When I tell people I lived in South Korea for two years, the first sentence out of their mouths is usually, “Did you like it there?”
My answer is always the same:
“If the climate had been like Mexico’s, I’d still be there.”
Korea’s extreme winter cold and oppressive summer heat was a little too much for me. But the food, entertainment, sightseeing and jaw-dropping everyday experiences kept me in South Korea for more than two years.
South Korea is a country that’s as ancient and mysterious as it is trendy and modern. More and more travelers are discovering its unique culture, festivals, history and cuisine. There are certain quirky and downright weird experiences you’ll have in Korea that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.
Both Korea’s cities and countryside have their own equally compelling seasons and customs. Regardless of your personal tastes and preferences, you can build an impressive bucket list for the Land of the Morning Calm.
Discover unique cuisine, colorful festivals, wacky pastimes and breathtaking cultural sights with the following carefully curated bucket list for Korea.
When to Travel to South Korea
Korea has four distinct seasons and a matching variety of flora and fauna. You can choose any time of year that suits your personal tastes. Or you can visit during the best time to enjoy traditional festivals, annual conferences or yearly harvests.
Some of the experiences on this list are seasonal, and their duration is determined by climate or weather. The official Visit Korea tourism website has current information regarding these time-sensitive events.
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How to Get to and Around South Korea
Thanks to an awkward mix of geography and politics, you can’t reach South Korea via land transportation. A variety of cheap flights to and within South Korea are easy to find, but you can also travel there by ship.
The Korean peninsula is accessible by sea from Japan, Russia and China. One of these routes has been a common trade pathway for centuries and is an entry on this bucket list. (How convenient!)
Within the country, intercity commuter airline routes are complemented by a network of trains and buses that can get you almost anywhere.
It’s also easy to rent a car or scooter if you’re charting your own path. Remember that you must be at least 21 years old, have a driver’s license from your own country and an International Driving Permit (IDP) to legally drive in South Korea.
The South Korea Bucket List
1. Eat Live Octopus
산낙지 (San-nak-ji), is the local name of this unique dish. This octopus is still squirming and is considered an adventurous delicacy. Often accompanied by generous amounts of spicy dipping sauce, kimchi and Korean whiskey, these rather small octopuses are served either whole or freshly chopped.
For those who are new to this foodie adventure, eating an octopus whole isn’t recommended. The suckers tend to get caught on the inside of the mouth or even the throat, giving these a dimension of real danger.
This dish is usually served in restaurants, at fish markets or at food stalls next to the ocean.
2. Visit the Soju Museum
The scenic area and long history of the city of Andong made it famous well before it became home to this unique attraction. The region is home to many historic draws, including art, architecture and famous cuisine. It’s become famous for producing 소주 (so-ju), a distilled drink made from wheat, rice, barley or sometimes even tapioca.
Andong is full of interesting museums, but you truly can’t miss the Andong-Soju and Traditional Food Museum. The museum includes information about what makes the local traditional distilling methods so special, and naturally, there’s a tasting room in which to prove it.
3. Discover Seoul Street Food
The famous open markets of Seoul include some of the trendiest shopping districts in the country. That might be why there are so many varieties of street food here that you won’t find anywhere else.
The dishes you’ll find aren’t so much practical meals as fashionable snack foods. The vendors and cooks of Seoul spend as much time on their creations as the local designers. Virtually everything comes on a stick or in a napkin, and the only utensil you’ll ever need is a toothpick.
Expect to see ice cream swirls, red bean paste in a myriad of shapes and hot dogs cooked in ways that you didn’t think were possible. Be prepared for some less tantalizing but perhaps more interesting dishes, like 번데기 (beon-de-gi), a traditional dish that consists of steamed silkworm larvae.
4. Take the Slow Boat to or from China
Legends and stories have endured for years about this short but significant part of the Silk Road. Currently, these ferries are for both passengers and cargo, and they utilize modern conveniences like making reservations via Facebook chat.
The nickname “the Slow Boat” comes from the length of the ride, not the actual speed of the boat. The Incheon – Quingdao route lasts 17 hours, while the Incheon – Weihai route takes 14 hours. Passage on this overnight ferry includes a berth with a bed.
If you’re feeling adventurous and heading further east, there’s also a ferry to the Russian city of Vladivostok from Donghae. This route is called the Eastern Dream, and its schedule changes depending on the season. In the summer, these 22-hour trips leave Donghae at 2:00 p.m. and arrive at 1:00 p.m. the next day in Vladivostok. In the winter, departure times are the same, but the trip takes two hours longer.
