This Korea itinerary features the sights and sounds of Korea that I just know you will fall in love with. South Korea is a place of drastic contrasts. From the bustling, neon lit streets of the capital cities to the quiet rural traditional towns, villages and mountain top temples which make a person feel as though they have been transported to a different country entirely. You could spend a lifetime exploring Korea and still feel perpetually surprised by its beauty.
If you are short on time, understandably you will want to condense the best of Korea’s highlights into a set period and for that reason this Korea itinerary is the perfect introduction to this fascinating country for first time visitors.
Days One & Two: Seoul
Whoever labelled New York as the city that never sleeps had clearly never visited the Korean capital. Seoul is a fascinating infusion of traditional eastern cultures and western influences. Be sure to adventure through the winding ancient pathways of the Bukchon Hanok village and explore the incredible traditional palaces of the Joseon dynasty that surround this area. For breathtaking views of this sprawling megalopolis, take a cable car to the top of Mount Namsan.
I have written about Seoul extensively on this site so I won’t go into too much detail here. For a suggested two day itinerary that enables you to make the most of your time in the city, read my 48 hours in Seoul guide. For further inspiration, take a peep at this list of 25 things to do in Seoul.
Recommended Hotel: The Westin Chosun, Seoul
(The hotel is centrally located and offers affordable luxury a short distance away from Seoul’s main attractions.)
Day Three: The DMZ & JSA
Who would have guessed that the heavily fortified border that separates North and South Korea would also be the region’s most popular tourist attraction? You only have to head ten minutes north of Seoul for the scenery to change dramatically with military outposts stationed every few hundred yards along the road and barbed wire fences cordoning off large bodies of water to prevent an infiltration to Seoul by North Korean spies.
A visit to the Korean border is a fascinating (and heartbreaking) insight into a nation divided. There are numerous tour companies that run excursions to the border but I would strongly recommend that you opt for one that includes the JSA (Joint Security Area). The JSA is the border section where North and South Korean forces stand face to face, constantly monitoring their enemy in an eerie silence. You really have to see it to believe it.
Related article: Read about my experience visiting the DMZ.
Getting There: Seoul based tour companies organise a pick up to and from various central hotels.
Day Four: Beopjusa Temple Stay, Songnisan National Park
The Korean Temple Stay program is a government backed initiative that intends to teach international travellers about Korean Buddhist traditions. For one day and night you can live at the temple and shadow the monks that inhabit it. During your stay, your itinerary will include activities such as 108 prostrations (ouch), traditional tea ceremonies, and daily chanting and drumming. Even if you are not religious or spiritual, a Korean Temple Stay is an interesting insight into Monastic life and ancient Korean culture.
There are numerous temples across Korea that offer this program but Beopjusa is a great choice because it is located within Songnisan National Park which boasts scenic hiking routes and incredible views as a backdrop to your temple stay. Those working at the temple speak a good level of English and the accommodation is comfortable. For further information, you can visit the Korean Temple Stay website here.
Related article: My Korean Temple Stay
Getting There: Take the bus from Seoul station to Songinsan and get off at the last stop. It’s a 20 minute uphill walk to the temple, or you can take a cheap cab from the station for about 5,000 won.
Days Five and Six: Jeonju
Jeonju, Korea’s UNESCO city of gastronomy is a foodie’s paradise and a highlight to any Korea itinerary. The city is a popular vacation spot among Koreans but it seems to have escaped the radar of many international tourists. One of the major tourist attractions here is the large and incredibly well preserved Hanok Maeul, an ancient village once occupied by Korean nobles.
Equally interesting are Jeonju’s countless street food markets. Don’t miss the Nambu night market where vendors from across Asia come together to prepare some of the most mouthwatering international dishes and be sure to experiment with local delicacies such as Jeonju bibimbap (beef rice hotpot) and Moju (모주), a traditional spiced alcohol.
Related article: 48 Hours in Jeonju.
Recommended Hotel: Dukmanjae Hanok Guesthouse
(Located within Jeonju’s hanok village, Dukmanjae is traditional Korean style accommodation (a futon bed). You really should try this type of accommodation at least once and it is much comfier than it sounds – I actually prefer it now!)
Getting there: Take the bus from Songnisan station to Jeonju. Depending on your departure time, you may have to change in Daejeon.
