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Things to Do in South Korea

Nicknamed the Land of Morning Calm, South Korea is a nation of extremes. Major cities like Seoul and Busan are abuzz with bright lights and a 24-hour lifestyle, while the pace of life in sleepy rural communities ticks by the same way it has for centuries. Seasonal weather changes see glorious sunshine, heavy monsoons, clear skies, and harsh humidity as the months pass, and South Koreans swing between their traditional hearty cuisine and the latest international fast-food chains. Travelers to South Korea can find new discoveries round every corner, with activities and adventures to suit all tastes and ages. In the capital city, Seoul, visitors can explore UNESCO World Heritage–listed landmarks such as Changdeokgung Palace and Gyeongbokgung Palace on sightseeing tours, and experience the bustling markets of Gwangjang, Insadong, or Namdaemun, where locals shop for everything from fresh produce to valuable antiques. Savor the diverse flavors of Korean cuisine on a food and craft beer walking tour, or visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where the tension between North and South Korea is palpable. In the countryside outside Seoul and Busan, day-trippers can rub shoulders with locals along popular hiking trails around Mt. Geumgangsan, Mt. Hallasan, and Mt. Taebaeksan, or relax in sunshine as the waves roll in on Jeju Island, South Korea’s popular paradise retreat.
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Seokguram Grotto
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Known for being home to one of the finest Buddha shrines in the Asia, South Korea’s Seokguram Grotto looks out to the East Sea from Mount Tohamsan near Gyeongju. Commissioned in 742 AD by the Silla Kingdom’s chief minister, Kim Daeseong, it was built in honor of Daeseong’s parents from a past life.

If you’re feeling fit, one of the best ways to get to the UNESCO World Heritage Site is by hiking under the canopy of trees from Bulguksa Temple, past tumbling waterfalls and wildflowers, to the top of the mountain where Seokguram Grotto sits.

Pay the small entry fee and head inside, where the 3.5-meter tall granite Buddha sits on his lotus throne. Surrounded by panels of bodhisattvas and guardians, Buddha peacefully sits with his legs crossed in the bhumisparsha mudra position. The only structure to survive fully intact from the Silla era, look up at the ceiling -- it’s beautifully decorated with half moons and a lotus flower. For a truly special experience, come at dawn to see the sunrise over the East Sea in the distance.

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DMZ
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Nowhere is the tension between North and South Korea more palpable than in the no-man's-land known as the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. As a divided nation, only 2.5 miles (4 km) separate the North from the South at what is the most heavily armed border on earth. The 150-mile (241-km) zone has served as a buffer since the 1953 cease-fire agreement between the United Nations and North Korea that put the Korean War on hold.

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Jagalchi Fish Market
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Visitors come from all over to sample the fresh seafood at Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan. The largest seafood market in the country, Jagalchi is unique in that it’s run largely by women—a tradition dating back to the Korean War, when many of the men were off fighting and their wives took over the family businesses.

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Gamcheon Culture Village
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Gamcheon Culture Village spills down a hillside in a riot of colors just outside Busan. The village, nicknamed “Santorini on the South Sea” and “the Machu Picchu of Busan,” was once an enclave for refugee members of the Taegeukdo religious movement. Today, the neighborhood attracts visitors with its steep cubicle houses, galleries, and cafés.

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Jeju Folklore & Natural History Museum
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The Jeju Folklore & Natural History Museum opened to the public in 1984 as the first and only natural history and folklore museum in Korea. The museum’s collection, divided between four themed exhibition halls, tells the cultural, historical and geological tale of Jeju Island.

The natural history collection includes flora and fauna specimens, coastal fossils and rock samples, as well as a miniature model demonstrating the volcanic eruption that created the island. Perhaps more interesting to foreign visitors are the cultural exhibition halls, where dioramas depict Jeju’s ancient and modern cultural traditional, including that of the island’s iconic female free divers.

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Namiseom (Nami) Island
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This half-moon-shaped island in the southwest of Chuncheon served as a setting in the popular Korean TV dramaWinter Sonata. Namiseom (Nami) offers a peaceful escape from the bustle of Seoul with facilities for bike riding, ziplining, camping, and boating. The island’s redwoods, ginkgos, and pines offer a habitat for roaming deer and waterfowl.

