Our guide to South Korea's top places, plus our lesser-known favorites
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 colorful Busan, Korea’s hippest and most livable 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