South Korea

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South Korea , formally the Republic of Korea is a country in East Asia. South Korea occupies the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea to the north, China across the sea to the west and Japan a short ferry ride to the southeast.

Population: 48,955,203 people
Area: 99,720 km2
Highest point: 1,950 m
Coastline: 2,413 km
Life expectancy: 79.55 years
GDP per capita: $32,800
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About South Korea

History

Early history and founding of a nation

Archeological finds of prehistoric toolmaking on the Korean Peninsula date back to 70,000 BC, and the first pottery is found around 8000 BC. Comb-pattern pottery culture peaked around 3500-2000 BC.

Legend has it that Korea began with the founding of Gojoseon (also called Ancient Chosun) by the legendary Dangun in 2333 BC. Archeological and contemporaneous written records of Gojoseon as a kingdom date back to around 7th-4th century BC. Gojoseon was eventually defeated by the Chinese Han Dynasty and its territories were governed as four commanderies. The political chaos following the fall of the Han Dynasty in China allowed native tribes to regain control of Korea and led to the emergence of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, namely Goguryeo, Silla and Baekje. Despite repeated attempts by China, namely the Sui Dynasty and later the Tang Dynasty, to conquer the Korean Peninsula, northern-based Goguryeo managed to repel them. Eventually, Goguryeo fell to a Silla-Tang alliance, which had earlier defeated Baekje. This unified Korea under the Silla dynasty. Even though Tang later invaded, Silla forces managed to drive them out, thus maintaining Korea's independence.

Unified Silla was replaced by the Goryeo (also called Koryo) dynasty, from which the modern name "Korea" derives. One highlight of the Goryeo dynasty was that in 1234 the world's first metal movable type was invented by a Korean named Choe Yun-ui (200 years before Gutenberg's printing press). Goryeo was replaced by the Joseon (also called Chosun) dynasty, after a coup by one of its generals. The Joseon dynasty ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, being one of the longest actively ruling dynasties in world history. It was during the early part of the Joseon dynasty that Korean technological inventions such as the world's first water clock, ironclad ship, and other innovations took place. During the rule of King Sejong the Great, the world's first rain gauge was invented and the Korean alphabet known as hangul was created.

Japanese occupation and division

In the late 16th century, Korea experienced the first invasions by the Japanese, then led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. However, an alliance between the Joseon dynasty and China's Ming dynasty eventually defeated the invaders, and this, in addition to the untimely death of Hideyoshi, forced the Japanese to pull out of Korea.

Korea's status as an independent kingdom under the Chinese sphere of cultural influence (사대교린) ended in 1895 after China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Under the terms of the treaty, China was to recognize the severing of the several centuries-old, nominal elder-younger brother relationship between China and Korea, bringing Japan the window of opportunity to force Korea into its own growing sphere of influence. Although the elder-younger brother relationship between China and Joseon was a voluntary diplomatic formality assumed by Joseon's rulers in order to receive the benefits of advanced Chinese culture and trade, it was a symbolic victory for Japan to achieve the breakage of this link. It put Japan in position to take possession of Korea without fear of Chinese intervention. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea, thus beginning a 35-year occupation of the country. Despite numerous armed rebellions, assassinations and intellectual and cultural resistance, suppression and a cultural assimilation policy that included forcing Koreans to take Japanese names and forbidding them to speak the Korean language allowed Japan to maintain control of the peninsula.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, Soviet forces occupied the northern half of Korea while US forces occupied the southern half. North and South Korea each declared independence as separate states in 1948, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a communist regime with the support of Soviet Union in the north, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime with the support of the United States in the south. After antagonization from both sides, North Korea eventually invaded South Korea in 1950, starting the Korean War which subsequently destroyed much of the country. US and other UN forces intervened on South Korea's side, while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. An armistice was signed in 1953 splitting the peninsula along a demilitarized zone, after the war had reached a stalemate with no significant territorial gains made by either side. However, as no peace treaty has ever been signed, the two Koreas technically remain at war with each other to this day.

Republic of Korea

Despite initially being economically outdone by its northern rival, South Korea eventually emerged from the ashes of the Korean war and achieved rapid economic growth starting in the 1960s under the leadership of former military general and President Park Chung Hee. As one of the East Asian Tigers, the South Korean economy's industrialization and modernization efforts gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, with per capita income rising to 20 times the level of North Korea. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD. Today, South Korea is an industrialized and developed economy with some of the world's leading high technology corporations such as Samsung and LG.

Demands for greater freedom of press and human rights led to nationwide demonstrations that led to democratic elections in 1987, just prior to the South Korean capital of Seoul hosting the 1988 Summer Olympic Games.

