While some travelers may think that South Korea is all dense metropolis and contentious borders, this country in East Asia is actually a spectacularly diverse destination that you shouldn’t overlook. Whether you’re a diehard foodie or a fan of history or you love getting into the outdoors and hiking, travel in South Korea can take whatever form you want it to. We’ve put together this collection of the best places to visit in South Korea to show you just how entertaining and varied this country can be. We’re sure you’ll add at least a few of these places to your bucketlist in no time.
Editor’s Note: If you’re planning a long trip to South Korea, don’t forget the essentials: a South Korea visa for US citizens, a camera to capture these beautiful places, and your appetite!
For a wonderful collection of historic South Korea attractions, head for the remarkable coastal city of Gyeongju. This ancient capital city of the Silla Kingdom is sometimes described as a museum without walls, which makes complete sense once you start heading from one major ancient attraction to the next. Perhaps the best known place to visit here is Bulguksa Temple, a UNESCO-protected Buddhist temple from the sixth century. Here you’ll also find the Seokguram grotto and its striking statue of Buddha. Other major sights around the city include the Anapji Pond and Bomun Pavilion, the latter of which showcases the beauty of Korea in spring with its cherry blossoms.
Was there ever any doubt that we’d recommend Seoul given that it’s the national capital and one of the most popular places to visit in South Korea? This immense metropolis is loaded with attractions to see and things to experience, which explains why most visitors to the country will spend at least a little time here. In terms of sights to see, you’re spoiled for choice, from cultural landmarks like the historic Gyeongbokgung Palace to the fascinating Bukchon Hanok Village. But those visiting Korea may be surprised that Seoul even has a national park, Bukhansan National Park, where travelers can go hiking and take in panoramic views of the city.
3. Jeju Island
By far one of the most beautiful places in Korea is Jeju Island, a dramatic volcanic island in the Korea Strait. That Jeju Island was declared one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature should give you a sense of just how impressive this destination is. The island landscape is typically the main focus of visits here, with quiet beaches, mighty cliffs, and superb mountains like Hallasan, all explorable via walking trails that circle the island. For superb views, head for Seongsan Sunrise Peak or the coast at Seopjikoji by its beach and lighthouse, where you can have the best views of the peak itself.
One of the best cities in South Korea to visit is Busan, a port city that provides a nice contrast to many of the other popular city destinations. The main focus for many visitors to Busan is the city’s gorgeous beaches, with Haeundae Beach and Gwangalli Beach the two best known. But there are plenty of cultural attractions in Busan as well, from the ancient Beomeosa Temple to the increasingly famous Gamcheon Culture Village, an electric and colorful neighborhood that was once a city slum. The other side of Busan worth exploring is the hiking trails through the nearby mountains such as Geumjeongsan, with its peaceful scenery.
The South Korean city of Suwon often gets overshadowed by places like Seoul and Gyeongju, but it’s well worth a visit for its impressive scenery. With centuries of history to its name, Suwon is full of immense landmarks that are sure to impress. The most well-known place is the imposing UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hwaseong Fortress. Between its massive walls, you’ll see Haenggung Palace, Hwahongmun Gate, and Paldalmun Gate, each of which goes toward making it such a special place. As the birthplace of tech powerhouse Samsung Electronics, Suwon has a modern side to it as well, and with a visit to the Samsung Innovation Museum, you can find out about the company’s story.
6. Seoraksan National Park
To explore some of the best natural scenery in the country, travelers should make a beeline to Seoraksan National Park. Home to the nation’s third highest mountain peak, Daecheongbong, this national park is a must-see in South Korea. With impressive rocky ridges and lush flora, it’s a far cry from the urban spaces most travelers first experience upon arrival in the country. It shouldn’t be a surprise that hiking is the most popular activity in this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, thanks to its running ridgelines and jagged peaks. One of the most iconic spots in Seoraksan is the so-called “Dinosaur Ridge,” a.k.a. Gongnyong Ridge, whose stone peaks really do earn it its name.
7. The Korean DMZ
Given the tense situation with its neighbor to the north, it’s understandable why a visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is among the most popular things to do in South Korea. Taking a tour is the only way to visit the 250 kilometer (155 mile) strip between South and North Korea. Generally, a tour includes a stop at the Joint Security Area, the place where the two nations signed an armistice agreement in 1953 and the only place where they still engage in diplomatic discussions. Other stops on the itinerary include the Third Infiltration Tunnel, an attempt to tunnel under the border and the Observation Post, from which you can have views of North Korea.
8. Darangee Village
For a gentler side to life in the country, journey to the Namhae region’s Darangee Village. This small village in Korea is home to a magnificent hillside slope full of more than 100 rice terraces that look out over the nearby coast. As you can probably imagine, the scenery is beautiful to behold and an absolute dream for photographers. The area around the village is also home to walking trails and panoramic viewpoints, so you can appreciate this great coastal spot from every angle.
9. Haeinsa Temple
It should come as no surprise that temples are one of the most common tourist attractions in South Korea, but Haeinsa Temple, in Hapcheon County, is no ordinary temple. This ancient temple is home to a set of Buddhist scriptures that are the oldest of their kind in the world still intact. The Tripitaka Koreana, the ancient Buddhist canon displayed on woodblocks and the halls of Janggyeong Panjeon in which they are stored, are understandably the biggest draws to visiting Haeinsa Temple. But there are other noteworthy aspects of a visit here, like the oldest wooden Buddha statue in Korea and the chance to stay at the temple to experience Buddhist culture up close.
