Reasons to Go and Things to Know in South Korea

by Ben Olmstead

South Korea, and more specifically, Seoul, manages to always end up in the travel section of New York Times as something like “The Best Undiscovered Travel Destination.” But, if you actually go there, one thing you will discover is an atmosphere of welcome towards foreign travelers. This may come as a shock for those who knew it by the moniker “The Hermit Kingdom.” The change in the past twenty or so years has been dramatic, starting with the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The Gwanghamun Gate.
The Gwanghamun Gate. Photo by Joyce Tamayo

Today, many people know South Korea from the record breaking song “Gangnam Style.” But the seemingly random success of Psy’s hit is just the beginning of Korea’s growing appeal. In the time from 2010-2012, the country’s tourism board hosted “Visit Korea Year.” This program has been so successful that it has been extended into December of 2013 – adding a certain plurality to the title. The program offers a free shuttle which will take you across the country from Seoul to Busan in an air-conditioned bus. This shuttle also offers a variety of other destinations. Staying in lodging at these destinations is made cheaper with the help of coupons offered by the same program.

Now, you may be asking, what destinations are there to see in South Korea? What can I do in a country I have heard nothing about?  Korea’s often un-publicized glory makes travel exhilarating. It’s hard not to be amazed by the stark contrast of nature and industrialization as you travel from the metropolis of Seoul to the outlying countryside of Korea.  Just outside of Seoul, available by the city’s public bus, you can walk among the ruins of Gwanghwamun Fortress. This fortress is located on a mountain top frequently seen only by locals. In ancient times it was a wall which served as a barrier for the many invaders of Korea. Imagine gazing down upon one of the world’s largest and most modern cities while perched high in the mountains in an ancient guard post!

Traveling in this country - one which is roughly a bit smaller than Wisconsin - you have the unusual opportunity to see all of the big landmarks it has to offer. The geography of Korea is strewn with mountains which offer rugged landscapes filled with wildlife. Natural parks abound, and off the coast of the peninsula there is a small volcanic island named Jeju-do. Here, you can see palm trees and take submarine tours of a coral reef. In contrast, northern regions of South Korea serve as snowy mountain climbs and ski slopes for much of year.

Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, offers an atmosphere reminiscent of Miami with the large Haeundae beach. The latter was once noted by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the most people at one time than on any other beach in the world. Despite the often crowded sight of Haeundae, there is no reason to worry about whether you can find a sandy oasis in the booming city. Busan offers multiple beaches, amazing sea-side Buddhist temples – even its own dialect.

If you would rather not get the boots you purchased in Seoul’s shopping district dirty by traveling outside of the confines of the city, you will be happy to know that the city life is vibrant. You can barter in Namdaemun market for knock-offs and curiousties, or visit outlet stores in nearby Myeongdong for quality goods. The malls and sleek modern buildings are worthwhile enough even if you choose not to buy anything. Those looking for wholesome activities may find interest in temple stays, a decent diversion for a weekend. Though beware if you’re not a part of the crop of vegetarians - Buddhist monks generally wouldn’t hurt a fly.

The longer you stay in Seoul, the longer you will see why a wholesome diversion may be necessary. Drinking Chamisul soju, a rice spirit, and at times Makkgeoli, a rice wine - or any other type of spirit for that matter – is very common in Seoul. Luckily, there are plenty of nutritious foods which can alleviate many of the deleterious affects of alcohol. If you go out with Koreans, expect to eat plenty of grilled meats like the Korean-style bacon named Samgyeopsal [pron. Sam-gee-ahp-sal].  Alongside will be an assortment of banchan, or side dishes. These banchan include the delicious tastes of lettuce wrap, a spicy paste called gochujang, a savory garlic and salt flavored sauce, as well as the ubiquitous kimchi. Kimchi, served at every meal, can be an acquired taste – once acquired, however, it is nothing less than an addiction. Korean cuisine specializes in many things, but especially in fermented foods. If you eat lots of Korean food, you should start to feel a healthy shift in your diet.

South Korea has a strong future ahead of itself after many years spent under the thumb of foreign powers. Today, South Korea and that which is foreign are no longer at odds with each other. Instead, the world is becoming more interested in understanding the battered yet resilient culture of the Asian peninsula.  For travelers who seek the alien in an approachable way, you can’t go wrong by visiting and learning for yourself. What you will find is a place that inspires you in many ways, and will enlighten as well as entertain.