South Korea is now a liberal democracy and an economic powerhouse. In June 2000, a historic first summit took place between the South's President Kim Dae-jung and the North's late leader Kim Jong-il (Kim Dae-jung to be awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize for South Korea), however the peace process has since moved at a glacial pace. More recently the country elected its first female president in 2012.

In recent years, a phenomenon known as the "Korean Wave" (or Hallyu) in which the popularity of South Korean film, television, music, food and other culture aspects has swept most of Asia and many other parts of the world has brought more attention to the country.

Climate

  • Spring is a great time of year to be in Korea. The temperatures are warm, but not hot and there's not too much rain either. However, spring is also the time when yellow dust storms blow over from China making the air horrible to breathe.
  • Summer starts with a dreary rainy season (장마철,jangma-cheol) in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 35°C. Best avoided unless heading to the beaches.
  • Autumn, starting in September, is perhaps the best time to be in Korea. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and the justly renowned fall colors make their appearance.
  • Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, and the Korean invention of ondol (floor heating) helps defrost any parts that froze outside. However, January and February can be bone-biting cold due to Siberian winds from the north. Note that the south of the country (including Busan and Jeju) are relatively mild compared to the north (Seoul) during this season.

Activities

Refer to individual cities for a definite list of activities, however as a starting point South Korea can offer the following:

  • Temple Stay: Spend a few days meditating and learning about Buddhism at a Korean monastery
  • Hiking: With the country being covered in mountains, Korea is a fantastic Hiking destination. Try Jirisan (지리산), Seoraksan (설악산) or go to South Korea's highest peak, the extinct volcano Hallasan on jeju island.
  • Saunas and Hot Baths: Koreans love saunas! If you can get past being naked in front of everyone, then this is an excellent way to feel refreshed after a hard day sightseeing. Even small towns will have one. Weekends are extremely busy with families.
  • Eat: Perhaps you have had Korean BBQ in your home country. The reality of Korean food is so much more diverse and tasty. Try something new a delicious each day! (Seafood, meat or vegetarian)
  • Winter surfing: Owing to local tidal conditions, the best surf is in the winter! Pohang and Busan are two places you can try this.
  • Singing Rooms: Noraebang (노래방) (effectively Japanese Karaoke) is popular and hard to miss wherever you go in metropolitan cities.
  • Martial Arts: Learn martial arts such as the famous Taekwondo (태권도), Hapkido (합기도), and the dance-like martial art Taekkyeon (택견).
  • Mud Festival (보령머드축제): The city of Boryeong in Chunchungnam-do hosts a Mud Festival (보령머드축제) that has become a fun (and slightly notorious) pastime in mid-July.
  • Snowboarding/Skiing: Kangwon-do province offers ski opportunities in Winter

Food

Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia and the U.S. However, those unfamiliar with Korean cuisine will have to be wary of the many spicy and fermented dishes in Korean cuisine. Nevertheless, it is addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chillies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.

A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of side dishes known as banchan (반찬). The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi (see below), typical side dishes include bean sprouts (콩나물 kongnamul), spinach (시금치 shigeumchi), small dried fish, and much more.

The ubiquitous kimchi (김치 gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and may be a bit of an acquired taste for visitors as it can be quite spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish (깍두기 ggakdugi), cucumbers (오이 소박이 oi-sobagi), chives (부추 김치 buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.

Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang (된장), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (고추장), a spicy chilli paste.

While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialities, such as dakgalbi (닭갈비) in the city of Chuncheon. See the various city articles for more details.

A common perception amongst Koreans is that foreigners simply don't like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. Also, while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you're accustomed to (say) Thai or Mexican food you may wonder what the fuss is about.

Be aware that eating is deemed a group activity in South Korea, and some restaurants may charge a little bit extra or up to double the stipulated price for a lone patron, or on rare occasions, be uneasy with serving them at all.

Etiquette

Koreans use chopsticks with a twist: alone among the peoples of Asia, they prefer chopsticks of metal. Typically, restaurants have stainless steel chopsticks, but fine silver ones are also available. Unfortunately for the chopstick learner, these thin and slippery sticks are not the best implements to practice with, but if you can eat with wooden or plastic chopsticks you'll manage with some fumbling. When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you'll still get individual portions of rice and soup. Unless you are eating royal cuisine, most dishes are served family style.

In many traditional households, children were taught that it was impolite to speak during meals. Don't be surprised if there's complete silence while eating. People, particularly men, will use mealtimes to quickly eat up and move on to other things. This can be attributed to the short mealtimes during military service that most young Korean men must perform.

