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The ultimate South Korea Travel Guide: when to visit, where to go & what to eat

May 31, 2023 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

A trip to South Korea feels like turning up the saturation dial on the world. With modern, neon-washed cities, thriving cultural centers, a top-notch food scene, and majestic landscapes, there’s plenty to discover in this vibrant country on our South Korea & Japan: Seoul to Tokyo tour. Read our South Korea Travel Guide to discover some of the top things to do in South Korea, South Korea travel tips, and more.

Currency: Korean won

Language: Korean (written in the Hangul alphabet), though English is taught in schools

UNESCO-listed sites: There are two UNESCO-listed Natural Heritage sites and 13 UNESCO World Cultural sites in South Korea, including the Gyeongju Historic Areas.

The best way to get around: South Korea boasts some of the best transportation infrastructure in the world. The buses, trains, and subways are clean, efficient, and inexpensive. Cities like Seoul and Busan are very walkable, making them easy to explore like a local. Of course, you’re also going to want to ride a bullet train for that ultramodern experience.

Fun fact: Traditionally, Koreans are considered one year old when they are born. In addition, everyone in the country becomes one year older, together, on New Year’s Day rather than on their birthdays. That means that a baby born on December 31 would be one at birth and turn two on January 1, despite only being two days old. When it comes to official documents, however, the country uses the same standard international method of aging as most of the rest of the world.

When to travel to South Korea

There’s never a bad time to visit South Korea, as long as you dress for the weather. The country experiences four distinct seasons, and each has something unique to offer.

  • Visit in the fall for the foliage and pleasant temperatures. South Korea is lovely in autumn, with warm, dry afternoons and cool evenings. This time of year, the foliage saturates the country in fiery sunset colors. It’s the perfect time of year to grab some street food and have a picnic in a park.
  • Visit in the winter for picturesque snowfall and cozy festivals. Winters in South Korea can be cold and windy, but the otherworldly beauty that the snow creates makes a winter trip worth it. The snowcapped roof of Gyeongbokgung Palace reflected on the nearby pond’s steely water will take your breath away. The Seoul Lantern Festival takes place every November and illuminates the city, and if you visit at the end of January, chances are you’ll stumble upon some Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) festivities.
  • Visit in the spring for the cherry blossoms. Spring in South Korea is all about the cherry blossoms. The weather is warm and mild, and the country is awash with shades of pink and white. Japan gets a lot of credit for its cherry blossoms (and rightfully so), but Korea has millions of trees that burst into bloom every March. If you can’t get enough flower gazing, check out our list of the best trips to book to catch the most stunning spring flowers in bloom.
  • Visit in the summer for warm days and late nights. South Korea tends to be hot and humid in the summertime, with a brief rainy season between June and July. People flock to the beaches and cool down with refreshing dishes like chilled noodles and fresh seafood. There are endless fun things to do in South Korea in the summertime—even at night. You’ll notice people staying out late to sip soju with friends or perusing the many night markets that pop up throughout the summer.

What to see in South Korea

From modern cities and serene temples to lively beaches and reverent historical sites, there are countless things to see in South Korea. When you join us on a tour of South Korea, you’ll see many of the sites that make this country a multifaceted gem.

  • Gyeongbokgung Palace. This 14th-century palace is one of the top things to see in South Korea. It was the primary royal palace of the Joseon dynasty and is the largest and most beautiful of Seoul’s five palaces. Stroll through the wide main plaza and explore the ornate pavilions and serene water gardens before stopping at the main gate to witness the Palace Royal Guard Changing Ceremony. Twice a day, reenactors wearing colorful costumes and carrying intricately painted drums and traditional weapons perform the ritualistic ceremony, which originally took place during the Joseon era from the 1300s to the 1800s.
  • The DMZ. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established during the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 as a buffer between North and South Korea. It’s a strip of land roughly 2.5 miles wide that divides the Korean peninsula in half. You can visit it on our History of the Korean War: DMZ Visit excursion and learn all about the Korean War and the present-day ceasefire. “I think it’s very important for U.S. travelers,” said staffer Tom. It’s like the forgotten war—people might have some family members who fought in it, but might not know a lot about it. Our History of the Korean War: DMZ Visit excursion will also bring travelers to an overlook where they can see North Korea, and then down into the Tunnel of Aggression, which the North Koreans cut underneath the border for a planned invasion in the seventies. There are four of those across the country, and this is one you can actually enter.”
  • The city of Gyeongju. Known as the “museum without walls,” Gyeongju, the former capital of Korea, now stands as a center of culture and history. Home to temples and archaeological sites, UNESCO-listed Gyeongju is a lovely place to learn about the traditions and history of South Korea while exploring its Buddhist temples and ancient ruins.
  • Daereungwon Tomb Complex. Traverse the ancient tombs of kings and nobility dating back to the Silla Kingdom, which ruled from 57 B.C.–935 A.D. These massive burial mounds contain thousands of artifacts and accessories, providing a glimpse into the opulence of ancient Korean royalty.
  • Busan Tower. Busan lies on the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula, and according to staffer Tom, the city is ​the commercial capital of that area. “It’s very modern, but also has some temple sites throughout,” he said. Busan Tower is a nearly 400-foot-tall observation tower, which offers panoramic views of the colorful port city, its glittering beaches, and the mountains beyond. Take a high-speed elevator up to the observation deck to snap a photo before grabbing a coffee brewed by a robot barista.

