Sun setting over sea next to ornate temple and bridge in Busan

Our guide to South Korea's top places, plus our lesser-known favourites

While some think of South Korea as a “small” country, there’s no denying that it manages to pack an impressive number of cultural highlights into its borders – size aside, it’s a place with one hell of a big heart.

Most would agree that heart to be Seoul, the country’s pumping capital, and futuristic birthplace of a million K-pop, movie, gaming and fashion trends – yet spend some time here and you’ll find it’s also a place of considerable historical pedigree, with the ancient palaces to prove it.

Here for the natural beauty? A high-speed train ride will bring you to Korea’s east coast, where the mountainous spine of the peninsula contains some of its most dramatic scenery – much of it protected national park. Looking for somewhere to slow down and soak up the atmosphere? The mountains finally peter out among the beaches and seafood markets of colourful Busan, Korea’s hippest and most liveable city.

Then there’s the thousands of islands that surround Korea’s coast; none larger or more beautiful than pristine Jeju, where seasoned (and not-so seasoned) walkers can tackle the Olle hiking trails that weave along the coastline. Venturing inland instead, you’ll find treasures such as Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla dynasty, and Jeonju, the nation’s foodie capital (and home of bibimbap).

"Looking, hearing is one thing. Tasting, touching is another. Smelling and tasting is the heart and soul of what Korea is. As much as pop culture wants to globalize, food is the best way for Koreans to share their soul and culture [...] You eat who you are. No one describes who you are like your food.” - Hooni Kim, Korean chef

South Korea

Image
MALAYSIA KUALA LUMPUR IPOH PENANG CAMERON HIGHLANDS MALACCA PANGKOR LANGKAWI REDANG ISLAND TIOMAN ISLAND TAMAN NEGARA NP PERHENTIAN ISLANDS BANDING ISLAND KUALA KANGSAR SOUTH KOREA SEOUL JEJU ISLAND SEORAKSAN NP JEONJU BUSAN GYEONGJU INCHEON SOKCHO BUKHANSAN NP GANGNEUNG ANDONG SUWON
South Korea

If it’s tradition you’re after, Andong will get your senses tingling: a journey through the city’s sumptuous surrounding countryside will allow you to enjoy the sights and sounds – and some of the more pleasant smells – of a Korea now almost extinct.

South Korea

Swathed in a blanket of pine trees and dotted with secluded temples, Bukhansan National Park rears up behind Seoul like a jagged granite crown. Its myriad peaks will allow you to pick your level of exertion quite precisely – anything from a gentle forest stroll to an exhilarating pant to the top.

South Korea

Korea’s bustling second city often comes out in first place with visitors, and it should be no surprise – as well as boasting the country’s most popular beach and Asia’s biggest film festival, “Seoul by the sea” has spent the last decade cementing its reputation as the country’s hippest destination.

South Korea

Gangneung, the largest city on Korea’s east coast, boasts an enviable location, hemmed in by lofty mountains and the big blue sea – you could quite easily go surfing and mountain climbing on the same day, or perhaps even the same afternoon.

South Korea

An ancient East Asian capital, seat of power for a thousand years, and still home to a staggering host of treasures from that period – it’s hard for Gyeongju to avoid comparisons with Kyoto, though we’d argue this little city is actually even better than its far more famous Japanese counterpart.

South Korea

Korea’s arrivals lounge to the rest of the world, Incheon is often ignored thanks to the presence of Seoul just to its east. However, the place has some fascinating historical strings to its bow, plus one of the best Chinatowns outside China itself.