There’s a lot more to South Korea than Seoul. Despite the country’s compact size (it’s roughly the same size as Indiana or Portugal), this vibrant East Asian nation is brimming with genteel Buddhist temples, mist-capped mountains, and buzzing cities. Although one could easily spend a week in Seoul alone, a seven-day itinerary encompassing the entire country is entirely doable, and will give you a thorough overview of Korea’s natural beauty and cultural treasures.
South Korea is well known for its vast and easy-to-use public transportation system; a seamless network of subways, trains, buses, flights, ferries, and (relatively inexpensive) taxis that can take you almost anywhere in the country. The backbone of north-south travel is the KTX, a high-speed train that can reach top speeds of 190 mph, and travels from Seoul to the southern port city of Busan in approximately three hours. Domestic flights are also offered to many larger cities around the country, and mainly depart from Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport; about 21 miles away from Incheon International Airport, the city’s main international hub, buses run every 15 to 25 minutes between the two airports, and cost 7,500 won.
For those who prefer autonomy, car rentals are possible but require an International Driving Permit in addition to a valid driver’s license issued in your home country. (FYI, an IDP must be obtained in the same country your driver’s license was issued in.) Another consideration before you get behind the wheel is that Korea’s main routes are toll roads, so plan accordingly.
Most foreign visitors to South Korea will arrive at Incheon International Airport just west of Seoul, making the capital a perfect starting point on your itinerary. Take either a limousine bus or the AREX Airport Express train to downtown Seoul to get your trip started. Once you’ve stashed your bags at one of the city’s numerous hotels, motels, or guesthouses, it’s time to hit the streets.
In the geographical center of Seoul lies Namsan Mountain, topped with the spindly N Seoul Tower. This futuristic landmark is visible from many areas of Seoul, and makes a good point of reference as you navigate your way around the capital. Starting your tour from the observation deck at the top of the tower will help you get your bearings on the layout of the sprawling city. Enjoy lunch at the tower’s rotating N Grill, a chic restaurant that offers customers 360-degree views of Seoul while they dine on fine French delicacies and wines.
Next, take a bus or subway to the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest of Seoul’s five royal palaces from the Joseon dynasty. The grand entrance gate is an impressive work of architecture guarded by traditionally clad performers who reenact historically accurate Royal Guard Changing Ceremonies daily.
To get a big picture perspective of the nation, a visit to the National Museum of Korea is in order. The majestic, striking building houses approximately 15,000 items dating from prehistory to the modern era, and is Korea’s largest and most impressive museum.
For more essential travel tips, including how to navigate the city's public transportation, where to stay, and what to pack, check out our complete guide to Seoul.
History buffs, political aficionados, and curiosity lovers alike will revel in a bizarre day trip to one of the world’s most notorious borders. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is the 160-mile long border that divides the Korean Peninsula into the North and South, and lies only 31 miles from central Seoul.
Various tour options take visitors by bus from Seoul to the DMZ’s most popular sites, including the Bridge of Freedom, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, and Dora Observatory with views over North Korea. Plus, you can see the iconic blue buildings in the Joint Security Area, which is guarded by fierce-looking soldiers from both sides.
Many sights of the DMZ can also be reached via a special roundtrip “Peace Train” that departs from Seoul Station. Upon reaching Dorasan Station, the last stop before reaching North Korea, the tour continues via bus. (The DMZ Peace Train tour doesn’t include a visit to the Joint Security Area, which can only be accessed via specific tour companies, such as DMZ Tours.)
Bukhansan National Park
Seoul is one of the only cities in the world that has a national park within its borders. This easy access has made Bukhansan National Park a favorite among Seoulites, and has won a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the highest number of visitors per square foot of any national park on the planet.
Filled with jagged rock formations, miles of hiking trails, and sweeping views of the capital, Bukhansan is well worth a day trip. Buses from Seoul Station take approximately 40 minutes to reach Bukhansan National Park Jeongneung Visitor Center, which lies just outside one of the park’s entrances.
Across from the visitor’s center is a 7-11, where you can pack your rucksack with hiking snacks like dried squid or kimbap (Korea’s version of sushi) before hitting the trails.