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Dae Jang Geum Park (MBC Dramia)
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Previously known as MBC Dramia, Yongin MBC Daejanggeum Park is owned by Munhwa Broadcasting Company (MBC) and Yongin Municipal Office. This outdoor historical film set covers a vast area. It opened to tourists and the general public to visit in 2011.

Fans of Korean drama are in for a treat, as series such as Jumong, Dong Yi, Queen Seondeok, Goryeo, and many more dramas, documentaries, and films were shot here. The park features permanent sets that consist of ancient buildings and villages, with architecture imitating that from the Korean Three Kingdoms era. In fact, Daejanggeum Park was created based on historical records and so accurately reflects the buildings, villages, and culture of ancient times.

There are of course plenty of photo opportunities here, with a number of different sets to explore. There’s also a coffee shop and snack bar on­site.

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Seoraksan National Park
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With its magnificent, towering hilltops and more than 2,000 species of animals, Seoraksan National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Protection site and ranks among the most beautiful parks on the Korean Peninsula. Well-marked trails lead past Buddhist temples as they wind through the picturesque landscape.

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Gyeongbokgung Palace
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Arguably the most beautiful and easily the biggest of Seoul’s five main palaces, Gyeongbokgung (also known as the Northern Palace) is one of South Korea’s must-visit attractions. Built in the 14th century, this is the oldest Joseon Dynasty palace in the nation, and it’s right in the heart of Jongno-Gu, the most culturally happening part of Seoul. Come for 600 years of history—and one brilliant changing of guards ceremony.

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Trickeye Museum
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Seoul’s Trickeye Museum does just what it says: It teases your senses with an optical illusion technique calledtrompe l'oeil that gives two-dimensional works of art a 3-D appearance. This is also one of the few museums in the world that makes art interactive, so you’ll have a camera full of unique souvenirs to take home with you.

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More Things to Do in South Korea

Jeongdong Theater

Jeongdong Theater

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While the Jeongdong Theater only seats an audience of 282, the mark it has made on the Korean performing arts world rivals that of much larger venues. The first modern theater in Korea opened in 1995 and has since staged a wide variety of live performances, ranging from traditional Korean song and dance to more modern works.

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Caribbean Bay

Caribbean Bay

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Though the tropical climes of the Caribbean are not something you’d usually associate with South Korea, the city of Yongin is home to Caribbean Bay, a water park and spa complex that seeks to recreate the laid-back vibes and water-based fun of the Caribbean.

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Haeundae Beach

Haeundae Beach

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Busan’s proximity to the sea is one of its charms, and Haeundae Beach is perhaps the most famous beach in South Korea. Nearly a mile long (1.5 kilometers), this stretch of coastline is lined with some of Busan’s top international hotels, as well as an assortment of restaurants, shops, and the Sea Life Busan Aquarium.

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Jeju Glass Castle

Jeju Glass Castle

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As the name suggests, Jeju Glass Castle in west Jeju is devoted to the art of glass. Hundreds of sculptures by artists from around the world span three zones. Highlights at this glass-themed, indoor-outdoor park include the Magic Forest walking trail and a stunning mirrored room. You can take short classes in glassblowing, glass painting, and a technique called lampworking.

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Bukchon Hanok Village

Bukchon Hanok Village

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Flanked by Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace—two of Seoul’s Joseon Dynasty palaces—Bukchon Hanok Village comprises hundreds of traditionalhanok houses that today are home to restaurants, teahouses, cultural centers, art galleries, and B&Bs. It’s one of the best places to experience a taste of old Seoul.

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Dora Observatory

Dora Observatory

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Located at the top of Mt Dora on the South Korean side of the 38th parallel, the Dora Observatory sits as close to North Korea as one can get from the south. Looking out over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the observatory is close to the huge Third Tunnel, which was originally created by the North Koreans with the intention to use it as a secret pathway to invade South Korea if war ever broke out again.

Because the area is restricted, the Dora Observatory can only be visited via the DMZ Peace and Security Tourist Program. Once at the observatory, binoculars can be rented, but photography is restricted and banned beyond a certain point.

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Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower)

Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower)

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Head to the top of Namsan Tower (N Seoul Tower) in hilly Namsan Park, the largest in Seoul, for some of the best panoramic views over the South Korean capital. The 777-foot (237-meter) tower offers three observation decks and half a dozen restaurants where you can soak in the views, day or night.

