Your full Wanderlust guide to

South Korea

South Korea
Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, South Korea (Shutterstock)

South Korea is having a moment. The cultural K-wave that washed beyond Asia and into the West has piqued the curiosity of travellers in a nation whose charms extend far beyond the K-pop bars of capital Seoul. From the female divers of volcanic Jeju Island to the UNESCO-recognised food capital of Jeonju and the dancing fireflies of Yeongyang County, its cultural and wild hinterlands are only now beginning to be discovered by Westerners – and that’s just the start of it. 

Between the delicious gochujang-fuelled cuisine, myriad islands, mountains, spas, history and pop culture, there’s so much to explore. Even neon-lit Seoul has its flipside in the traditional hanok houses of Bukchon district, which offer a more down-to-earth glimpse of the capital’s Joseon dynasty heyday than its busy royal palaces – though tours of the latter are well worth it, especially at night.

There are surprises even in how you travel. Korea’s network of KTX fast trains makes it easy to explore by rail, but just as exciting is the 1,700km-long network of cycle paths. Whether pedalling the islands off Incheon or the 600-plus kilometre trail down from the capital to second-city Busan, side trips to the 16th-century folk village of Andong Hahoe or the tombs, temples and pagodas of historical Gyeongju offer endless distractions. 

Then there’s the setting. Some 70% of South Korea is mountainous, and its 22 national parks span high-altitude wonders ranging from the rugged trails of Jirisan to the temple-stays of Bukhansan and the volcanic slopes of Jeju’s Hallasan volcano. And when you’re done with hiking, Korea has a spa culture to rival even neighbour Japan, with its ubiquitous jjimjiibang resembling temples of wellness filled with kiln saunas and mogyoktang bath houses. Proof, if needed, that there’s far more to Korea than K-pop.

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When to go to South Korea

Seasons and weather may change, but a general rule of thumb goes that it’s typically warmer in the south and cooler in the north, where the mountain towns and high altitudes offer a breezier escape from the sweltering summer.

Avoid the rainy season of July and August especially, when it’s hot, humid and sticky. By contrast, December and January are bitingly cold, though usher in the ski season in the north.

For most visitors, the best time to visit South Korea is either during the cherry blossoms of spring (late March-May) or the irresistible colours of autumn (September-early November).

International airports

Incheon (SEL) is 52km from Seoul, while Gimpo is 17km from the capital. Jeju (DJU) lies on the popular island of Jeju-do; Gwangju (KWJ) lies in the south-west of the mainland.

Getting around in South Korea

The domestic flight network is extensive, with Seoul and Busan forming the main hubs, though this is mainly useful for visiting the furthest-flung islands. On the mainland in particular, public transport is both excellent, fast and affordable.

Buses and trains form the backbone of the transport infrastructure and are relatively easy to use, eliminating the need to rent a car, and most main stations will have an English-speaking information desk. The high-speed KTX trains can connect Seoul to Busan (600km away) in just 3.5 hours; there are also a number of scenic lines, with the O-Train in particular offering great views of the inland mountains.

Similar to Japan, you can pick up a rail pass (Korail) that is only available to foreign visitors and provides a discount on multi-day rail use. This can be bought online, from a travel agency or picked up at Korail centres.

A ferry service opens up the islands from Busan, which has boats to Jeju Island, and from Gangneung, where you can board a passenger ship to Ulleungdo and Dokdo islands.

Health & safety

South Korea is one of Asia’s safest countries in terms of crime and health. However, don’t suspend usual sound judgement – keep belongings secure. South Korea has a particularly poor road safety records in the world, so exercise caution on both roads and pavements.

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