I had the grand plan to travel to South Korea in 2020 as part of my New Year's resolution to uncover a country that isn't Japan or Australia. Well, we all know how that turned out. But while I wait patiently for my turn to be vaccinated and for borders between Malaysia and South Korea to reopen, I've decided to comb the internet for places to visit in South Korea that are just off the beaten road from its main cities and the crowd. Because in a post-Covid world, physical distancing and isolation might be the new way of travelling.
Fortunately, outside of its vibrant cities, South Korea, blessed with four seasons, unique food and culture, has much to offer. So grab your pen and paper (or just save this post) and let's get started.
1. Hwaseong Fortress, Suwon
While a small city, Suwon is perhaps one of the easiest and best spots to go to from Seoul if you want to escape the metropolitan crowd. Its main historical attraction is Hwaseong Fortress, a place so big that that its walls stretch for 5.7km with Paldalsan Mountain in the middle. The fortress was built between 1794 to 1796 to protect the city and in a bid to position Suwon as the country's capital rather than Seoul.
|Hwaseong Fortress by aoman by Getty|
For its historical value, Hwaseong Fortress was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site on December 12, 1997. Currently visitors can enjoy free daily performances such as Korean rope walking, farming music, and ancient dances and in the fall, witness the Suwan Hwaseong Cultural Festival. Most people start at the south entrance to the fortress, situated near Paldalmun. It only cost 1,000 won (approx RM3.80) to enter Hwaseong Fortress, after which you can enjoy its carvings and stonework.
Nearest city: Seoul
Getting there: 25 minutes by KTX or 1 hour by subway from Seoul station to Suwon Station.
2. Bukhansan National Park, Seoul
Skip the shopping bags and head to Bukhansan National Park instead. Located within Seoul itself, it is the only national park in the Seoul metropolitan area and is also known as Samgaksan (Triangle Mountain) because of its three peaks: Baegunbong, Insubong and Mangyeongbong. Visitors have descripted it as stepping into a movie set and reliving South Korea's Joseon Dynasty amidst nature once more.
|Bukhansan National Park by kamponwarit on Getty|
Outdoor lovers and hikers should dedicate a day or two to exploring this beautiful escape. Just remember due to its vicinity to the city, it's one of the most visited parks in the world with about 5 million visitors annually before Covid. The best time to visit is early in the day during its peak season or in the winter as some of its trails might be covered in snow, deterring weekend warriors.
Nearest city: Seoul
Getting there: 50 minutes by bus 704 from Seoul station to Bukhansanseong Fortress Entrance
3. Mount Hallasan, Jeju Island
While we're on the topic of hiking, why not make Mount Hallasan a part of your adventure? Located in the centre of Jeju Island, Mt Hallasan is a dormant volcano that is listed as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites. Despite its high altitude, it is quite easy to climb and most people can make it to the peak and back down within a day. From the peak, hikers are rewarded with a huge beautiful crater lake as well as breathtaking views of Jeju.
|Mount Hallasan by Mr Angler on Getty|
For those not up for a hike to the peak, Mount Hallasan also has seven scenic trails, each less than 10 kilometres. There are also nearly 6000 species of plants and animals in the area, so nature lovers can knock themselves out! Do make sure you check the weather conditions before going and dress warmly as the winds can be quite strong.
Nearest city: Jeju
Getting there: 37 minutes via express bus 181 or 46 minutes with 281 local bus from Jeju City Center, to Seongpanak Trailhead for the Hallasan hike.
4. Sado Island, Yeosu
This island seems as if someone has piled sand over the sea. This was the first sentence that appeared on the official website of Yeosu
. I kid you not. Whoever wrote that article about Sado Island is hilarious. The article goes on to mention that Sado Island, despite looking like a sand box, was once home to actual dinosaurs with sharp teeth.
|Sado Island, Korea|
You might think that a lot of people will be flocking to this site but fortunately, it remains a hidden gem in the southern region of South Korea. Often called “Korea’s Jurassic Park,” Sado Island is one of the few places in the world that boasts preserved dinosaur tracks. It’s also known for its rocks and the legends surrounding them – in particular, a turtle-shaped rock is said to have inspired national hero General Yi Sun-shin’s famous turtle ship.
