Guide books will recommend specific places like restaurants and hotels. They might talk about a show you should see or a museum you should visit, but if you are planning on traveling to Korea or maybe you have just dreamed of going, I would like to recommend a list of must-try experiences!
Many of you know I had the opportunity to recently return to Korea (October 2017) for another visit. Jennie Bennett and I will be blogging about our visits to drama site locations, but for this post I wanted to take a minute to share a list of experiences I think every foreigner visiting Korea should consider!
Use the Bus and Subway
My first trip to Korea was beautifully planned and included a private tour bus. I saw so much of the country and it was the perfect trip to convince me I needed to go back! For my most recent trip, I arrived only with the plan to explore Seoul in more depth (since I was presenting at a conference there) and to take advantage of every opportunity to meet up with my Korean friends and former host daughters. For this, we needed to be centrally located in Seoul, and we needed to figure out the public transportation system. I highly recommend this experience to any traveler. It seems overwhelming at first, but once you purchase a transportation card (mine even had a Pokémon pictured on the front) and charge it with cash, then you have everything you need to explore Seoul by metro, bus, or even taxi. We learned that it is very convenient to purchase and charge transportation cards at convenience stores, but there are also machines for this purpose in the subway stations. We were nervous at first about using buses (in our city in America they are notoriously unreliable), but the Seoul buses are on time and tend to take you very close to anywhere you would want to visit. Just remember to hit the red button when you hear your stop announced! Also, if you are going to transfer from one bus to another, tap your transportation card on the sensor as you leave the bus. Even when we had no plans to transfer, I always tapped my card. You never know when your plan might change! One quick tip in general, definitely rent a WiFi device at the airport. They are very inexpensive and compact. A WiFi device allows you to have easy access to bus schedules, metro maps, and the ability to look up places as you travel. Many public places offer free WiFi, but guaranteed access will just make your life easier!
So, besides convenience and easy access to pretty much anywhere you might want to visit in Seoul, why do I recommend public transportation as an experience? The main reason is because it is an opportunity to connect with the “real” people of Korea. There is definitely a hustle and bustle kind of feel, just like any city, and you will likely see heads down looking at phones and earbuds firmly in place. Don’t let that stop you from saying hello (in Korean if possible) and starting a conversation. Work life in Korea is demanding. The drama Misaeng resonated with so many because there was a piece of daily reality woven through it. I looked for opportunities to engage with people and share my enthusiasm for Korea, and that helped some of them see Korea through my eyes–see the beauty, wonder, and excitement. I encourage you to get on a bus or take the metro and take the time to connect. Even a briefly shared smile is an amazing feeling!
Make Personal Connections (Hang with Locals)
While using public transportation and connecting with strangers takes effort, the absolute ultimate way to experience Korea is by connecting with someone from Korea. I was very fortunate because we have hosted college students from Korea for the past 7 years, and I have kept in close contact with many of them. I fill them in on the latest drama and K-Pop news and they shake their heads and laugh because I watch so much more Korean television than they do! It was a top priority to visit these lovely students who became my family, so I had the benefit of visiting Korean homes and having private tours by locals. This allowed us the opportunity to explore neighborhoods with some of the steepest stairs I have ever seen, eat at specialty restaurants where the “auntie” handpicks the finest pieces of squid for the charcoal BBQ, and reservations at a restaurant known for hosting drama production after parties. These are not listed in guidebooks and I probably would not have tried the spicy squid without the expectant look of my former host daughter encouraging me to try it. It was delicious–especially when they added the rice cakes and it became squid ddeokbokki! This was absolutely the best way to experience Korea, but even if you do not have these kinds of personal connections, there are still ways to connect.
- Use your network and you will likely discover someone in your network through religious affiliation, college alumni groups, or other interests who will introduce you to a Korean friend.
- Participate in a homestay. There are homestay programs where you can stay with a host family. It is a fabulous way to experience home cooking and daily life.
- Air B & B. Even if you don’t come with a Korean connection, you will often find hosts of bed and breakfast type accommodations are friendly and helpful. Make sure to ask them for their recommendations for delicious restaurants and places to visit.
Indulge Your Interests
One of the great benefits of traveling is the ability to see your hobby or interest as it is practiced in another place or culture. So, my major hobby happens to be watching Korean dramas, so I was clearly in the right place to indulge. It was paradise visiting drama shooting locations, making the locals laugh as I snapped pictures of the Park Bo Gum cardboard cutouts hawking everything from face masks to underwear, and smiling fondly as I visited the places steeped in history that I had visited so many times before through Sageuks. So, yes, for the drama and K-pop fan, visiting Korea allows you to immerse yourself in the birthplace of your addiction.
