I have a seriously dysfunctional love/hate relationship with Korea. Living in Korea was my second expat adventure, a far cry from a happy-go-lucky year abroad as a student in Scotland. I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Korea. The living conditions weren’t exactly what I was used to. And Korean food? Well, I can’t say it was love at first bite.
The longer I’ve been away from Korea though, the more I’ve begun to reimagine my time there. I find myself fondly remembering the complex flavours of gochujang-infused dishes and the sweet tang of bulgogi, and increasingly forgetting about the ice-cold showers and lingering sewage smells in my apartment building.
Most of all, I often reminisce about travelling around Korea. Escaping my provincial Korean living was, sadly, the highlight of my days. Over time, I discovered a country that was far more interesting than my life in a small, rather unattractive Korean town revealed to me.
Don’t make the same mistake. Take a trip that you will love with this 10-day Korea itinerary for independent travellers:
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Need help figuring out what to do in Korea? Start planning with this 10-day Korea itinerary.
There’s certain beauty in travelling in a country like Korea. Like nearby Hong Kong or Taiwan, Korea is tightly packed, creating a perfect storm of compelling destinations and accessibility that begs time-crunched travellers to approach it with full force.
Of course, even in a country with such a diminutive stature by Asian standards, you can’t expect to see everything in just ten days.
What I propose here isn’t the end-all-be-all of Korea trips. There’s far more for you to see that what’s outlined here. (But it’ll be a good start!)
If you have more time or this 10-day Korea itinerary doesn’t quite fit your needs, check out the summary at the end of the article where I provide suggestions on how to customize the trip to better fit your style. Without delay, let’s get started exploring Korea…
Inching your way into Seoul for the first time is always an overwhelming experience. When I first set foot into Korea’s capital, it was the biggest city I’d seen up until that time. I’d yet to endure the traffic jams of Cairo, squint at the overwhelming blasts of colour in Tokyo or even dodge rickshaws in Jakarta. Needless to say, Seoul’s a bit shocking at first.
The more you jet around the city, exploring its neighbourhoods, each with its own unique flavour, the more the immensity of Seoul becomes obvious. There’s no doubt that my prescription for at least 3 days in Seoul is hardly enough. This is just a teaser, hardly enough time to get to know the city; perhaps not even long enough to start to like it.
Seoul isn’t the easiest destination to swallow. Dig in to its chaos, drop some won in the markets or follow your nose and tastebuds to some of Korea’s most brilliant culinary moments and you might just find yourself a new favourite Asian city.
What to Do in Seoul
Hidden within the seemingly never-ending sprawl, there’s a barrage cool things to do in Seoul. Whether its slipping into alleyways for a street-side snack, plying your way through dense street markets or finding more peaceful moments on the fringes of the city, there’s no chance your time in Seoul will be wasted. Get started with a few of these ideas:
Find serenity at Changdeokgung Palace
One thing you’ll immediately notice is that in Seoul a beautiful palace or temple is never far away. The tremendous growth of the Korean capital has stranded some of these ancient buildings among an ever-changing sea of glass and concrete that betrays Seoul’s more humble cultural origins.
One big exception is Changdeokgung Palace, one of the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul set inside a fanciful park in Jongno-gu removed from Seoul’s boisterous modernism. Of all five, Changdeokgung should be the first you venture to set your eyes upon. (And on a tight timeframe, maybe the only.)
Built between 1405 and 1412, Changdeokgung is only slightly older than the the first grand palace, Gyeongbokgung, but is the more impressive of the two. The highlight of the palace isn’t just the well-preserved architectural elements. Huwon, the relaxing garden to the rear of the palace, is one of the best places in Seoul to escape the clamour of the city.
Shop and eat your heart away at Namdaemun Market
Counteract the zen moments of Changdeokgung with a visit to one of Seoul’s busy markets. First on your list should be Namdaemun Market, Korea’s largest market named after the city’s old south gate where its sprawl begins.
Namedaemun Market relieves you of any doubt that Seoul’s a wild place to explore. The market hums day and night, picking up steam into the evening when the entire city seems to throng to its stalls. Along the street and in the dozens of buildings, you’ll find just about everything you’d ever want to shell out won for: clothing, accessories, herbs, toys, handicrafts etc.
The real treat, however, is to experience the market’s culinary prowess. It’s hardly a secret that Namdaemun Market is one of Seoul’s best places to grab a bite. Don’t just stick to traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap—expand your horizons with the market’s popular kalguksu hand-cut noodles or galchi jorim, hairtail fish with spicy red pepper sauce.
