8 Reasons To Love South Korea: Food, Culture, Festivals & More!

I think we all remember our first time with fondness. We look back at that first awkward kiss or that first game that turned us into a fan, and it brings a nostalgic smile to our faces.

The same holds true for travel. My first tentative steps out of the relative comfort of Australian life took place in the chill November winds that whipped around Incheon International Airport.

Thus began my two year love affair with the peninsula country that likes to call itself the land of the morning calm.

The magnificent semi-tropical island of Jeju-do - South Korea
The magnificent semi-tropical island of Jeju-do – South Korea

This is a guest post by top travel blogger Chris Walker-Bush of Aussie on the Road

Reasons To Love Korea

Too few people include South Korea on their travel itineraries, but I hope reading through my reasons for loving the country will maybe get you to rethink your travel plans and give the often forgotten Asian country a chance.

There are a lot of reasons why Korea will always hold a special place in my heart, but below you’ll find the eight that stand out above all others.

Korean lady putting on make-up waiting to catch the subway - South Korea
Korean lady putting on make-up waiting to catch the subway – South Korea

#8 – Cheap Transport

Getting around South Korea is criminally easy. The country’s fantastic bus network means you can get virtually anywhere in the entire country for under $30. Shorter trips can come in at under $5! City buses, while occasionally crowded, aren’t likely to set you back more than the equivalent of $2.

While buses are cheap and plentiful, they aren’t the only way of getting around. The train network, including the super fast KTX, also provides plenty of destinations for affordable rates. It’s possible to get from Busan in the South East to Seoul in the north in less than three hours and for less than $50. Not bad at all.

Larger cities also boast subway networks of their own. Those in Seoul and Busan are particularly good, and tickets rarely creep over the $5 mark.

A string of international and domestic airports dot the country as a result of Korea’s hosting of the 2002 World Cup, and taxis (while erratically driven) can get you around the city at very affordable rates as well. At least compared to cabs in the western world.

There’s less awkward small-talk too.

All of this adds up to making Korea one of the most easily accessible places in the world once you’re there. Want to spend a weekend on the beach? Go skiing in the winter? Shop in the massive malls in Seoul or Busan? You’ve got a slew of affordable options available to you.

The magnificent semi-tropical island of Jeju-do - South Korea
The magnificent semi-tropical island of Jeju-do – South Korea

#7 – Jejudo

While mainland Korea is not without its charms, the semi-tropical island of Jejudo off the southern coast is a drawcard all of its own.

A volcanic island littered with lava tubes, volcanic craters, and black sand beaches – Jejudo is labelled the ‘Korean Hawaii’. And while it might not be quite the tropical paradise that Hawaii is, there’s certainly a lot to love about the island.

Grassy Sangumburi Crater is worth a look, but Seongsan Ilchubong (Sunrise Peak) takes the cake with some absolutely stunning views. The Manjanggul Lava Tubes are pretty impressive as well.

In addition to its natural beauty, Jejudo’s status as a tourist spot means it has plenty of restaurants, resorts, and tourist attractions. From the adults only playground of Love Land to kid friendly spots like Mini Mini Land and the Gimnyeong Hedge Maze, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied.

Jejudo is accessible by plane (fast, but boring) or on the more entertaining ferry. Take the leisurely route and enjoy the atmosphere on the crowded ferries that boast karaoke, restaurants, gaming rooms, saunas, and live performances.

#6 – Cheap Alcohol

This may not appeal to every traveller, but Korea is truly a land where you can indulge your inner alcoholic.

While Korean beer isn’t much to write home about, there are a number of imports available to compliment the local selection that includes soju (a distilled spirit similar to vodka), meoggoli (rice wine), and plum wine.

The night life is king in Korea. Rare are the bars with curfews and they’re of a variety that should cover all bases. Seedy soju bars, crowded foreigner friendly establishments, smoky clubs, full service noraebang (karaoke rooms)… Hell, even the convenience stores stock and sell a good selection of booze. I spent many a summer afternoon camped out front of a 7-11 sipping suds.

There’s no open bottle law in Korea either. Rejoice with wine in the park or beers on the beach.

