Picture this for a second: Locals who are as curious about you as you are about them. Ancient temples and palaces fitting of a civilization that has been around for thousands of years. Cultural treasures at every turn that overwhelm you with knowledge and justify why you travel in the first place. And the food? Oh, just some of the most amazing dishes at about half of what you would spend in a western nation. It has been known to cause people to salivate days if not weeks after they have left. Where is this wonderful fairyland place? If you said Thailand, good guess, but no… I am talking about South Korea, the land of the morning calm. www.travelrows.com
Korea is one of those places that flies under the radar. While most people have heard of Korean pop and the awesome electronics that come out of this land, beyond that, it is a mystery.
This tiny and densely populated country has a misfortune of being next to one of the rowdiest neighbors on its northern border, but I am here to give you five reasons to put the land of Kimchi at the top of your bucket list.
Most people think of Korea as an expensive place to visit and this could not be further from the truth. While it is true that its south east neighbors are cheaper destinations, the difference is not as big as you may think. You can get a meal of Korean food for $3-6 USD, find a decent guest house for $10-20 a night, and visit most landmarks for a couple of bucks. In fact, the 5-6 main things to see in the capital of Seoul have a combined ticket price of $10 USD to see them all and you have a week to do it!
Note: Always check prices for the current year, travel stories from our website visitors are not being updated.
Most museums are free as are outdoor landmarks and public transportation takes you pretty much anywhere in the capital for a dollar. If you plan to go outside of Seoul, the long distance buses and trains are also relatively cheap and extremely efficient. You can easily budget your stay at 25-60 USD a day, of course, assuming you are relatively frugal. If money is the reason you have been avoiding Korea, have no fear, it’s cheap in here!
The people are as friendly as they come
While the people in the capital are more used to foreigners these days, the cities and towns outside of Seoul don’t see a non-Korean person on the regular. Historically, Korea has been a homogeneous society. These days though, globalization has produced an influx of expats causing a sort of culture shock, especially to the older generations. It is not uncommon for a random person to stop you and ask “Where are you from?” and “How long have you been in Korea?” The more English a Korean speaks, the more questions you will be asked, but fear not. Most of these conversations will end with “Nice meeting you!” or “Welcome to Korea!”
While I was always told not to trust strangers, in my four years in Korea, I have not once had a person strike up a conversation who had ill intent.
Although, come to think of it, a lot of wallets did go missing… just kidding :). It goes above and beyond just simple curiosity though. Korea goes out of its way to make foreigners feel welcome. For example, when you buy a metro card, it usually comes with coupons for discounts to attractions which clearly say “foreigners only.” In addition, pretty much every major palace, temple, and historical site or museum has an English guide, for FREE! Not enough? Their official tourism website has a network of volunteer guides anywhere in the country, all for free. It is also not uncommon for a restaurant to offer extra benefits such as a drink on the house with a friendly “Enjoy your stay!” It sounds bizarre, but it is the only place in the world that I have ever experienced this “reverse tourist price” effect. Want to learn how to write your name in Korean? Go to the King Sejong museum in downtown Seoul. Oh, you’re a foreigner? You can do it twice and take one home as a keepsake.
The Culture is Ancient
Being American (well, Mexican-American), our cities (300 years old tops) simply don’t have the rich history of other places around the planet. For this reason, it makes it extra special to experience a culture that has survived and thrived for so long. While the exact beginning of civilization in the peninsula is debated, with myths claiming 2333 BC, there is no doubt that it is ancient with everything wonderful that follows.
Tradition in the holidays of Chuseok (Fall Harvest) and Seollal (Lunar New Year’s) dictate the wide use of the hanbok (Korea’s traditional clothes) and bowing rituals to the elders. These are the biggest “family” holidays leading to celebrations all across the country. Many places, especially the palaces in Seoul and Incheon Airport, set up booths where foreigners can try on these traditional clothes for a small fee ($1-2).
Another extremely old and not well known festival is Jongmyo Jerye, which lands on the first Sunday of May every year. It commemorates the spirits of every king – that is 500 years (1392-1911) – of the Joseon Dynasty since the death of King Taejo in 1408. It is complete with Korean traditional drums, bells, dances, and prayers. Despite very little foreign fanfare, it has been declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. And speaking of UNESCO…
It has 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Claiming something is a “must see” in any country is a very subjective thing to do. People have different tastes, opinions, and biases that make an objective recommendation a daunting task. One such benchmark that does exist however, are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are a list of places around the world, selected by a continuously rotating international committee, to be recognized as having value to all of humanity. So… get to the point right? Well, Korea has 10 of them, a very high number for a country so small. By contrast, the US has 21 even though it is nearly 100 times larger.
So, what are these sites? Here is a quick rundown:
- Changdeok Palace – Ancient king’s home
- Suwon Fortress – Well preserved fortress wall
- Jongmyo Shrine – Mentioned above, holder of the kings’ spirits
- Yangdong/Hahoe Villages – Traditional 600 year old Folk Villages
- Haeinsa and the Tripitaka Koreana – The oldest known set of Buddhist Sutra tablets
- Royal Tombs – The tombs of every king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911)
- Bulguksa / Seokguram – One of the largest and oldest Korean Buddhist Temples
- Gyeongju – Old Captal of Shilla, the first unified Korean State
- Dolmen Sites – Ancient stone-age tombs, Stonehenge style
- Jeju Volcanic Island – Korea’s Hawaii, complete with explorable lava tubes and a hikable volcano (note: ‘explorable’ nor ‘hikable’ are actual words, but you get the point!)
While I could go on all day about these, they are just 10 of the many highlights of Korea. Having explored all of them, I could honestly say that they are all worth a look!
If you looked at the other items and just skipped on down to this one, I don’t blame you and hopefully, won’t disappoint either. Korean food is simply amazing. Instead of going on and on, let me just leave you with these pictures to get your mouth watering. In the spirit of #5 on the list, I added the average price, too.
- Kimchi Mandu – A pork dumpling with diced kimchi ($3 for a set of 7)
- Jaeyukdopbap – Marinated pork in a rich sauce with rice ($4-5)
- Kimchi Boggeumbap – Fried rice with kimchi, pork, and an egg on top ($4)
- Bulgogi – Thinly sliced beef in a barbeque ($11 a person. Sadly, beef meals are a tad more)
- Kamjatang – Back bone soup with potatoes, onions, and probably magic ($14 for a pot for 3 people)
Final tip – Korea is strictly a non-tipping society and all taxes are always included… enjoy!
Article author: Jackie Lee – a traveler and a digital nomad with lots of love to South Korea and other Asian countries. If you have your own story to share – send us e-mail or leave a comment below.
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