Long overshadowed by its headline-grabbing neighbours, South Korea is unfairly overlooked. But, those that do make the journey to the Land of the Morning Calm are richly rewarded with neon megacities, mountain-top temples and a truly unique cuisine that’s only just getting the attention it deserves.
Introductions are invariably made in Seoul, the country’s capital. This is where Korea pulled itself out of wartime collapse and into G20 prosperity in just 50 short years – an economic phenomenon termed the “Miracle on the Han River”. Having leapfrogged the likes of Russia and Australia, Seoul wears its riches on its sleeve, with great skyscrapers, glitzy neon streets and fine-dining restaurants all competing for your attention. It’s hard to imagine that the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea is just a daytrip away.
Yet, Korea hasn’t lost its roots. Even in the centre of Seoul, you’ll quickly stumble across bustling markets, Confucianist shrines and great palaces, all intricate carvings and beautiful colours. However, it’s perhaps Korean cuisine where tradition has lingered longest. Simply, there’s nowhere else in the world that does food like Korea, whether that’s the spicy tang of fermented kimchi, the impossible fluffy delight of seafood pancakes or the convivial joy of a night at a barbecue joint. It’s all washed down with gallons of soju liquor – the world’s most popular brand of booze. Koreans really do like to drink.
You would, however, be doing yourself a disservice if you limited yourself to Seoul. Second-city Busan impresses with golden beaches and waterside temples, Gyeongju is world-famous for its cherry blossom and ancient palace complex, and the country’s interior is ripe for hikes to forgotten mountain temples. However, for the true Korean holiday experience, get yourself to Jeju – a volcanic island where pristine sands front gorgeous countryside and seafood is caught by haeneyo free divers.