How Moving to Korea Changed My Life

Part 3: How to Visit Korea in Two Weeks

by Dave Hazzan

One of the great joys of visiting South Korea is that it’s small. The longest train ride is about six hours—three if you take the high-speed rail. So there’s no need to spend too much time worrying about distance, and in two weeks you can see almost everything by bus and train.

Any trip to Korea should begin in the megacity of Seoul, 30 minutes by bus or train from Incheon International Airport. Korea’s capital politically, financially and culturally, and with more people in its metropolitan area than in Australia, a lot of tourists think it is the alpha and the omega of Korea—and never leave.

Seoul cityscape.
Seoul, South Korea's biggest city. Photo from iStock. 

You should leave eventually, but you need at least three days here: one enjoying the ancient palaces, walls, temples and observation towers, and a second getting lost in the markets, eating and drinking through university areas such as Hongdae and Jongno.

On the third day, it’s time to tour the DMZ, the world’s most heavily fortified border. Take the Koridoor Tour, where you can spy the UN compound that divides North and South Korea. Call USO Camp Kim at 02-6383-2570 ext. 1 to book it.

The DMZ is a surreal experience in Cold War terror—South Korean soldiers in Ray-Ban sunglasses, poised like curled snakes, stand on guard against drab North Koreans who will likely watch you with suspicion. You will attend a UN briefing, where you will be instructed to do exactly what the guides tell you to.

“I am not chasing anyone across a minefield,” a kind lieutenant from Kansas once put it to me .

From Seoul, make your way 30 kilometres south to Suwon—you can take the subway there, but an intercity bus or train is quicker. Suwon is the last completely walled city in Korea, and is home to Hwaseong Fortress, where Koreans fought off many foreign hordes. The food in Suwon is exemplary too. It’s famous for its barbecued beef, but also wonderful is the foreign food here: Suwon is home to significant Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese minorities, many of whom have opened excellent, authentic restaurants, miles away from their Korean imitators you’ll find elsewhere.

After a day in Suwon, hop a bus or train south to my favourite province, Jeolla, in the far southwest. The ancient city of Jeonju should be your first stop. The Jeonju hanok village, right in the centre of the city, is home to more than 800 traditional Korean houses, many of which double as cafes, restaurants, bars, shops and guesthouses. Jeonju is famous for its food, especially bibimbab, a mix of rice, traditional vegetables and hot-pepper paste.

korean food
Traditional Korean side dishes. Photo by Jocelyn & Cathy/Flickr/Creative Commons.

One of the best experiences in Jeonju is drinking makkoli, a milky rice wine. At Jeonju makkoli restaurants, you order it by kettle. Side dishes will arrive, including soups, kimchi and meat. The more makkoli you order, the better, larger and more elaborate the side dishes become. It is one of the cheapest ways in Korea to get both stuffed and soused.

At the southeast end of Jeolla is Mokpo, a small port city. There is beautiful hiking along the sea here, and at Yudalsan Mountain, in the centre of the city. Its nightlife is exemplary for a city its size. According to rumour, the city is run by the mob, but investigating whether that’s true or not is beyond my pay grade.

After a day in Mokpo, hop the ferry to Jeju, the “Korean Hawaii.” Flying to Jeju is also an option, but if you’re already in the south, it pays to just take it slow and enjoy a four-hour cruise through the islands of South Jeolla and the open ocean. Once you arrive in Jeju, I recommend you rent a car or scooter—unlike the rest of Korea, public transportation around the island can be sketchy. You’ll need an international driver's licence.

Jeju is a holiday paradise, and a bit of a tourist trap. Summers are busy, and the last week in July, first week in August should be avoided at all costs, as that’s when almost all Koreans take their vacations. Recent Chinese-led development has led to complaints that it is becoming a Chinese Cancun.

    "According to rumour, Mokpo is run by the mob, but investigating whether that’s true or not is beyond my pay grade."

Never mind. It is stunning: the black sand beaches, the peak of the Hallasan volcano, Buddhist grottoes and traditional villages. Udo Island, off the east coast of Jeju, is one of the most beautiful places in Korea, home to a large community of Hae-nyeo women divers, and three different coloured beaches. Jeju black pig is a wonderful meal—in Korean, it’s literally called Jeju Shit Pig, since they were traditionally fed human excrement. It’s also the best place in Korea to eat raw horse.

After three days driving, eating and lounging your way around Jeju, hop an overnight ferry to Busan, on the southeast coast. Busan is Korea’s second largest city—about the size of Toronto—and its busiest port. For the love of God, avoid Texas Street, the foreigner district across from the train station. Its reputation for insalubrity is well earned.

Instead, take a hike up to Beomeosa Temple, one of Korea’s grandest, or go down to the rapidly developing Gamcheon Village. Jagalchi Fish Market is the place to get fresh fish cut and prepared right in front of you, to eat either grilled or raw. You can also hike along Moon Tan Road through the woods, and arrive at Haeundae Beach, Korea’s most popular.

After two days in Busan, head north to Gyeongju, Korea’s ancient capital as far back as 50 BC. Often referred to as “Korea’s Kyoto,” it is packed full of temples, tombs, palaces, museums and other historical artifacts. The middle of town is notable for being both modern and surrounded by grassy hill tombs, some of which you can tour inside of, none of which you should climb. When visiting Bulguksa Temple, just outside of town, try for the early morning to avoid the crowds, and do not take a cab up there—the traffic will bankrupt you. Don’t miss Seokguram Grotto, an ancient granite temple and UNESCO heritage site.

Much as there is to see in Gyeongju, it does get repetitive, and as you’re coming to the end of your trip, you’ll have seen much of it before elsewhere. One busy, full day is probably enough to see everything you need.

korean temple
A traditional Korean temple. Photo by iStock.

From Gyeongju, head up to Andong, in the centre of the country. Andong is famous for two things: Neo-Confucian scholarship (the ideology that has ruled Korea for the last six centuries) and soju, the clear alcoholic beverage that has ruled the country far longer. A visit to the unique, UNESCO-protected Andong Hanhoe village will acquaint you with both.

From here it’s a straight shot by train or bus back to Seoul and Incheon International Airport. Your trip to Korea is done, and you’ll have seen more of it than most Koreans.

Whenever you have any questions, you can phone 1330, the Korea Tourism Organization’s (KTO) very helpful helpline for the best South Korea travel tips.

Don't miss Dave Hazzan's incredibly in-depth feature story covering the very best of Seoul from Outpost Magazine Issue 107. Get a preview of his feature story, and if you like what you read you can subscribe to Outpost!

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