Daewonsa - South Korea
Daewonsa – South Korea

#5 – Rich History

While Korean history may not be quite so well known to westerners as that of neighbouring Japan or nearby China, there is still a rich and proud history on the peninsula that stretches back centuries. While a lot of the ancient temples were destroyed or defaced during the Korean War, you’re still able to visit a good number of them.

Highlights include tranquil Daewonsa near Gwangju and seaside Yonggungsa in Busan.

Seoul’s Insadong area gives a tourist friendly cultural experience for those wishing to do a bit of shopping, and Gyeongju (Korea’s former capital) is steeped in history for those wanting to see Korea as it was prior to its post Korean War boom.  Exploring Jeju Island is a favorite weekend getaway.

No matter where you are though, you’re likely to find a temple or historical site worth checking out. It’s inevitable in a country as old as South Korea.

Cherry Blossom Festival - South Korea
Cherry Blossom Festival – South Korea

#4 – Festivals

Korea is a country that loves a festival and they’ve got them for just about everything. There’s the wildly debauched Boryeong Mud Festival, the stunning Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival, the stinky Gwangju Kimchi Festival, beautiful Jinju Lantern Festival, slightly damp Jindo Moses Miracle, and the inexplicable Cheongsando Slow Walking Festival.

And that’s barely touching the surface. There are festivals in Korea almost every weekend and as you can see, the variety is immense.

Changing of Guard - Gyeongbokgung, Seoul, South Korea
Changing of Guard – Gyeongbokgung, Seoul, South Korea

#3 – Hiking

I don’t consider myself much of an outdoorsman, but Korea gives you plenty of opportunities to explore the great outdoors.

A naturally mountainous country, most of Korea’s mountains are accessible to the public with a variety of trails to walk (or climb). It’s not unusual to see a whole family out on a sunny Sunday afternoon complete with full hiking gear and heels for the ladies.

While it’s true that much of Korea’s mainland is urban sprawl, it’s only a short bus ride to get you back in touch with the quiet serenity of the natural world.

Smiling Koreans - Insadong, Seoul, South Korea
Smiling Koreans – Insadong, Seoul, South Korea

#2 – Koreans

You can’t run off a list of reasons to love Korea without including the natives!

Korean culture is a fascinating blend of old traditions being merged with western ideals. It’s a surreal juxtaposition to see a McDonalds looming ominously over a traditional tent restaurant, but it’s not uncommon at all.

Korean music, whether it’s traditional throat singing or syrupy sweet K-Pop, is another of those blends of old and new.

While there is an underlying xenophobia that occasionally rears its ugly head, I found Koreans in the most part to be polite and enthusiastic about sharing their pride in the country. There’s a real enthusiasm for learning more about western culture that extends from wide eyed kids to chatty ajoshi (old men) that is really endearing.

It doesn’t hurt that Korean girls are amongst the most beautiful in the world, either. I hear tell that Korean guys aren’t too bad either.

Korean signature dish - Bibimbap
Korean signature dish – Bibimbap

#1 – Korean Food

If there’s one facet of life in Korea that I miss on a daily basis, it’s the food.

Korean food doesn’t look like much at first. There’s a heavy reliance on rice and meat in the Korean diet, but there’s enough variety to ensure you’re not bored too quickly. Traditional dishes such as bulgogi (marinated beef), galbi (Korean BBQ), and bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and egg) are relatively tame introductions to Korean cuisine.

Me? I miss spicy ddeok galbi (chicken with chewy rice cakes); savoury pajjang (seafood pancakes); and the street treats such as twigim (deep fried goodness), odeng (processed fish on sticks), and toasties (an import from America).

Korea also boasts a fascination with coffee shops and bakeries. There’s no shortage of Starbucks clones to pick from, but I’m a fan of Tom & Toms with its sweet or savoury stuffed pretzels. While Western food staples like pizza and KFC are available, they’re done with a quaint Korean twist.

Expect corn on your pizza and the offer of a kimchi side with your happy meal.

It’s not just the flavours though. Korean food is, first and foremost, ridiculously affordable. It’s entirely possible to eat three meals a day outside of your own apartment or hotel room without spending more than $20. And that’s eating big.

