Jogyesa Temple in Jongno district
This is Part 1 of a 3-part trip report. Click below for Parts 2 and 3:
What to see and do in South Korea
Welcome to Part 1 of our Korea trip report! In this post, I’ve listed all the things we saw and did during our 21-day trip to Korea.
- I’ve only listed places we actually visited. If you notice some major attractions are missing, it just means we ran out of time to see them. (I guess we’ll just have to go back!)
- Our three weeks in Korea was quite leisurely. You could do 10–12 days and see most of the major sights. (Three days each for Seoul, Busan, and Jeju Island, plus a few days for travel.)
I hope you’ll be inspired to travel to Korea after reading this post. If you’d like more info on anything listed, feel free to ask me in the comments below.
What to see and do in Seoul
Seoul is South Korea’s biggest city, and where we spent most of our vacation. It’s very walkable, with lots to see and do just by exploring on foot. The transit system is efficient, easy-to-use, and affordable.
Despite its dense population, we found Seoul to be far less hectic than we’d expected. Whether you’re single, a couple, or a family—there’s something here for everyone.
Here’s what we saw and did in Seoul, district by district:
The Jongno district was an ideal homebase during our time in Seoul. Train stations and buses are easy to access, and there’s a lot to see within a few minutes’ walk. Here are some of our favourite places to visit in Jongno:
Bukchon Hanok Village
This traditional Korean village has been beautifully restored, and some houses are now open to the public as museums, artist studios, and cafes. Strolling the winding, hilly streets is a lovely, free way to immerse yourself in Korean tradition and culture. (Note: residents still live here, so be respectful!)
There’s so much interesting, delicious food to try here! Come with an empty stomach and a friend or two to share with. (See Part 2: What to Eat in South Korea for food recommendations.)
This is one of my favourite areas in Seoul. Like Bukchon Hanok Village, Ikseondong was once a traditional Korean village. But unlike Bukchon, it’s been transformed into an artsy, funky little enclave. Ikseondong is full of restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. Lots of pretty photo ops here too!
Insadong’s popular and a bit touristy, but we still enjoyed exploring the area. If you’re looking for gifts, there are lots of art supply stores and souvenir shops here.
We moved into the Jung district for a few days so we could use our Marriott free night certificates at the Courtyard by Marriott (what an amazing hotel!) With so much to see, do, and eat within walking distance, the Jung district is another good choice for a homebase in Seoul.
Here are some of our favourite places to visit in this area:
This is one of our favourite markets. (We visited three times!) Like any good Korean market, there’s a ton of yummy food here. There’s also lots of shopping (souvenirs, cheap clothing, luggage, etc.) The place is huge, so give yourself 2–3 hours to see it all.
(See Part 2: What to Eat in South Korea for food recommendations.)
Namsan Cable Car
This was an enjoyable, affordable half-day outing. The Namsan Cable Car takes you most of the way up Mount Namsan. After disembarking from the cable car, it’s another 10 minutes or so of stairs/walkways to get to the base of Seoul Tower. (We didn’t go up the tower. Apparently, the views at Lotte Tower are better.)
Here’s my Instagram post about the love locks that line the pathway:
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Tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of these 'love locks' line the pathway up to Seoul Tower. As pretty as they are, I can't help but think of the environmental cost of all these plastic-covered locks! There are SO MANY of them, and there's more being added all the time. 😭
You could easily spend a couple of hours here admiring the views, photographing the love locks, or relaxing at a cafe. Buy a one-way ticket if you prefer, then hike your way back down. (If you do this, be prepared! Our student Young did this once and got lost for more than two hours!)
Myeongdong is one of Seoul’s most well-known shopping areas. Very busy, very commercial—but we liked the vibe. Pierrot (Korea’s clone of Japan’s Don Quijote) and Artbox are fun stores to peruse for souvenirs. You’ll also find two Sulbings in Myeongdong! (See Part 2: What to Eat in South Korea for more about Sulbing.)
Seoullo was at one time an overpass; now it’s a quiet, greenery-filled walkway. It starts behind Seoul Station and ends at Gate 5 of Namdaemun Market. We got onto Seoullo at the northeast corner of Seoul Station. From there, it took us 15–20 minutes to walk to Namdaemun Market.
Seoullo’s not a must-see, but definitely worth doing if you’re in the area. If you have kids, keep your eye out for the trampolines near the middle of the walkway! (Note: when we were there, the trampolines had operating hours of 10–12 then 2–5.)
With Hongik University nearby, this area buzzes with youthful energy. Local eateries cater to students, so cheap, unique eats are plentiful. I loved the funky artsiness of the area and the narrow alleyways filled with food vendors.
The entire area’s fun and interesting to explore (especially Hongdae Street). I’d recommend just walking around and taking it in. Here are a couple of highlights from our visit to Hongdae:
Kings Cross 9 ¾ Cafe
We’re Harry Potter fans, so this was a must-see! We went in to check out the interior but didn’t order anything—so we were only able to see the lobby. Everything we could see (inside and out) is very well done. (Except for the books in the display case outside. Check out the titles—you’ll see what I mean!)
