Our lowdown on South Korea
Why visit South Korea? This is what we love about the country.
Situated on a peninsula that juts out from the Asian mainland like a rocky appendix, South Korea has emerged from the shadow of its larger neighbours to finally savour its own time in the sun. To visit is to immerse yourself in the hyperkinetic splendour of some of the most dynamic city life on earth, while also taking in a culture that goes back 5,000 years. With craggy mountains, empty beaches and islands galore, this ancient land is also a haven for outdoor pursuits – all served by a state-of-the-art transportation system that makes even some of the the nation’s most remote corners accessible within just a few hours. Add the surreal surroundings of the DMZ and a fiery cuisine as unique as the culture that birthed it, and you’ve got a destination that delivers on all fronts.
In the years following the devastation of the Korean War, South Korea was a country synonymous with poverty. It wasn’t until the 1988 Seoul Olympics that people began to see it in a different light, and by the early 2000s, South Korea could count itself among the top economies in the world.
This rubble-to-riches story has been one of the most extraordinary transformations in human history, resulting in affluence unimaginable by the generation that survived the country’s baptism by fire. Once an East Asian backwater, South Korea is now an international hub of commerce, technology, and, most recently, entertainment. While known for its microchips, cars and cell phones, South Korea is now equally famous for its films, TV dramas and K-pop, which are exported all over the globe.
This is a nation that clearly punches above its weight.
This spread of pop-culture power – known as Hallyu or “the Korean wave” – has also translated into an uptick in visitors. Up until recently, the country saw very little international tourism, but like everything in this dynamic land, that is now changing. Koreans – always with one eye to the future – have taken note, welcoming visitors from abroad while also taking pride in their newly-earned international prestige.
So what’s all the fuss about? What’s South Korea really like?
It begins with a palpable sense of excitement, a blast of colours, sounds, and smells that hits you as soon as you step onto its frenetic city sidewalks. Saccharine K-pop choruses warble from cell phone shops, intermingling with the rush of traffic and trains, laughter of students, and street vendors shouting out their latest deals. The aroma of grilled meat and fresh seafood fills the air in the thrumming alleys and traditional markets, while at night the streets are awash in the vivid glow of neon signs from the seemingly infinite array of restaurants, bars and karaoke rooms.
South Korea is alive, 24/7. This is a country in perpetual motion, where bali-bali! (quickly!) is the name of the game. Everyone who isn’t on the go seems to be engaged in work, study, or boisterous recreation, and like much of East Asia, it’s often crowded, with people hustling and jostling everywhere. The Western concept of space is foreign here, and while this can lead to moments of discomfort, it also adds to the overall energy, resulting in a thrilling sense of possibility. South Korea is a place that really gets your blood pumping.
Almost all visits start out in Seoul, the country’s political, financial, and cultural capital. Home to half of the nation’s 50 million inhabitants, this is a city that exemplifies 21st century Asia, where the cutting edge and antiquity exists side by side. Gleaming skyscrapers loom over palaces and pavilions that date back hundreds of years. You can spend an afternoon wandering the narrow lanes of a traditional hillside hanok village and then enjoy a cappuccino at a hip cafe; or explore the modern architectural triumph of the Dongdaemun Design Center before sitting down at a street stall for a steaming bowl of noodles. This is a city where you really feel like you have one foot in the future and another in the past.
We love the city, but to truly savour Korea you’ve got to head out of town.
South Korea is about so much more than its thriving capital, and once you’re out in the countryside, a different kind of rhythm kicks in. It suddenly becomes a much slower place, where lazy rivers meander through picturesque valleys bordered by rice fields and timeless, stone-spired peaks. Colourful and ornate Buddhist temples perched on hillsides gaze over the surroundings like silent sentinels. Pine forests blanket the precipitous rises of rock, which eventually crumble into the vast blueness of the sea, forming a rough-hewn coastline dotted with timeless fishing villages and more islands than you can count.
Hiking is the national pastime – and as a result, South Korea is a walker’s paradise, with a massive network of trails serving the coastline, lowlands, and mountain spines. Watching the sunlight shimmer on the ocean from the sacred top of Mt Seoraksan may just cause your soul to soar, and you’ll be able to hear the waves crash on rocks and taste the kelp in the air as you trek along the volcanic shore of Jeju Island.