But, beyond drama watching, it is also enriching to see other pastimes and interests through a multicultural perspective. Watching Tae Kwon Do in Korea as the mother of a family of young black belts was pretty amazing. Visiting schools and talking with educators as a school administrator was extremely enlightening and helped me deepen my understanding of my own practice. For my husband, a tech aficionado, visiting Samsung’s d’lite showroom was incredible. No matter what hobby you might have, I encourage you to see it in practice in Korea when you visit.
If you have watched even one Kdrama, it is likely you have watched characters let loose at the noraebang. Unlike karaoke you may be familiar with, the noraebang allows you to have a private room where you can belt out ballads and have no worries that strangers are going to critique your performance. I recommend asking someone for a recommendation for a noraebang, though, because some of them are better than others. While in Busan, I had a very kind gentleman block the door to the noraebang we had selected and suggest it might not be the kind of entertainment we were looking for (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). He pointed out a different location and we were happily singing “Fantastic Baby” and “Greatest Love of All” within minutes. (Yes, they have all the classic karaoke songs in English too.). So, indulge your inner K-pop star and head out to the noraebang. Hongdae seemed to have a youthful vibe with lots of places to choose from too!
Try the Street Food
I am a picky eater. I don’t particularly love seafood and I don’t like things like dressings and mayonnaise gooping up perfectly good food. So, for my first trip to Korea I packed a jar of peanut butter just in case. Halfway through the trip I gave away my unopened jar to make more room in my suitcase. The food was so delicious, I had no need for peanut butter in my life. So, for this trip, I came only with an open mind and the determination to eat anything that caught my fancy. We averaged about 23,000 steps per day, so I wasn’t worried about calories either. Definitely get recommendations for specialty restaurants, but what I really want to encourage you to try is the street food!
Pick any night market and you will have your choice of everything from ddeokbokki (I love it) to lobster on a stick to japchae to fish cakes and dessert options galore! We indulged in some japchae and then walked around a bit and bought a beautiful ice cream cone shaped like a rose and then walked around a bit and bought some grilled rice cake with cheese on a stick, and then walked around some more and bought a fish shaped pastry filled with our choice of red bean filling or chocolate-hazelnut filling, and then we walked around some more! I highly recommend visiting a night market and then planning a street food dinner. My mouth is still watering!
Don’t Overlook the Joys of the Convenience Store
Most tour guide books won’t tell you to plan some time exploring convenience stores, but we made a point to stop at the convenience store every day to try a new kinds of soda, candy, yogurt drink, or snack. First, for the drama fan there is just something exciting about seeing the faces of your favorite stars staring back at you from the lids of the cold coffee concoctions in the refrigerated section or peeking out from behind that bag of shrimp chips you have decided to try. Second, it is just thrilling to see the same products you have seen them use in dramas. Hey, I recognize that brand of water! Third, it is just fun to try a new kind of chocolate bar or a drink with the decidedly awesome name “Pocari Sweat.” It was a daily highlight to explore the offerings of the local convenience store. In fact, we frequented one so often that the woman at the register started greeting us by name! So, although you won’t find it listed in your guidebook, a trip to one of the ubiquitous convenience stores is something I highly recommend!
You may think you know very little Korean, but if you have watched dramas, you probably know more than you think. Use what you know! Many Koreans in Seoul speak some English, and especially the youth around the country speak English, but if you make an effort to use any Korean you know, you will find even the people who claim to know no English will tentatively match your Korean with their basic English. This communication dance connects you. Soon you will be smiling at one another, and when you realize that pointing and using a few words in Korean, matched with their few words in English, and maybe the help of a translation app will get you where you need to go or what you need to buy, that sense accomplishment and confidence will make you eager to try again. I have been trying to study Korean with apps and online courses and avid drama watching, but simply committing to using anything I knew without fear of using improper grammar improved my language ability more in 10 days than any traditional study method. So, no matter how much or little you know, try using it. You will be rewarded for your efforts!
Venture outside of Seoul
Seoul has so much to offer, but there is a Korea outside of Seoul that will capture your heart and rob you of words. Most Koreans will tell you that Jeju Island is not to be missed. I have to agree. If you love nature and hiking, then Jeju Island should be on your bucket list. We spent several days there and despite being a small island, it was still not enough time to see everything. Watch for an upcoming post all about Jeju!
Most people will recommend Jeju, but I want to recommend a couple of other places and experiences in Korea that are worth your time to explore!
This modern city is now the main administrative headquarters for the government (besides the Blue House). It is like a Tomorrowland kind of feel with its perfectly planned neighborhoods complete with walking paths and schools. I had the opportunity to visit the library here. It was absolutely gorgeous: the view and the library itself!
