In May of 2019, I embarked upon a two-week adventure through South Korea with my buddy Sam, who actually called the country home a few years earlier. Our itinerary included several of the top places to visit in South Korea and I couldn’t wait to start exploring. It was my first trip to the country, so outside of what I had read online, I knew very little about the country. I was traveling with a good friend, so I knew I would have a fun time, but I had no idea that I would fall in love with the country during that time.
From the concrete jungle of Seoul to the world-class seaside paradise of Busan, South Korea was a treat from the moment I arrived to the second I left. I even got to explore the traditional markets of Daegu, dive into the history of Gyeongju, and stay overnight at a Buddhist temple! Let me take you on a tour of my favorite spots to visit in this incredible country. Every single one of them blew my mind and made me fall further in love with South Korea. I hope you enjoy these amazing places as much as I did. These are the top 5 places to visit in South Korea.
Trips through South Korea will likely begin and end in Seoul, the country’s capital and largest city. With its bright lights, futuristic glass-and-steel skyscrapers and thriving, modern culture, it can be difficult to remember that Seoul’s roots can be traced as far back as 18 BC. Its hyper-modern sites stand alongside more traditional locations, including traditional street markets and ancient palaces and temples. It’s this delightful mix of new and old that makes Seoul one of the top places to visit in South Korea.
You can’t truly experience Seoul without exploring its street markets. There are many to choose from, and some are more touristy than others. There are also street markets that have a more local, authentic vibe, which are usually my favorites.
One I loved was Tongin Market, a covered market that dates back to 1941 and reminded me of Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan. There, I tried several outstanding foods including a moist and spicy kimchi pancake called kimchi-jeon, an extra-long gimbap, and some mouthwatering tteok-bokki. If you love fried chicken, try the sweet and sour dakgangjeong! The food here is outstanding and makes Tongin Market one of the best places to visit in South Korea.
If you’re looking for street food as well as unique souvenirs, check out Namdaemun Market, which has been around since 1414 and is home to 10,000 stalls. You can find your usual Korean street foods there like tteok-bokki and gimbap, as well as more innovative creations like the potato-crusted hot dog. I also highly recommend the kimchi and pork mandu, which are simply out of this world. After you finish eating, check out the clothing vendors and explore the maze-like Korean folklore shops. Get yourself a cool T-shirt or buy some authentic Korean wooden masks!
For a more local market experience, head over to Mangwon Market on Seoul’s west side. This hidden gem is more of an all-purpose market, as it’s almost exclusively visited by locals. Try the odeng fish cake wrapped around a cheese stick (it’s known as a hot bar), and don’t miss the dry and salty grilled puffer fish pancake! You can also sample a wide variety of tempura, spicy fried chicken, and some of the most phenomenal pork belly on the planet! It’s one of the top places to visit in South Korea, without a doubt!
One of the more touristy areas to try street food is Myeongdong Street. But just because there are more tourists there doesn’t mean the food suffers in quality. There’s an amazing array of sweets and almonds, including wasabi and Pop Rock flavored almonds. The custard-like egg bun is a fantastic sweet and nutty treat that I couldn’t get enough of. Don’t miss the cheesy and meaty Myeongdong dakgalbi, gimbap with spicy roe, and skewered chicken. The chicken can be covered in several dipping sauces, including one so spicy, it felt like someone had lit a flame in my mouth!
Seoul’s are among the top places to visit in South Korea because of the way they lay out and explain the country’s history. I believe you can’t fully understand a country or its people until you know what they’ve been through to get to where they are. Seoul’s museums are great spots to get a crash course.
Check out the National Museum of Korea, which is the flagship museum for showcasing Korean history and art. Among the highlights of my trip there were the collection of celadon ceramics from the 12th and 13th centuries. One of the coolest exhibits is a hall filled with statues of Arhats, which are Buddhist figures who have reached enlightenment. There’s also an interactive activity where you can carve your own Korean seal and use it as a stamp to send a letter to a loved one!
A more somber museum is the Korean War Memorial Museum, which commemorates those who lost their lives during the war. The ground level is a large hall where planes, cannons, buggies, cars, and Soviet tanks are on display. Further inside is the Korean War Room, where war weapons are showcased alongside army uniforms from the countries that participated in the war. Plaques around the room honor those who gave their lives.
For a look at modern Korean history, take a trip to Cheongwadae Sarangchae Museum. One of its coolest exhibits is the Wall of Presidents, which honors each of the country’s presidents from 1948 to 2017. Learn about South Korea’s most prominent tourist destinations, street markets, and its Democratic movement in various interactive rooms!
