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South Korea may share one of the world’s most militarized borders with one of the world’s most isolationist countries, but that seems to have little bearing on the spirit of this welcoming nation. The South Korea of today, awash in neon lights and pop culture, lives completely in-the-moment—but Korean culture also retains a deep-seated reverence for the past. The first Korean kingdom was founded in the year 2333 BC, and while it was later divided into warring factions, overarching dynasties formed that lasted for many centuries—most recently, the Joseon dynasty that stretched from 1392 to 1897. Many of Korea’s treasured historical sites, set like gems within the more modern cityscapes, date back hundreds of years to this culturally vibrant time.
In the 20th century, Korea fell under Japanese control despite massive nonviolent resistance movements. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel, with the South holding democratic elections and the North falling under a communist dictatorship. In 1950, the North invaded the South, kicking off the three-year Korean War. While that conflict ended in a truce, the tension lasts to this day. South Korea has the world's tenth-largest military budget, and its northern border is one of the most heavily-armed zones in the world.
In the years since the Korean War, South Korea’s economy has experienced explosive growth, with corresponding development in education and culture—Korean pop music, known as K-Pop, dominates the charts throughout Asia and has also spread to the West. With their playful inventiveness and respect for the past, South Koreans have built a culture unlike any other.
Click on map markers below to view information about top South Korea experiences
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Seoul rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Korean War, becoming known as the “Miracle on the Han River” thanks to the waterway that bisects the city. Here, you’ll find a 123-story skyscraper peering down on traditional Korean homes and palaces. Where an elevated highway once cut a roaring path, now a restored sunken creek brings fresh, cool air to the heart of downtown. Public art pieces, striking modern architecture, and futuristic waterfront parks all contribute to Seoul’s status as a UNESCO City of Design.
The city’s love for design goes back many centuries. Changdeokgung Palace was built in 1405 with a mountain behind it and a stream in front—a harmonious nod to feng shui. In Bukchon, visitors can wander in the narrow lanes between hanok, traditional Korean homes topped with slanting tile roofs. Above it all, the 600-year-old city walls thread their way along the four peaks that overlook the city—in the days of the Joseon dynasty, the gates were opened and closed each day to the sound of ringing bells.
Ideologically opposed since the end of World War II, North Korea and South Korea’s conflict came to a head during the Korean War—and resulted in the creation of a buffer zone over two miles wide and 160 miles long, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Within the DMZ lies the Joint Security Area, a truce village where the two Koreas—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the North, and the Republic of Korea to the South— meet and negotiate.
While military activity is forbidden within the DMZ, both sides are lined with electric fences, land mines, and fully-armed soldiers on constant patrol. The area immediately surrounding the DMZ has been on high alert for over six decades, and the tension has only grown in recent years. Very rarely, a soldier from the North will cross the no-man’s-land to defect to the South. The DMZ is the closest most outsiders will ever get to North Korea, and observatories offer a glimpse across the border.
Separated from North Korea by a channel of the Han River, Gangwha Island is a peaceful and rural escape an hour outside of Seoul. A hilltop observatory offers views across the water; binoculars enhance the views of North Korean citizens going about their lives. Further inland, massive stone slabs dating back two millenia dot the island, marking prehistoric cemeteries—the world’s densest concentration of Bronze Age dolmens and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gangwha’s strategically valuable position at the head of the Han River leading inland toward the capital means it has been the site of many conflicts, from piracy in the ninth century, to a Mongol invasion in 1232, and two battles in the early 19th century, when French missionaries came to bring Catholicism to the area.
Gangwha Island is also home to artisans specializing in hand-woven Hwamunseok sedge mats—icons of Korean culture. Once the backbone of local industry, fewer than a hundred of these artisans now remain, so they are highly valued members of society.
Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city, has been inhabited for several thousand years and spent much of its history being fought over by Korea’s warring factions until the Joseon dynasty established control. It then became an important trading hub, and the city’s famous traditional medicine market dates back to this era.
In the years after the Korean War, Daegu underwent an economic boom thanks to its burgeoning electronics industry. The city’s many universities bring young people—including many foreigners—in droves, and today it continues to be a hub for fashion and technology. Despite its progressive feel, Daegu is still a strongly spiritual Buddhist destination, with many temples found in the surrounding mountains.
