South Korea in 5 Words: The Must-See Attractions
If you can’t face another Costa and the thought of lounging in the sun leaves you cold, take the plunge and make for South Korea. Though often overshadowed by the controversial actions of its neighbour, South Korea is a the perfect destination for the curious traveller.
This warm, fascinating place manages to combine all the gleaming attractions of an advanced, high-tech country with a respect for the history and customs of ancient Asia. Whether you choose to immerse yourself in Seoul, engine for the continent’s third-biggest economy, or escape to the tranquility of a mountain peak blanketed in forests, or a Buddhist temple retreat, renting a car in South Korea is the easiest way to get a flavour of this Asian jewel.
Seoul epitomises the South Korea work-hard-play-hard ethic. This 24-hour city embraces the traditional and the contemporary, with Buddhist temples, ancient landmarks, and old-fashioned tea shops sitting comfortably with the modernity of Cheonggyecheon Plaza. This stunning 8km-long public recreation space cuts from west to east across the heart of downtown Seoul. A popular meeting place for locals, this ambitious urban renewal project centres on a restored stream with modern skyscrapers in the background.
Walk the streets to experience Seoul’s distinctive blend of past and present, and be sure to sample the local cuisine. Korean cuisine is a major obsession within the country, with each province offering its own specialties. Dishes are based on rice, vegetables, and meat, with a selection of side dishes called banchan accompanying steam-cooked short-grain rice, and kimchi (fermented vegetables) served with almost every meal. Favourite ingredients include sesame oil, fermented bean paste, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and gochujang (fermented red chili paste. Seoul is known for such delights as rice cakes in chili sauce (tteokbokki), pork and potato soup, and Korean barbecue.
Park your rental car in Seoul: The best way to negotiate the city is the super-efficient subway.
A 320km drive from Seoul, the bustling sea port of Busan is surrounded by beaches, but the loveliest of all of them is Haeundae. This 1.5km strip of pillow-soft, white sand is kept meticulously clean and is delightful all year round. An added attraction for rental car users is that you get to drive over the famous (at least for Koreans) Gwangalli bridge to get to Haeundae.
Arrive in winter and you can take a bracing walk with seabirds for company. In the summer, it gets very busy, as both locals and tourists flock here on sunny days. Water-sports enthusiasts will find plenty to entertain them, and the Busan Yachting Centre offers everything for the boating fiend. The kids will love Busan Aquarium, which is right on the beach. You have no shortage of modern hotels to choose from, as well as clubs, bars, and a range of other entertainment options.
Drawing comparisons to everywhere from Hawaii to Disneyland, Jeju Island or Jejudo is a place of sugar-sand beaches, lush orange groves, golf courses, casinos, and circuses. The aptly named “island of the gods” is a favourite location for South Korean honeymooners, but it is also home to South Korea’s highest mountain (the 1,950m Hallasan) and some spectacular volcanic landscapes, so it really has something for every visitor.
To the east is the magnificent volcanic crater Ilchulbong, and along the southeast coast you’ll find the weather-beaten cliffs at Yongmeori, as well as the spiritual mountain of Sanbangsan, with its grotto temple and healing water. Add to that, the world’s longest lava tube at Manjanggul, folk villages, gardens, museums, and colourful coral for scuba divers, and you have a holiday paradise.
Don’t miss Seopjikoji, a beautiful promontory on the coast, where yellow spring blooms form a stunning contrast with the red earth and blue sky. Seopjikoji is the best place to take photographs of Sungsan Sunrise Peak, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its dawn panoramas. You can climb the ridge on the peak’s north-west aspect, a 180-metre ascent that takes about half an hour.
Arguably the most beautiful park in Korea – north or South – Seoraksan National Park is a wonderland of unusual rock formations, lush forests, varied wildlife, thermal springs and mysterious temples. An easy 140km drive from Seoul by rental car, Seoraksan is a UNESCO Biosphere Protection Site that will leave you speechless, with its mist-shrouded, magical peaks. Among its many temples, don’t miss Sinheungsa or Baekdamsa.
The park is popular all year, particularly in July and August, but another peak viewing time is mid-October, when a riotous palette of leaf colours draws coach-loads of appreciative tourists. Remember to book your accommodation well in advance, as availability shrinks as rapidly as room rates rise.
The park is divided by the Daechongbong peak, and is criss-crossed by many hiking trails, although a number of these were washed out by the calamitous rain of 2006. Check with the local tourist information centre for details of the trails affected. If you want to vary your sightseeing, you can always leave the park and head to the adjacent coast for some of Korea’s best sandy beaches.
Gyeongju (or Kyongju) is located in North Gyeongsang province, South Korea, 275km from Seoul. A haven for lovers of history, it is known as the “museum without walls,” as it is crammed with more temples, pagodas, tombs, sculptures, and ruins than any other location in South Korea. The most obvious of these are the tumuli (grass-covered burial mounds).
Gyeongju was the capital of the Shilla dynasty for close to a millennium, from 57 BC, becoming capital of the entire peninsula in the 7th century AD, after King Munmu conquered the kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje. A restoration project launched about a century ago continues today, creating a treasure trove of cultural delights that extends across a huge area (1,323 square kilometres). Allow at least a few days to experience it.
Don’t miss Bulguksa Temple, an enormous working temple and arguably the most impressive in the entire country, is a Buddhist masterpiece built in the 8th century. Visit early in the day to avoid the crowds, and remember that this is not just a tourist attraction, but a working temple. Situated in front of the main prayer hall are two celebrated pagodas – Dabotap (pagoda of many treasures) and Seokgatap (pagoda of Buddha).
Just a few kilometres away you’ll find the Seokguram Grotto, a classic example of high Shilla art that features a seated Buddha protected by twin groups of 12 royal guards. Arrive here at the winter solstice to see the third eye of the Buddha struck by a ray of the sunlight. The view from the grotto is spectacular, and well worth the half-hour hike.
These are our recommendations for a first visit to South Korea, but, with car hire in South Korea from Nova, you’ll soon discover your own perfect itinerary.