Check out our South Korea tour

What to eat and drink in South Korea

South Korea is a foodie’s utopia, and no South Korea Travel Guide would be complete without a list of the best things to eat while you’re there. Locals are not afraid of spice and use plenty of garlic in their cooking. Other staples of Korean cuisine are rice, noodles, seafood, fermented foods, and grilled meats. You’ll find Michelin-starred restaurants and some of the best street food you’ve ever tasted on a trip to South Korea. One of the best tips for visiting South Korea? Be sure to eat your way through a food market or two.

  • Korean barbecue. Gogi gui, or Korean barbecue, is the ultimate Korean comfort food. Some of the most popular types of Korean barbecue include bulgogi, thin strips of marinated beef; galbi, marinated short ribs; and samgyeopsal gui, grilled pork belly. The meat is often served raw, and diners cook it on gas or charcoal grills at the center of the table. Experiencing a Korean barbecue dinner should be at the top of your list of things to do in South Korea. Pop into a restaurant on a free evening, or join us on our Busan Harbor Cruise & Korean Barbecue Dinner excursion to eat it with with your travel companions.
  • Banchan. Anyone who has tried Korean barbecue will tell you that the banchan is as important as (or even more important than) the meat. Banchan refers to all of the sweet, savory, spicy, or salty side dishes and garnishes that accompany so many meals in Korea, the most famous being kimchi. A staple of Korean cuisine, kimchi is made from salt-brine fermented vegetables (often napa cabbage) mixed with spicy pepper paste. Many Koreans consider a meal incomplete without kimchi.
  • Tteokbokki. Korean street food is iconic, and tteokbokki is a favorite among locals. It’s made from chewy rice cakes simmered in a sweet and spicy gochujang sauce made from fermented chilis. Don’t worry if spicy isn’t your cup of tea, though—there are plenty of mild and even sweet honey variations to choose from.
  • Bingsu. Bingsu is the perfect antidote for those hot, humid summer days in South Korea. It’s a sweet, refreshing dessert made from shaved ice, milk, and added flavors or fruit. The most popular variety, patbingsu, is made with sweetened red beans.
  • Soju, beer, and makgeolli. Toast to your new adventures with one of Korea’s most popular alcoholic beverages. Soju is a soft and slightly sweet, colorless alcohol made from rice, barley, or other grains. It’s often sipped neat and is about half the ABV of vodka or whiskey. You’ll often see it served alongside Korean beers, which tend to be light rice lagers. There are a lot of regionally specific beers throughout Korea, so you might encounter something new at each stop on your travels. If you want to try something unique, sip on some makgeolli, a milky, fermented rice wine that’s low in alcohol, sweet, savory, and a little tangy. Keep in mind that Korean drinking etiquette dictates that the youngest imbibers should pour for the elders, and many people consider it impolite or even bad luck to fill your own cup.

Fun things to do in South Korea

You most certainly won’t be at a loss for things to do on our South Korea trip—our experts will show you the best-of-the-best, after all! But in case you need some inspiration, here are some of the top things to do in South Korea when you’ve got some downtime between guided sightseeing tours.