Maybe I’m a little bit biased because I called Korea home for two years, but I see a lot of reasons to love the place. There’s a great blend of the old traditions, temples, and cultural quirks alongside the fact that the country is one of the fastest developing technological powers in the world.

Have you been to Korea? What did you love about the place?

Connect With Chris

This is a guest post by Chris Walker-Bush, the man behind Aussie on the Road travel blog and Multiple Nerdgasms – a site dedicated to all things geeky.  Chris and I share the same enthusiasm for travel and we’ve both taught in South Korea for several years.  He’s a great guy and his blog posts are an eclectic mix of travel information, humour and personal reflections.  Make sure to follow him on the following social media platforms:  twitter, facebook and youtube.

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  1. says: Sue

    Wow, that’s awesome! I mean, I’m a Korean and I never knew people like you existed in the world that loved it there just like it says on the article. What I really hate about being Korean is being mistaken by a Chinese or Japanese. It’s just so not cool. But again, it’s people like you that I absolutely respect 🙂

    [Can’t wait to go back to Korea next year]
    Oh and by the way, I loved your article!

  2. says: Vicky

    Very interesting post. My boyfriend and I are currently planning a 2 year backpacking trip through Europe and Asia. We want to visit South Korea and are thinking of spending 2 weeks there. From everything I’ve read we are thinking of going to these places: Busan, Seoul, Gyeongyu, DMZ and Suwon. And have read about but not sure which to pick from these: Andong, Haeinsa, Seoraksan, Jirisan. Any suggestions/recommendation/insights? Any advice would be highly appreciated!

  3. says: Erin

    Great post!

    I went to Korea on an exchange from the University of Alberta. I agree with everything on the list. The only thing I would add, and not everyone would agree, would be jjimjilbangs. So relaxing. I went to SpaWorld in Busan, and felt so amazing after! And it’s cheap!

    I get how foreigners might be creeped out by the nudity part. But you can always sit in the steam rooms!

  4. says: Casey

    Great list! I agree with everything on here, and completely hear you on that sense of fondness. Korea is also the first place I lived abroad, and Seoul remains one of my favorite cities. I have so many wonderful memories of the country, the people I met there, both Korean and fellow ex-pats. It’s a beautiful place.

    1. says: Chris

      Ack! Re-reading this and seeing other people’s enthusiasm just makes me miss it more!

      I’ve only been back six months, but damned if I don’t sometimes feel like re-upping and taking another teaching gig…

  5. says: Gemma

    I’ve never been to Korea but I think Asia is a fascinating place. After visiting Japan I’ve always wanted to go back and visit some more, Korea is now next on my list!

    1. says: Chris

      Glad to hear it!

      Japan and Korea do share some similarities on account of their history with one another, but I love the cheapness and accessibility of Korea. Japan doesn’t really manage that.

    1. says: Chris

      It’s really very helpful. There was a period there where I was taking the bus to the next city over twice a week *and* taking weekend trips by train or bus to more distant locations and still not spending more than $40-$50 equivalent.

      The same kind of travel in Australia would have easily hit $150-$200.

  6. says: Cynthia

    I seen Korea in telenovela on Korean movies. I do inspire on their beauty spots that make challenge in myself that someday, I will be at place. People are friendly and they practiced their culture and evolve on it. In spite of different western invaders that influence on their way of living.

    1. says: Chris

      Invaders is an interesting word. While the US military presence is not a completely welcome one, there is an utter fascination with many facets of western culture in Korea. My students clambered for western cartoons, western candy, and western music.

      Despite that enthusiasm, there are a lot of traditional values that persist and you get a fascinating mix of old world and western imagery all across the country.

  7. says: Kurt W

    Totally agree. As I scrolled down I was waiting for Korean food, it really is the best in Asia and possibly the world. When you add in everything else, Korea is just an unreal place to travel.

  8. Great post. Been dying to get to Korea for as long as I remember – probably since we lived in Potts Point in Sydney in the 90s and would eat out at the Korean restaurants there a couple of nights a week. Definitely high on my wish list this year.

