A street in Seoul at night, lit up by numerous neon signs
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South Korea

Asia

  Korean Currency:  South Korean Won

Sandwiched almost exactly two hours between China and Japan, South Korea is the often overlooked gem of East Asia. Although now starting to gain public attention, largely thanks to an international K-Pop wave, the fact that half the world owns a Samsung and the increasing popularity of Korean food, it's still a country that has something to surprise even the most well-informed visitor. Over 70% mountainous, South Korea is home to both a buzzing megacity and quiet countryside, and blends the latest in technological innovation with over 5000 years of history. Affectionately known as the Land of the Morning Calm, its distinct culture is largely rooted in Confucian ideology, and influenced by a brief but brutal period of occupation in the early 20th century, and its rapid economic transformation in the latter half.

The capital city of South Korea, Seoul is home to almost half of the country's population, despite covering just 12% of its land mass, and is packed with restaurants, bars, shopping districts and universities, with temples, markets and parks hidden in-between. Its second city, Busan is a totally different experience, a popular beach getaway (with incredible seafood) on the country's south east coast. In between, you've got the UNESCO World Heritage Site town of Gyeongju and the bamboo forests of Damyang. Below Busan, you'll find the beautiful beaches and lush scenery of the island of Jeju.

What to do

  • Visit a jimjilbang - A naked spa complex featuring multiple baths and saunas, in South Korea it's a totally legit place to go and hang out with your friends, and even stay the night (clothed) in a heated room. Weirdly, you get used to being naked after about five minutes.

  • Enjoy the noraebang - A private karaoke room rented by groups of friends, they normally contain comfy sofas, a drinks service, props and light shows.

  • Try your hand at Korean - The language is notoriously difficult, but a little effort will go a long way. Here are two words you'll need to know: "Ann-yeong-has-eyo" (hello) and "Kam-saham-nida" (thank you).  

  • Visit a weird festival - Options include Boryeong Mud Festival, held every July, where you can mud wrestle with strangers, or the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival held in January.

When to go

When it comes to climate, South Korea is a land of extremes. In the summer it can be very warm and extremely humid, with monsoon rains from June to August (do as the Koreans do and wear shorts as legs dry much quicker than jeans). In the winter, South Korea experiences bone-chilling cold and snowfall, but sunny skies.

Generally, spring and autumn are the best times to visit, when temperatures are pleasant and you can catch the beautiful cherry blossoms or the incredible changing of the leaves. Nami Island and Seoraksan National Park are two spots where the trees turn particularly ablaze with colour.

Five foods to try

  • Kimchi - If you've jumped on the Korean-food train you may well have had this before, but in Korea it's something different altogether. Fresh, spicy and crunchy, it comes with almost every meal, usually with free refills.

  • Beondegi (silkworm) - A popular street snack in South Korea, these fried worm pupae taste exactly like they smell. We'll leave the rest to you.

  • Ddukbokki - Another street snack, these spicy rice cakes are the perfect way to warm up on a cold winter's day.

  • Pajeon - Essentially pancakes, but made with egg, rice flour and wheat flour, pajeon can be served with all sorts of fillings and is a great sharing dish. Haemul pajeon (with seafood) is particularly delicious. For the very best in Seoul, visit 'Pajeon Alley' near Hoegi Station.

  • Makgeolli - It might look like milk, but this Korean rice wine runs at about 9% alcohol.

Its Northern neighbour

It would probably be amiss to talk about South Korea without addressing the elephant in the room, its naughty northern neighbour, North Korea. To do that, you'll first need to understand a little about the country's history. In 1953, the Korean Peninsula was split into two following the Korean War, which saw brother fighting against brother, and father fighting son over the ideals of capitalism vs communism. With the war ending in an armistice, which was never actually signed by South Korea, it is technically still ongoing to this day. Since then, South Korea has undergone enormous economic regeneration, while North Korea - still a communist state - has fallen far behind.

It's perfectly understandable that North Korea's fiery rhetoric makes some people nervous about visiting South Korea - after all, Seoul is only 50km away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the two countries and is one the most heavily fortified borders in the world. However, it's actually arguably one of the safest countries in the world, and even when tensions are running a higher, such as when military exercises are carried out, it rarely affects daily life.  

So, is South Korea safe?

Obviously, keep an eye on the travel advice dished out by your government before you go, but with regards to North Korea, it's very unlikely you'll have any problems. Many Koreans find foreigners' preoccupation with the issue almost comical.

In general both violent and non-violent crime rates are low compared to other industrialised nations. Although you should take the usual precautions, if you leave your phone in a coffee shop you'll probably come back to find its still there.

Explore cities in South Korea