Some etiquette pointers:

  • Do not leave chopsticks sticking upright in a dish, especially rice. This is only done when honoring the deceased. Similarly, a spoon sticking upright into a bowl of rice is also not a good sign.
  • Do not start eating unless the eldest at the table has begun to eat.
  • Do not lift any plates or bowls off the table while eating, as Koreans consider this to be rude.
  • You can use your spoon to eat your rice and soup. Koreans will normally use a spoon to eat their rice and use chopsticks to eat the other dishes.
  • Don't be self-conscious of whether you're doing something right or wrong. Just use your common sense of politeness and good manners, and everything will be fine.

Restaurants

Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:

  • Bunsik (분식) are snack eateries that have cheap, tasty food prepared quickly.
  • Kogijip (고기집), literally meaning "meat house", are where you'll find grilled meat dishes and fixings.
  • Hoejip (회집), "raw fish house", serve slices of fresh fish akin to Japanese sashimi, known as hwe in Korean, and complementary side dishes. You'll normally find these restaurants cluttering the shores of any waterway.
  • Hansik (한식). The full course Korean meal, short for hanjeongsik (한정식), this Korean haute cuisine originated with banquets given at the royal palace. The course starts with a cold appetizer and porridge juk (죽). The main dish includes seasoned meat and vegetable dishes that can be either steamed, boiled, fried or grilled. After the meal, you are served traditional drinks such as sikhye or sujeonggwa.
  • Department Stores have two types of food areas: a food hall in the basement and full service restaurants on the top levels. The food hall areas have take-away as well as eat-in areas. The full service restaurants are more expensive, but typically have the advantage of picture menus and good ambience.

Barbecues

"Korean barbecue" is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners, split in Korea itself into bulgogi (불고기), which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi (갈비), which uses ribs, usually unmarinated. In both, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table and patrons cook their choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. The cooked meat from both of these is placed on a lettuce or perilla leaf along with shredded green onion salad (파무침 pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (무채 muchae) and some chili-soya paste (쌈장 ssamjang) and then devoured. All are optional, so be creative.

The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered. It's much cheaper than beef and according to diners tastier. You'll rarely see filet mignon, instead common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (삼겹살 samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (닭갈비 dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.

Rice dishes

Bibimbap (비빔밥) literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice with all sorts of condiments on top (vegetables, shreds of meat, and an egg), which you mash up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang (고추장 chili sauce), and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.

Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap (김밥), sometimes dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or meal depending on one's appetite, and they travel well. Basically what differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: Korean style gimbap usually use salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while Japanese style uses sugar and vinegar.

More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki (떡볶이), which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (tteok, 떡) in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.

Soups and stews

Soups are known as guk (국) or tang (탕), while jjigae (찌개) covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (e.g. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier while tang/guk are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.

Common versions of jjigae include doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), made with doenjang (Korean miso), vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (김치찌개), made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae(해물 순두부찌개) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.

Budae jjigae (부대찌개) is an interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae, and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodle (라면 사리) in the stew, which is optional.

Popular tang soups include seolleongtang (설렁탕), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (감자탕), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang (도가니탕), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (삼계탕, pron. saam-gae-taang), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.

Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk (미역국) and the dumpling soup manduguk (만두국), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk (해장국), a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.

Noodles

Koreans love noodles, and the terms kuksu (국수) and myeon (면) span a vast variety of types available. Often sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as ₩3000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.

Naengmyeon (냉면) are a Korean speciality, being thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and hence a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbeque meal. The key to the dish is the broth (육수 yuksu) and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets.

Japchae (잡채) is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu (만두) dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.

Ramyeon (라면) is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi (what else?). Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon (신라면) for example.

Jajangmyeon (자장면) is the Korean version of the northern Chinese zhajiangmian, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic — kind of like a tomatoless spaghetti bolognese. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet.

Finally, u-dong (우동) are thick wheat noodles which are effectivally the same as Japanese udon.

Seafood

Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (해물 haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.

Hwe (회), pronounced roughly "hweh", is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), meaning it's served with spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap (초밥) is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. If ordering fish as hoe/chobap, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang (매운탕).

Another cooked specialty is haemultang (해물탕), a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.

Whale meat is available in a few restaurants in the cities and at festivals in smaller coastal towns. The city of Pohang has a long history of whaling, and its seafood market still openly offers whale. South Korea has outlawed whaling following the International Whaling Commission international moratorium in 1986, although makes an exception for whales caught by 'accident' during regular fishing. A recent scandal has been the selling of whale meat sourced from Japan in some restaurants which is technically illegal (although usually ignored). Whale restaurants are easy to identify, with pictures of whales on the outside leaving you in no doubt. If you choose to eat whale then you should understand that the species in question could be endangered and therefore a decision left to your own moral compass.

Other

Jeon (전), jijimi (지짐이), jijim (지짐), bindaetteok (빈대떡) and buchimgae (부침개) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (파전) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (파 pa). Haemul pajeon (해물파전), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (생선전) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (녹두빈대떡) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.