    1. Sydney has some pretty respectable Korean restaurants, to be honest. I have a few favorites downtown and I’ve heard good things about the ones up in Chatswood and its surrounds.

      Just a shame it’s so expensive 🙁

  9. says: Chris

    I’ve got visiting North Korea on my rather lengthy bucket list. I’ve technically been on North Korean soil during my DMZ tour, but hoping to actually see the sights there someday.

  10. says: Rob

    I’ve never really fancied visiting Korea, not sure why. Oddly enough, I’ve looked at the various options for visiting their less popular neighbour, North Korea.

    1. says: Chris

      Seoul is good if you can handle the sheer size of the place (which I couldn’t). I lived in Gwangju for two years (a regional city with a wonderful foreigner community) and Busan for six months (awesome beach town).

      I’ve heard good things about Daejeon, Cheonnam, Ulsan, and Incheon too. It really depends on what you’re looking for.

  11. says: Megan

    Wow, what a great list! #7, #3, and #1 have been my favorites over the past year as I’ve been living in Seoul. South Korea is definitely a great place to spend some time!

    1. says: Chris

      There’s plenty of English signage across the country. The 2002 World Cup helps on that front. While most Koreans don’t speak a great deal of English, a surprising amount can get by.

  12. says: kima

    I called Korea my Home for almost one year. Now, i’m back in France. And My only wish is to go back to Korea. There is so many things i love about this country. First: people. They are so nice and so helpful. I love the way they try to help you even if you don’t speak the same language.
    I spent most part of my life their in Seoul. And this city literally never sleep, you can find everything you want in the middle of the night (even opened library)
    This mix of modernity and tradition. My favorite place in Seoul is a temple which is just next to the big Shopping Mall Coex. You can see pictures on my blog.

    I can make a really long list about the reason why I love Korea . But you already said some in your article

    1. says: Chris

      I hope so too! It really is an underrated spot for tourists. Maybe not terribly exciting for younger backpackers looking solely to party, but plenty there for people who can appreciate its history and culture.

  13. I’m really enjoying living in Korea right now. I love the food and public transportation (even though here has been the very first place that I ever got motion sickness on a bus…). Good points here, even if I don’t really drink – but I know many people love the cheap booze here.

    1. says: Chris

      I’m jealous, Rachel. Except the bit about motion sickness. You can keep that :-p

      I had two and a half wonderful years in Korea and it’s a constant struggle not to contact a recruiter and head back :-p

    1. says: Chris

      Jejudo is beautiful for sure. I’m a big fan of the beaches of Busan and the many (many, many) islands off of the west coast. Some hidden gems out there.

  14. says: Sherry

    Wow! Great round up. I never realized that there were so much things to do in Korea. I do love the food the most about the country – so spicy and flavorful. My father’s been there many times, but I have yet to go. Maybe its about time.

    1. says: Chris

      You should!

      Korean food is fantastic all over the world, but it’s all the sweeter (or should that be spicier?) when you’re paying chump change for it. Plus the tradition of ‘service’ (free stuff) makes any meal all the better.

    1. says: Chris

      Ooh! Whereabouts in Korea are you hoping to visit? Seoul is obviously many people’s favorite spot, but if you have time – there are some great spots outside of the big city that are worth a look too.

      And yes, visit Samuel :-p

  15. says: Stephen

    Great list. I couldn’t dispute any of those. Many of the reasons I love South Korea, too. It’s a great place to live and work as a foreigner. Can’t wait to get back there.

  16. I loved my short stay in Korea. I took the bus from Seoul down to Naju to meet up with a friend. The people were great. Everywhere we went people wanted to buy us drinks, have photos etc. This was my first trip abroad, so all that was a new experience for me. Guess that’s why the time in Korea will always be special…

    1. says: Chris

      Korea was your first as well? I have such fond memories of my first faltering steps towards exploration of the place. I believe my first day trip was to visit the Unjusa temple outside of Gwangju on a bitterly cold winter afternoon.

      1. Great thing to have in common. I’ll never forget getting off the bus in Gwangju and my buddy not being there to meet me. It was midnight and I might have freaked out a little. I started to walk to a Best Western in the distance assuming they could help me call him, but thankfully he showed up a little later…