Filled with historic palaces, lively markets, and buzzing nightlife, Seoul is certainly a dynamic destination. But there’s more to the captivating country of South Korea than its compelling capital. From ancient burial grounds and wild national parks, to colorful Buddhist temples, and white sand beaches reminiscent of Hawaii, South Korea has a multitude of enchanting locales to fill your itinerary to the brim.
There’s no doubt that exploring Seoul is a must when traveling to South Korea. This modern metropolis home to 10 million people is a hodgepodge of culture, history, and culinary delights. No visit to this vibrant capital is complete without a stop at Gyeongbokgung Palace to see impressive examples of Joseon-era architecture and a recreation of the royal changing of the guard ceremony. Follow it up by checking out the city skyline views from the top of N Seoul Tower, then catch a glimpse of Seoul’s storied past amid the exhibits at the National Museum of Korea.
This quiet southeastern city was the country’s former capital, and home of Korea’s illustrious monarchs during the Silla Kingdom, which lasted for nearly 1,000 years. Only two hours from Seoul by high-speed train, Gyeongju can easily be a day trip if you’re short on time. Highlights include Daereungwon Tomb Complex (popularly known as Tumuli Park), where otherworldly burial mounds enclose ancient treasures; elegant Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, the pleasure palace of Silla kings; and the UNESCO sites and Korea National Treasures of Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto—a granite temple containing a seated Buddha statue.
Home of the Busan International Film Festival which takes place every October, this southern port city is filled with a pulsating energy all its own. Only three hours from the capital via the KTX high-speed train, Busan is acclaimed for its Waikiki-esque Haeundae Beach. But there are plenty of other sights to see and things to do in South Korea’s second largest city. Start your tour with the multicolored 14th-century Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (one of the few in the country built next to the sea), then watch from Gwangalli Beach as twinkling lights spread across the iconic Diamond Bridge at night.
Jeju is commonly referred to as the “Hawaii of South Korea,” and for good reason—tranquil beaches, volcanic landscapes, and a plethora of palm trees give the island a decidedly tropical vibe. Watch the sunrise over Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, a 5,000-year-old volcanic cone jutting into the sea, then head for the white sands and turquoise waters found at Hyeupjae Beach on the island’s west coast. Continue with a hike up Hallasan, South Korea’s highest peak, which also happens to be an active volcano. Jeju can easily be reached via domestic flights from Seoul or Busan.
Seoraksan National Park
The easygoing city of Sokcho in South Korea’s northeast corner is home to a stretch of golden coastline, but it's perhaps mostly known as the location of Seoraksan National Park. Celebrated as the country’s most beautiful national park, Seoraksan is a hiking enthusiast’s dream come true. Miles of trails wind through jagged peaks and vast forests, past streams, waterfalls, and dignified Buddhist temples. For a visual treat, plan your visit during the months of October or November when the fiery fall leaves create a blanket of color.
Note: While autumn makes for the best leaf-peeping opportunity, it’s also one of the park’s busiest times of year.
Jirisan National Park
Meaning “the mountain of the odd and wise people,” Jirisan is considered one of Korea’s three most legendary mountains and is a place where spiritual seekers have flocked for thousands of years. In 1967, the mountain and surrounding area became South Korea’s first national park (it’s also the largest terrestrial national park). Jirisan is known for its incredibly diverse flora and fauna, including the leopard cat and the Asiatic black bear, both considered endangered species and protected in Korea. Buses and trains reach Namwon Station from Seoul in approximately three hours, from which it’s another hour’s bus or taxi ride to Jirisan National Park.
Only 30 minutes south of Seoul, Suwon is an often overlooked but culturally important site in the history of South Korea. Suwon is home to Hwaseong Fortress, an imposing 18th-century stone and brick structure built both as a tomb and a political stronghold, with walls stretching for nearly 4 miles. For those looking for more in-the-moment thrills, just outside Suwon lies Everland, Korea’s largest theme park and the 16th most visited amusement park in the world. Suwon is also home to Mr. Toilet House; the commode-shaped home of the city’s former mayor, which is now a quirky museum dedicated to public sanitation.
Dadohaehaesang National Park
As South Korea’s largest national park, Dadohaehaesang spans a collection of rocky islands along the country’s southern coast. Though a challenge to get to (a three-hour train ride from Seoul followed by numerous taxis and ferries), a visit to Dadohaehaesang National Park is well worth the effort for those who enjoy unspoiled natural beauty. A swath of evergreen forests plunge to craggy shorelines, and the park houses a broad assortment of endangered plant and animal species. The area is also notable for its maritime past as the site of multiple sea battles between Korea and invading Japanese armies.
Set in the central Gyeongbuk province, the laid-back city of Andong framed by the Nakdong River is most famous for the UNESCO-listed Hahoe Folk Village. Dating to the 15th century, this quaint assemblage of thatched or tile-roofed houses evokes bygone images of the country’s Joseon Dynasty, and makes for one of South Korea’s most charming tourist attractions. Andong has long been considered the capital of Korean traditional culture, and other draws include renowned Andong soju (distilled rice whiskey), and the annual Andong Mask Dance Festival.
Although it’s not one of South Korea’s largest or most famous temples, Tapsa Temple may well be the most interesting both visually and historically. Set at the base of a towering cliff, the temple grounds house over 80 stone pagodas built by a retired scholar-turned-hermit in the 19th century. Although no adhesive materials were used to build the pagodas, some of which stand 18 feet high, they have mysteriously withstood typhoons and strong winds over the centuries. Visit during the Maisan Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring, when the trees surrounding the temple come alive with cherry blossoms. Buses from Seoul reach Jinan Intercity Bus Stop in just under four hours, and from there it’s easy to take a taxi or local bus to the temple.