If barbequed meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (육회). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.

Sundae (순대, pron. "soon-deh") are Korean sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood. A (very) distant cousin of Black Pudding, sundae is very tasty in spicy sauce or soup.

A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (산낙지 sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".

Dietary restrictions

Vegetarians will have a tough time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, meat is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. Spam can also be confused as not being meat, so be specific in explaining what you do not eat. If you ask for "no gogi" (고기) they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are chaesikjuwija (채식주의자), a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared! It is probably best to have a very explicit list of foods you do and do not eat in Korean on a card or piece of paper to show restaurant servers and cooks; take a look at the Korean phrasebook section on eating: Korean phrases for eating

Most stews will not use beef stock, but fish stock, especially myeol-chi (멸치, anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles.

Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi, called mulgimchi (물김치, "water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables.

On the bright side, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. There has been a recent vogue for this type of cuisine, but it can be rather expensive.

There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea - most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.

Drinks

Alcoholics rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake. Don't be surprised to see businessmen in suits lying around sleeping it off, and be careful not to step in the puddles of vomit common on the sidewalks in the mornings. The drinking age in South Korea is 19.

Nightlife

Compared to Western drinking habits, Koreans have adopted slightly different ways to enjoy their night out. Sure, you can find Western style bars easily, but going to a Korean style bar can be an interesting experience. Hofs (originally German, but 호프 hopeu in Korean) are just normal beer places, which serve beer and side dishes. Customers are supposed to order some side dish to go along their drinks at most drinking establishments in Korea. Recently, due to growing competition, many hofs have started to install various gadgets for entertainment.

Booking clubs are the Korean version of night clubs. What makes them interesting is the "booking" part of the name. It's basically a way to meet new people of the opposite sex by introduction of the waiters (who usually bring women to visit tables of men, but increasingly vice-versa). Booking clubs are slightly more expensive than normal bars and hofs, but can be extremely fun. These can be different from American-style clubs, in that in addition to a cover charge, you are pretty much expected to order booze and side dishes (which can be quite pricey in ₩200,000-₩500,000 range and up). But other than that, the dancing and atmosphere is about the same.

One of the customary things to do at a booking club is to "dress-up" your table or booth by purchasing expensive liquors and fruit plates, which signals your 'status' to the other patrons of the club (especially your gender of interest). Scotch whisky is especially marked up a great deal in Korea, so don't be surprised to pay very high prices for that innocuous bottle of Johnnie Walker. On the other hand, it is a better value overall to buy a bottle of liquor or a "liquor set" than to purchase drinks individually.

On the other end of the spectrum, many locals go out to drink and eat with their friends at the many Korean grillhouses found throughout the city. It is not uncommon for people to consume several bottles of soju (see below) each, and mixing beer and hard liquor is encouraged. Group bonding over liquor and food is a cultural feature across South Korea.

For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it's called noraebang (노래방). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.

Etiquette

There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You're not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others' glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they'll return the favor. It's considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody and when receiving a drink, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.

Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Oftentimes, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.

Soju

The national drink of South Korea is soju (소주), a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20%). It's cheaper than any other drink — a 350ml bottle can cost slightly over ₩3,000 at bars (as little as ₩1,100 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. Usually this is made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc., to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors. The manufacturing process leaves in a lot of extraneous chemicals, so be prepared for a four-alarm hangover in the morning, even after drinking a comparatively small amount.

Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju (안동 소주) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (문배주). These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.

History tells that there were numerous brewers throughout the country in the past until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 60-70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro 진로, Gyeongwol 경월, Bohae 보해, Bobae 보배, Sunyang 선양, etc.), that basically made 'chemical soju'. Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.

Also, there are soju cocktails such as "socol" (soju + coke), ppyong-gari (soju + pocari sweat - ion drink), 'so-maek (soju + maekju(beer) which adds a bit of a kick to beer) and such, all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.

Rice wine

Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju (탁주), literally "cloudy alcoholic beverage". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (누룩), a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar, for a short while (3-5 days usually). Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4-6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli (막걸리) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (동동주) more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongju as a result.

Yakju (약주) or cheongju (청주) is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles precipitate. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12-15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involves a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju (백세주) and 'Dugyeonju (두견주).

Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.

Ginseng wine

One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine (인삼주 insamju), which is believed to have medicinal properties and is particularly popular among the elderly. It is made by fermenting Korean ginseng, just as the name implies.

Beer

Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around ₩1,500 per bottle at a supermarket. Korea's version of the beer pub is the hof (호프 hopeu), which serve pints of beer in the ₩2000-5000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. Note that you are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of ₩10,000 or so.