As you travel south in Korea, the city of Gwangju, the 6th largest city, is an important place to visit. There is some beautiful scenery along the way and a night market that is full of wonderful surprises, but Gwangju is also a memorial site. In 1980 there was a democratic movement led by hopeful youth and it was brutally put down resulting in many deaths. Visiting the May 15th memorial is a sobering experience, and I can understand why people in vacation mode might not want to add this to their list, but if you truly want to understand the people of Korea, then I think it is an important visit. If you happen to be American, I think it is even more important to visit, and to understand. This is an event that is still alive in the minds of the Korean people in this area, but it is likely you never learned about it in your history books. I walked away with a deeper appreciation and a sense of responsibility as an American to remind my fellow citizens that America’s actions have in the past and continue today to greatly influence the lives and livelihoods of the people of Korea. It is a great responsibility, and I don’t think there is enough awareness of that among the general public. So, I encourage you to read about the events of May 18 and I encourage you to visit Gwangju. Of course, beyond the memorial site there are wonderful museums and cultural experiences in Gwangju. There are even designated streets with restaurants dedicated to some of their most famous local cuisine. I also encountered kind and caring people wherever I went. It is definitely worth the trip!
In the far southern tip of Korea is a little place called Yeosu. I visited it during monsoon season and it was shrouded in mist, but it somehow completely captured my imagination and my heart. There is a cable car that will take you up to a temple on a hill. I recommend taking this at night and enjoying the view of the city. The gondolas are smaller than the ones that take you to Namsam Tower, so the experience feels more intimate and personal. For an early morning hike, walk along the path leading to Odongo Island. Take the time to breathe and be still. If you are a history buff, you may already know that this area is where Genera Sun crafted the famous turtle ship used during the Imjin War. It was also once home to the Baekje people. Take a moment to look out over the water, hear the waves crashing against the rocks, and let that sound wash away all of your worries. There was just something about Yeosu that brought me peace and joy. I hope you will go and experience the same. When I return, I plan to take the ferry and visit some of the remote islands. I am told they move at a slower pace and reflect the Korea of the past. So, that is on my bucket list!
If you really want to get away from it all, I highly recommend participating in a Temple Stay. Be sure to eat a substantial meal before you start your experience because temple food is very simple and you are expected to eat the exact amount that you take. You even save a bit of pickled radish for the end of the meal and use it to clean up the last bits of rice! It may be defeating the purpose if I recommend binge-eating before, but I just want you to be prepared.
I stayed at the Tong Do Sa temple (near Ulsan) and it was an amazing experience. Be sure to read my detailed blog post about the experience (coming soon). It was a beautiful location and no matter your faith, it provides an opportunity to meditate, pray, or reflect. I wrote pages of poetry during my visit. It allowed me to quiet my mind and reconnect with myself. If your daily life is full of deadlines and emails and demands from all directions, I encourage you to unplug, drink tea, and nurture yourself with a temple stay.
If you love Korean history, then visiting Gyeonju, the home of the Silla Dynasty, is not to be missed. I have always found myself fascinated by the Hwarang and Queen Seondak and any hisotorical drama set during the Silla Period, so visiting Gyeongju was definitely on my bucket list. Have you heard about the first observatory commissioned by Queen Seondak? Well, that’s here. There is also a wonderful museum full of artifacts and discoveries that reveal the rich history of the area. The Gyeongju National Museum was one of my favorite museums in Korea. If you love history, then I highly recommend this museum! If you visit Busan and then plan a day trip to Gyeonju, then you can take in the museum and visit Anapji pond too. I had a private tour for this one, so I am not sure how easy it is to visit these sites by bus. If the early history of Korea captivates your imagination, then walk along the paths surrounding Anapji pond, study the schematics that show what it once looked like, and marvel at the ornate headdresses of gold on display in the museum. My history loving soul was singing during this visit!
You will likely want to visit Seoul on any trip to Korea, and you could definitely spend weeks exploring it, but if you want to really experience the heart of the people of Korea, I encourage you to be adventurous and explore the rest of the country too! I could only share about a few of the places I visited. For some, as noted, I will be writing a more detailed blog post, but please comment below if there are any places I mentioned that you would like me to blog about in more depth!
I hope this brief overview of worthwhile experiences is helpful to you and if you have always dreamed of visiting Korea, I hope you will give yourself this gift. Beyond the beauty of the skylines, the breathtaking natural wonders, and the delicious food, the warm welcome of the Korean people will touch your heart and make you long for that kind of love and acceptance in your daily life. Visiting Korea will change you in immeasurable ways.
Til our next cultural adventure,
Dramas With a Side of Kimchi