South Korea borders on the one of the most closed off countries in the world, but that doesn’t mean it has anything in common with its northern neighbor. This compact country offers an abundance of landscapes, activities, markets and festivals throughout the year. Get into the action at the flying fish market, attend a service at the largest church in the world or escape the urban sprawl and head for the mountains. It seems there just simply isn’t enough time to discover all that this country offers, but here are 12 things not to miss out on!
12. Visit the Largest Church in the World
The Yoido Full Gospel Church has membership numbers in the millions and is the largest church in the world. This mega-church holds seven services on Sundays with about 26,000 people each and if you want a seat in the main area, you best show up an hour early. The church itself is quite a site, a circular cathedral setting where huge TV screens flank the altar and the choir consists of over 150 members. A good tip for foreigners is to head to the 3rd and 4th balcony where headphones are provided for translation of the service into fifteen different languages. Even if you aren’t religious, experiencing the amount of people that come together at this church for one of its services is truly an enlightening experience. Plus experiencing this costs you absolutely nothing.
11. Visit the Fish Market
It first opened in 1927 on Uiju Boulevard and it remains one of Korea’s largest seafood markets. The vibrant year round market should be a must visit for anyone in South Korea. This market is not a tourist attraction though; it is a real Korean marketplace where restaurants, individuals and companies come to buy the freshest seafood. It is also insane, incredible and sometimes unbelievable. The market offers over 1,000 different seafood items and 99% of them are alive and swimming in tanks. What happens when you haggle a price with a vendor and purchase a seafood item is what makes this market incredible. You pay the vendor and then they spear the fish in the head right in front of you, load it into a plastic bag and take you to one of the restaurants in or around the market. The restaurant then cooks your fish up for you and voila; the freshest meal you have ever had.
10. Explore Seoraksan National Park
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and explore this amazing landscape packed full of jagged peaks, crystal clear streams and pools along with an abundance of flora and fauna. Hot springs, ancient temples and high mountain peaks are a hit with visitors. The best time of the year to visit may just be the fall as the changing colors of the leaves is simply amazing. Hiking is the main activity in the park as well-marked and maintained trails are throughout. It is easy to spend the day here, whether you pack a picnic or dine at one of the many restaurants throughout the park, some even being right on the trails. There is one campground located about half an hour on foot from the front gate and during peak seasons it does fill up. Plan on giving yourself at least one or two days to explore this incredible area!
9. Visit a Cat Café
It is something we just don’t find in North America but over in South Korea there are literally cat cafes at every corner. Just what exactly is a cat café? Indeed these cafes are exactly what they sound like; a café with a great selection of drinks and an abundance of cute and cuddly cats. These cafes have strict rules about the cats though and visitors need to be respectful. First off, expect to pay around $8 to enter, some include a drink with that price, others don’t. Next up patrons must remove their shoes and sanitize their hands. The rules for playing or petting with the cats include not picking them up, not pulling their tails and not disturbing them when they sleep. The cats in turn will love you if you buy food for them (sold at the counter), pet them and admire their cuteness.
8. Lock in your Love at the Tower Fence of Love
This fence of love is actually located at an iconic South Korean landmark, the N Seoul Tower. This tower offers an incredible multi-colored light show every night and a number of viewing platforms inside the digital observatory. But the Tower Fence of Love may just be the most popular attraction here, at least for the overly romantic visitors. The base of the tower is where visitors will find fences with thousands of padlocks and love notes attached to it. Heart shaped chairs along the pathway set the scene for romance. It’s not just couples that visit this fence of love though, many families come and put a padlock on the fence to symbolize harmony and love within their family. Feel the love among people from all over the world at this unique attraction in South Korea.
7. Play at Lotte World
This huge recreation center in Seoul is home to the largest indoor amusement park in the world. It includes an outdoor amusement park, shopping malls, a luxury hotel, ice-rinks and movie theatres. The indoor amusement park is opened all year round and is the perfect thing to do when you want to head indoors. It will take you some time to explore the four floors which feature rides such as The Gyro Drop and Gyro Swing with steep drops and the feeling of being in a tornado. There is a flume ride through the jungle, a roller coaster that stops upside down and many rides for the wee ones as well. Magic Island is located outdoors with a variety of high-thrill action rides, parades, entertainments and the dazzling Magic Castle.