Gawk at Seoul from above at N Seoul Tower
There are few better places to grasp the enormousness of Seoul than at the N Seoul Tower. Forget attempting to understand the odd hipster-styled name (who knows where that came from!). Simply focus on eyeing the amazing vistas from atop this 236-metre tower, the second highest point in the city.
The best time to visit N Seoul Tower is in the evening when the heat has dissipated and the views clear up. It’s safe to say that N Grill, the revolving restaurant at N Seoul Tower, isn’t the most budget-friendly eating option in the city. But enjoying an evening meal to the dim glow of the city and beyond could be one of your most memorable memories in Seoul.
Step into the past at the Korean Folk Village in Suwon
With a mere half a day to spare, putter down to Suwon, a city over million strong that lies just south of the capital. Suwon’s transportation system is contiguous with Seoul’s, making the trip an easy one-hour ride on the subway.
There’s a handful of cool things to do in Suwon, but if you’re looking for a quick glimpse at the cultural history of Korea, spend the afternoon wandering through the Korean Folk Village.
At the village you’ll browse through a collection of traditional homes, markets, restaurants and workshops. While it might strike you as a little kitschy at first, the setting is as undeniably beautiful as watching the cultural performances is entertaining.
The Korean Folk Village is about 30 minutes from the centre of Suwon via a free shuttle bus.
Where to Stay in Seoul
As with other sprawling East Asian cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong, choosing where to stay in Seoul won’t be the easiest task you’ll have in planning your Korea itinerary.
The centre of the city is split into several neighbourhoods that each have their own flavours and quirks. Among the best to focus your search to are Jongno-gu, Insadong, Myeongdong, Gangnam and Hongdae. You’ll find the area of Itaewon popular among foreigners, but, truthfully, it’s a little grungy; personally, I’d stick to the other neighbourhoods. Here are few of the best hotels in Seoul:
- Hostel Vanilla 1 Dongdaemun: One of the best budget options in Seoul. Located in the central Jongno-Gu district, 5 minutes away from Dongdaemun Subway Station.
- Sunbee Hotel Insadong Seoul: A brilliant 3-star mid-range hotel located in the popular Insadong area. With the metro just a 5-minute walk away and tons of top Seoul attractions within walking distance, this central hotel is a superb choice. The minimalism-inspired rooms are spacious in a continent known for its tight quarters.
- Four Seasons Hotel Seoul: A top-notch 5-star hotel that’s one of the best luxury properties in the city. If you’re coming from the über-pricey scene of Tokyo or Hong Kong, you’ll immediately appreciate the value of this hotel. The massive city views through the floor-to-ceiling windows highlight any stay here. Some of the best things to do in Seoul such as Gyeongbokgung Palace and Cheonggyecheon Stream are within a 10-minute walk.
Check prices and read reviews for more Seoul hotels on Booking.com.
Getting to Seoul
Several airlines fly into Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN) including Asiana Airlines and Korean Airlines. From Canada, the cheapest flights to Seoul will run you about C$700. From the United States, expect to pay $550-600 at the lowest end of fares from the west coast.
There’s no better place to break up the long (at least by Korean standards!) journey between Seoul and Gyeongju than Andong. Long known for its traditionalism, Andong is a centre of culture and folklore, and one of the best places to visit in Korea for a glimpse of its ancient past.
To be sure, Andong isn’t Seoul or even Busan. It’s a relatively small provincial city, sleepy by Asian standards. In any case, give yourself at least two days in Andong. Most of the city’s attractions are spread in the surrounding area, meaning time will be of the essence to jam it all in.
What to Do in Andong
Considering its small stature among Korean cities, there’s a surprisingly array of things to do in Andong. To fit it all in, you’ll find yourself travelling into the countryside. Not a problem. The scenery around Andong is easy on the eyes, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself stunned more than once on your journeys.
Step into the past at Andong Hahoe Folk Village
Despite travelling around in Korea for no more than a couple days, you’ll already see just how popular folk villages are among Koreans and foreigners alike. It’s not exactly hard to find them scattered around, but one of the best you’ll find in anywhere Korea is the Andong Hahoe Folk Village.
The traditional houses at Hahoe Folk Village originally hail from the 16th century courtesy of the prominent Ryu clan. The reason that Hahoe Folk Village is a touch above most other folk villages is that the the Ryu’s descendants still occupy some of the homes here. Most aren’t simply one step up from a film set, but authentic houses that have been gracefully restored from their original glory.
Besides the village’s wondrous outward appearance, the area around Hahoe Folk Village is breathtaking. Hwasan Mountain rises just beyond the town, punctuated by the surrounding pine forest and the Nakdong River.
