From Heart And Seoul

South Korea: 13 Things You Have To Do

February 2, 2017 57 Comments

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.

DMZ guard post North Korea South Korea border

 

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.

South Korea Korean BBQ

 

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.

Alpensia Ski Resort Pyeongchang South Korea ski lift

 

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.

Gyeongbokgung Palace Seoul South Korea temple

Gyeongbokgung Palace guard Seoul South Korea

 

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.

South Korea market fresh fruit

South Korea market fish

 

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.

South Korea cat cafe

South Korea cat cafe

 

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!

South Korea Seoul Lantern Festival Cheonggyecheon Stream

 

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).

South Korea Soju rice liquor

 

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.

Itaewon South Korea

 

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!

Korean Skincare masks

If you’re still up for exploring, check out other ideas of things to do in Korea here!

If you're traveling to Korea soon - READ THIS! You'll definitely want to check each one of these bucket list experiences off!

57 Comments

  1. Reply

    Suzannah

    February 4, 2017

    Lots of awesome ideas on things to do. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Reply

    Samantha

    February 4, 2017

    Great post!! Ive done almost all of these things except I won’t have a chance to visit the Olympic grounds before I leave Korea (teaching contract is up soon). Have you been to Busan yet? Thats where I live!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Oh no! Were hoping to make it to the Olympics next winter – fingers crossed we can get tickets! We haven’t been to Busan yet, but hopefully this summer! Let me know if you have any recommendations of must-do’s in the area!

  3. Reply

    Alina

    February 4, 2017

    Which skincare can you recommend? I am seriously lost =) And love Korean bbq 😉

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      I use some hydrogels for under-eye puffiness that work miracles for long flights & early mornings! Also Son & Park’s “beauty water” is AMAZING – it sounds like a total rip-off (because what exactly IS beauty water lol) but its basically a toner that I use after taking off my makeup at night. Writing a post on Korean skincare soon so I’ll definitely loop you in! 🙂

  4. Reply

    Melissa Giroux

    February 4, 2017

    South Korea is pretty high on my list! I want to go there for years now! Didn’t have the chance yet! Hopefully soon!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      You definitely should Melissa! It’s a small country, but packed full of so many different experiences!

  5. Reply

    Jasmin Charlotte

    February 4, 2017

    I’ve always really wanted to go to South Korea, there are so many awesome things to do. I definitely want to go to the DMZ – it is so fascinating. Can’t really get that experience anywhere else!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      The DMZ is definitely a one of a kind experience. It can seem a little “touristy” at certain parts but regardless its very real. We enjoyed it and I wouldn’t take it back!

  6. Reply

    Aneesha Rai

    February 4, 2017

    That looks like such a fun trip! Adding it to my list!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Aneesha! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  7. Reply

    Silvia

    February 4, 2017

    I definitely haven’t spent enough time in South Korea!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      You should come back! It’s easy to pack the main things into a few days, but the longer you explore the more there is to find!

  8. Reply

    Cory Varga

    February 4, 2017

    I am most excited about Korean markets. I love, love, love South Korean food. We are thinking about moving to South Korea for about two months after our visit back to Japan. Such epic place. Saving this post, as I will definitely get back to it. Thank you

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Cory! We love it here too. Japan is great as well – it’s funny how both countries are similar in ways yet SO different. Especially when it comes to the food! Korean food is def in a class of its own!

  9. Reply

    Alice Chen

    February 4, 2017

    Aww, I missed the cat cafe! Guess I know what to do when I go back! Awesome list. I definitely agree with the DMZ!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Yes! The cat cafes are a must do – just for the experience! If you want to step it up a notch, there are even raccoon cafes and sheep cafes too! 😉

  10. Reply

    Dariel

    February 4, 2017

    I love the cat photo! Lol. Would love to do the tour of the North and South border, sounds really interesting.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Dariel! If you ever do the DMZ tour, make sure to include the JSA portion – its the best part!

  11. Reply

    Abbi @ Spin the Windrose

    February 4, 2017

    Wow there is so much to do! I definitely want to visit. The cat cafe has me hooked!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Abbi! 🙂

  12. Reply

    Flo @ Yoga, Wine & Travel

    February 4, 2017

    I’ve only ever been to Seoul for work so haven’t properly explored South Korea! Definitely pinning this for a trip back one day – love me some soju and Korean BBQ!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Yes – Seoul is so much to explore in itself! I agree though – I consistently crave Korean BBQ now! 😉

  13. Reply

    Brianne Miers

    February 4, 2017

    I’ve never been to South Korea, so I really found this interesting! I would particularly be interested in visiting the DMZ, the Olympic site and the Palace. And who doesn’t want good beauty products?!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      I’m definitely going to miss the beauty products whenever we leave! The good thing is – most of them you can order through Amazon too 🙂

  14. Reply

    Karen

    February 4, 2017

    I so want to visit Korea. I love the food and the skincare products, but would love to experience the markets and Lantern festival. I heard about even more types of cafes in Korea!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      You might have heard of the sheep or raccoon cafes? The markets are also super interesting! I’ll have to do an entire post on those. You can find anything and everything if you know where to look!