I had to do laundry, so couldn’t make it to this market. But M and the boys said it was a nice, covered market with (as expected) lots of yummy food. Kid 1 especially liked the deep-fried soondae. (Note: M tried the frozen beer, but said it was so bad he couldn’t finish it. Apparently, it was like drinking slushy beer foam.)
We visited Gangnam three times to: 1) Visit Misato (our Japanese student who flew over from Tokyo to see us); 2) Have dinner with my friend Victoria (who’s the mom of one of Kid 2’s classmates); 3) Have lunch with Michelle (another one of our Korean students).
Gangnam’s a little far from central Seoul, but it’s a nice area and worth checking out. Here are some of the places we visited in Gangnam:
Garosu-gil Road is named as such because it’s lined with trees. There’s not a lot to do here (unless you’re into high-end shopping). But it’s a pretty area to explore and take in. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes if you’re looking for a bite to eat.
Starfield Library at COEX Mall
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The gorgeous library inside the COEX Mall in Gangnam, Seoul. (Zoom in—those are shelves way up high in the distance, all filled with books!) So sad for me that there wasn't a single book I could read in here! I'd love to spend an entire day in a lovely space like this. (Side note: Korea is so safe and its citizens so law-abiding that there are no walls separating this library from the bustling mall that surrounds it. There were no security devices that I could see either. This would be totally unimaginable in Canada!)
This library is unlike any I’ve ever seen! If you’re a library lover, and you’re visiting COEX Mall anyway, it’s a must-see. (But the mall isn’t anything special. Unless you enjoy visiting random suburban malls, it’s not worth a trip in itself.)
Line Friends and Kakao Friends flagship stores
These are must-sees if you want pictures with humongous cartoon bears. (One’s fuzzy and named Brown. The other’s fibreglass and named Ryan.) Line Friends (with Brown) is on Garosugil Road, and Kakao Friends (with Ryan) is on Gangnam Boulevard.
Samsung d’light (aka Samsung Delight)
This is a fun, free way to kill 30 minutes with interactive digital exhibits. When you’re done, you can go downstairs to check out Samsung’s latest gadgets. (Like the ‘Pen S’ which M—the eternal man-child—couldn’t stop laughing about. )
The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)
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Kid 2 checking out the view of North Korea from the Mount Dorasan Observatory in the DMZ in South Korea. There's so much sadness and complexity in this difficult situation, and we learned a lot on this amazing tour. M's co-worker's brother and wife traveled more than 3 hours each way to Seoul to take us on this tour. We've experienced so much Korean hospitality in the four days we've been here. 🥰
*While the DMZ isn’t in Seoul, it’s a relatively short train ride away.
The DMZ is a 4-km-wide buffer zone between North and South Korea. It was recently opened up to the public and has become a popular tourist destination. We took the DMZ Train from Seoul Station into the DMZ, then boarded one of the official buses to tour the area.
This was easily one of the top highlights of our trip. During the all-day tour, we:
- Walked across a battlefield in Dorasan Peace Park.
- Had a buffet-style Korean lunch in a military mess hall.
- Peered into North Korea from the Dorasan Observatory.
- Explored a secret North Korean-built tunnel.
Prior to this, our kids’ knowledge of North Korea didn’t go much beyond Kim Jong-un and his antics. This up-close experience helped them understand the sad and serious history behind this long-standing conflict.
What to see and do in Busan
Busan is South Korea’s second-largest city, and it has quite a different vibe from Seoul. (Maybe because it’s a coastal city?) In some ways, Busan reminded me of Vancouver with its beaches, bridges, and ocean air. We spent three days here and saw everything we wanted. (But an extra day or two around Haeundae Beach would’ve been nice!)
Here’s what we saw and did in Busan:
Gamcheon Culture Village
This was another highlight of our trip. Due to its colourful houses and hilliness, Gamcheon’s known as the Santorini or Machu Picchu of Korea. Here’s my Instagram post for photos and tips:
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Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan is an AMAZING place and a must-do. We'd highly recommend buying the 2,000 won (about $2 US) map to guide yourself around the village. The map also allows you to collect stamps and postcards along the way. At one stop (I believe the second one) you can mail a postcard to yourself... in one year! What a cool idea. So much to see and take in. Plan for 2 hours to do the full route with the map. (Or 2.5 if you lose your way a couple of times like we did!)
We never tire of Korea’s markets! Gukje is huge, with lots to shop for and eat. You have to try the nut and seed hotteok here, but make sure you get the originals! (Hint: it’s the stand in BIFF Square with the longest lineup.)
See Part 2: What to Eat in South Korea for more food recommendations.
Gwangalli isn’t as pretty as Haeundae, but it makes up for it with the more chill, casual vibe. Hang out here to view the lights of Gwangan Bridge at night or borrow free bikes to ride on the boardwalk. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants across the street with beautiful beach views.