World-class cycling paths also crisscross the country – and surfing has taken off on the beaches of Gangwon, the rugged northeastern province that also hosted the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. And while the country’s not known for its large wildlife, there are still plenty of avian creatures to witness: the estuaries of the Korean peninsula are an important stop for scores of migratory species, attracting birdwatchers from around the globe.
The food’s the thing. Really.
Unlike Japan, where subtlety is king, South Korea is often in-your-face, and nowhere do we see this more than in the cuisine. Pungent, spicy, sour, salty, and sweet, Korean food is bold and defiant, reflecting a culture that has managed to survive and thrive over millennia (despite the best attempts by its often-aggressive neighbors to see to it otherwise).
Food is central to life here: everything revolves around a meal. The dizzying number of restaurants and street stalls attests to this. You may wonder how so many eating establishments can manage to stay in business!
Films and TV dramas often focus on food, where characters chomp and slurp and knock back little glasses of soju, the national vodka-like firewater. YouTube channels known as meokbang attract millions of viewers more than happy to watch someone else take down mountains of noodles, rice, meat, fish, and whatever else is on the menu. It seems that a large percentage of daily conversations in this country revolve around food, and the first question you’re likely to field as a visitor is, “Have you tried kimchi?”
Kimchi, of course, is at the heart of the Korean identity. While there are myriad varieties, the most common is made from cabbage, garlic, anchovy sauce, and gochujang, the deep red chilli paste found in so much of the local cuisine. Kimchi is served with almost every meal in Korea, and ranges in spiciness from mild to atomic. Koreans cherish their kimchi like a family member, and little gives them more satisfaction than to see a foreigner going at it with gusto. To enjoy kimchi is to honor Korea in the eyes of the locals.
Sitting down to eat can often feel like a party here. You may find yourself at a table with a grill in the middle, on which are sizzling succulent cuts of pork or beef along with onion and mushrooms. This is accompanied by a colourful array of side dishes containing fresh vegetables, kimchi, and sauces, not to mention ice-cold bottles of beer and soju. The scent of barbecue smoke hangs in the air and most everything is shared, making the meal feel like a celebration. And Koreans aren’t shy about diving in; they eat like they mean it, and around you packs of diners will be doing the same, punctuated by the sound of conversation, big laughs, and the inevitable clink of soju glasses.
Of course no visit is complete without experiencing the last living vestige of the Cold War.
While the Korean War is a fading memory for many, it remains very much alive along the South’s border with the North. Just an hour out of Seoul, this is another world — a place of weapons, watchtowers, fences and land mines. The Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, seems oddly named, seeing how 'militarised' it actually is. This 155-mile barrier cuts a swathe across the whole of the peninsula – and despite being a tense, dangerous place, it’s also home to a rich variety of wildlife, acting as a kind of green belt separating the North from the South.
While the DMZ remains a source of great sadness for the Korean people, it’s definitely worth checking out, if only for its unmistakable strangeness. The memory of gazing across the Military Demarcation Line that bisects the two Koreas will stay with you for a lifetime. You may even be able to make out the forms of North Korean soldiers on the other side tracking your movements through binoculars, lending a heightened sense of eeriness to this vital spot of living history.
So what makes South Korea so special?
For over 5,000 years the Korean people have managed to carve out their own way in an often hostile world. The result is a country and culture steeped in pride that – while sharing some traits with others in the region – manages to be utterly unique.
This hasn’t always made it an easy place to visit. Before recently, South Korea was a relatively insular nation that often viewed outsiders with gawking curiosity, or even suspicion. But as the country has prospered, its people have begun to travel internationally, bringing back a greater understanding of the world at large.
This world, in turn, has now embraced South Korea. For whatever reason – call it cultural zeitgeist, serendipity, or just pure timing – the country is currently having a moment. South Korea, it seems, has arrived.
This makes now a great time to go.
More than nearly anywhere in East Asia, South Korea is just ripe for exploration. The fact that it’s relatively unvisited means that the locals haven’t become jaded in a way that we see in other destinations, where overtourism has been allowed to run amok. Outside of a few spots, Western visitors are still an anomaly here – and while at times you may elicit a few stares, you’ll also be waved to, warmly greeted, and best of all, well-fed.