10. Boseong Green Tea Fields
A great way to take a trip out to the Korean countryside is with a visit to the gorgeous tea fields of Boseong. Home to rolling fields of tea plantations, Boseong supplies around 40% of all the tea produced in Korea. While admiring the endless rows of tea leaves is a great way to spend time here, visitors can also indulge in all manner of green-tea flavored treats, from green tea ice cream to a green tea take on the classic Korean dish, bibimbap. Come during May and you may be able to experience the area’s green tea festival, while wintertime sees tiny lights bring some cheer to the landscape.
Long known as a major economic center of the country, South Korea’s third largest city, Daegu, often surprises visitors with its broad range of attractions. Whether you’re interested in history, culture, or relaxation, this southeastern city has plenty in store for you. Major cultural landmarks include the Donghwasa Temple and Seonbosa Temple around Palgongsan Mountain, plus the surprising Gyesan Cathedral. And if you need to take a break from sightseeing, there’s the fun side to the city, with the E-World amusement park and the Daegu Spa Valley.
12. Upo Wetlands
People may identify South Korea mostly with its mountains, but the Upo Wetlands show that there’s much more to the country. This expansive natural habitat, covering 2.3 square kilometers (just under one square mile) of Changnyeong County, is the largest inland wetlands in Korea. The marsh and swamp provide a habitat for roughly 1,500 different species of plants and animals, making Upo a good place to spot migratory birds from all over the world. Many explore the Upo Wetlands by either cycling or walking along the various trails that lead through the area.
13. Andong Hahoe Folk Village
Wondering what a traditional Korean town or village used to look like? Then you’ll definitely want to head to the Andong Hahoe Folk Village, a faithfully preserved village near the center of the country that still reflects the old folk culture of the region. Andong Hahoe Folk Village sits by the Nakdong river and, thanks to the way it has retained its Joseon-era architecture and various local customs, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. Not only can you see what villages once looked like in Korea, but visitors are also treated to other customs and traditions, including a performance of the Hahae Mask Dance.
Famous for hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, the county of Pyeongchang is a great destination if you want to explore Korea’s mountains. No matter the season, Pyeongchang has you covered with fun outdoor activities that make the most of this impressive landscape. Obviously, during winter you’ll have your pick of ski resorts like Alpensia and Yongpyong, where you can go skiing and snowboarding. The area is also known for the Daegwallyeong Snow Festival, which offers other fun snow activities like snowmen-building competitions and snow sledging. When things warm up, Pyeongchang becomes a great place to go hiking, especially on the trails of Odaesan National Park.
Japan may be the iconic destination for seeing cherry blossoms in bloom, but destinations like Jinhae prove that Korea is just as worthy of attention. Jinhae isn’t a huge town, which makes the crowds visiting during its annual Jinhae Gunhangje Festival even more impressive. Take one look at the corridors of cherry blossoms that form over the Yeojwacheon Stream, and you’ll see why so many people choose to visit. Then there’s the adorable Romance Bridge, which despite being a reference to a 2002 Korean TV show called Romance, really does live up to its name with its breathtaking scenery at this special time of year.
16. Nami Island
Jumping from a spring destination to an autumn one, we have the gorgeous foliage of Nami Island. This half-moon-shaped island wasn’t always an island; it became isolated following the establishment of the Cheongpyeong Dam in 1944. Although it’s possible to visit Nami Island year round, the beautiful trees and forest trails look their absolute best when the colors change in autumn. The island is an especially popular domestic destination due to its use as a filming location for popular TV show Winter Sonata. Beyond that, Nami Island is designed with kids in mind, with a miniature train and playgrounds, plus a zipline for those who are still kids at heart.
17. Naejangsan National Park
Another great destination if you’re interested in South Korea’s natural side is Naejangsan National Park. Centered on Naejangsan Mountain, this national park is known for its autumn foliage, waterfalls, and many temples. While the colors in autumn really delight visitors, Naejangsan National Park can be visited year round, although taking to its hiking trails can be tricky when the mountains are covered with winter snow. Other attractions include Dodeok Falls, Geumseon Falls, and Naejangsa Temple, which is a standout due to the pretty trees that lead up to it.
When looking for places to visit, it often pays to see where domestic travelers go. The small city of Jeonju is a perfect example why. Although not too well-known among international visitors, Jeonju sees loads of Korean visitors, partly due to its important culinary contributions. After all, this is the city where the classic dish bibimbap was born. Then there’s the modern food scene full of street food and cafés that are a joy to experience. Jeonju offers sights as well, with its historical ties to the Joseon Dynasty on display at Gyeonggijeon Palace and the old-fashioned architecture of the Jeonju Hanok Village.
19. Dadohaehaesang National Park
Covering almost 1,700 different islands around the southwestern edge of the Korean Peninsula, Dadohaehaesang National Park is an immense protected area and unsurprisingly the largest national park in South Korea. With that much territory to its name, plus all the marine area in between, working out where to start with Dadohaehaesang National Park can be tricky. The most popular islands visited by tourists are generally Hongdo, Heuksando, Geomundo, and Baekdo. Here you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping panoramas dotted with islands, a wide variety of wildlife on land and in the water, and picturesque beaches.
20. Jeungdo Island
Rounding out our list of the best places to visit in South Korea is the unusual natural attractions of Jeungdo Island, a laid-back island off the country’s southwest coast. Often described as a “slow city” due to its ecological priorities, this unassuming island is full of surprises. For starters, there’s the Taepyeong Salt Farm, which features the largest salt fields in the country. Then there are the tidal mud flats and their vividly colored vegetation that you can explore via boardwalk no matter the season. Other things to do on Jeungdo Island include relaxing on its quiet beaches and sampling the various seafood caught just off the coast.
And there you have a wonderful starting point for your travel itinerary for South Korea. While there are always more places you could go, the above destinations are some of the best and most popular attractions in South Korea for a reason.