By John Smith
For many people, their first experience of Asia is Thailand. In recent years, the country has become a haven for party-goers and island-hoppers, all looking to create their own picture-perfect memories, modelled after the images splashed across travel guides around the world. But that’s not all that Asia is about.
South Korea is a fast-paced, high-tech metropolis that has plenty to offer the avid traveler. With coastal cities and their idyllic beaches, UNESCO World Heritage sites and an abundance of outdoor trails, as well as the history tours that take place up at the border with North Korea, there is something for everyone.
Just this month I got back from a 10-day trip to South Korea, where I visited Busan and Seoul, and it far exceeded my expectations.
The flight over is the worst part of it all – 11 hours in the air would put anyone off – but once you can get over that, the rest is well worth it and you won’t be disappointed.
I spent three nights in Busan, a city along the South-East coast of South Korea, at the beginning of the trip. The best way to describe Busan is that it’s the Cork of South Korea; it’s not the capital but it wants the title!
Here, I took a coastal walk down in Igidae, caught some sun at Haeundae Beach, saw enough fresh fish to last me a lifetime and had my first taste of authentic Korean Barbeque food.
The time spent in Busan was short but sweet. I was looking forward to moving to Seoul, the South Korean capital, after the three days spent there.
I couldn’t have prepared for Seoul, as much as I tried. The minute I got off the train at Seoul Station I was overwhelmed by the number of people there. I think anyone, especially coming from Ireland, would be. The Seoul metropolitan area has a population of over 25 million people compared to the entire population of Ireland which is not even 5 million!
There is plenty to see, eat, drink and do in Seoul – you could never be bored!
I visited Gyeongbokgung Palace and grounds and learned about the ancient history of Seoul, saw what life was like in a traditional Hanok village, experienced the annual lantern festival down along the Cheonggyecheon Stream and sampled all the food stall grub that was on offer.
From Seoul, I went on two excursions outside of the city. One was to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the other to Seoraksan National Park – both excursions were amazing for their own reasons.
The DMZ was booked in advance of heading over to Seoul. In a small group of about 30 I travelled to the DMZ, the area along the border with North Korea, that serves as a buffer zone of sorts. Here, I learned about the history of the on-going tensions with North Korea, travelled down a former infiltration tunnel dug by North Korea to invade the South and stopped off at Dorasan Station, the northern-most train station in South Korea that will hopefully one day be the first station to the North when the country is unified once more.
The second excursion, to Seoraksan National Park, was a day trip full of adventure. An eight-hour round trip from Seoul to get there, which was not fun by any means, but once there you were overcome by the natural beauty of the landscape.
I hiked for 3 hours to witness some breath-taking views (see video below) and caught a cable-car to access high ground not even accessible on foot. A place that would be top of my list of recommendations for any future traveller to the area!
For accommodation, I stayed in Airbnb in both cities; there is an abundance of properties available and all for a reasonable price too.
Getting around either city couldn’t have been easier either as their subway system is the best I have ever experienced – clean, safe and on-time so what more could you want? They have a Leap Card equivalent, called a Cash-Bee card, so you just load on the money and tap on at the station – it couldn’t be more convenient.
Check out my highlights video below to see some of the places I mentioned, as well as some others that didn’t make the cut!