It may be one of Asia’s more unconventional stopover choices, but the quirky and attraction-packed country that is South Korea, is looking to take its place as a must-visit mainstream destination. For those in the know, it is fast becoming an attractive alternative – or perhaps twin destination – to Japan.
Korea is almost halfway to Australia, so travelling via Seoul is a great way to break the long journey, for a few hours transfer, overnight, or even a dual destination trip.
Now for something different…
Evident in the comical yet cruel caricatures of a chubby-cheeked Kim Jong Un strolling hand in hand with U.S. president Donald Trump. You’ll also hear the sounds of Psy’s pop track ‘Gangnam Style’, which will be blaring out of every nightclub’s loudspeakers, showing that South Korea has its very own, unique style.
As you navigate Seoul’s labyrinthine maze of neon-lit streets, the sounds of kitsch South Korean pop is blasting out from the sidewalks, while the rich scent of savoury dumplings wafts out of cafes and forms a fragrant fog in the air. Then there’s the breathtaking stench of boiled silkworm larvae, a local delicacy that tastes decidedly better than it smells.
The past and the present converge as elderly, earnest salesmen touting Buddhist robes and statues walk side by side with modern-day cos-players in eccentric get-up. Young women parade the streets clad in Victorian ruffles and frills, imitating royalty from a bygone era.
A bedazzled bride struts by, her veil trailing wildly behind her. Hours earlier, she had taken part in a bizarre version of a traditional wedding ceremony where part of the pageantry involved the groom carrying a duck in his arms down the aisle. From a city that has a museum dedicated to Chicken Art, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
All of these experiences – and many more – are bookable with the excellent suppliers I deal with.
There are an impressive 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Korea – from the Changdeokgung Palace Complex in northern Seoul at the foot of Ungbong Peak of Mount Baegaksan, to Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes.
Seoul, its bustling capital, is less well known than Tokyo or Hong Kong, yet visitors who spend enough time there are invariably enthralled by a fast-paced city that is culturally rich and dynamic and has some of the best restaurants in Asia.
Why I’m recommending South Korea to you…
As very much a savvy agent, I am promoting South Korea not just as a twin-break option, but as a worthy stopover in its own right.
For intrepid travellers en route elsewhere, South Korea is a viable stopover choice, located halfway to Australia. You can combine a Highlights of South Korea itinerary with Essential China or Essential Japan itineraries, or even do both to create an epic 26-night ultimate East Asia itinerary.
Why not make ‘untouched’ South Korea on a standalone visit? While less expensive than neighbouring Japan, it is equally rewarding and culturally diverse.
Korea even has its own Cherry Blossom spectacular each spring and an explosion of autumn colours. The blaze of crimson, red and yellow leaves may remind you of New England but the classic pagodas and distinctive Eastern architecture will leave you in no doubt that you are unmistakably in Asia.
South Korea is, as they say, “definitely becoming Asia’s buzz destination”.
Independent travel in South Korea is easy, with sophisticated and on-time rail and subway networks, intercity buses, flights and ferries to Jeju island and even Japan.
Seoul searching: This is a city of extremes which comprises traditional, edgy and quirky. Besides all-night partying, there are pet cafes with live cats, dogs and even sheep, and bizarre attractions such as the Plastic Surgery Museum. Gwanghwamun – Korea’s answer to Paris – is an example of Seoul’s ‘retro sophistication’.
Gangnam-style: Visitors can discover the Seoul district that inspired the name of Psy’s hit song – one of the most downloaded videos of all time. The wealthiest neighbourhood in town, it’s a place to act like an “oppa” and enjoy upscale food, restaurants and stores. Opulence fetishists will appreciate the upscale Pierre Gagnaire, a Seoul restaurant at the Lotte Hotel, which has crystal chandeliers costing over US$50,000 each.
Temple nights: Immerse yourself in 1,700 years of Eastern history and learn all about the harsh regime of a Buddhist monk by bedding down in an authentic monastery. Visit The DMZ: Explore labyrinthine underground tunnels and secret passageways created by the North to try to cross the borderline illicitly. One million soldiers guard the border day and night. View the Freedom Bridge, once crossed by thousands of prisoners of war on their road to liberation.
Museum without walls: In Gyeongju lies over 1300 sq km of ancient history, from Buddhist temples to tombs. Plus, visit the World Heritage Site of Seokguram Grotto, where a 3.5m tall Buddha figurine sits inside a cave. Visit Busan: Explore the coastal city of Busan and its clifftop temples, before luxuriating at its famous hot springs of Hurshimchung.
I decided it would be a good idea to include a video blog of the top things to do, when in Seoul. As it gives a good overview of what to see and do, I thought it would be a good help for people to start their own research.