So I am finally back from my trip to Korea, with a short stay in Hong Kong sandwiched in between. I was quite busy zig-zagging my way all around Korea for the last few weeks, so in this article I will try my best to share some hidden gems and must see spots in Korea! You can also listen to the podcast version on the right hand side or click here . Feel free to subscribe if you like what you hear!
Getting there: Hong Kong Airlines
Before we get to the juicy stuff, let’s first look at how I arrived there. As I booked tickets quite late, my options were somewhat limited. I eventually settled up booking a flight with Hong Kong Airlines, and some of the reviews were mixed (I can now see why). The flight from Vancouver > Hong Kong > Seoul came to just over $500 USD, not bad for a round trip. I even managed to delay my return trip to give me a weekend in Hong Kong. One note of advice to check when booking through a 3rd party website, is make sure your full name, including middle names are included, so you don’t have to pay a $48 name change fee like I had to!
When boarding the plane for my 15 hour flight to Hong Kong, I have to say my heart sank a little. The plane was an older boeing 777, and there were no screens,usb’s or power outlets (or so I thought). However, this was not actually the case. About an hour into the flight, the attendants came around with ipads to substitute, which made the flight a little more bearable. In fairness, the movie and TV show selection was decent, and the food was excellent, (I had the fish).
Upon arriving in Hong Kong, I had a 5 hour layover to contend with before boarding the late, late flight to Korea. Luckily, there were no changes in terminal required and only a quick bag check needed to get back into the terminal before taking the next flight to Seoul at around midnight, and then starting my travelling in Busan.
Beginning in Busan:
So as some of you may or may not have heard, Busan was recently voted by Lonely planet as the number 1 travel destination in Asia in 2018, and with good reason. You can find the article here: https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/travel-leisure/article/2154499/busan-south-korea-tops-lonely-planet-best-asia-2018-list
When I lived in Korea I was lucky enough to be able to visit Busan plenty of times, so was able to discover some pretty amazing things to see and do. If you have a day or two to visit Busan, here are a couple of extra places to visit in addition to the well known spots.
Spaland: Centum City, Busan.
Located at Centum City, inside the ‘World’s Largest Department Store‘ in the world, you can find Spaland, with a sauna/spa and a range of relaxation rooms. For discounted tickets you can visit the ticket booth by exit 13 of the subway station to get a few dollars off the regular price. Upon arrival, you place your shoes in a locker, get some pyjamas and then go to the gender designated locker room. Here’s where you can visit gender specific sauna’s/hot tubs and mineral baths (clothing not required). This can be a little strange if it is your first time, but is actually quite relaxing as there are many mineral baths, showers, sauna’s and you can even get a full body scrub for around $20 dollars, well worth it as your skin feels amazing afterwards!
After enjoying the spa and sauna you can then put on your pyjamas and enjoy the rest of Spaland. There are massage chairs, loungers, hot/cold sauna rooms, foot spa’s and even a cafe/restaurant where you can order food if you like. There are also lots of floor mats and chairs for you to sleep, but make sure not to go over your 4 hour limit (you can stay longer but will have to pay a little more). When you are finished, you then pass your key back to the check out desk and pay your bill if you have paid for any extra services/food etc.
Lotte Observation Deck: Nampodong, Busan.
This is somewhat of a hidden gem for me, as everytime I have visited here, there are only ever a few people at the top admiring the amazing views. Best of all it is free! Inside the Lotte Department store, on the 13th floor you will find the Lotte Observation Deck, which covers almost all of the roof top. There are separate decks which provide views for all parts of the city and on a clear day, some of the views are stunning. Not only this, but there is a park/playground underneath which can be an amazing place to soak up the sunshine, you can even send a postcard home for free! After heading back downstairs, don’t forget to take in one of the daily water shows which always attracts a crowd, or enjoy some of the street food vendors selling a wide range of korean and foreign foods.
While exploring the observation deck and taking in the views, you might notice Busan Tower, right behind you, which you will need to pay for if you want to get some more views of Busan, however, the views from the Lotte observation deck provide similar views and best of all it’s free! If you are feeling some more adventure, the rising escalator up to Busan Tower provides some more wonderful views and some more opportunities to experience some traditional Korean culture. The Busan Film Museum is also located right by Busan Tower if you are looking for something different.
Haeundae / Gwangalli Beach: Gwangan, Busan.
Probably one of the most famous spots in Busan is Haeundae beach, which regularly takes its place as one of the must-see places in Korea, especially during summer. However you will usually find it crowded, hectic and a little stressful to visit in summer, so instead, I would suggest visiting Gwangalli, just down the road.
Immediately you will find a more chilled area, with less people, less crowds and a more adult vibe. When compared with Haeundae, the beach is usually less busy and the views are just as spectacular. One amazing thing about Korea is that you can even order food, such as pizza, chicken and Korean food directly to you on the beach, as well as enjoying some cold beers to go along with it. At night time, you will also find a vast array of bars, restauarants, and cafe’s around the area, most of which are independently owned and managed, so there’s plenty more to explore other than the beach!