One of my favorite places to visit in South Korea was Jogyesa Temple, a gorgeous Buddhist Temple in the Insa-dong neighborhood. It’s the main temple for the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. During my visit in May of 2019, the temple was decked out in colorful lanterns for the annual Buddha’s Birthday celebration. It’s a stunning sight to behold and is a great way to learn more about Korean Buddhism while admiring the temple’s beautiful architecture.
Seoul is home to two stellar historical palaces, both of which offer fantastic educational experiences and are a treasure trove of information on Korea’s past. Gyeongbokgung Palace, a Joseon-era palace that was built in 1395, was the home of Joseon kings, their households, and their government officials. The complex includes a museum, a temple, traditional houses, a pond, a pavilion, and much more. If you visit Gyeongbokgung Palace wearing traditional clothing called a hanbok, you get in for free!
The other palace you must visit, Changdeokgung Palace, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. It’s not hard to see why. It dates back to 1405 and is considered an “outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden designs.” This peaceful palace was the royal family’s favorite. It’s home to over 26,000 species of trees and an otherworldly secret garden. Admission costs 8,000 won, or just under $7 USD. It’s more than worth the price!
In addition to its historical sites, Seoul is also brimming with modern attractions that are ripe for exploring. Among them is Seoul Tower, which is located in Namsam Park. If you choose to hike through the park to get there, you’ll be treated to lots of greenery along the path and several viewpoints that offer a gorgeous look at the city. The view from the top of Seoul Tower is one for the ages, though. From there, you can see for miles, all the way to the distant mountains!
Another of Seoul’s towers, Lotte World Tower is easily one of the top places to visit in South Korea. It’s the fifth-tallest building in the world at 1,821 feet tall and is home to a mall, a hotel, and the highest glass-bottomed observation deck on Earth! Before you head up top, grab a bibimbap at the Seoul Seoul 3080 food court. Then, enjoy one of the coolest observation decks in the world. It’s large and spacious and offers a panoramic view of the city. The glass-bottomed section of floor is pretty trippy and lying down on it is a huge rush I highly recommend!
A lively seaport on South Korea’s southeastern coast, Busan is a traveler’s dream. Whether you’re a beach bum, a shopaholic, a culture fanatic, or a lover of good food, Busan has something for you.
You can’t visit Busan without exploring the maze-like collection of colorful buildings and winding paths known as Gamcheon Culture Village. There, you’ll find eclectic shops and some of South Korea’s more unusual street food options. Visit Haeundae Beach, the country’s longest beach, if you’d like to take a dip into Pacific or take a stroll along its boardwalk.
Lovers of fresh seafood will be in heaven at Jagalchi Fish Market, which is the country’s largest fish market with over 900 vendors on its ground floor. There, you can purchase a fish and the vendor will prepare it for you. They’ll send it up to the dining hall on the third floor for you to eat it as part of a huge chobap feast!
Street Food at BIFF Square
Street food enthusiasts cannot miss the offerings at BIFF Square, which include tteok-bokki and odeng, the blood sausage called sundae, and dakgangjeong. There’s also a cheesy grilled scallop called garibi and a giant, toasted marshmallow with ice cream inside. I recommend skipping the beondegi, which is a deep-fried silkworm larvae that burst in my mouth and made me gag!
Taejongdae Resort Park
Get a bird’s-eye view of Busan from Busan Tower, and then head down to Taejongdae Resort Park to have an insanely fresh raw octopus meal. Further along in the park are temples and various viewing points that offer some of the most sensational views in all of South Korea. They were absolutely breathtaking!
Shopping and Recreational Activities
If you have high-end tastes, check out Shinsegae Centum City, the world’s largest shopping complex. Baseball fanatics should not miss the opportunity to enjoy a Lotte Giants baseball game at Sajik Stadium. Another of the top places to visit in South Korea, Beomeosa Temple, is also located in Busan. More on that later!
Check out the Top 10 Things to See and Do in Busan, South Korea
While many travelers who visit South Korea only explore Seoul and Busan, it would be a crime to miss out on Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city. It’s a delightful mix of modern and traditional and wound up being one of the main highlights of my trip.
As is the case in every city, I suggest getting a view of Daegu from above. To do that, head up to 83 Tower, yet another of the best places to visit in South Korea. From its observation deck on the 77th floor, you’ll get to see just how expansive the city is and how it’s nestled in a valley between lots of mountains.