  15. Reply

    Anisa

    February 5, 2017

    I was only in Korea for 2 days so I know I only touched the surface. These are some great ideas. I think at the top of the list is the DMZ, it sounds like it is just such a unique experience. Also, I had no idea they had such great skincare products. Will definitely keep that in mind for next time.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks for reading, Anisa! Trust me, this list only skims the surface. There is so much more worth experiencing, so check back if you’re ever planning another trip!

  16. Reply

    Anna

    February 5, 2017

    KOREA – need to go. The cat cafés look so crazy!! haha

    Would love to try out their skincare products as well..

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      You so should, Anna! I’m telling you – you’ll never go back once you try them! 🙂

  17. Reply

    Kathrine

    February 5, 2017

    Love this article! South Korea is on the top of my bucket list, and now I’m even more eager to go! 😀

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Kathrine! You totally should! 🙂

  18. Reply

    Jurga

    February 5, 2017

    Never been to South Korea, but in this one post you convinced me that it’s definitely worth a visit. Never would have thought you could ski there as well!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Jurga! There are actually quite a few ski resorts across the northern portion of the country. Pyeongchang is a few hours’ drive from Seoul, but we’ve gone to some that are less than an hour away and were just as great!

  19. Reply

    Fee

    February 5, 2017

    Some great tips there. I’ve yet to go, I met some people whilst travelling from there and they raved about the soju and cat cafes (I like cats!) haha.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Appreciate your feedback, Fee! Soju can be a little bit of an acquired taste, but its (deceivingly!) easy to drink! Sometimes you can find it in nearby Asian countries. If you ever run across some, you should try it!

  20. Reply

    Meg

    February 5, 2017

    Korea has always fascinated me – I know I’ll make it there some day. Your list sums up the reasons to go! Except the cat cafe – I’m allergic. But I’d love to ski there – I forgot they were hosting the Olympics! What a cool opportunity!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Meg! There is so much more to do, but these are some of the basics. If you get the chance, head over before February 2018 🙂

  21. Reply

    Jared Moore

    February 6, 2017

    Nice overview of things to do! I’ve been living in Korea for 6 months now, and I’ve definitely checked these off my list. Perhaps for even more of a Korean experience, people should go to a jjimjilbang though! Have you heard of that? Anyway, what was your favorite on this list?

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Jared! What area do you live in? Jjimjilbangs are definitely up there on the list too! VERY authentic Korean experience. I think my favorite out of these has been the markets. The ones in more rural areas especially – they just give you a window into what life is really like here 🙂

  22. Reply

    Emily

    February 6, 2017

    This is too cool! South Korea has never been super high on my list of places to go (since I’m currently in Europe and there are so many places here I’ve never been), but this definitely pushes it higher on the list!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Glad you enjoyed, Emily! 🙂 We feel the same way since we are in Asia right now – there is so much to explore nearby, so we have put Europe on hold for a little while. What’s been your favorite place so far? Were hoping to start tackling the Europe bucket list a year from now!

  23. Reply

    Cherene Saradar

    February 6, 2017

    South Korea looks very cool and I will definitely make it there one of these days….the BBQ sounds so good!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn

      February 6, 2017

      Thanks Cherene! The BBQ is to DIE for – make sure you go to an “all you can eat” type restaurant if you try it 🙂

  24. Reply

    Kiara Gallop

    February 6, 2017

    I had no idea that Korean skincare products are “the holy grail” as you put it, will definitely have to search out some of those! south Korea is always somewhere I’ve thought about visiting but never have. Would you say it’s like any other Asian country or in a league of its very own?

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 7, 2017

      You should Kiara! If I had to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s most like Japan. But Korea has so much that is all it’s own. If you spent more than a day or two here you’ll really start to see the differences 🙂

  25. Reply

    Claudia

    February 6, 2017

    This post is amazing ! I love the social side of it and all the alcohol/food that you advise us to try !

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 7, 2017

      Thanks Claudia! Let me know if you ever get to try any!

  26. Reply

    Lauren

    February 6, 2017

    I’ve never been to Korea but the cat cafe sold it for me! Thanks for this post, it looks incredible.

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 7, 2017

      Glad you liked it Lauren! 🙂

  27. Reply

    YUlia

    February 6, 2017

    Cat cafe? You need to put this one on top, 😉 this is such a good compilation of activities, I learnt quiet a bit!

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 7, 2017

      Thanks Yulia! I think that has been the consensus – the Cat Cafe takes the cake!

  28. Reply

    Morgan

    February 8, 2017

    This list is super helpful. I’ve been wanting to visit South Korea for a while now…potentially this year (fingers crossed)! Would love to try the soju and Norebong experience. And WHAT a cat cafe?? I’ve never heard of that. What’s the backstory?

    xx
    Morgan from http://www.twobluepassports.com

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 9, 2017

      Thanks Morgan! Hopefully you’ll make it over soon! I don’t know the backstory behind cat cafes (Koreans seem to love themes and animals, so there you go!) but regardless its entertaining 🙂

  29. Reply

    elisa

    February 13, 2017

    I’ve visited Seoul only in a couple of layovers. Saw the palace and I’d definitely like to try the markets exploring but the kimshi . . . oh no with that smell never ever! lol

    • Reply

      Ashlyn | From Heart And Seoul

      February 14, 2017

      It does smell pretty awful sometimes doesn’t it? lol You have to at least take a bite though to say you’ve tried it! 🙂

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