The Korean Peninsula may be most famous for their hostile border, but South Korea is its main star. Unlike the hermit nation to the north, South Korea is a complex blend of quaint country sides, ancient Buddhist temples, remarkable landscapes, and ultra-modern cities.
The country is filled with thrilling and unique experiences, which makes it a great destination for adventure seekers. A long history has helped shaped this country and its people to become one of Asia’s powerhouses with innovation and technology coming together to build the future. With a population of 51.47 million people, all are eager to welcome visitors into their borders.
환영 – Welcome to South Korea
Seoul is the capital of South Korea and it is known for being a modern hub that is central to the country and the continent. The capital has the third largest economy in Asia and proudly displays their accomplishments in the modern architecture, developed fashion scene, and technological advances. But to honor their traditions old sites like temples, shrines, and wooden homes have been preserved for visits. Visitors will often comment on the never-ending hustle and bustle of Seoul, which provides you with adventures 24/7 so that you’ll never be bored in this top destination.
Culture and Language
South Korea has a unique history because it is a relatively young country that was established in 1945 after World War II had ended. But the history of Korea, before it was split into two countries, dates back thousands of years, which influenced the country’s culture. Ancient Korea was ruled. By kingdoms and dynasties that had great influence from nearby countries like China. China even ruled over Korea for some time. In more modern history, Korea was occupied by Japan in the late 1500s. Japan would then occupy Korea again during World War II.
When World War II ended and the country was divided by the North and South, South Korea became a republic with the government running off of the presidential system. Syngman Rhee was the country’s first president. The second republic changed to a parliamentary governmental system, but only lasted 9 months. By 1961, there was a military coup before the Third Republic was established in 1963. With a couple more republics, Korea was considered to be in a liberal democracy by the Sixth Republic. Now, a president has control over the country, and it has stabilized to be an influential world leader.
While Korea has had a long history and difficult periods, the people have remained optimistic with a generous attitude. South Koreans are always happy to help any visitor and are very polite in their interactions with everyone. With such a warm welcome, visitors will feel immediately at home in the country and will have the confidence to travel and explore everything the country has to offer.
Religion and family are staples to South Korean culture, as they are throughout many Asian cultures. Major religions in South Korea include Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and even a population of Islam. All the religions co-exist throughout the country, though you will are more likely to see ancient sites that honor Buddhism and Confucianism with temples and shrines. Family is also integral to South Koreans and children will look after their parents. Many homes may even be multi-generational with parents living with children. While modernity in the cities may change the living situations, deep respect for elders is still expected by their culture.
Korean is both the official and national language of South Korea, which is used by the government and in daily life. While Korean is the most prominent language throughout the country, there are local dialects and foreign languages spoken as well.
The local dialects of Korea were established are the area that Seoul occupies, and they often differ in their pronunciation and sounds. There are 8 main local dialects throughout the Korean Peninsula with 5 of them being spoken in South Korea.
South Korea is also unique because foreign languages that are present throughout the country tend to be divided by age. The younger generation is more likely to speak English with some able to converse fluently. The older generation is more likely to know Japanese, particularly around the areas of Busan. While Japanese may not be as popular, English is gaining popularity because of South Korea’s international relationships and businesses. The country is even seeking to make English their second language so that their people can advance in fields like trade, business, and academics.
But no matter which language you speak or don’t speak, visitors should not be worried about visiting South Korea. The friendly people will be happy to assist in any way they can, even with a language barrier and warm gestures can go a long way.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting South Korea, you do not need a tourist visa approve before you travel to the country. You are allowed to visit South Korea for up to 90 days without seeking a specific visa. But you will need a valid US passport with one blank page per stamp. Overall, this means you should have two blank pages in your passport – one for entry into and one for exiting the country.
If you are seeking business or wish to stay for longer than 90 days, you will need to arrange the appropriate visa. The South Korean Embassy can assist you with your needs and will have the most up to date information regarding a legal entry into the country.
While the visa is essential for entry into South Korea, it is also important that you consider your spending budget while you are planning your trip to the country. South Korea is not the most affordable country to visit like other countries in Asia, but it can still be traveled on an affordable budget. However, as with any country, you can pay more for a luxury vacation. The most important parts of your budget will include the airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
If you are visiting from the United States, you should expect to travel for long hours and pay for an expensive ticket. Most flights will take about 13 hours to reach the country, if you leave from a big city like Los Angeles. The average cost for an economy ticket is $990 US dollars, but you may find special deals that bring the price down to about $400 US dollars. The biggest factors that can change the price of a ticket are what time of year you plan your vacation and how far in advance you book the ticket.