Take a trip to the Joseon-era Seomun Market to get a real feel for what Daegu is all about. You’ll likely be the only Westerners there! Try the buchu buchingae, which is a savory leek pancake, as well as favorites like tteok-bokki, sundae, odeng, and the doughnut-like hotteok. This market is one of my favorite places to visit in South Korea. For a look at Korea’s musical history, check out Kim Kwang-Seok Street, which is dedicated to one of the country’s most beloved pop stars.
Don’t miss out on the chance to try one of Daegu’s culinary specialties, galbi jjim, which are braised short ribs. They’re tender and buttery, and the flavors are simply out of this world! Try it at Bongsan Jjimgalbi in the Dongin-Dong neighborhood for some of the city’s best!
Check out the 5 Things You Must Do in Daegu, South Korea
For me, travel is all about immersion. I like to get the most local experiences I can. There is no experience in South Korea that is more local or more immersive than an overnight temple stay. My temple stay was at Beomeosa Temple in Busan and was a truly life-changing experience. It’s easily one of the top places to visit in South Korea because of how immersive it is!
After Your Arrival
The immersion begins the moment you arrive, as you’ll be given a lavender-colored traditional outfit to wear during your stay. After you change, you’ll meet the supporting monk, who will teach you to properly perform three bows, explain the temple rules, and take you on a tour of the grounds.
While the food you’ll eat for dinner–rice, seaweed soup, and vegetables–is simple, dinnertime etiquette is anything but. You’ll learn how to arrange your bowls, as well as mealtime rules. You should only take as much food as you can eat because you must eat it all! Food is also meant to be eaten discreetly, so you must hold your bowl up to your face during dinner.
Evening and Morning Activities
Evening activities include watching a musical performance at the temple’s drum tower, a chanting ceremony called yebul, and prostrations. The prostrations are 108 full bows, which you’ll follow with making a bracelet with 108 wooden beads. After that, it’s time for bed. Lights go out at 9:30 p.m. and you’ll sleep in a communal hall on mats with other members of your gender.
After wake-up time the next morning, you’ll engage in cham-seon, or meditation, followed by a buffet-style breakfast. You must wash your own dishes because no one will do it for you. Then you’ll visit a temple on the grounds and enjoy the da-seon, or tea ceremony, with the monk, before it’s time to leave!
My experience at Beomeosa Temple was mind-blowing and beautiful, and one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever done while traveling. It’s something every traveler should experience and should be on everyone’s list of the top places to visit in South Korea.
Check out my Korean Temple Stay at Beomeosa Temple: Everything You Need to Know guide
If you’re a big history buff like I am, you have to visit the city of Gyeongju. This mid-sized city is one of the top places to visit in South Korea for a reason. It’s home to many structures from the Silla Kingdom era (57 BC-935 AD) and is the best place to view architecture from the Joseon Dynasty (1388-1910).
Head over to Tumuli Park, where you’ll find the mysterious mounds of the Daereungwon Tomb Complex. Each of the mounds is a Silla-era tomb, and there are over 150 of them in the complex in total. Visiting the king’s tomb, Cheonmachong, is a particularly enthralling experience. Inside are the remains of the king’s coffin, ancient pottery, gold and silver pieces, and ornate jewelry. There are also two crowns, one of which is a replica. This tomb alone makes Gyeongju one of the top places to visit in South Korea!
Not far from Daereungwon Tomb Complex is the Cheomseongdae Observatory, a roughly 30-foot-tall stone tower that was built in 647. It was used to observe the night sky and also served as a watch tower to keep a look out for invaders! Among the other fantastic places to visit in South Korea include Gyeongju’s Donggung Palace and the ruins of Banwolseong Palace. Don’t miss Wolji Pond and the spectacular Gyeongju National Museum.
Korean Chinese Food
While you’re in Gyeongju, be sure to try some amazing Korean Chinese food at Eohyang-Won Restaurant. Some of my favorite dishes included the breaded and deep-fried pork nuggets called tangsuyuk, which are served in a sweet and sour sauce. Also, try the tasty but fatty jajangmyeon, which are noodles served in a greasy sauce made from black bean paste. The gun-mandu are also amazing. They have a crispy, crunchy exterior, are full of flavor, and are bursting with tender, buttery pork!
Check out my Gyeongju: Korea’s Ancient Capital – Travel Guide
Those are my favorite places to visit in South Korea, but in all honesty, there are so many more that you should visit. I recommend starting with these incredible destinations and also doing some exploring of your own and finding other gems that may not have made my list. Book a trip to South Korea today and tell me all about your top places to visit in South Korea by leaving me a comment below!
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