There’s a good chance I’m repeating myself when I exclaim that East Asia is one of the planet’s most fascinating corners. Although it pains me to abandon my first travel love of Europe, I can’t help but feel a strong kinship with this region that seems to dominate my dream more often than not lately.
From the moment you step foot in it, East Asia dazzles in the grandest way possible. From ancient moss-covered temples to futuristic neon-splattered cities, some of the most memorable travel experiences of your life await should you choose to venture here.
What I love most about East Asia though is the general ease of travelling here. Moving beyond the obvious language barriers, you won’t be overburdened with annoyances here. Throughout most of the region, public transportation is quick and efficient, and unlike places elsewhere on the continent, you won’t often find yourself drowning among persistent touts.
When to visit East Asia
There’s no single satisfying answer on the best time to visit East Asia. By the time you throw in the immense landmass of China, the “sub-region” practically spans nearly the entire continent of Asia with all of the interesting weather intricacies that go along with it.
In the eastern fringes of East Asia—particularly Korea, Japan and parts of mainland China—you’re met with a four-season climate that’s not so different than many parts of Europe. Winters in these areas can get cold while summers are hot and humid. Spring, especially during cherry blossom season, is lovely. Visit in autumn, when the full fall colours come out to play, for an equally enchanting experience.
As you venture further south in East Asia, you’ll find a different story. Destinations like Taiwan and Hong Kong see less seasonal temperature variation with a more sub-tropical than temperate climate. Islands like Okinawa in Japan and Jeju in Korea may even have the power to fool you into thinking you’re somewhere in the South Pacific!
Not sure when to go to East Asia? Here are a few resources:
- Best Time to Visit Hong Kong
- Best Time to Visit Japan
- Best Time to Visit Korea
- Best Time to Visit Taiwan
Where to go in East Asia
Even with only a handful of countries occupying the region, East Asia’s travel offerings are as good as they come. Whether you’re craving a chance to explore some of the world’s most electric cities, walk among meticulously laid-out tea plantations or chill on semi-tropical white-sand beaches, you can do it in some of these best places to visit in East Asia:
Backed up by a civilization thousands of years in the making, China is one of the most satisfying travel destinations on the planet. As you sweep through modern cities hiding ancient secrets to rural villages in the shadows of karst landscapes, the diversity of this mammoth-sized country becomes immediately obvious.
Compared to other countries in East Asia, travelling in China isn’t always simple. Distances are wide, language barriers are deep, and comforts that are taken for granted elsewhere don’t always surface the deeper you dig in.
Despite the difficulty of travelling in China though—or perhaps in because of it—there’s hardly a place on earth where your lust for exploration will be more stoked. Traversing this grand country means taking on the breadth an entire continent—both in size and in its diverse landscapes, cultures, people, and languages.
However you slice it, the former British stronghold and world financial centre of Hong Kong is bound to make an impression. For many travellers, Hong Kong’s a love-hate destination. Not everyone is enamoured by the busyness and chaos that grips you as soon as your feet hit the pavement. Hong Kong takes some getting used to, but once you embrace the chaos, this densely-packed micro-state is a hard place to leave.
Like many other cities in East Asia, Hong Kong is an assault to the senses. Perhaps none, though, is more appealing than taste. Hong Kong’s truly one of the world’s finest food cities, famous for its own Cantonese cuisine that lands it on the bucket list of every gourmand on the planet. It’s a place where eating is practically a religion; if you’re not spending most of your time exploring through your tastebuds here, I’m afraid you’re probably doing it all wrong.
Outside of the big city buzz, there’s a whole lot to discover in Hong Kong from quiet traditional fishing villages to rugged hiking trails serving up sweeping seaside vistas well hidden from the chaos of Kowloon or Central. This is where the whole HK picture finally focuses, and why it’s slotted in as one of the best cities to visit in the entire world.
I can wholeheartedly say that no place that enters my mind more on any given day than Japan. From the overwhelming neon signs blazing through the streets to the mouth-watering culinary delights, it’s impossible to imagine a lifetime without the experiencing Japan at least once.
