South Korea is a country swathed in green, prodding its stony fingers skyward, and the Koreans are a people obsessed with nature, and with mountains in particular. Wherever you travel, you'll see Koreans out in the open air, clad in the latest adventure fashions, pushing ever onward and upward.
With China looming to its west and Japan nudging it from the east, it's no wonder the country has played unwilling host to centuries of war games. But no matter how many times its neighbours try to swallow it, South Korea manages to survive intact.
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +9
Dialling Code: 82
Facts for the Traveler
Visas: With an onward ticket visitors from almost anywhere - except countries not recognised by South Korea (Cuba, Laos and Cambodia) - can stay in the country for 30 days without a visa. If you're from western Europe, Australia or New Zealand, you can get up to 90 days visa-free. Canadians receive a six-month permit and citizens of Italy and Portugal receive 60-day permits. Everyone else has to extend after their first 30 days. Extensions last for around 90 days, and if you know you're going to need one it's worth getting it before you leave home.
When to Go
Korea has four distinct seasons, with a wet monsoon/summer in the middle of the year, and a very cold winter from November to March. Jeju-do off the south coast is the warmest and wettest place in the country.
If you possibly can, time your visit to South Korea for autumn (September to November). It's sunny, the skies are blue, and Korea's spectacular autumn foliage is a real draw. Winter is cold but dry, and a good time to visit if you like skiing, snow-draped temples, a dearth of tourists and crisp (ie below freezing) weather. Spring (April to May) can be beautiful, but it's also the most popular time with Japanese tourists and you'll have trouble getting mid to top-end accommodation. Summer is hot, muggy, crowded, wet, typhoon-prone and expensive.
South Korea Attractions
Seoul is an intriguing city transforming itself from the Yi Dynasty capital of the Hermit Kingdom to a major mover and shaker on the international scene, especially in the field of commerce and sports. Nowhere else is the Korean drive to come to terms with a turbulent and fractured past so evident. Despite its tall buildings and neon lights, Seoul offers the visitor a wealth of cultural sights. The central city area is ringed with royal palaces, and around the old city gates are enormous bustling markets. Skyscrapers jostle with a maze of traditional-style Korean houses and inns.
For 1000 years, up until the 10th century, Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla dynasty. Nearly 1000 years later, Gyeongju is an open-air museum masquerading as a small, provincial town littered with ancient rubble. Those keen on Silla culture or archaeology will be in heaven, fossicking through the remains of temples, tombs, shrines, palaces, pleasure gardens and castles, but more ordinary folk will probably find Gyeongju only has a day's-worth of entertainment.
Seoraksan National Park
Top of the charts in the Korean national park scene, Seoraksan is spectacular. Near the DMZ on the east coast, this is a land of high craggy peaks, lush forests, tremendous waterfalls, boulder-strewn white water rivers, beaches and ancient temples. Colourful Autumn is the best time to visit.
Songnisan National Park
Central Korea's top scenic spot, Songnisan means 'remote from the mundane world mountains', and indeed it is. The place is a magnet for hikers, with heaps of excellent walks. The thing that really drags them in by the busload though, is Beopjusa, one of the largest and most magnificent temple sites in Korea.
Once the capital of the Baekje kingdom, this town is now a quiet, friendly place to absorb everyday South Korea. The town does have a great museum of Baekje artefacts, however. The Buyeo National Museum houses weapons, jars, Buddha images, roof tiles, funeral urns and bronze bells from the 6th to the 14th centuries.
Dadohae Haesang National Park
Off the southwest corner of the peninsula, this marine national park is made up of over 1700 islands. Hongdo and Heuksando are the most popular. Hongdo is worth visiting for its sheer cliffs, bizarre rock formations, spectacular sunsets and wooded hillsides cut by steep ravines. Heuksando is more populous and flatter.
Korean Folk Village
It sounds cheesy, but the Korean Folk Village is actually a very tasteful way to immerse yourself in rural Korean life. The village has examples of traditional peasants', farmers' and civil officials' housing styles from all over the country, as well as artisans' workshops, a brewery, a Confucian school, a Buddhist temple and a market place. This is a real village, not just a tourist show - the people you see working here live here all the time. There are regular dance performances and parades held every day. Buses go here every 20 minutes from Seoul.
The beaches to Samcheok's south are gems set between steep cliffs and rocks. Geundeok Beach has terrific scenery. Yonghwa Beach has a freshwater stream, lots of minbak (rooms in private houses) to stay in, and plenty of seafood to eat. Imwon Beach is small but dramatically set in a cliff-lined cove, with many sea caves.
This spectacularly beautiful island is all that remains of an extinct volcano towering over the East Sea (Sea of Japan). Rugged forested mountains and dramatic cliffs rise steeply from the sea, so don't expect sandy beaches. Snorkelling or scuba diving off the rocks is stunning, but definitely not for beginners.