Tea and coffee

Like their neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (차 cha), most of it green (녹차 nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:

  • boricha (보리차), roasted barley tea, often served cold in summer, water substitute for many household
  • insamcha (인삼차), ginseng tea
  • oksusucha (옥수수차), roasted corn tea
  • yulmucha (율무차), a thick white drink made from a barley-like plant called Job's tears

Like Chinese and Japanese teas, Korean teas are always drunk neat, without the addition of milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea is available at Western restaurants and the usual American fast-food chains.

Coffee (커피 keopi) has in recent times become widely available. Older Koreans enjoy sweet and milky instant coffee, and this is easily available from vending machines everywhere that will pour you a cupful for as little as ₩300.

Latte snobs will also be glad to know that quality western coffee shops are available in all cities costing around ₩4,000 from a good chain or independent coffee shop. Local chains such as 'Cafe Bene' and 'Angel in Us' serve good coffee, and there are plenty of Starbucks shops selling coffee just like in the United States. It is worth to hunt out independent coffee shops that take great pride in their coffee and rival some of the best from Portland and Seattle.

If you find yourself in a smaller town then the ubiquitous bread shop 'Paris Baguette' will give you an OK latte for around ₩2,000.

Other drinks

Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:

  • sikhye (식혜), a very sweet, grainy rice drink served cold
  • sujeonggwa (수정과), a sweet, cinnamon-y drink made from persimmons served cold

Shopping

The currency of South Korea is the South Korean Won (₩), written 원 in Hangul. (Currency code is KRW) As of April 2013, the exchange rate was approximately ₩1,100 to the US dollar although this value can change significantly over time.

Bills come in denominations of ₩1000 (blue), ₩5000 (red), ₩10,000 (green) and ₩50,000 (yellow).

The ₩50,000 is very practical if you need to carry around a reasonable amount of cash (say a few hundred USD worth), however it can be hard to use on goods or services with a value of less than ₩10,000. The ₩50,000 can be hard to find and often only provided by ATM's that display a picture of the yellow note on the outside.

₩100,000 "checks" are frequently used, and some of the checks go up to ₩10,000,000 in value. These checks are privately issued by banks and can be used instead of cash for larger purchases, such as hotel rooms.

Coins mainly come in denominations of ₩10, ₩50, ₩100 and ₩500. Very rare ₩1 and ₩5 coins do exist. Generally speaking it is rare to buy something that requires a smaller coin than ₩100.

South Korea has ATM machines everywhere, although using a foreign card with them is rather hit and miss. Banks in the cities and airports do have Global ATM machines that will (usually) accept your card. Not all machines will accept foreign cards, however at least all machines can be used in the English language. Citibank's network is a safe bet for withdrawing cash.

Be sure to stock up on cash before heading to the countryside where foreign cards are less likely to be accepted.

If you plan on staying in South Korea for a longer time, you'll probably want to set up a local account at a Korean bank such as Woori Bank, which can then be used at the bank's ATMs throughout the country. (even some non local accounts can do this. Woori Bank accounts setup in China come with an ATM card that can be used with all its ATMs in South Korea)

Credit card acceptance at shops, hotels and other businesses on the other hand is very good, and all but the very cheapest restaurants and motels will accept Visa and MasterCard. Even small purchases such as ₩4,000 for a coffee are OK. This works well since credit cards have good exchange rates, however if you are using a foreign card then you should ensure with your bank that there isn't a fee for this foreign transaction.

Costs

South Korea is fairly expensive compared to most Asian countries, but is a little cheaper compared to other modern developed countries such as Japan and most Western countries. A frugal backpacker who enjoys eating, living and traveling Korean-style can easily squeeze by on under ₩60,000 per day, but if you want top-class hotels and Western food even ₩200,000/day will not suffice. Seoul has been particularly expensive in recent years, by some measures even more so than Tokyo.

Tipping

Tipping is not required anywhere in South Korea and is not practiced by Koreans. It could be considered an insult between Koreans as it is regarded as giving someone charity, although people generally know of American tipping culture and would be understanding of a foreigner doing this.

Many hotels and a few tourist restaurants add 10% service charge on their bills. Bellhops, hotel maids, taxi drivers and bars frequented by Westerners will not reject any tips that you care to hand out. Just be aware that this is not expected.

Restaurants sometimes provide complimentary food or drinks to customers as a sign of generosity or to reward customer loyalty. Colloquially, this is known as "service".

Shopping

At certain retail outlets with a "Tax Free Shopping" or a "Tax Refund Shopping" sign, you can obtain a voucher and get a large percentage of your taxes refunded. When you leave South Korea, go to customs and have it stamped then go to the "Global Refund Korea" or "Korea Tax Refund" counters near the duty-free shops. However to get a refund you must leave within 3 months of purchase.

