When it comes to places to visit in South Korea, most travelers default to Seoul (and, in rare cases Busan, the country’s second city). The vast land between the two cities, filled with charming towns and villages, stunning scenery and food so delicious you’ll want to learn Korean to talk about, goes all too often ignored.
This post aims to remedy that discrepancy, whether you prefer traditional and accessible Korea sightseeing, or are in the mood for something more obscure. Likewise, Korea offers destinations and experience that cater both to adventurous eco-tourists and culture-minded city slickers.
Keep reading to learn where to go in Korea, instead of (or, if it’s your first time, in addition to) Seoul and Busan.
Why Do People Focus on Seoul and Busan?
Before I get into places to visit in South Korea you might not have considered, I’ll address the elephant in the room: Why do so many travelers stick to Busan and especially Seoul? The reasons for this are complex and manifold, but a few of the main ones are as follows:
- Convenience: Most flights to Korea arrive in Seoul and Busan
- Variety: Busan and Seoul especially offer an eclectic range of experiences
- Accessibility: Both cities offer great public transport; you can get around speaking English
- Reputation: Seoul is one of the web’s most written-about destinations—and Busan is up there, too
Needless to say, nothing I say in this post is advocating against including Seoul and Busan in your Korea trip—I go back to at least one of these places every time I return to Korea! I do recommend exploring Korea beyond these cities, however.
The Best of the Rest of South Korea
Gyeongju isn’t officially among the most famous places in Korea, at least not for non-Koreans. But whether you come for ancient palaces and burial mounds that date back to the ancient Silla Kingdom, or take day trips to destinations like the famous cherry blossom village of Jinhae, Gyeongju is a city that should be on your radar.
Most of why I believe Gyeongju will soon be listed among the best cities in South Korea is the historical attractions. Visit 7th-century Donggung Palace, which rises over scenic Wolji Pond, in the city center, or take a day trip to Bulguksa, an 8th-century Buddhist temple that sits in the mountains just outside the city, a short bus ride away.
As places to visit in South Korea that aren’t Seoul or Busan go, Jeju is probably the most famous. On the other hand, most people who travel here are Koreans from one of those two cities, as is evident by the fact that Seoul-Jeju is by some measures the busiest air route in the world. (By contrast, Japan’s Okinawa enjoys significantly more international flights, to say nothing of its more traditionally tropical scenery.)
With this being said, you should definitely include the so-called “Oriental Hawaii” in your Korea trip planner, even if sights like Hallasan Mountain and Cheonjiyeon Waterfall seem more Scandinavian than sub-tropical. If you do decide to come to Jeju, where public transport is limited, consider obtaining an International Driving Permit (IDP) in your home country so that you can rent a car.
The Korean DMZ
One of the places to visit in South Korea is actually closer to North Korea than it is to Seoul or Busan. I’m of course speaking of the demilitarized zone or DMZ, which is the area between the two Koreas where a permanent ceasefire is maintained. Whether on a day excursion from Seoul or as a standalone trip, the DMZ is an interesting destination—and not just because of the ongoing Korean War.
On one hand, war-related places like the Dora Observatory, Joint Security Area and Third Tunnel of Aggression have earned their place among top tourist destinations in Korea. On the other hand, the South is in the process developing this area far beyond military tourism, whether that’s in the form of duty-free shopping or ecotourism that highlights the biodiversity of this largely uninhabited landscape.
Sokcho and Seoraksan National Park
If you’re looking for beautiful places in Korea that are also relatively easy to visit, Seoraksan National Park is a great choice. Located 2-3 hours east of Seoul and accessible via the colorful, quirky and underrated seaport of Sokcho, Seoraksan is most famous for its scenery during autumn months but is beautiful 365 days per year.
Beautiful, and exhilarating. In addition to stunning Korea scenery, Seoraksan offers some of the country’s best hiking. My personal favorite trail takes you from the eastern entrance to the park to the summit of Ulsanbawi, a towering “rock” (at least according to the Korean translation into English) that requires about two hours round-trip, plus whatever time you spend at the top.
Like the DMZ, the ancient city of Suwon is sometimes lumped in among day trips from Seoul, though I don’t encourage this. I say this in spite of the fact that you can walk the entirety of Hwaesong Fortress, a sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the late-18th century, in a matter of an hour of two.
As places to visit in South Korea go, Suwon occupies an interesting place. Located in Gyeonggi-do province, which sits just outside of Seoul, Suwon is urbanized without being extremely cosmopolitan, which means going there immerses you in a world of Korean language and music (K-Pop)—and cuisine. In particular, Suwon is famous for Galbi or grilled beef ribs.
Other Korea Destinations
Although I’ve named some very interesting places in Korea indeed, they’re only the beginning. Other must-visit Korea destinations include the following:
- Boseong Tea Fields
- Bukhansan and Naejangsan National Parks
- Jeonju: Korea’s budding foodie capital
- The winter wonderland of Pyeongchang
- Spiritual Andong
Are there places to visit in South Korea that you personally love, but that I haven’t mentioned in this post? Make sure to leave a comment so everyone knows what you do!
How Long Should You Spend in South Korea?
When it comes to how many days in South Korea you should spend, it ultimately depends on how extensively you plan to explore the country. For example, I recommend a Seoul itinerary that lasts between 3-5 days and at least 2-3 days in Busan, so you’re looking at one week in Korea right there, even if you don’t go anywhere else. I’d say that if you visit 2-3 of the destinations above, then 2 weeks in South Korea is perfect for you.
Another consideration you should make is the best time to visit South Korea. While April is the best time to see Korea cherry blossom and autumn colors peak in late October or early November, these are also the busiest times to visit Korea. If you can bear the cold, Korea’s snowy winter is a beautiful and quiet time to come; summer is the perfect season for sub-tropical Jeju, though it can also be rather rainy so you should take care.
I hope you feel more informed—and inspired—about places to visit in South Korea outside of the usual suspects, Seoul and Busan. Whether you trace history in Gyeongju, scale the dramatic peaks of Seoraksan, step up to the edge (or North Korea) at the DMZ or simply hit the beach in Jeju, Korea is more than its two largest cities, however fabulous it may be. Now, there’s only one question left—when are you going to book your flight?