Get a (light) buzz at Soju Museum
Andong’s own local firewater isn’t quite what you’ll find elsewhere in Korea. The soju (rice vodka) from Andong probably has a little more bite than you’re used to, even if you’ve confronted the beastly drink already on your journey. At a pungent 45%, Andong’s soju is a battle that even a hardcore Russian wouldn’t welcome without hesitation.
Get the scoop on how Korea’s national alcohol is made and consumed Andong-style at the Andong Soju Museum. The minuscule soju tasting at the end of the tour is a bit of let down, but the story of the history, distillation process and culture around Andong soju is fascinating for anyone with a passing interest in alcoholic beverages.
Swoon over Bongjeongsa Temple
Hopefully you refrained enough from the Andong soju to stumble along unhindered to Bongjeongsa Temple. This Korean Buddhist wooden temple complex clings to the slopes of Mount Cheondeung in a majestic setting that’s bound to impress.
Almost 20 buildings are spread between the main temple complex and sub-temples of Bongjeongsa. The temples and halls date as far back as the late-7th century when Bongjeongsa was founded by King Munmu.
Queen Elizabeth II herself took a liking to the Bongjeongsa on her well-publicized visit to Korea in 1999. As impressive as her thumbs up is, however, Bongjeongsa is a drop in the hat compared to the temples and historical buildings you’ll encounter on your next stop of your Korea itinerary…
Where to Stay in Andong
Andong isn’t Seoul and finding a place to stay shouldn’t present much of a challenge. (Other than the rather limited selection!)
I’d recommend staying in the town centre, close to the best transport links, to give you the freedom to tackle all the surrounding attractions with ease. Here are a few of the best hotels in Andong:
- Goodstay AndongPoong-gyung Guesthouse: Don’t let its mouthful of a name stop you from staying at this excellent two-star guesthouse. The new building is hardly rustic (or flattering), but the clean simple and budget-friendly rooms should be enough to win you over. If not, look to the several-thousand-strong library in the common areas for an extra dose of inspiration.
- Goryeo Hotel: In a city severely short on luxury accommodation, this 3-star is about the extent of what you’ll get. The hotel is super central, just a 5-minute walk from the train station and bus stop for the Hahoe Folk Village.
- Kim and Jeong House: If you wanted to get a little out of the city and closer to the Hahoe Folk Village, this guesthouse is your ticket. The rooms are clean and feature excellent views of the surrounding area.
Check prices and read reviews for more Andong hotels at Booking.com.
Getting to Andong
The easiest way to get between Seoul and Andong is by bus. Buses to Andong leave hourly from the Seoul Central City Bus Station and Dongseoul Bus Terminal. The journey time is about 3 hours.
Sorry, Seoul. We love you, but there’s someone else. There’s no place in Korea that lives up to expectations better than the fascinating city of Gyeongju. It’s nothing short of the cultural and spiritual heart of Korea, a destination that ultimately checks off all the boxes that drove you here in the first place.
Compared to the hubbub of Seoul and the brashness of Busan, Gyeongju is a relaxing respite as fulfilling as any. The city’s top attractions are spread far and wide. Give yourself at least 3 days to explore to Gyeongju, more if you can hack it. Gyeongju is known for a lot of things, but disappointing visitors who take in its charms slowly isn’t one of them!
What to Do in Gyeongju
You wouldn’t be far off in arguing that there are more things to do in Gyeongju for travellers than in any other city on the peninsula. Unlike Seoul or Busan, moving between the most interesting sites is a little less straightforward that simply hopping on a subway and walking.
It’ll take some time to appreciate the city as many of its most compelling sites lie in its hinterlands rather than its core. Get started with these few must-sees:
Trace the last days of Korean royalty at Tumuli Park
One of the few Gyeongju attractions smack-dab in the middle of town, Tumuli Park is an ancient burial site where about two dozen Korean royal tombs sprout from the earth. The tombs, covered by beautiful rolling green mounds punctuated by a sparse smattering of trees and shrubs, look far more aesthetic than purposeful. Who would have thought that underneath once lied some of Korea’s most important treasures?
Only one tomb, Cheonmachong (천마총), is open to the public. Although most of the artifacts were moved the Gyeongju Museum, a few remain scattered along the walls of the tomb for visitors to scope out.
Find Korea at its most mystical Bulguksa Temple
Dating back to the 6th century during the Shilla period, Bulguksa Temple is one of the country’s most famous landmarks. And deservedly so. (Even UNESCO would agree.)