Bargaining is common at outdoor markets and applies to everything they may have to offer. However stating a monetary amount would be a mistake. Normally what you would say is ssage juseyo (싸게 주세요). That means "cheaper, please." Doing this once or twice would suffice. The drawback is you will rarely be discounted more than a few dollars.

  • Ginseng: Korea is the ginseng (인삼 insam) capital of the world. Widely considered to have medicinal properties, it can be found in special mountain areas throughout Korea. A thick black paste made from ginseng is popular, as is ginseng tea and various other products. There are many grades of ginseng, with the best grades potentially fetching millions of US dollars at auctions. A good place to check out the different types of ginseng would be Gyeongdong Herbal Medicine Market in Seoul.
  • Traditional items: Visitors looking for things to bring home can find a wide variety of choices. You can find a blue-jade celadon from the Goryeo Dynasty, handmade traditional costumes, paper kites and ceramic pieces that depict human emotions in their designs at the numerous markets and souvenir shops. Insadong in Seoul would be the first place to shop around. After a while one store might start to look like every other store but chances are you'll find what you need.
  • Fashion: Keeping up with the latest trends, shoppers and boutique owners alike flock the streets and markets every weekend. Centered largely in Seoul with popular places such as Dongdaemun, Mok dong Rodeo Street and Myeong dong, fashion centers can be divided into two large categories; markets and department stores. Markets are affordable and each shop will have trendy similar type clothing that appeal to the masses. Also, be aware that you cannot try on most tops. So better to know your size before shopping there. Though department stores will have areas or floors that have discounted items, they are considered overpriced and catering mostly to an older, wealthier crowd.
  • Antiques: For all things considered antique, such as furniture, calligraphic works, ceramics and books, you can go to Jangangpyeong Antique Market in Seoul. Be careful, as items over 50 years old cannot leave the country. Check with the Art and Antique Assessment Office at +82-32-740-2921.
  • Electronics: They are widely available, especially in larger cities like Seoul and Busan. South Korea has most of the latest gadgets available in most Western countries, and much more. In fact, when it comes to consumer technology, South Korea is probably second only to Japan. However, you would probably have to contend with having the instruction booklets and functions being written in Korean.
  • Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs): South Korea's greatest contribution to the gaming world. While they may not have been invented in Korea, Korean MMORPG's were a key factor in making the genre popular worldwide. Unlike in Japan, where their comics or manga are often made into cartoon serials or anime, popular South Korean comics, known as manhwa(만화) in Korean are often made into MMORPG's. However, all games sold will be in Korean and for console games, the regional coding for Korea is NTSC-J, which is used for Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and most of the rest of East Asia, so you might not be able to play them on your European/Australian(PAL), North American(NTSC-U/C) or mainland Chinese(NTSC-C) consoles.
  • K-Pop: South Korea launched the hallyu ("Korean wave") phenomenon that took East Asia by storm at the beginning of the 21st century, so you might want to buy the latest Korean music CD's by popular K-pop singers and groups - and discover some of the less known. And if you want to see them live, there is of course no better place for that than South Korea.
  • K-Drama: Korean drama is massively popular in Asia and a boxed DVD set of a drama will certainly last you many rainy afternoons. Do check that the DVD set has subtitles in your language. Outside of Korea you could likely buy the same Korean drama dubbed in another Asian language such as Cantonese or Mandarin. However, drama serials and movies sold in South Korea are for the Korean market and usually do not have subtitles. In addition, South Korea is in DVD region 3 so the discs bought here would work well in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, but may not be playable by players bought in North America, Europe, mainland China, Japan or Australia. If you wish to buy, ensure that your DVD player can support it. Note that CD's and DVD's are not particularly popular anymore in South Korea, the younger generation having moved onto digital downloads some time ago.

This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article South Korea on Wikivoyage.

Cities in South Korea

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Seoul is the capital of South Korea. With a municipal population of over 10.5 million, and a metropolitan population totaling over 20.5 million, Seoul is by far South Korea's largest city and one of East Asia's financial and cultural epicenters. A fascinating blend of ancient traditions and cutting-edge ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • National Folk Museum
  • Gyeongbok Palace
  • Deoksugung Palace
  • Seoul City Hall
  • Gwanghwamun
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Busan (formerly romanized as Pusan) is a city located in the south-eastern province of South Gyeongsang, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Yongdusan Park
  • PIFF Square
  • Shinsegae Centum City
  • Busan Tower
  • Jagalchi Fish Market
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Seogwipo-si is the southern district of Jeju island.