Industry & History: Ulsan / Gyeongju
Close by to Busan, you will find the cities of Ulsan and Gyeongju. Both of them are only around an hour from Busan by bus or train. Both offer some truly unique tourist experiences, beyond the obvious ones you will find in Seoul and Busan. Ulsan is still very much the industrial heart of Korea with some hidden gems sprinkled in, whereas Gyeongju is the historical capital of Korea offering beautiful natural scenery and thousand year old history for visitors.
The Bamboo Forest and the Grand Park: Ulsan
One of the true symbols of ‘The Rising City’ is without doubt the bamboo forest, which is perfect for walking or cycling around throughout the year. Over the last few years, the city has invested heavily in the river side area, by cleaning up the water, constructing walking paths and bike paths and planting lots of trees and flowers to beautify the area. A bike around the edge of the bamboo forest and walk inside both provide stunning views and scenery and a unique expeirence that you won’t find anywhere else in Korea.
If that’s not enough, just a short distance away you will find Ulsan Grand park, which also offers amazing views and stretches all the way from the downtown area to the University, where you can cross over to the Munsu Soccer Complex, housing another wonderful walking trail and an opportunity to see one of the 2002 Fifa World Cup stadiums. In the university area of Ulsan – Mugeodong, you can also find many great cafe’s and restuarants to suit every taste and budget.
Korea’s Ancient Capital: Gyeongju
Gyeongju is definately a world away from the hustle and bustle of Seoul or Busan, and is perfect for a day trip to learn about traditional Korean culture and history, as Gyeongju was at a time the capital of the Silla Kingdom. Gyeongju was also designated as a UNESCO world heritage site back in 2000, and you can see this history when walking around this unique city.
Daereungwon Tomb Complex: Gyeongju
The Daereungwon Tomb Complex is host to some of the ancient tombs of the Kings of the Silla Kingdom. There are 20 or so perfectly formed hump-shaped tombs that dot the complex, and there are 1 or 2 that you can go inside to observe other artifacts and pieces excavated at the site.
More interestingly, there are paintings, relics and luxurious accessories on show, which help to transport you back to the time of the Silla Kingdom. Just across from the complex, you can find the Cheomseongdae Observatory or Star Gazing tower. Not only was this constructed some 1300 years ago, but it is perfectly maintained even to this day, a true representation of Korean History.
Finishing off in style: Seoul
Even though the majority of visitors to Korea will mainly visit Seoul and the surrounding areas, there are a still a few less well known sites to visit whilst in the capital, as well as some must sees that you might already know about. The proximity of tourist sites in Seoul means you can take in a lot and find each of them easily, especially if you are able to navigate the world famous subway system.
Kickin it in Hongdae: Hongik University
Hongdae is almost certainly what you think of when you think of Seoul, a cool, edgy area packed with shops, bars, restaurants and just about everthing else you can imagine. There is always something going on, and the streets are always packed, night and day. Getting out of the subway station at exit 7 should always be avoided, as literally hundreds of people filter in and out all day and all night. If you want to try some great food, Hongdae is the place to do it, from Korean BBQ, to Chicken Ribs (Ddakgalbi) to Korean Fried Chicken to Seafood to Street Food, Hongdae has it all. Not only that but even if you venture out at 7pm or 11pm there is no difference in how busy the area is, there are even people clothes shopping at 2 or 3am so it’s truly a place that never sleeps, without just about something for everyone.
Myeongdong & Gwanghamun: Where new and old meet.
For a nice mix of the new and the old take the line 4 subway to Myeongdong, where again you can enjoy lots of shopping, great food and a lively Korean atmosphere. Namsan Tower is steps away, where you can take the cable car up to the top to enjoy panoramic views of Seoul. After shopping till you drop and filling up on delicious street food, you can then take the short walk to Gwanghamun, where you can first enjoy the natural stream that runs through the city, before admiting the statues remembering famous historical figures from Korea’s past, leading all the way to the famous Gyeongbukgung palace. For a few dollars you can take a walk around one of the most famous and beautiful palaces in the world, while also sneaking a peak at the government blue house. You can even rent some hanbok and walk around in traditional clothing if that’s more your style.
A real taste of Korea: Insadong
Again, another short walk from Gyeongbukgung, is Insadong. This is the authentic styled oldest area of Seoul, with the Hanok village and many stores for you to buy souveniers and watch traditional Korean entertainment. If you have space somewhere in your stomach, there are also some fantastic restaurants for you to enjoy, as well as some stunning architecture for you to marvel at and a place where you can be transported back to the old Korea, there are little reminders everywhere.
The Best Food and the Best Company: Kwangjang Market
They say to save the best till last, and this is certainly the case with this last suggestion, for the most authentic and realistic experience of Korea, you have to pay a visit Kwangjang Market. During the day the market sells mostly clothing, materials and electronic items, but at night is when the food market really comes to life. There are literally hundreds of food stores all selling a vast array of cheap, delicious and filling Korean food for you to enjoy, just simply take a seat and order. Don’t forget to wash it down with some Korean Soju or Makkeoli, which always goes down well. This is hands down one of the most fun experiences for any traveller visit Seoul so I hope that you try to experience this too, top tip: Go for Pajeon (Vegetable Pancakes) with Makkeoli, hit’s the spot every time!
So there you have it! Just a few special places worth visiting the next time you find yourself in Korea. If you have any questions, other suggestions or places to visit next time please be sure to comment below!