goodbye entry near the end of the month. Sad to be leaving this country soon, but so damn excited for what's ahead!