South Korea’s peak tourist seasons run from April to May and September to October. During these months, many will be eager to travel to the country and you should expect plane tickets to cost more. However, the absolute most expensive months to visit are June, July, and August. Whereas March is the cheapest month to visit.
You can also slightly reduce the price of your ticket by booking further in advance. The longer you wait to book and ticket and the closer the date comes to your day of departure; the prices will go up and may even increase by a few hundred dollars.
While the planet ticket will be the largest portion of your budget, those who are looking to travel affordably will need to be prepared to spend a bit for decent accommodation. If you are willing to stay off the beaten path, a dorm room style accommodation in a hostel will be about $8.50 US dollars for the night. But other accommodations that are private or more of a hotel like setting will be significantly more expensive.
A decent hotel in South Korea, throughout most of the popular destinations will cost about $85 US dollars per night. These would be local hotels that provide a clean service but may not be the same Westernized style that you are used too. If you would like a hotel that provides more service and is larger, you should expect to pay up to $250 US dollars per night. Luxury accommodation options can easily cost several hundred or over $1000 US dollars per night.
Travelers will also find that accommodation is much more expensive in the cities, which is where most people travel to when they visit South Korea. If you head out into the countryside, you may be able to find more affordable accommodation, but you should not expect a full-service hotel.
Another accommodation option would be to rent through Airbnb. While the company has some restrictions in the country, if the host is renting to a foreigner, the service is legal. Guesthouses are a common rental throughout South Korea, and they can provide you with a nice place to stay that is private, unlike a hostel. Most Airbnb rental costs will range from $30-$100 US dollars. The price will change depending on the type of accommodation, duration of stay, and the number of people. Apartments can be rented for about $30 US dollars, while the higher prices are often for large rental properties and private homes.
Once you’ve booked your ticket and decided on accommodation, the next most important considerations for your budget will be when you are in South Korea. Food and drink are important to factor into your budget because you will need to eat and will probably be excited to taste the authentic cuisine.
While South Korean may be overlooked in their cuisine, they have made one famous dish that has become internationally popular. Kimchi is fermented vegetables, usually cabbage and radish, which are seasoned gochugaru, onions, and garlic. The dish has made its way across the world, but it isn’t the only dish that you should try.
Other popular South Korean dishes include hoeddeok, which is a sweet pancake covered in syrup and sugar. The dish is known for being crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. Bulggogi is a marinated beef barbeque, which is often ranked as one of the most delicious. Japchae is a stir-fried noodle that can be served for lunch or dinner and is also widely popular. South Korea even has their own version of blood sausage, which is called soondae and is prepared differently according to region.
With plenty of tasty dishes to choose from, budget travelers will be happy to know that you don’t have to break the bank to eat out. Street food is widely popular throughout South Korea and some dishes will cost less than $5 US dollars with the most affordable costing less than $1 US dollar. But if you are looking for a full plate, you should expect to spend about $10 US dollars.
Restaurants will be more expensive, and you can easily rack up a bill that is worth hundreds, depending on where you go. The average cost for a nice restaurant is pricey at about $33 US dollars per plate. Fancier restaurants can cost hundreds per person and would better fit a budget suited for a luxury vacation.
But eating isn’t the only cost and if you want to get some drinks and head out to the bars, you’ll have to include those prices into your budget too. Locally produced beer will be the most affordable with many sold in the shops for about $1 US dollar. However, most drink prices out at a restaurant or bar will be significantly more expensive with the average cost being $10 US dollars per drink.
Overall, South Korea is a country that isn’t as catered towards a backpacker’s budget, but it can still be traveled on an affordable budget if you are willing to take the time to plan your trip. A lower budget trip would have you spending about $85 US dollars per day, while a more moderate budget would be to spend up to $250 US dollars per day. Any costs over $250 US dollars per day would likely be considered a luxury vacation.
How to Get Around
One of the best things about South Korea is that it is easy to travel around the country due to the extensive railroad tracks that service the cities and routes between cities. Many big cities will have a functioning metro system and Seoul is famous for their excellent subway. Most subway tickets will cost just over $1 US dollar for a trip, which is much more affordable than a taxi and can save you the effort of having to walk long distances. Longer train rides will cost up to $60 US dollars if you are traveling between cities. They do also offer rail passes, but they can be quite expensive and may not be ideal for short term travelers.
While the trains are fast, they tend to be very crowded and if you are looking to travel further, they can eat up your time, which means less places to visit. If you want to travel quickly around the country and aren’t worried about raising your budget, flying is another option. South Korea has a few budget airlines that have domestic flight service throughout the country with Jeju Air being the most popular choice. Most one-way tickets will cost about $100 US dollars.
