Skyline filled with bright colors from buildings in Seoul at night

Seoul

One of the largest cities on Earth - and certainly one of modern Asia’s most important, creative and characterful capitals - Seoul somehow flew under the Western world’s travel radar for way too long. Now that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, it might be a good idea to start writing down a decent wish-list.

First, the historical angle. Seoul’s “palace district” features not one, not two, but five palaces, all at various times host to kings and queens since King Taejo first made Seoul capital of his Joseon dynasty way back in 1392. Each has its own character and stories to tell, though most popular is charming Gyeongbokgung, with its backdrop of granite peaks – like a step back in time. The 1390s saw Seoul go all-out, since two of its beautifully photogenic city gates also date back to that decade, as does the ancestral shrine of Jongmyo; sadly, the whole city was flattened four times in the 1950s during the Korean War, but the fruits of the gargantuan rebuilding efforts are simply astonishing.

Now, a peek into modern Seoul. South of the Han River, Gangnam – a household name worldwide, thanks to a certain 2012 smash hit and a funny dance – is a high-octane district of luxurious skyscrapers and upmarket shopping malls, while nearby Apgujeong and Sinsadong boast the swankiest clothing boutiques in the land. Myeongdong, back north of the Han River, is the go-to place for hi-tech Korean cosmetics; further west, the creative student hub of Hongdae doubles as Korea’s wildest nightlife district, while heading east, there’s Gwangjang Market, the best place to sample Seoul’s street food.

All of this is basically the introduction to an introduction of Seoul, which beats New York hands-down in the “city that never sleeps” stakes. Whether you’re sipping soju at a streetside tent bar, going gallery hopping or singing your heart out at a noraebang, there’s a good chance that you won’t get much rest while you’re here.

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People sitting on rock in Bukhansan National Park overlooking city

Bukhansan National Park

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.

Suwon fortress walls at sunset with city skyline in background

Suwon

South Korea

Head to Suwon to take in the delights of a splendid, World Heritage-listed old fortress, and to delve into Korea’s rich folk traditions – and, for carnivorous sorts, there’s the chance to savor Korea’s best barbecued meat on the way around.

Incheon skyscrapers illuminated at night

Incheon

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.

Cable car going up rocky mountains covered in tress in Seoraksan, South Korea

Seoraksan National Park

South Korea

Given that three quarters of South Korea is covered by mountains, it’s both annoying and convenient that most of the best-looking ones have decided to huddle together in the same location, near the east coast – welcome to Seoraksan National Park, the answer to all your Korean hiking prayers.

Colourful houses on hillside in Busan, South Korea

Busan

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.