Nearest city: Yeosu
Getting there: Take a ferry from Yeosu Ferry Terminal. For foreign travellers, your passport is needed to purchase your tickets.
5. Demilitarized Zone aka DMZ
Bill Clinton famously called it the scariest place on Earth when he visited in 1993. A visit to DMZ is no laughing matter literally but a once-in-a-lifetime experience nonetheless. A visit can enlighten you on the war between the two sibling countries and the difference between them. The infamous Blue Room is also the only place where you can stand in both South Korea and North Korea at the same time.
|DMZ by Goddard Photography|
Accessibility to the DMZ is only by a variety of tour operators or a guided private tour but as civilization access is limited, the safety of visitors is ensured. More importantly, uninhibited by people, this area preserves valuable ecology and historical attractions. Due to the hostile nature of the area to people, this has created a naturally isolate space along the 250km length of the DMZ to make an involuntary park. It's now recognised as one of the most well-preserved areas of temperate habitat in the world.
Nearest city: Seoul
Getting there: Via guided group tours or private tours with an authorised tour guide.
6. Jeongbang Falls, Jeju Island
Jeju Island has many stunning features but Jeongbang Falls deserve a special mention for being the only waterfall in, not just Korea but the whole of Asia that falls directly into the sea. Located at the edge of Seogwipo city, it's just a short 2km trip if you're in the area.
|jeongbang Falls from visitjeju.net|
Standing at 23 meters high with torrents of water crashing on the rocky beach below, the view it offers is spectacular especially when the light catches it just right. The cliffs surrounding the waterfall not only create a spectacular view, but they also mean it is completely hidden from the rest of the island. It's 1,000 won (approx RM3.80) for access the base of the Jeongbang Falls but becareful as it can be very slippery on the rocks.
Nearest city: Seogwipo
Getting there: Hiring a car is recommended or taking a ten minutes bus ride from the city.
7. Gamcheon Cultural Village, Busan
This vibrant colourful village just off the coast of Busan is a photographer and Instagrammer's heaven. Gamcheon Village has been called the Machu Picchu of the east or Korea’s Santorini with its weaves of mazes of alleyways. The walls are decorated with murals and sculptures created by the residents turning the entire village into a visual feast.
|Gamcheon Cultural Village by Only5 on Getty|
Other than going on a photoshooting spree, there are many things to to see and do there such as handicraft shops, museums, workshops and coffee shops to check out. Find a cafe to park at s the sun sets over the sea of rainbow homes cascading along the mountainside into the ocean. Truly stunning.
Nearest city: Busan
Getting there: 40 minutes bus ride on 17 or 61 from Busan station
8. Sun Cruise Resort, Gangwon
It's said that the best sunset views in all of South Korea can be seen from the east coast of Jeongdongjin. Perhaps, THE best view and overall experience can be captured from this behemoth of a resort nestled on the edge of the cliff. Sunset views aside, what draws people to this site is in fact the world's first on-land cruise-themed resort with a building of a cruise liner to match.
|Sun Cruise Resort from official website|
The resort would be if Godzilla had picked up a massive cruise ship from the ocean and placed it on the edge of a cliff. Even if you're not staying at the Sun Cruise Resort, it's worth a visit to see this architectural splendor up close.
Nearest city: Gangwon
Getting there: Take a 2 hours train from Cheongnyangni Station to Jeongdongjin Station.
These are just a few spots in South Korea that I have on my bucketlist for when I eventually do get to travel there. And after researching and finding these places, I honestly can't wait. I hope this list gives you an inspirational head start to places to visit in South Korea.
In fact, Korea Tourism Organization Malaysia is a great place to start looking for information about South Korea with recommendations, suggested itineraries and more all in one convenient site. You can get more at their website: https://english.visitkorea.or.kr/
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