Aside from the natural beauty of the rock formations, 1,300 species of animal and plant life (the latter of which is especially lovely and photogenic during the colorful spring and fall seasons) and over 100 Buddhist temples can be found within Bukhansan’s borders. Hwagyesa Temple is renowned for its graceful 17th-century architecture and its popular temple stay program, where visitors can learn what it’s like to live as a Buddhist monk.
Time to board the KTX train and head south to Daegu, South Korea’s fourth largest city.
Sports fans may recall that the city played host to the 2002 FIFA World Cup and the IAAF 2011 World Championships in Athletics, where superstars such as Usain Bolt and the now-infamous Oscar Pistorius wowed crowds.
Whether you’re a sports enthusiast or not, make your first stop a visit to Daegu Stadium. In addition to the stadium itself—which is surrounded by landscaped parks, mountains, and hiking trails—check out memorabilia at Daegu Sports Museum or stock up on K-Beauty products at Color Square, a shopping and entertainment complex.
Afterwards, take a cable car to the top of Palgong Mountain for lunch at a restaurant that may serve simple food, but features some of the best views of the city. Then hike down to Dongwhasa Temple and the famed Gatbawi Buddha, a 7th-century stone statue that's said to grant one wish to each visitor who prays here.
Round out your day with a stop at Seomun Night Market, which features traditional and surprising street food from over 65 vendors, making it South Korea’s largest night market.
Catch an intercity bus for about 5,000 won, and an hour later you’ll find yourself in Gyeongju, the capital of Korea during the ancient Silla kingdom that reigned from 57 BC to 935 AD.
Marvel at the exquisite architectural details of Bulguksa Temple; originally built in 528 BC, the current temple is a restored version since between then and now it was destroyed many times by fires, theft, and war. After your visit, hike to the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Seokguram, a temple built inside a grotto of granite and graced with a carved seated Buddha.
Gyeongju National Museum is a must-see for insights into the Silla dynasty, and features numerous exhibits on culture and daily life of times past. But to get really up close and personal with history, head down the road to the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, where the otherworldly burial mounds conceal the underground chambers of ancient kings and queens.
Hop on a train or intercity bus to reach Busan in about 1.5 to two hours. As Korea’s second largest city and the country’s largest seaport, Busan is always bustling with things to do.
Start with a hot soak and a skin-tingling body scrub at Spa Land Centum City, a contemporary take on the traditional Korean bathhouse. There are 22 different indoor and outdoor spring water soaking pools of various temperatures, as well as 13 different types of saunas ranging from Finnish to Turkish.
No visit to Busan would be complete without a stroll along Haeundae Beach, South Korea’s equivalent to the world-famous Waikiki. The golden sand remains largely vacant in winter, but come summer it’s awash with bright beach towels and parasols. The street lining the shores houses a wide array of bars, restaurants, and hotels, as well as an aquarium and a coastline hiking trail.
Adventurous eaters can catch dinner at the Jalgachi Fish Market, Korea’s largest seafood market, which sells both live and dried fish. Options range from crab and abalone to the more exotic grilled eel and raw octopus.
The semi-tropical volcanic island of Jeju is 181 miles south of Busan, and while it merits a multiple-day visit of its own, a whirlwind tour can be done by the determined in just one.
After landing at Jeju International Airport (or taking an overnight ferry from Busan if you have more time), make use of the extremely efficient bus system that connects the most popular tourist sites.
Jeju’s most iconic destination is Seongsan IlchulBong Peak, a tuff cone crater that formed 100,000 years ago during a submarine volcanic eruption. Take a walk along the rim for some seriously sensational views of the sunrise and the surrounding sea and countryside.
Hike the network of trails through Hallasan National Park to the 6,397-foot Halla, a volcanic peak that’s the tallest mountain in South Korea. Home to 1,800 plants and 4,000 different species of animals and insects, this UNESCO World Heritage is known for its unique vertical ecosystem resulting from the varying temperatures at each elevation.
Another UNESCO site worth admiring is the Manjanggul Lava Tube. At 59 feet wide and 75 feet high, it’s one of the largest lava tubes in the world, and stretches nearly 5 miles into the subterranean darkness.