Of all the countries in East Asia, Japan rolls as easily into a travel plan as an expert sushi chef wraps maki. Language barriers notwithstanding, getting around Japan is quick and easy thanks to well developed transportation infrastructure.
Ever corner of the country seems to flash a completely unique view, each as compelling as the last. For electric urban experiences like none other, you’ve got the modern chaos of Osaka and Tokyo. On the other hand, the former Japanese imperial capital of Kyoto, with its spiritual soul on display at every corner, might be, not only one of East Asia’s most compelling cities, but one of the world’s.
Lesser known are Japan’s more “hidden” gems. From skiing in Hokkaido to relaxing on sub-tropical beaches in Okinawa, travelling the whole Japan can jam in a lifetime of experiences over a few short hops around the country.
In an odd twist, it wasn’t love at first sight for me in Korea. Moving to a random Korean town to teach English without any sort of primer was, in hindsight, not the best move for me at that time in my life. Long story!
Fortunately, after using this not-so-pleasant experience as a springboard to explore Korea, I developed a strong taste for the country, and quickly discovered what I was missing living in the relatively rural fringes of Gangwon-do.
Fast forward to today, and I would put Korea into the mix as one of the most intriguing countries in Asia. Negotiating the commuter chaos of Seoul puts some of the nation’s coolest tourist attractions and most compelling foods at your fingertips. And even if the slightly grimy port city of Busan can’t hold a candle to the capital, its rawness is surprisingly refreshing in a region where appearances are sometimes deceiving.
And, of course, in between Korea’s urban delights are other less obvious moments. For many the experience of hiking to a mountainside temple around Gyeongju or watching the sunrise from an extinct volcano in Jeju will become forever etched in your memory.
Even if its tourism board isn’t spouting off lines like “What happens here, stays here,” the small autonomous Chinese territory of Macau sits alongside Las Vegas as one of the two Meccas if the gambling world. Unlike Vegas, however, Macau shows off a storied Chinese and European colonial history that places it among the most unique & surprising places to discover in East Asia.
While the casinos and luxury hotels along the glitzy Cotai Strip take centre stage, it’s in the backstreets where Macau’s most interesting moments shine. As you walk through the city, you’ll stumble upon a smattering of Portuguese-influenced architecture, reflecting 300 years of colonial rule, alongside Chinese temples & old merchant houses that’ll keep you grounded to exactly where you are.
Much like in nearby Hong Kong, only 45 minutes away by ferry, Macau’s Portuguese influences extends beyond its looks. Macanese cuisine is among the continent’s most unique, fusing regional classics like dim sum with Portuguese favourites like pastéis de nata (egg tarts) and bacalhau (salt cod).
Looking to plan out your trip to Macau? Here are few resources to check out:
- One Day in Macau: A Complete Itinerary
- Best Things to Do in Macau: Top Attractions & Places to Visit
- Where to Stay in Macau: The Best Areas & Hotels for Travellers
Lest we forget the small & diverse island nation of Taiwan. Taking a trip around Taiwan is perhaps the easiest and cheapest introduction to East Asia. And maybe even one of the most fulfilling.
Whereas its other neighbours get by on their name recognition, Taiwan is one of the East Asia’s less obvious travel destinations. That’s bound to change. More and more travellers are discovering the island once named Formosa by a certain European seafaring power who felt compelled to point out its beauty.
With its compact size, there’s no question that exploring Taiwan should start by landing in Taipei. Not that it’s a bad thing. While the Taiwanese capital doesn’t quite sport the dynamism of Tokyo, Seoul or Hong Kong, it’s a fantastic place to visit in its own right. There’s a ton to do here whether its admiring temples, plying through hiking trails or stuffing yourself at night markets.
Even though you could spend your entire trip exploring Taipei and the barrage of nearby destinations, moving about in Taiwan can’t be beat. The secondary cities of Tainan and Kaohsiung are pleasant and interesting enough for a quick visit, but the country’s real drawcard is its natural destinations. Explore the craggy landscapes around Taroko Gorge or the seaside delights of Kenting National Park to get a taste of just how diverse this pretty little island can be.