Interesting places:

  • Yeomiji Botanical Garden
  • Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak)
  • Cheonjiyeon Waterfall
  • International Convention Center (ICC)
  • Jeju World Cup Stadium
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Jeju City is the largest and capital city of Jeju Special Autonomous Province, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Hamdeok Beach
  • Hyeopjae Beach
  • Jeju Teddy Bear Museum
  • Iho Beach
  • Hallasan National Park
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Incheon , (Formally romainzed as Inchon), is a city in South Korea on the coast directly to the west of Seoul.

Interesting places:

  • Freedom Park
  • Incheon Munhak Stadium
  • Wolmido Amusement Park
  • Wangsan Beach
  • Incheon Dohobu Cheongsa
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Suwon is both the provincial capital and largest city in Gyeonggi province. The city is about 30km from Seoul and has a population of just over one million.

Interesting places:

  • Hwaseong Fortress
  • Suwon World Cup Stadium
  • Ansan Stadium
  • Suwon Civil Stadium
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Gyeongju is in North Gyeongsang province, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Bulguksa Temple
  • Anapji Pond
  • Heavenly Horse Tomb
  • Tumuli Park
  • Gyeongju National Museum
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Daejeon is the capital of South Chungcheong province.

Interesting places:

  • Daejeon Museum of Art
  • Daejeon Culture and Arts Center
  • National Science Museum
  • Expo Park
  • Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
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Jeonju is the capital of North Jeolla province, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Gyeonggijeon
  • Pungnammun Gate
  • Jeonju Historical Museum
  • Jeonju National Museum
  • Jeonju World Cup Stadium
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Sokcho is a city in Gangwon, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Sinheungsa Temple
  • Seorak-san National Park
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Yeosu is a coastal city in South Jeolla province, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Odong-Do Fountain
  • Admiral Soon-Shin Lee Memorial
  • Jinnan Sports Park
  • Golf Plaza
  • Dolsan Park
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Interesting places:

  • Dongguksa Temple
  • Jinpo Maritime Theme Park
  • Gunsan Country Club
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Namhae is an island in South Gyeongsang, Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Bori-am
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Goyang 고양 is a city near Seoul in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • KINTEX
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Gangneung is the largest coastal city in Gangwon Province, third largest overall. It is nestled at the east side of South Korea's longest mountain range, Taebaek. The Taebaek Mountains stretch along the eastern edge of Korean Penninsula and run along the East Sea. Geologically isolated from most parts of the ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • Odaesan National Park
  • Haslla Art World
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Cheonan is a city in South Chungcheong, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Cheonan Baekseok Stadium
  • Woo Jeong Hills Golf Course
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Geoje(거제, 巨濟, also Geoje-do, pronounced "Go-je"), formerly romanised as Koje, is an island in South Gyeongsang province, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Oedo Paradise Island
  • Okpo Great Victory Commemorative Park
  • Gujora Beach
  • Geoje Art Center
  • Geoje Sea Village Folk Museum
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Changwon is the capital city of South Gyeongsang in South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Masan Stadium
  • Changwon Civil Stadium
  • Samjin Museum
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Gwangju , also known as Kwangju, is in South Jeolla, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Mudeungsan Provincial Park
  • Naejangsan National Park
  • Gwangju National Museum
  • Gwangju Art and Culture Center
  • Guus Hiddink Stadium
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Pohang is a city in North Gyeongsang (경상북도) in South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH)
  • Juwangsan National Park
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Ulsan is a city in South Gyeongsang and the capital of the Ulsan Metropolitan District.

Interesting places:

  • Gyeongju National Park
  • Munsu Cup Stadium (Big Crown Stadium)
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Suwon is both the provincial capital and largest city in Gyeonggi province. The city is about 30km from Seoul and has a population of just over one million.

Interesting places:

  • Anyang Benest Golf Course
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Yongin is in Gyeonggi province in South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Everland
  • Caribbean Bay
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Chuncheon City is the capital Gangwon (강원, 江原), the northeasternmost province of South Korea. For travelers weary of Seoul's crowds and big city atmosphere, Chuncheon can be an ideal place to spend several days. The area, surrounded by rivers and hills, offers a variety of relaxing outdoor activities and ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • Cheongpyeongsa
  • Chuncheon Civil Stadium
  • Animation Museum
  • Chuncheon Myeongdong Street
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Yangyang is in Gangwon.

Interesting places:

  • Naksansa
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Interesting places:

  • Bucheon Stadium
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Bundang is a ward in Seongnam, a suburb of Seoul, in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Seongnam Arts Center
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Cheongju , also spelled Chongju, is the capital of North Chungcheong, South Korea.

Interesting places:

  • Heungdeok Temple Site
  • Chungbuk National University
  • Sangdangsanseong Fortress
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Wonju is a city in Gangwon.