Day Seven: Suncheon & Boseong
From Jeonju, a short journey will take you to the small city of Suncheon, the self proclaimed “eco city” of Korea that is much adored for its stunning nature and outdoor activities. Quaint brick houses with straw roofs make up Suncheon’s Naganeupseong Folk Village. Whereas Korean nobles lived in hanoks, the commoners or “cheonmin” lived in more modest neighbourhoods like this.
After spending half a day in Suncheon, hop on a bus to the nearby Boseong green tea plantation. The scent of green tea dances through the breeze and the rolling green fields are incredibly picturesque. Local vendors sell a delectable assortment of green tea infused snacks and refreshments. This is arguably the very best green tea in Korea and makes a great gift for friends back at home.
Recommended Hotel: Suncheon Namu Guesthouse
(A super cute country home style guesthouse with incredibly friendly owners)
Getting there: Take the train or bus from Jeonju to Suncheon. If you choose to travel by bus, you may have to change at Gurye depending on your departure time.
Days Eight and Nine: Gyeongju
Visiting Gyeongju is like stepping back in time. Instead of the typical high-rise apartment complexes and conjested roads that typically make up Korean cities, you are greeted with rolling green fields and crumbling ancient ruins. Gyeongju is known as “The Museum without walls” and for good reason – upon every turn, you are met with a new historical site. The temples of Bulguksa and Seokgurum should not be missed. Also worth a visit is the Anapji pond and the various forests that run through the centre of the city.
Weather dependent, it is pleasant to rent bicycles in Gyeongju (you will find stores offering rentals on virtually every corner) and to cycle between rural temples and historic sites.
Recommended Hotel: Bomun World Pension
(Stylish and chic accommodation in a tranquil, fairy tale setting)
Related article: Things to do in Gyeongju
Days Ten and Eleven: Busan
Arguably one of the most picturesque cities in Korea, the beautiful coastal city of Busan is home to trendy beaches and a vibrant nightlife scene. If you’re craving a bit of R&R after the past few days of exploration, head over to Haeundae Beach and have fun experimenting with flavourful Korean street foods at the nearby markets. The local Jagalchi fish market is a fascinating spectacle to behold if you are relatively new to travelling in Asia and serves up some weird, wonderful, and downright terrifying dinner choices. Busan’s Headung Yonggunsa Temple (pictured above) is perched on the cliff face overlooking the sea and is one of Korea’s most photographed tourist attractions. You should definitely also allow time to visit the Gamcheon culture village – a former slum turned elaborately decorated neighbourhood where locals painted their houses with pastel colours and murals as part of a beautification project.
Recommended Hotel: Marianne Hotel
(Comfortable and affordable, the Marianne hotel is located at Haeundae Beach and is just a short walk away from the sea. This area is perfect since there are so many cafes, restaurants and bars.)
Related article: Things to do in Busan
Getting There: Take the bus from Gyeongju to Busan which takes just 40 minutes.
Days Twelve and Thirteen: Jeju Island
You wouldn’t necessarily associate a tropical island paradise with South Korea but Jeju is exactly that. There are plenty of activities in Jeju to keep you occupied during your time here and depending on your personal interests, you can develop a schedule accordingly. If hiking and the “great outdoors” are your thing, consider hiking Mount Hallasan, Korea’s highest peak which is accompanied by a stunning crater lake. For natural waterfalls surrounded by beautiful tropical gardens, head over to Cheonjeyeon waterfall and if you’d like to experience something peculiar, eccentric, and oh so uniquely Korean consider visiting Jeju Loveland.
Recommended Hotel: Hotel Leo, Jeju City
(Beautiful rooms and a great central location close to tourist sites such as Mount Hallasan.)
Getting there: Ferries run frequently from Busan to Jeju.
Day Fourteen: Depart Busan/Seoul
Depending on where your onward travels take you from Korea, you can depart via Seoul or Busan airport. Busan’s Gimhae international airport is a great choice for organising budget flights to other destinations in Asia, but Seoul is the obvious city of departure for longer distance international flights. With the exception of travel during Korean public holidays, it is inexpensive to fly from Jeju to Seoul.
There are of course, several alterations that you could make to this Korea itinerary depending on your specific interests, however the itinerary I have created here aims to offer you a taster of everything. If you have any questions on preparing for your Korea trip, drop me a comment below!
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