Set among pine forests and mountains, Bulguksa Temple swoops you may to the mystical Asia you’ve always dreamt about. The wooden structures of the temple complex showcase some of the finest craftsmanship in Korea. Although the original 6th-century temple was rebuilt and renovated several dozen times since, the stone bridges (or to the eye, stairways) and several pagodas scattered around the plot are original.
Rarely will you find room to maneuver peacefully through this insanely popular temple complex. Visit early in the morning before the hordes descend for a more subdued experience. With bus number 10 or 11 from the bus or train station, the trip to Bulguksa Temple takes about 40 minutes. Admission is ₩4,000.
Get spiritual at Seokguram Grotto
From Bulguksa Temple, it’s a short ride (or moderate 3.2-km hike) to one of Gyeongju’s other “big three,” Seokguram Grotto. Unsurprisingly, Seokguram Grotto joins Bulguksa on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its cultural importance and mind-boggling 8th-century engineering feats.
The diminutive wooden temple guarding the entrance does little to prepare you for the immensity of what’s within the Seokguram Grotto. Inside the main hall a 3.5-metre-high Seokgamoni Buddha dazzles with dozens of guardians keeping watch from above. Most impressive is that the hundreds of granite slabs slapped together to build the rotunda inched their way up Mount Tohamsan from far away without the use of modern technology.
Where to Stay in Gyeongju
As one of the most popular Korean tourist destinations, Gyeongju offer a ton where to stay in Gyeongju
Gyeongju is one of Korea’s top tourist destinations, so it’s hardly a surprise that there’s a whack of great accommodations. Choosing where to stay in Gyoengju is fairly straightforward, especially when compared to bigger Korean cities like Seoul, Busan and Daegu. Here are a few of the best hotels in Gyeongju to get you started:
- Apple Motel: No, you won’t find pictures of Steve Jobs or resident “geniuses” at this small but comfy hotel. The central location, within close walking distance to transportation connections, markets and top attractions like Tumuli Park, puts Gyeongju at your fingertips.
- Chacharang Guesthouse: This little out-of-the-ordinary experience for your Gyeongju stay offers excellent value Korean-style rooms with heated floors and floor mats for sleeping. The royal tombs are within a 10-minute walk of the property.
- Hanok Sodamjeong: Step back into time with a stay in this traditional hanok, just a 5-minute drive from the centre of town. The rooms are classic Korean-style with ondol (heated floors) and futon mats to sleep on.
- Hilton Gyeongju: The top luxury hotel in Gyeongju overlooking Bumon Lake and its beautiful natural surroundings. Although a little out of the way for most travellers, the tranquility of this serene location makes Hilton Gyeongju a world unto its own. You’ll find everything you’ll need for your stay in Gyeongju here including six on-site restaurants, two pools, fitness centre and squash courts.
Check prices and read reviews for more Gyeongju hotels at Booking.com.
Getting to Gyeongju
The quickest and cheapest way to get to Gyeongju from Andong is by train. Trains depart Andong three times daily for Gyeongju costing between ₩8,000 and ₩15,000. The 100-kilometre journey takes about 2h20m.
I’m afraid to say that like so many things I encountered while staying in Korea, Busan is one of those take-it-or-leave-it places. There’s nothing on the surface to suggest that anyone should instantly fall in love with, or maybe even simply like, this brash Korean port city. And that’s usually where the story ends.
It’s a shame. Sticking around for a little while, letting first impressions fade away, is the best way to let Busan under your skin. Look past the faceless concrete buildings, forceful seafood odours, and generally rough-and-tumble character, and you might even find a reason or two to stick around.
Try to carve out at least two days in Busan on your 10-day Korea itinerary. And who knows? Maybe you’ll start to see eye-to-eye with the cranky ol’ gal.
What to Do in Busan
Coming from Gyeongju, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll fill out your schedule in a city like Busan. Most things to do in Busan lean less towards traditional tourist attractions and more towards places that take a while to “get.”
As you ply through this port city, keep on the lookout for the following:
Plug your nose and wander at Jagalchi Fish Market
Okay, so wait… Finding yourself surrounded by the off-putting aroma of seafood isn’t an experience most travellers seek out? Well, things might be a little different here in Busan.
I can’t promise that you won’t be turned off by the rank smells. But when in Busan, there’s no way you can leave out the bustling Jagalchi Fish Market. It’s one of the city’s top cultural attractions, and an absolute must-see/must-do in the city.
This is not just the port city’s biggest market, but the biggest fish market in all of Korea. All the types of seafood caught anywhere around the Korean peninsula finds its way to the market stalls of Jagalchi Fish Market.