Interesting places:

  • Chiaksan National Park
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Pyeongtaek is a city 35 kilometers south of Seoul in Gyeonggi province, South Korea. It is home to Osan Air Base.

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Boryeong is a city in South Chungcheong Province, South Korea

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Interesting places:

  • Byeonsan-bando National Park
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Jinju(진주, 晋州), formerly Chinju, is in South Gyeongsang province, South Korea.

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Danyang , also Tanyang, is a resort town in North Chungcheong, South Korea.

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Taebaek is a city in Gangwon.

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Pyeongchang is a city and a county in Gangwon. The city will host the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Interesting places:

  • Yongpyong Ski Area
  • Woljeongsa Temple
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Daegu , (formerly romanized as Taegu) is South Korea's fourth largest city, and is located in the geographic center of the nation.

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Hongcheon is a city in Gangwon.

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Points of Interest in South Korea

Japanese and Chinese tourists have already discovered South Korea as a great and trendy place to go. For the western world, it is a relatively new travel destination, but it has gained popularity fast. And for good reason, as South Korea offers a most pleasant combination of ancient Asian features and all the amenities you would expect from a modern, high-tech nation. Despite its compact size it boasts a broad range of fine attractions and an excellent infrastructure makes getting around easy.

Starting off, you'll likely find yourself in Seoul, the nation's capital that never sleeps. What you'll find is a fascinating city in constant transition. This ancient place has seen centuries and wars come and go but seems to have come out stronger than ever. Popularly called the "Miracle on the Han River", it's one of the largest metropolitan economies in the world. It's the country's industrial epicentre, the birthplace of K-pop, a hotspot for South-Korean nightlife and fine dining and home to over a 100(!) museums. The fabulous history and art collection of the National Museum of Korea reigns supreme and a visit there is a day well spent. In recent years, the city is rediscovering its historic treasures and improving city parks, adding to its charm. Downtown Seoul, where the old Joseon Dynasty city was, is where you'll find most of the palaces. It is surrounded by a Fortress Wall, with the famous Namdaemun, one of the eight gates, being perhaps the main attraction. To get away from the buzz, follow the locals to Cheonggyecheon, one of the urban renewal projects and a popular public recreation space, or enjoy an afternoon tea in a traditional teahouse in Insadong.

Busan is the country's second city and most significant port. Called the nation's summer capital, Koreans flock to this city's fine beaches, seafood restaurants and festivals. Haeundae beach in Busan is the most famous in the country. Gyeongju was once the nation's capital and boasts numerous royal burial sites as well as relaxing resorts.

Just a stones-throw north of Seoul, mountainous Bukhansan is one of the most visited national parks in the world. Some 836 meters high, Mount Bukhansan is a major landmark visible from large parts of the city and the park is home to the beautiful Bukhansanseong Fortress. The popular hike to get up there is well worth it, as you'll be rewarded with great views of the metropolis. Seoraksan National Park and Suncheon Bay Ecological Park are good picks too. In total, the country has 20 national parks, mostly mountainous, but some also focus on marine and coastal nature. The lush green tea fields of Boseong offer quite another, but equally nice and peaceful get-a-way.

If you don't mind the crowds, the volcanic and semi-tropical Jeju Island offers spectacular scenery, a relaxing atmosphere and plenty of activities. The Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites, a World Heritage Site, are home to a significant part of all the dolmen in the world and apart from the impressive megalithic stones, have brought forward a highly important collection of archaeological finds. For an entirely different experience, head to Panmunjeom. It's a 'truce village' in the middle of the demilitarized zone and shared by both North and South Korea. A fascinating visit to the last frontier of the cold war and reachable in a day trip from Seoul.

If you'd like to see a bit of Korean folklore, one of the folk villages is a must. Hahoe, Yangdong and the living museum-like Korean Folk Village in Yongin are among the best. Last but not least, South Korea is a country of festivals. No matter where you go, there's likely something happening close by. Watching or even joining in the bustling celebrations is often a fabulous and colourful experience. (The Boryeong Mud Festival is a popular pick.)

National Folk Museum - Seoul

Yongdusan Park - Busan

Everland - Yongin

Yeomiji Botanical Garden - Seogwipo

Freedom Park - Incheon

Bulguksa Temple - Gyeongju

Gyeonggijeon - Jeonju

Hwaseong Fortress - Suwon

Daejeon Museum of Art - Daejeon

Sinheungsa Temple - Sokcho

Hamdeok Beach - Jeju

Donghwasa - Daegu

Naksansa - Yangyang

Songgwangsa Temple - Suncheon

Gyeongbok Palace - Seoul

Deoksugung Palace - Seoul

Seoul City Hall - Seoul

Gwanghwamun - Seoul

Lotte Department Store - Seoul

Seoul Finance Center - Seoul

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