5. Bathe in Spa Land
A famous bathhouse in the bustling metropolis of Busan, this popular spot for both visitors and locals is also known as 신세계 센텀시티 (Shin-se-gae Centum City), or 스파랜드 센텀시티 (Spa Land Centum City). This attraction is located in an area of Busan known for its shopping, restaurants and museums.
You can experience 22 different spas and their luxurious natural spring water. And you’ll see 13 distinct 찜질방 (jim-jil-bang)—sauna room facilities—that include variations like steam, dry heat, charcoal or salt.
The spa is located in the Shinsegae Centum City supermall, a massive entertainment complex that includes a skating rink and several cinemas.
6. Meditate on the Beauty of Seokguram Grotto
There’s a lot of history in Korea’s mountains, reflected in ancient temples, ethereal hermitages and romantic, old castles. And the Seokguram Grotto takes the cake.
If you’re already in the historic city of Gyeongju, visiting the Seokguram Grotto is a convenient trip.
The Seokguram Grotto is one of the crown jewels of this ancient region and is considered to be one of the best preserved examples of Buddhist artwork in existence. It contains 41 sculptures of figures in the Buddhist canon in addition to the central statue of the Buddha himself.
The hemispheric dome that houses this large Buddha statue looks unremarkable from the outside. Upon entering the dome, however, visitors are struck by the otherworldly glow that seems to emanate from the internal rocks.
The dome is similar to other Buddhist shrines in India and Nepal, and it’s constructed of granite quarried from the nearby mountain.
7. Spice Up Your Trip at the World Kimchi Festival
The one that takes place in Gwangju is the biggest, oldest and most international of them all. Plus, it takes place in a veritable foodie paradise!
For a single weekend in October, the Gwangju World Kimchi Festival is the home of everything related to Korea’s most adored side dish. Exhibits and performances include cooking classes and demonstrations, an art gallery and a vast kimchi market.
All of this is free of charge, as there’s no admission fee or tickets required. The festival is also easily accessible via the local public subway line.
8. Learn Korean
King Sejong is a legendary historic figure. He’s famous for overseeing a prosperous and peaceful reign and for his academic prowess.
Before he developed a system of Korean letters, his people had to use Chinese writing to express themselves. Sejong knew that having their own unique alphabet would strengthen the economy and culture of the nation, and 한글 (Hangul)—the Korean alphabet—was born.
Even if languages and history aren’t your thing, studying Korean for fun or academic reasons should be on your bucket list. Learning Korean gives you the opportunity to interact with the locals, which undoubtedly will give you the most authentic Korean experience possible. And authentic travel should be on everyone’s bucket list!
Understanding native Korean accents can be the hardest part of learning the language. Try FluentU free for 15 days to familiarize yourself with how locals speak.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized Korean language learning lessons. Watching authentic videos will transform your travels in two ways: You’ll learn to understand native accents, and you’ll learn about the culture.
And once you learn to communicate with locals, they can teach you even more about the Korean language and culture!
9. Tour the DMZ Before It’s Gone
The Korean War may technically be over, but the tense relationships between North and South Korea continues.
The border between the two nations is a small, neutral area called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. The DMZ isn’t technically in either country, and neither North nor South Korea can enter this space with its military.
The DMZ follows the 38th parallel and is two and a half miles wide. The peaceful buffer zone is filled with landmines and unmarked graves. Also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), the location of the DMZ was determined as part of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.
The border consists of official military installations and a theme park called Peace Land. This collection of rides, restaurants, gift shops and brightly painted commuter buses is an extreme contrast to the generally somber mood of the DMZ.
Peace Land has sparked a lot of controversy. Is it a healthy way to soften the image of the oppressed people only miles to the north? Or a consumerist idol that disrespects what should be a more solemn place? Visit to decide for yourself. And if Peace Land makes you uncomfortable, there’s plenty more to see in the DMZ.
I explored as many of these strange and wonderful things as I could when I lived in South Korea, bound only by my schedule as an ESL teacher.
I’d love to return to Korea and relieve some of my previous exploits someday. I would return as a tourist with nothing but time and explore the country to my heart’s content.
Kristy Ambrose has been writing professionally since 2010. She dabbles in various genres, including everything from short blog posts to serialized novels. Her inspiration comes from gamers, beachcombers, foodies and fellow travelers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Victoria.
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