1. Tour the DMZ
I think this has to be at the top of the list. If you come for no other reason, at least check this one off. The border between North and South Korea is arguably the most militarized & hostile border in the world. Even the drive up to the border just feels ominous. At a certain point, all cars other than specified tour buses have to turn back, and you start to pass military checkpoints along the side of the road.
Most tours will take you to Dora Observatory (hilltop where you can look out across the border) and the Infiltration Tunnels (where the North repeatedly tried to invade)—but make sure you do the full experience that includes the Joint Security Area. Getting to step across onto North Korean soil is worth the extra time and money.
2. Eat Korean BBQ
You might think you’ve already had Korean BBQ. It’s trendy in LA, and it might come close—but go to any (yes any) BBQ restaurant in Korea and you’ll be more than satisfied with the trade. They’re all slightly different but I haven’t been disappointed yet. Order your meat and soju and get to grilling.
Traditionally, the man is supposed to do the cooking (why do you think I moved here), so just sit back and enjoy while they bring out the 10+ sides that come with your meal. I’ll spare you the names, but you’ll get everything from radish, bean and sprout dishes to classics like kimchi and sticky rice. When your grilling is done, pile everything onto a leaf of lettuce (hence the term “beef & leaf”) and eat!
The only downside is, I promise you’ll crave this again later.
3. Ski the site of the 2018 Olympics
If there’s any reason you should visit Korea NOW, it’s this. Pyeongchang is only a few hours’ drive from Seoul, and it’s the site of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. Need I say more.
There are a handful of ski resorts that are being used in the Olympics, but Pyeongchang is chock-full of them. Try to ski at Alpensia, Yongpyong or Phoenix Park if you can. All three have English websites and you can even call this number for an English speaking travel agent that will help you with literally anything. Best times to go are mid-December to March.
4. Walk through Gyeongbokgung Palace
Block off a morning or afternoon for this one. Gyeongbok Palace is huge, and if it’s your first palace experience in Korea you’ll want to wander. It’s situated near the Blue House (think White House) and right in the middle of Seoul—so it’s a breeze to get to. If you can, go during the changing of the guards outside the main gate. They’ll be the tallest Koreans you’ll ever see, and the ones decked out in traditional clothing. You can even rent some to wear around the palace grounds if you’re really into it.
Once you get inside, make sure sure to make your way over to the National Folk Museum of Korea. It’s inside the palace grounds, and even if you’re not a museum person it’s worth a look around.
5. Browse at a Market
Even if you know zero Korean, you should still make it to a market on your trip. Draw out some Korean won and be ready to buy. There are TONS of markets all over Seoul, and Korea in general. It just depends on what you’re looking for.
If you’re browsing at a food market, most of the time it’s easiest to just go with the price that’s asked (1,000 KRW is a little under $1 USD). I promise you won’t break the bank, but you WILL be fascinated by all of the crazy seafood, snacks and… other animals they are serving up.
On the other hand, if you end up somewhere like Dongdaemun or Namdaemun in Seoul – definitely don’t be afraid to break out your negotiating skills. These are huge sections of the city that have anything and everything you can think of. From electronics to clothing to souvenirs…. you name it.
6. Try Kimchi
You haven’t really been to Korea if you didn’t try kimchi. It’s the country’s national dish – fermented cabbage, usually covered in spices and red sauce, and it sits in a big pot underground for months until ready to eat.
If it sounds gross, you’re not the only one. You should definitely try it, but most people don’t fall in love at first taste. If the traditional preparation isn’t your thing, luckily there are a million other ways you can have it. Kimchi tacos or kimchi fries instead?
7. Go to a Cat Cafe
Or if you want to make things even more interesting—there’s a raccoon cafe in Seoul. Believe it or not, cat cafes (and dog cafes) are all over Korea. Obvi if you’re allergic to cats maybe don’t go, but otherwise this is a must. You basically just go in, order a coffee or tea, and get to play with cats for an hour. Maybe shower afterwards.
8. Attend the Seoul Lantern Festival
Held at Cheonggyecheon Stream in November, which runs right through the heart of Seoul. Cheonggyecheon in itself is a must see, because it’s actually set down below street level. When you take the stairs down and the roar of the crowded city goes away, it’s actually pretty quiet.
You’ll pay a small fee to get the supplies for your lantern. Once you’ve assembled it, drop a tea light candle in and send it down the stream (yep, not into the sky!). It’s said that your luck or good fortune is determined by the side of the stream your lantern floats to! Afterwards, wander around and take a look at all the lighted floats. When you’re finished here—head back up for street food!
9. Get a Dr. Fish pedicure
This is something you’ll have to seek out, but it should no doubt be on your list. If you see a fish tank in the window of any nail salon—step right inside.
After washing your feet, you’ll dip them into a tank filled with tiny fish. You might be worried that you’ll step on them as you get in, but they’ll move. Be warned—it does tickle, so you’ll have to let your mind go elsewhere. Five minutes should do the trick though. After the fish have “eaten” all the dirt and dead skin off your feet, you can move on to your regular pedicure!
10. Drink Soju
Soju is to Korea what Sake is to Japan. The only difference is that it’s served cold instead of hot, and the alcohol content is just a tad higher. Okay a LOT higher. Think anywhere from 18-45%.
In a nutshell, it’s rice liquor. It comes in different flavors, and trust me—you want the flavored kind. You’ll take it in shot glasses, and in line with Korean customs, you should pour for others first. Promise it’s okay to just sip (you probably want to).
11. Have your first Norebong experience
Norebong goes hand in hand with soju. You can’t do one without the other. If you don’t know what Norebong is, the word literally means ‘singing-room’ and it’s basically the Korean version of karaoke. If you go out in Korea, you’ll probably end up here by the end of the night. You can find them anywhere and everywhere. Even on trains.
Basically, you leave your shoes at the door, and grab a mic (Risky Business anyone?). Grab a private room for your group of friends, and you’ll find it’s set up with all your karaoke needs (speakers, lights, projector….disco ball). The only time you’ll be interrupted? When your food and drinks are delivered.
12. Spend a night out in Itaewon
Labeled one of the main foreigner districts in Seoul, Itaewon is full of amazing food, and plenty of side streets to explore. You won’t feel like a tourist here, because everyone is from everywhere. Plus plenty of younger Koreans still hang out here too.
If you’re hungry, you can have world class southern BBQ, Korean-Mexican fusion or try out a Greek or Russian restaurant. Then wander back through the many side streets and take a look into the boutiques, or do a little bar-hopping. There are glamping bars, taphouses, underground bowling alleys and more.
13. Buy a Korean skincare product
If you have hesitations about this, don’t. I was the same way—I knew nothing about Korean skincare except that they like very pale, white skin. And I had heard that a lot of skincare products made in Korea have “whitening” agents in them. (This can be true, so stay away from anything that says “lightening”, “brightening” or “whitening”!)
But aside from that, Korean skincare is THE HOLY GRAIL. You don’t know what you’re missing out on until you try it. Look it up first if that helps—every single major beauty magazine has articles about how amazing Korean products are. Yes, some are a little out there (you’ll see ingredients like horse fat, snail mucin, pig collagen). But some are also filled with amazing things, far ahead of the curve. I swear by the few that I have, so do some research and load up!
If you’re still up for exploring, check out other ideas of things to do in Korea here!