6. Visit Haesindang Park
Haesindang Park… also less formally called the name of the male body part it so shamelessly parades, and any visitor to South Korea has to stop here, even just to say they were here. It is exactly what it sounds like; a park that is filled with dozens of sculpted phalluses that stand erect in defiance of an old folk curse. You will see many families here, kids skipping around oblivious to what surrounds them. People of all ages come here, to take photos of this very ‘open’ park, to leave gifts at the temple to appease the desperate sea women or to simply hike through. The sculptures range from hanging arrangements to trunks of wood. They were all sculpted by Korean artists to symbolize everything from joy to sensuality to spirituality. In a country that is otherwise uptight about open expression, this is one attraction you just have to see.
5. Go Bar Hopping in Hongdae
If you want to experience Korea’s nightlife the best place to head is to the university district of Hongdae. This area is well known for its urban arts and indie music scene along with an abundance of clubs and entertainment. Many well-known bands had their starts on this street and despite the explosion of brand shops; it remains true to its indie nature. The last Friday of every month eleven clubs come together to form Club Day. An admission tickets gets you into these 11 clubs and a drink at each one, where wild young adults come to party all night long. It is also on Hongdae Street where you will find the very unusual Zombie Bar, where the dead is resurrected and working as waiters and waitresses.
4. Visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
The DMZ is a four kilometer wide belt that stretches 250 km, essentially cutting the Korean peninsula in half. It was put in place in 1953 as a ceasefire to the Korean War. It is known as one of the scariest places on earth, lined on both sides with tank traps, electrical fences, landmines and armies ready for battle. By joining a DMZ tour, tourists can get close to North Korea and the terrifying guards, without worrying about getting shot. This is because a joint security building exists half on the South Korean side and half on the North. Tours range from half-day to full-day and strict rules are in place. Additionally on some tours you will be able to check out the super secret underground tunnels that have been discovered. It is not a trip to South Korea without checking out the scariest place on earth.
3. Experience the Silent Disco
The concept of a silent disco is not a new one, but South Korea has embraced this popular activity and visitors can likely find some sort of silent disco to attend on their trip. A silent disco is like any other dance party or club except that are no sound systems. Instead everyone is given a set of wireless headphones to which the DJ’s music is pumped through. What that leaves you with is hundreds or thousands of people dancing in silence. The beauty of this kind of dance party is that it has the freedom to happen anywhere. The biggest event in South Korea happens once a year in the neighborhood of Hongdae where everyone attaches balloons to their heads and dances the night away. Many other silent disco parades happen in the district of Myeongdong, one of the busiest tourist destinations in Seoul.
2. Visit Gyeongbokgung Palace
This palace was originally built in 1395 and was the grandest of all Seoul’s palaces that is until it was burnt to the grown in 1592. Luckily for visitors it was rebuilt 300 years later and is home to two of the grandest architectural sights in Seoul. The main palace building is an impressive structure, with its double-tier stone platform, open-sided corridors and flagstone courtyard. Almost as impressive as the main building itself is the pavilion that rests on 48 stone pillars and overlooks a lake complete with two small islands. An audio commentary and free guided tour are available to visitors wanting to learn more about the palace, as well visitors can watch the changing of the guards, wander through the traditional gardens and visit the National Folk Museum.
1. Discover the Jjimjilbang Spas
A Korean Jjimjilbang spa is something to be discovered in Korea and most travelers spend at least one night in one as these aren’t just regular spas. A Jjimjilbang is actually a large gender-segregated public bathhouse where visitors can not only enjoy the hot tubs, massage tables, saunas and showers but they can also spend the night. These bathhouses are comprised of numerous rooms, each designed with a theme in mind and many of them with heated floors for lounging and sleeping. Other areas are unisex and include snack bars, exercise rooms, televisions and more. Many of them are open 24 hours and prove to be a popular getaway for locals as well. One thing to keep in mind, all wet areas of the bathhouse prohibits the use of clothing in anyway.