Here’s my Instagram post to help you find the free bike rental place:
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If you ever visit Gwangalli Beach in Busan, South Korea, visit the little bike rental place that's in front of this building. (If you're standing on the beach facing Gwangandaegyo Bridge, it'll be to your right.) They rent out bikes for FREE! You get the bike for two hours, and just need to leave your ID with them as collateral. It only takes 20-30 minutes to ride from one end of the beach to the other. It's an easy, fun ride! Some articles say the bikes are only for adults, but they have plenty of small ones that fit kids (probably 8 years old and up). #busan #gwangalli
This is a gorgeous beach! The sand is clean and soft, and the beach is wide and long. It’s not hard to imagine how busy this place must get in the summer. The surrounding area is high-end and equally gorgeous. Wish we had more time here!
Jagalchi Fish Market
We weren’t hungry when we visited, so couldn’t do the whole “pick your seafood, then get it cooked upstairs” thing. The market was surprisingly clean and modern and we had fun looking at the many types of seafood for sale. (But be prepared for pushy, aggressive vendors!)
What to see and do on Jeju Island
Jeju Island’s known as the Hawaii of Korea, but that’s slightly misleading! It’s actually not tropical, but sub-tropical. You’ll see palm trees—but it sure didn’t feel anywhere close to tropical when we visited in March! Still, it’s a beautiful island filled with a treasure trove of natural attractions. Everyone says you must visit, and we’d have to agree.
(Note: Jeju Island is known for its extreme windiness, so come prepared. The wind turns an otherwise warm day into what feels, at times, like a polar vortex!)
Here are the attractions we visited on Jeju:
The falls are pretty, with a well-maintained park/walkway leading up to them. But… I hate to say this… the falls were a little underwhelming! (I may be biased though—we visited the Canadian Rockies last summer.) Take a look if you’re in the area, but I’d say skip it if it’s out of your way.
Dongmun Traditional Market
This is one of the smaller markets we visited, but it’s still worth visiting! We found some unique foods here. There’s also a night market for your nighttime munchies and a large seafood section.
See Part 2: What to Eat in South Korea for food recommendations.
Gwakji Gwamul Beach
Another gorgeous Korean beach. Soft, white sand. Clean, wide beach. What more can you ask for? Kid 1 even enjoyed a little moment of solitude here:
Hallasan National Park
We hiked the easy 1.3 km, 30-minute Eoseungsaengak Trail. It takes you to the top of one of Mount Halla’s craters. Kid 1 ran to the top, leaving us all in his dust! (Naturally, this was his most memorable experience in Korea.) Take your time to enjoy the peaceful woods on the way up and spectacular views at the top.
Jeju Folk Village
This was a fun, educational way to spend a couple of hours. Lots of hands-on exhibits and traditional games to play, and plenty of room for the kids to run around and burn off energy. (They especially loved the hedge maze.)
Manjanggul Cave/Lava Tube
Despite having visited Hawaii many times, we’d never visited a lava tube before—so I was really excited to visit Manjanggul! The cave didn’t disappoint. We learned all about lava formations and got a bit of exercise too. (The walk into the cave is 1 km each way.)
Nexon Computer Museum
This place was a hidden gem! If you love video games, especially retro ones (Super Famicom, Atari, SNES) this is the place for you! M and the boys had a blast trying the VR game and playing endless rounds of arcade games.
I’m no longer a gamer, but I was a Nintendo fanatic back in the day. The beautiful exhibits in this modern, brand-new museum brought back so many memories.
On top of all that, there’s a lot to see and learn here. There are old computers on display, exhibits explaining how they work, and so much more. This museum is a must-see for gamers and non-gamers alike!
This is one of the natural wonders that Jeju is known for. Not a must-see, but worth visiting if you’re in the area. Note: Jeju Island created a network of walking trails that they call Olle trails. Apparently, one of the most beautiful sections is in this area.
We were in the area, so stopped by to see this beauty of a bridge. It’s simply stunning and makes for a pleasant evening stroll (and gorgeous photos). We descended the spiral staircase at the end and went beachcombing along the rocky shores below. It was a fun, free way to spend an hour with the kids.
Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak)
This is yet another Jeju natural wonder! We hiked up the stairs to reach the top of the peak (25–30 minutes) and were rewarded with a gorgeous 360-degree view of the island. I love being outdoors—especially if I can also get some exercise in. So for me, I’d say this is a must-see!
Very close to Seongsan Ilchulbong is Udo Island. It’s a tiny island, with a population of only 1,000! We saw it on a cold, seriously windy day, so we couldn’t do much exploring. But I can imagine how lovely and quaint this place must be in the summer. The ferry over takes about 15 minutes each way, and you sit cross-legged on the floor. That’s a neat experience in itself!
While Korea has a lot of the same amenities, stores, and restaurants that we’d see in North America, it’s a whole other world. Korea is an incredible, fascinating country and I hope you’ll consider visiting one day.
Next up in the trip report:
What about you?
Have you ever been to Korea? What were your favourite places/eats? Are you hoping to go and have questions? I’m happy to help—go ahead and ask away in the comments below!
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