South Korea, Two Ways

From the high-tech capital of Seoul to the tropical getaway of Jeju Island, the East Asian nation of South Korea packs an outsized amount of things to do in its small footprint.


Most visitors to South Korea will end up in its sprawling capital, Seoul, where a variety of neighborhoods host picture-perfect palaces, trendy shopping streets, quirky museums, adorable cafes, and scrumptious street food.

Something Old, Something New
Perhaps the starkest contrast between the past and present is in the Gangnam District, known for its soaring skyscrapers and designer brands. Right across the street from the gigantic Starfield Coex Mall — it includes more than 300 stores, 100-plus dining options, an aquarium, a cinema, and a library that features towering stacks of books more than 40 feet high — sits the Bongeunsa Temple. This Korean Buddhist temple dates back to 794 and the grounds manage to carve out a slice of peaceful tranquility in one of the busiest areas of the city.

Dress the Part
Visit the beautiful Gyeongbokgung Palace, and you’re sure to see a steady parade of people strolling along in hanboks, traditional Korean clothing. (Those wearing a hanbok even get in for free!) For women, the full skirt is paired with a short jacket, while men get a longer coat with loose trousers. There are lots of shops for hanbok rental tucked in the alleys near the palace, which makes for an ideal photo shoot backdrop. Nearby, the Bukchon Hanok Village boasts a significant collection of hanok, traditional wooden houses that were found all over Korea during the Joseon dynasty. Walk through this hilly neighborhood and admire the architecture, drop into a teahouse, or visit a cultural center.

Highs and Lows
For a view from above, make the short climb to the top of Seongsan Ilchulbong on the eastern side of the island to enjoy panoramic views of the ocean, the mountainous landscape, and Udo Island. (Take a ferry there to explore this smaller island, and don’t miss the peanut ice cream, an Udo specialty.) To go low — like below-the-ground low — Manjanggul is a large lava tube with about a kilometer open to visitors. See the stalagmites, stalactites, and other cave formations, including the largest lava column in the world (formed when lava flows from the ceiling to the ground and hardens).


A volcanic island south of the mainland, Jeju has been called the Hawaii of Korea, but it has a vibe all its own. Enjoy the slower pace of life as you explore the natural wonders, local delicacies, and rich cultural heritage of this island, connected to Seoul by the world’s busiest flight route.

Take a Pass
If you’re not sure where to start with sightseeing, a Discover Seoul Pass can be a good value for getting into a wide array of attractions. Tour historic spots like the Changdeokgung Palace (which has helpful free tours in English a few times a day), ride the roller coasters at Lotte World Adventure, cruise the Han River at night with Eland Cruise, and have fun with the Instagram-friendly optical illusions at the Alive Museum — all included with the pass.

Real-Life Mermaids
One of the most unique aspects of Jeju Island is its community of haenyeo, free-diving women who have plunged into the sea in search of abalone, conch, and shellfish for generations. A long legacy of being the family breadwinners and performing such a dangerous job with minimal equipment leads to a certain spirit that you can feel. See a haenyeo performance daily at Seongsan Ilchulbong Beach, or learn more about the history of the industry at the Jeju Haenyeo Museum.

Relax to the Max
South Korea is known for its beauty products, so it’s no surprise that they take skincare seriously. A fixture of everyday social life is the traditional Korean bathhouse, known as a jimjilbang. These range in amenities, but at a no-frills neighborhood spot, you can expect a gender-segregated, no-clothing-allowed space with hot and cold pools, steam rooms, and optional services like a vigorous body scrub (prepare to say goodbye to layers of skin you didn’t even know you had). You’ll get a set of pajama-style clothes to wear into the communal coed spaces, which include sauna rooms of various temperatures and materials, like salt, quartz, and jade, chosen for their healing properties.

Taste Test
Given that it’s an island, Jeju is flush with seafood — particularly abalone, which the haenyeo work so hard to get. It’s often served in porridge, but you can also find it grilled and raw. On land, the beloved Jeju black pig produces a red-hued pork that’s soft and chewy. Many visit here just for a taste of this rich meat. And you can’t go far without seeing Jeju’s trademark hallabong, a citrus fruit that’s like a tangerine. The sweet and tangy juice is a must-try, and it’s also used to flavor chocolates, cookies, tea, and other goodies. Or grab some hallabongs just as they are from a local seller, like at the Seogwipo Olle Market in the southern part of the island.

If You Go
Google Maps doesn’t work in South Korea, so download an app like Naver Map or KakaoMap to help navigate. In Seoul, you’ll likely want to get a T-money card to use the subways and buses — keep in mind that they can only be loaded with cash, not by credit card. On Jeju Island, renting a car is the easiest way to get around, but there are buses and footpaths for those with time to spare.

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