Beyond K-pop, kalbi and kimchi, most visitors know shockingly little about this exciting Asian powerhouse. Its cities, of which Seoul is just one, are high-tech, whirring metropolises straight out of sci-fi daydreams. Luckily, the country’s surprisingly beautiful countryside – think lush mountains scattered with hidden-away Buddhist temples, tropical beaches and 3,000-plus islands – acts as a tranquil counterbalance.
Getting around Korea without a car of your own is relatively painless. Internal flights, trains and coaches link major cities and buses take travellers to out-of-the-way rural destinations. Local city networks carry around the commuting masses efficiently, while ferries service the country’s many islands.
Most travellers start their Korean explorations in Seoul, and many never make it outside the city limits. In their defence, there is an awful lot to see and do here, whether witnessing tea ceremonies (dado) at Bongeunsa temple, defying vertigo at the N Seoul tower’s dizzyingly high viewing platform or jostling with fellow bargain hunters at the Namdaemun Market.
Those curious about South Korea’s closed-off neighbour can get a glimpse of the north during tours of the DMZ. If the din of the city gets a little much, escape to the Bukhansan National Park where Korea’s hardcore hikers track along granite slopes.
At the opposite end of the country lies the port city of Busan. Despite being Korea’s second city, effervescence and indefatigable Busan refuses to simply flail in the shadow of the capital, instead forging its own distinctive identity. Its ties to the sea are evident, with a port piled high with colourful shipping containers, the popular Haeundae Beach and the epic Jagalchi Fish Market. The nightlife scene here is notorious, with the youthful residents displaying an enviable lust for life. When locals need to escape the urban madness, they dart off to Jirisan National Park, the largest in the country.
Everything good has a price and in the case of Seokbulsa temple near Busan, the fee will be paid in sweat during the steep, challenging hike to the entrance. It will be all be worth it though once you catch sight of the massive Buddha figures carved into the mountain rock. For jaw-droppingly gorgeous aesthetics and stellar hiking opportunities, it’s near impossible to top Ulleungdo, a volcanic island with seaside cliffs and virgin forest foliage. Only the most intrepid tourists ever make it to see the preserved dinosaur tracks on the tiny island of Sado, a mere speck in the map south of Yeosu.
Food is without a doubt one of South Korea’s strong suits. Kimchi, a traditional fermented vegetable dish, comes with almost every meal, while rice and/or noodles are pretty much a given. Other tempting options include bulgogi (thinly sliced and marinated beef cooked on a table-top hot plate), bibimbap (rice, vegetable and meat bowl topped with an egg) and tteokbokki (chewy rice cake served with a fiery red pepper sauce). Punchy flavours are the norm and spice levels are significantly higher than some diners are accustomed to in the West so keep a cool drink handy.