For shorter distances, buses are another great way to travel that may have routes the subways do not follow. Public buses will be abundant in the large cities and are a reliable way to travel. Most short ride bus tickets will cost $1-$2 US dollars, while longer rides may cost up to $30. The buses are the most affordable way to travel but they will take significantly longer to reach their destination if you are traveling between cities. For many travelers, they do not want to take the time to travel by bus so that they can see more.
Taxis will be very expensive in South Korea with a base price of $4 US dollars and increasing every kilometer by $0.60 US cents. For short distances and quick trips, it can be worth the cost, but not so for long rides.
Finally, you can always walk if you are exploring a concentrated area or neighborhood and it’s a great way to see the local lifestyle. Many places are safe to walk to and you should not have any problems. However, as with any destination in the world, you should be aware of your surroundings and belongings to stay safe.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While Seoul is the main attraction, there are other cities in South Korea that are eager for tourists. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in South Korea.
With a population of over 25 million people, Seoul is a bustling city that is known for its contrast of modernity and history. New technology is created within the city and many leading technological advances have been created within its towering architecture. But with old sites like the Changdeok-gung Palace, visitors can also appreciate ancient architecture. But don’t let sightseeing be the only thing on your to-do list. The city is known for their cuisine and there are plenty of restaurants and street stalls ready to offer you a tasty bite.
The brightly colored buildings of Busan have helped make it a big tourist attraction, along with the mountain backdrop and pristine beaches. The city is known for being more industrial, but there are preserved historical sites like the Beomeosa Temple that await tourists too. With hot springs, restaurants, and nearby the nearby mountains, this city offers you endless entertainment.
Seogwipo is located on Jeju Island and is known for its jagged coastline, cascading waterfalls, and pretty beaches. The natural beauty of the area has given it the title of the “Best Scuba Diving in South Korea”. There are plenty of tours and while the city is not the main star, you won’t need modern entertainment when you witness the natural beauty of Seogwipo.
One of the hidden gems in the country, Gangneung is the best place to go is you want to get off the beaten path. This area has beaches, delicious cuisine, and cultural events that attract visitors. The Danjoe folk festival is a big attraction for tourists that is held every year.
Incheon is an important city for the country because it houses the Jeondeungsa Temple, which is the oldest in South Korea. While modernity is taking over, the city’s historic sites have been preserved as American soldiers once landed here during the Korean War as they recaptured Seoul. Now, a waterfront area and Chinatown entertain guests with shops, restaurants, and bars.
Gyeongju is like entering a museum because the city has a vast history that dates back over 2000 years. The picturesque landscape is filled with tombs and temples, which have been dated back to the 1st century BCE when the Silla Kingdom ruled. The two most popular tourist sites are the Bulguska Temple and Seokguram Grotto.
Points of Interest
While cities are always fun to explore, you may find that there are also specific points of interest that capture your attention.
Located not too far outside of Seoul, Jeonju has preserved ancient architecture and relics from the Joseon Dynasty. The ancient homes fill the streets and let visitors experience ancient Korea first-hand. A few of the homes are open for visits as they have been converted into museums, restaurants, and hotels.
Bukchon Hanok Village
The Bukchon Hanok Village is an ancient area that has been preserved to showcase the country’s history. Most of the architecture dates back to 600 years ago and in cases like Bukchon, it has been kept in its original location. For visitors, this village rests in the center of Seoul and there are a few places that provide accommodation to tourists.
Seoraksan National Park
This national park was the first in Korea and it is often called the “Yellowstone of Korea”. The natural rock formations are filled with lakes, streams, and waterfalls. Many hiking trails are scattered throughout the terrain so that visitors can step into nature. A cable car also runs up the Seoraksan Mountain, which will provide you with an amazing view.
The DMZ is the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Many tourists are interested into a glimpse of North Korea, but don’t expect a friendly welcome. The border is heavily guarded, and you will need to book an official tour. A cross-border room does allow you to visit North Korea, which provides you with the safest way to say that you did indeed visit the hermit country.
Hallyeo Maritime National Park
The Hallyeo Maritime National Park is a popular tourist hotspot because of the Hallyeosudo Viewing Ropeway, which is a cable car that takes you up the cliffs for a stunning view of the coastline. Just an hour outside of Seoul, this is a perfect day trip from the capital.
Get Out and Go
Not to be confused with North Korea, South Korea is a welcoming country that is filled with unique experiences. The bustling capital of Seoul is famous for their technological advancements, but tourists will also find plenty of hidden gems. With skyscrapers, ancient temples, and beautiful parks, you’ll fall in love with South Korea and its friendly people.