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Insadong

Insadong

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Insadong is Seoul’s cultural and artistic hub, as well as the place to shop for local crafts, visit a traditional Korean tea shop, or catch an impromptu street performance. The neighborhood, located in the Jongno-gu district, offers one of the largest antiques and craft markets in the country, with many shops and cafés housed in historic buildings.

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Taejongdae Resort Park

Taejongdae Resort Park

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The rocky seaside cliffs of Taejongdae Resort Park are situated on the southernmost tip of Yeongdo Island. The area, named after King Taejong of the Silla Dynasty, offers access to a rock beach, a lighthouse, a few temples, an observatory, and plenty of nature trails.

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UN Memorial Cemetery

UN Memorial Cemetery

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The 35-acre (14-hectare) UN Memorial Cemetery is one of Busan’s most peaceful spots. Established in 1951, the quiet park and cemetery honors a total of 2,300 United Nations soldiers representing 16 countries who were killed during the Korean War. Manicured hedges and flower bushes add to the beautiful and somber sight.

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SEA LIFE® Busan Aquarium

SEA LIFE® Busan Aquarium

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The SEA LIFE® Busan Aquarium is located in the Haeundae Beach area of Busan. With its variety of marine life and state-of-the-art facilities, it’s one of the top aquariums in the country, and a popular attraction among families. The aquarium is spread across three underground levels and also features an outdoor park, with a gift shop and several places to eat on its first level.

The SEA LIFE Busan Aquarium features more than 35,000 fish, algae, reptiles, and other marine animals. You can view the sea creatures in the building's main tank either through giant windows or from an 80-meter underwater tunnel – an incredibly popular area of the aquarium. Elsewhere, there are 40 exhibits to enjoy, featuring animals such as penguins, otters, and piranhas, plus there’s a touch tank for a close-up viewing of various species under the guidance of trained staff.

A trip to the SEA LIFE Busan Aquarium can be combined with visiting Busan’s other key attractions, including the Beomeosa Temple and Haeundae Beach. Most full-day tours will include lunch, entrance fees, and round-trip transportation.

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Teddy Bear Museum

Teddy Bear Museum

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The Teddy Bear Museum in Seogwipo features several galleries and an extensive gift shop dedicated to stuffed bears from around the world. The museum also contains the world’s smallest teddy bear, which measures just 4.5 millimeters.

Within the museum, you’ll find the History Hall, the Art Hall and the Project Exhibition Hall. The History Hall explores the 100­year history of teddy bears, with various bears from different eras, antique bears, and famous scenes and artwork recreated with teddy bears. The latter includes the Mona Lisa bear and the teddy bears of The Last Supper. The Art Hall features modern artwork by international designers, as well as a number of bear animations. In the Project Exhibit Hall, the collection extends to teddy bears grouped into a number of different themes.

The museum also has a cafe, plus a bar for adults that’s only open in the summer months. Outside in the museum garden, which is adorned with teddy bear sculptures, there are some fantastic views of the coastal landscape of Jeju Island.

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Andong Hahoe Folk Village

Andong Hahoe Folk Village

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Located at a bend in the Nakdong River, Andong Hahoe Folk Village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by pine forests, sandy beaches, and dramatic cliffs and offers a glimpse of bygone Korea. Wander the village to learn about South Korean architecture and traditions that date back to the 10th century.

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Imjingak Park

Imjingak Park

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Imjingak park is located within the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of North Korea and South Korea. The park is dedicated to the 10 million South Koreans who were separated from their families when the peninsula was divided, with various monuments, statues, and other points of interest throughout.

Imjingak park is located on the banks of the Imjin River and is the furthest point north that South Koreans can freely travel. There’s a three-story observation deck that provides an aerial view of the Imjin River and beyond towards North Korea. The Freedom Bridge, connecting North and South, was where 13,000 POWs were exchanged in the 1950s and is located where the former railroad bridge once stood.

Mangbaedan Alter is where Koreans separated from their families in the North visit to perform ancestral rites by bowing their heads towards their hometowns on certain days of the year. The park also features a wall of commemorative ribbons, a number of souvenir shops, and a restaurant.

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