From K-Pop to the Korean War, the world can’t help but look to this East Asian country with great curiosity. Not only has it managed to build an entertainment industry that has drawn loyal followers from all over the world, but South Korea is also at the forefront of countless technological innovations – from super-fast internet speeds to robot prison guards! Take all this cultural wonder and set it against the gorgeous backdrop of South Korea’s natural scenery – and you’ve got an adventure of a lifetime.
Since South Korea is relatively small, and the public transport some of the best in the world, getting a good tour of the country in five days is perfectly possible. For some, this may mean several long-haul train journeys and action-packed days. However, for those that prefer a more relaxed pace, and more time to properly absorb the key sites, we recommend limiting yourself to two destinations in South Korea, with a half-day excursion in between.
Start your trip in the dazzling megacity of Seoul and take a few days to properly explore the many museums, galleries, restaurants, and quirky Korean oddities this city has to offer. On the third day, take a half day tour out to the demilitarised zone, for a fascinating insight into the ongoing North-South conflict. That evening, catch a domestic flight south to the small island of Jeju, to spend your last two days in paradise.
Day 1 - Seoul
Budget – Zzzip Guesthouse Hongdae (from €18)
Average – L7 Hongdae (from €73)
Luxury – Grand Hyatt Hotel (from €151)
Over half of the entire population of South Korea live in this north-western city, so you’ll certainly need a good couple days to even scratch the surface. The first thing you want to do when you arrive is buy an MPass Card, tailored to the number of days you will stay in Seoul. This gets you 20 free rides on the subway per day and will save you a lot of walking. Alternatively, the Discover Seoul Pass will offer the same and free entry to most attractions.
Take the subway to Gyeongbokgung and walk south of the park to the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History. This will give you great insight into the history of the country and lay the foundation for your visit. Afterwards, walk up to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the 14th century home of the Joseon dynasty kings.
If you still have time, walk up the right side of the park to Bukchon Hanok Village, a beautifully preserved (and still occupied) 14th century village. Lose yourself in the maze of cobbled alleys and wooden houses and peruse the craft shops.
For dinner, head back near the station for Sejong Village Food Street, which offers a wide choice of eateries, restaurants, and bars. We recommend Han Ok Dal, a particularly beautiful imperial-style restaurant.
With north Seoul out the way, head south to the trendy districts of Hongdae and (remember this one?) Gangnam for the day. Take the subway to Bongeunsa station, south of the Han River and visit the beautiful traditional Buddhist temple located opposite. Partially destroyed during the Korean war, the temple has been extensively renovated and now offers a Temple Stay programme, for visitors to experience a few days of life as a monk and learn meditation and discipline.
Following the temple, wander a few streets south to Starfield Library, a staggering contemporary library full of towering floor-to-ceiling shelves and escalators. If you wanted a space to relax, chat with friends and get some work done, this is the place to do it.
By midday, hop on Subway Line 2 westward, back up to Hongdae. This trendy part of the city is full of art students, thanks to its proximity to Hongik university. Grab lunch in one of the districts many themed cafes – from flowers to Hello Kitty, to farmyard sheep! Lovers of everything cute, pretty, and Instagram-worthy will fall in love with this place, but even for the cynics, it is still well worth checking out for the novelty (and creative coffees).
The best way to experience Hongdae in the afternoon is simply to get lost, as you’ll be sure to stumble into a wacky experience. Whether it be having your fortune told in Parking Street, finding a hidden café behind a vending machine (shhh you can find it here!), or picking up funny souvenirs in the district's many craft shops.
If you want a big night out in South Korea, today is the day, as Hongdae is the best place in the city for nightlife. Forget bars, Hongdae’s nightlife happens on the street. Head to an off license to pick up your drinks and join the hordes of artists, students and foreigners drinking and dancing in Hongdae Playground. Come at the right time, and you may find live musicians, DJs and any other type of performers entertaining the crowds. Get chatting to locals and allow them to guide you to the best clubs in the city, since most are hidden down unassuming alleys or even pop-ups in abandoned carparks. Alternatively, check out NB1 or Club Evans for a guaranteed good time.
Assuming you didn’t go too wild the night before, today is the day for an excursion. Sign onto a tour, such as this one from Viator, and let your tour guide drive you an hour north of Seoul to the famous demilitarised zone (DMZ). This region marks the border between North and South Korea and houses several museums and information centres explaining the conflict and its history. After two days in the modern buzz of Seoul, a glimpse into the experience of SK’s northern neighbour is a humbling experience.
That evening, once dropped back off at your accommodation, take the subway out to Gimpo Airport to take a domestic flight south to Jeju.
Day 4 – Jeju (Jeju City)
Budget – You&I Guesthouse (from €14)
Average – Urban Island Hotel Jeju (from €39)
Luxury – Hotel Sirius (from €71)
After three days in Seoul, you’ll be grateful for the soothing escape to this natural beauty spot. Bursting with volcanoes, beaches and tropical farmland, this is a glorious way to spend the final two days of your trip.
The best way to get around the island is to rent a car, but alternatively, you can enlist a driver to take you around. Follow the road round the Aewol Coastline – a westward drive with glorious views of the ocean. Stop off at Hallim-eub for Hallim Park, where you can follow a beautiful coastal walk up the cliffs. A beach at the base makes for a great place to stop and relax before continuing your journey south to Seogwipo.
Day 5 – Jeju (Seogwipo)
Budget – Backpacker’s Home (€17)
Average – The Qube Resort Jeju (from €44)
Luxury – The Suites Hotel Jeju (from €134)
You’ll likely want to spend this day relaxing, so stay close to town. Start by visiting the glorious Jeongbang Waterfall; the only waterfall in the whole of South Korea that cascades into the ocean! Afterwards, head back into town to visit the Lee Jung-Seop Art Gallery and Park or take a walk to Oedolgae Rock. If you’re a fan of the Korean drama Dae Jang Geum, you’ll recognise this distinctive geological feature.
If you have the energy, drive out east to Seonsang crater, a jaw-dropping volcanic crater that juts out to sea. Said to resemble an ancient castle, this natural hill makes for an excellent sunset hike.
That evening, be sure to order black pork – Jeju’s most popular cuisine. We recommend heading to b.pork bistro in Lee jung Seop-ro, where excellent cuts of traditional black pork are blended into contemporary fusion dishes. If this is the end of your whistle-stop South Korea tour, this place will see you out in style. And if this is just the beginning – lucky you! Get ready to unlock even more wonders as you head back to the South Korean mainland.