  • Take a kimchi-making class. On our optional Kimchi-Making Class & Dinner excursion, you’ll learn to make the traditional fermented garnish from scratch and even get to take home a jar. It’s a lesson, an activity, and a snack all in one!
  • Rent a hanbok. There are shops throughout South Korea’s larger cities like Seoul and Busan where you can rent a hanbok, which is a type of traditional Korean garb, for a few hours or the day. Locals consider it a celebration of their culture and appreciate when tourists dress in one—many of the temples even offer free entry to anyone wearing a hanbok.
  • Peruse the markets. If you’re really at a loss for what to do in South Korea, head to the market. South Korea’s markets are among the best places to grab a bite to eat, browse for souvenirs, and learn about Korean culture. Gwangjang Market, Seoul’s oldest traditional market, is one of the best places in the city for street food, and Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan sells some of the freshest seafood in the country. If you need some tips to get you started, check out our guide to navigating Asia’s food stalls.

Souvenirs to buy in South Korea

You’re most likely going to want to bring home a reminder of your tour of South Korea—other than the breathtaking photos and incredible memories, of course. Your souvenirs from Korea might be as diverse as your experiences in the country. Here are some of our favorites.

  • Handmade textiles and crafts made with fabric, like fabric dolls wearing hanbok. These are popular souvenirs from South Korea. You’ll find numerous stalls and shops selling them in the markets and shopping districts, and they have the added benefit of being easy to fold and pack for your trip home.
  • Celadon ceramics. Celadon, pottery glazed in a transparent, jade-green color, was extremely popular during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties. Today, modern potters recreate these ancient artworks by carving intricate patterns into their greenware. You’ll find functional tableware and more elaborate decorative pieces in the many markets and ceramic shops that dot the country.
  • Korean snacks. Some of our favorite South Korean noshes to bring home as souvenirs include chips in various spicy and savory flavors, Choco Pie snack cakes, wasabi almonds, and Pepero (chocolate-dipped cookie sticks). Bring back a feast of dried shrimp crackers, honey butter chips, and fish-shaped cakes, and let your friends and family share in the flavors of your travels.
  • Cosmetics and skincare. K-beauty has reached new heights in popularity throughout the world, thanks in part to social media. Stock up on sheet masks, snail mucin serum, or a cushion foundation and bring home a souvenir you’ll actually use.

What to pack for a trip to South Korea

Wondering what to pack for your trip? Our South Korea Travel Guide has you covered. The first rule of packing for a trip to South Korea is taking into consideration the seasonal weather you’ll encounter. The second rule is to make sure you leave plenty of room in your suitcase for souvenirs. Here’s a handful of things to bring for your tour.

  • Seasonally appropriate, layerable clothing. One of our best South Korea travel tips is to dress for the weather. In the summer, you’ll want lightweight cotton and linen, whereas in the winter, you’ll need a warm jacket or parka. Shorts and shorter-length skirts are ok in the summertime, but Korean women generally keep their chests and shoulders covered, even on the hottest days. It’s always a good idea to pack a lightweight cardigan or jacket for temperature fluctuations, and if you visit during the rainy season, between June and July, you may want to carry a poncho.
  • Comfortable walking shoes. This is a must for any trip, and a tour of South Korea is no exception. Seoul is a very walkable city, and visits to palaces and temples may take you down the occasional gravel path. Even if you take the subway during free time, you may need to walk between transfers or use the stairs. You’ll also most likely encounter quite a few hills on your trip.
  • Cute socks. It’s customary to remove your shoes before entering a home or temple in South Korea. Why not take it as an opportunity to show off your best socks?
  • A large bath towel. Standard-sized towels in South Korea are small—about the size of a hand towel. If you want to wrap yourself in a large towel after you shower, we suggest bringing one with you.
  • Sunscreen. Wearing sunscreen daily is a must, but it’s especially necessary during the hot Korean summer. Don’t worry if you forget it, though—South Korea is known for quality skincare products, especially those with SPF.
  • Toothpaste. Unlike sunscreen, you might not want to pick up your toothpaste in South Korea, especially if you’re brand loyal. You’re unlikely to find Western toothpaste brands, and Korean toothpaste probably won’t leave you feeling as minty-fresh as you’re used to (though it’ll still do an excellent job of keeping your teeth clean). The mint-flavored toothpaste in Korea tends to be more natural tasting than Western brands, and you’ll also encounter a variety of bitter, herbal, and even salty toothpaste. If that fresh-breath feeling is an essential part of starting your day, we recommend bringing enough toothpaste for the duration of your trip.

Ready to plan a trip to South Korea? See all of the country’s brightest highlights on our South Korea & Japan: Seoul to Tokyo tour!

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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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