The edge of Asia: exploring the highlights of South Korea

With its natural splendour, hypermodern cities and 5,000 years of history, South Korea offers a taste of old and new for any traveller wishing to drink from its deep well.

By Chris Tharp
Published 3 Sept 2020, 15:38 BST
The traditional village of Bukchon Hanok offers an older incarnation of the capital, Seoul — and ...

The traditional village of Bukchon Hanok offers an older incarnation of the capital, Seoul — and wandering its stone alleys is an exercise in time travel.

Photograph by Getty Images

Before the arrival of Covid-19, South Korea — home to ancient mountains, islands galore and urban centres bursting with vitality — was enjoying a moment in the sun. And, rather than let the crisis cast a pall on things, the country’s highly effective response has only enhanced its reputation as a modern trailblazer. It's now preparing to reopen its doors and welcome back visitors, and promises to be one of the safest and most exciting destinations in East Asia. Whether you're interested in nature, history or culture, read on for a sample of the country's highlights.

Jeju Island has long been one of the country's top local escapes thanks to its rolling countryside, lofty peaks and beautiful beaches such as Hwangwooji Coast with its otherworldly rock pools.

Photograph by Korea Tourism Organization

Explore rocky outcrops on Jeju Island and Gangwon-do

Reaching a height of 6,398ft, Hallasan is South Korea’s highest mountain, towering over Jeju Island like a cratered sentinel. Climbing this sacred shield volcano takes a full day and is something of a national pilgrimage, rewarding dedicated trekkers with jaw-dropping views, including the otherworldly forms of some 368 parasitic cones known as oreum.

Once you’ve conquered the mountain, it’s time to explore Jeju Island’s other natural wonders. Delve into the gargantuan lava tube of Manjangul Cave, stroll among the pines of Gotjawal Provincial Park or kick back on the soothing white sands of Hamdeok Beach. Wrap up your visit with a day or two on the Olle Trail, a network of coastal footpaths that may just be the best way to get acquainted with Jeju’s true spirit. Here, you can witness waves blasting against the igneous rock of the coast, while also getting a firsthand feel for the languid pace of local village life.

Just two hours from Seoul, Gangwon-do is South Korea’s least-populated province. Bisected by the rocky spine of the Taebaek mountain range, this rugged landscape is also home to some of the best stretches of sand in the country. Jukdo Beach, just south of the laid-back town of Yangyang, is a perfect spot to take an ocean dip, lounge in the sun or catch some waves on a surfboard.

While scaling any of Gangwon-do’s peaks is worth the effort, Seoraksan is the crown jewel. Reaching a height of 5,603ft, the country’s third-highest — and arguably most picturesque — massif is composed of a series of sharp stone slabs that pierce the sky like a dinosaur's back (an image that has seen it become affectionately known as Dinosaur Ridge). If huffing all the way to the top isn’t your thing, you can enjoy the surrounding area’s treasure trove of attractions, including Geumgang Cave and Biryong, Towangseong and Yukdam waterfalls, as well as Gwongeumseong Fortress, which is also accessible by cable car.

Busan's beating heart is Jagalchi Market, where locals have bought and sold fish for hundreds of years.

Photograph by Getty Images

Hit the streets in Seoul and Busan

Perched on a hillside in the middle of Seoul, the traditional houses of the Bukchon Hanok Village bring to life a much older incarnation of the capital, and wandering its stone alleys is practically an exercise in time travel. Once you’ve had your fill of the old, it’s time to take a sip of the new, with a visit to the gleaming, futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid.

After a hearty lunch at one of the innumerable food stalls of Gwangjang Market, jump on the subway to the Mapo District, where you can get your caffeine fix along the funky Hapjeong-dong Café Street. Any K-pop fans would be derelict in their duties without a side trip to the nearby headquarters of YG Entertainment, where you just might catch a glimpse of an idol like Black Pink. The Mapo District also served as some of the backdrop for Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-sweeping film Parasite; a couple of the shooting locations are easy to walk to and well worth checking out.

Next, head down to the bustling port of Busan and its beating heart of Jagalchi Market. People have bought and sold fish here for hundreds of years, and its thrumming main concourse is a cavalcade of seafood splayed out in all of its scaly, finned, tentacled glory. A meal in one of the market’s raw fish pavilions is a must: simply point to what you want and your swimming lunch will be dispatched and sliced up on the spot.

Just a short taxi ride from the seafood market is the Gamcheon Culture Village, a former hillside shanty town that's now famous for its vivid murals. Soak up the colour among the neighbourhood’s serpentine alleys before heading out to Gwangalli Beach, a key shooting location for the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. Here, you can wind down with a nightcap or two while gazing out over the water at the Diamond Bridge (Gwangandaegyo Bridge), Busan’s most iconic landmark. 

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 155-mile barrier that cuts a swathe across the peninsula, dividing the North from the South. 

Photograph by Korea Tourism Organization

Experience history in the making at The Korean Demilitarized Zone

Just a stone’s throw from the neon pulse of Seoul is another world — a place of weapons, watchtowers, fences and land mines. The Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, seems oddly named, seeing how 'militarised' it actually is. This 155-mile barrier cuts a swathe across the whole of the peninsula and, despite being a tense, dangerous place, it’s also home to a rich variety of wildlife, acting as a kind of green belt separating the North from the South. While the DMZ remains a source of great sadness for the Korean people, this last vestige of the Cold War is a must-see for visitors.

The best and only way to check out the DMZ is to sign up for a tour that takes you to Panmunjom, the 'peace village' established during the Korean War as a place for negotiations. Here, you can make out the Military Demarcation Line as it bisects the cluster of blue buildings still used for talks. You’ll also likely be able to see North Korean soldiers on the other side tracking your movements through binoculars, lending a heightened sense of eeriness to this vital spot of living history.

While at the DMZ, make sure to check out the Third Tunnel of Infiltration, dug by the Korean People’s Army (North) for easy access into the South. You can also peer through a telescope into Northern territory at the Dora Observatory and take a stroll around Dorasan Station, the passenger train depot that acts as a physical reminder of the aspiration to one day reconnect the two Koreas.    

Surrounded by a mountainous landscape, Seoul is a neon-lit metropolis home to 10 million people.

Photograph by Korea Tourism Organization


Getting there: British Airways, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines fly direct from Heathrow to Incheon International Airport in Seoul.

Average flight time: 10h50m.

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