Yangdong is Korea’s largest traditional Joseon village. Set in a carefully-selected valley surrounded by forested mountains, Yangdong’s natural beauty was celebrated in poetry of the 17th and 18th century. The village itself has changed little since the height of the Joseon dynasty, with timber-framed houses, Confucian schools, and thatched-roof cottages preserved in their original state. While many of the old commoners’ homes are still lived in to this day, the larger mansions are empty and open to the public. Yangdong offers visitors the chance to step back into a vibrant moment in Korean history, as life has continued here without the influence of modernity so common in the rest of the country.
Gyeongju served as the capital of the Silla dynasty for a thousand years, starting in 57 BC. For a time, it served as the region’s capital city, and at the height of its dominance was home to a million people. Gyeongju’s long and storied history never feels too far off, thanks to the tombs, palaces, and temples that greet visitors at every turn. In fact, it’s been nicknamed Korea’s “museum without walls.” The UNESCO World Heritage Site Bulguksa Temple is the city’s crown jewel: a sixth-century complex with a grand double staircase, stunning halls, and two pagodas, one austere and one ornate. Nearby is the Seokguram Grotto, where a stone Buddha sits beneath a dome of interlocking granite panels built in the eighth century.
See how this talented Korean chef's modern cooking chops are rooted in his homeland's ancient cuisine
Chef Edward Kwon treats us to a new spin on a traditional Korean dish, and a glimpse into the history surrounding it.
Watch your fellow travelers favorite films & videos
Meet Korea's Food Ambassador: Chef Edward Kwon
Follow celebrity chef Edward Kwon as he takes you on a culinary tour of Korean cuisine.
Courtesy of CNN
Preserving Korea’s Kimchi
Learn about the Korean kimchi industry which has been jeopardized by the cheap cost of Chinese imports.
Produced by Jonah M. Kessel and Go Eun Kim
©2015 The New York Times
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
With far fewer crowds to contend with at iconic sites, winter in South Korea can be a delightful time to visit. But you can expect cold temperatures and frequent periods when the country is blanketed in crisp, white snow. Temperatures in Seoul range from the low 20s to mid-40s (ºF). It is about 10 degrees warmer in Gyeongju and along the southern coast.
Korea is a mountainous country, and the winter months are perfect for journeying almost anywhere outside of Seoul to take in breathtaking scenes of the country when it is blanketed in snow and turns into a white wonderland. The mountains in winter are also great for both skiing and hiking, and as you get farther south you can find rolling hills of pearly white snow.
Watch this film to discover more about South Korea
During the spring months, the South Korean countryside comes alive with blossoming flowers and lush greenery. One of the most popular times to visit also means it can be crowded at popular sites. Expect mostly sunny days and temperatures ranging anywhere from the 50s to the 80s (ºF).
April is cherry blossom season in South Korea. It is a magical time throughout the country, and especially in places like Gyeongju, as a myriad of pink flowers bursting into bloom.
Summers in South Korea are generally warm and wet, with July and August seeing the arrival of monsoon rains. The average temperature during these months is about 70°F. Many South Koreans escape to the coastal cities and beaches to escape the heat and humidity, so you can expect crowds along the coast.
A typhoon is possible during the summer months, but rare: Japan and China shield South Korea from most major storms.
Travelogue: Seoul, South Korea 1967
Discover Seoul during simpler times in 1967 before it became a technology giant.
Produced by David Conover & Paul Villanova
With the summer rains gone, South Korea is bathed in shades of orange and red as the autumn leaves start to bloom. Mild temperatures (averaging 60 to 70°F) and abundant natural beauty make these months close rivals to spring at the best time to visit.
Seoul Lantern Festival is a two-week celebration that takes place each November where downtown Seoul comes alive with bright lanterns and glittering lights for early winter.
Find out more about the adventure, including activity level, pricing, traveler excellence rating, included meals, and more
See a detailed overview of the experiences that await you in South Korea & Japan on our new small group adventure.
Small Group Adventure
Days in South Korea
6 nights from only $1795
3 nights from only $1495
Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
*This information is not available for our trip extensions. You must reserve the main trip to participate on this extension.
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