Simply wandering around Jagalchi Fish Market—much like Tsujiki Fish Market in Tokyo—is a cultural experience that you shouldn’t leave Korea without. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, why not descend upon the market by nightfall to eat some raw fish at one of the market’s many restaurants.
Get awe-struck at Beomeosa Temple
Surely you aren’t templed-out yet? Since your trip is coming to a close soon, make time to fit one more temple into your Korea itinerary: Beomeosa Temple, Busan’s top tourist attraction.
The original temple was founded in AD 678 by Ui Sang, a monk in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It has since been rebuilt multiple times with most of the current buildings hailing from the 16th and 17th centuries. Although hardly as stunning at Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, the Beomeosa temple complex showcases some remarkable architecture from stone pagodas to ornate wooden gates.
Beomeosa’s spectacular location at the foot of Mount Geumjeongsan makes it easy to forget that you’re within Korea’s second-biggest city. Getting there almost seems too easy. With a subway station at its foot, it’s a mere 30-minute hike up to temple.
Relax and scrub down at Heosimcheong Spa
When something is the “biggest” or “best” in Asia, it demands your attention. I mean, this is a continent that occupies a huge chunk of globe—it’s no mean feat to be on top in Asia!
With a space for over 3,000 bathers, Heosimcheong Spa‘s claim as the largest hot spring spa in Asia doesn’t seem so outlandish. The spa offers a handful of services ranging from hot saunas to hamam-style skin-exfoliating scrubs at varying degrees of violence.
Dropping your drawers in front of a bunch of strangers isn’t exactly the most comfortable situation for our, as Europeans would argue, “prudish” North American sensibilities. But many would claim that you haven’t fully experienced Korea without enduring a complete Korean spa experience.
If you’re ready to leap beyond your comfort zone in Busan, the Heosimcheong Spa is your best chance!
Where to Stay in Busan
While it won’t compare with Seoul’s accommodation scene in difficulty or breadth, the sheer number of options for where to stay in Busan can still be mind-numbing. For the best neighbourhoods for travellers, stick to Seomyeon, Haeundae, and Nampo-dong. To get you started, here are a few of the best hotels in Busan:
- Sky Island Guesthouse: A modern budget guesthouse located close to Nampo Station for quick access to the whole of Busan. Some of Busan’s top attractions like Yongdusan Park and Jagalchi Fish Market are within a short walking distance.
- Shin Shin Hotel: A clean and contemporary mid-range hotel just outside of Seomyeon Station. Rooms are spacious by Korean standards.
- Park Hyatt Busan: The top 5-star hotel in Busan. Located close to Haeundae Beach, Park Hyatt Busan features floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase tremendous nighttime views of city and sea. Whether its unwinding with a massage at the Lumi Spa or cooling down in the indoor pool, the amenities here are top-notch. Grab an evening cocktail at the 30th-floor Lounge for a true taste of what sets this hotel apart.
Check prices and read reviews for more Busan hotels at Booking.com.
Getting to Busan
From Gyeongju, it’s about a one-hour journey to Busan. Buses from Gyeongju to Busan depart every 15 minutes, starting in the wee hours of the morning. The cost is a budget-friendly ₩4,800 ($4.27).
Need more ideas? Apply these 10-day Korea itinerary tweaks.
- Want more opportunities to get into the Korean outdoors? After Seoul detour to Sokcho, the gateway to the magnificent Seoraksan National Park.
- Does military history float your boat? Squeeze in an extra day in Seoul for a tension-filled day trip to the DMZ at Panmunjom.
- Craving more urban Korea? Add in a couple days in Korea’s third largest city, Daegu, home to a the country’s most famous traditional medicine market and some excellent eating and shopping options.
- Seeking oceanside comforts? From Gyeongju, head to Pohang on the coast to catch a ferry to the wonderful volcanic island of Ulleungdo. Or continue on from Busan to Jejudo, Korea’s most popular island for seaside escapes.
Finished your 10 days in Korea? Here’s where to go next…
- Japan: The island nation of Japan might be Asia’s best overall travel destination. It’s not just interesting, but efficient. Travel here is (almost) as easy as it gets. Start off in Tokyo and let your heart melt as you trudge along on an epic Japan itinerary.
- China: Korea’s massive neighbour is but a short flight away. Fly over to Beijing, the cultural & political heart of the Chinese nation, to start a delightful China itinerary.
- Taiwan: Grab a flight to Taipei to launch a Taiwan itinerary that will please your tastebuds and your soul.
- Hong Kong: There are few cities more exciting than Hong Kong. Even if you can only manage 24 hours in Hong Kong, get set for a journey that’s both exciting and tastebud-tantalizing.