In this post we wish to provide some suggestions on spots telling another curious version of the flat or even unknown image South Korea has achieved in the general public opinion.
As a matter of fact, Korea is often neglected or confused with more resounding neighbours like Japan or China, which seem to offer more intriguing appeal on tourists.
Despite its small size, however, South Korea secretly encapsulates attractive places where to admire the tracks of old and new civilizations, in a totally unique and specific pattern
In short, there are things in South Korea that we did not see in Japan or China. Things that we did not expect and instead drew our critical attention towards this peripheral but captivating country, which we experienced for ten days in our “diverted” Silk Road trip. In the end we could (at least partially) grasp the extraordinary authenticity and delicious flavours making this land worth a stand-alone trip to.
In this article we then wish to mainly focus on “new”, curious places never seen in our trip before. The result is therefore a short list with our top 10 alternative sights in South Korea.
1) GAMCHEON CULTURE VILLAGE (Busan):
A massive, colourful district (previously a decaying slum) near Busan harbour completely studded with impressive street artworks, cosy art galleries and snug cafes. Just get lost in its tiny meanders or follow the “guided” route with many explanatory panels along.
Never seen something similar in our trip so far !
2) KOREAN ASSORTED FOOD:
It is definitely the most diversified and complete diet we experienced so far in our trip! And very healthy!
You have tons of different dishes to taste there, vegetable, seafood or meat based. Wander aimlessly in any food market or just try a traditional restaurant in the street
Spicy noodles soups, Korean rice rolls (gimbap), bindaettok (plate-sized pancakes filled with beans sauce), chicken skewers, freshly caught fish and many more delicatessen are part of the endless gastronomic tour. Another peculiar and paramount aspect of the Korean style is the pickles and appetizers (banchan) offered for free as starters, mostly spicy and seasoned vegetables like the unmissable kimchi.
3) JAGALCHI FISH MARKET (Busan):
A specific, jaw-dropping place in Busan not to be missed to get an idea of the Korean seafood. You can either choose your alive fish on the first floor and have it cooked upstairs; or directly skip the difficult examination (so many species and fishmongers!) and single out your meal from the menu of the countless traditional stalls on the second floor.
4) JAMAL CULTURE VILLAGE (Jeonju):
We could only squint at it by night but it was another unmistakably interesting area full of creative, dynamic street art in a requalified popular district devoted to a new social function. The main style is characterized by vivid graffitis and murals dedicated to cartoons and mangas.
In addition, the neighbourhood is animated with snug cafes and pretty galleries. We almost relished it more than the surrounding hanok village, supposedly the main tourist attraction here (for us it was quite unimpressive).
5) KOREAN MASK DANCE DRAMA (Hahoe):
Hahoe Pyolshin Gut T’al-nori is a mask show played by lower-class people and dating back from the 12th century. The historically trustworthy re-enactment (every Sunday at 2pm) staged in the small theatre near the medieval hanok village of Hahoe (close to Andong) is doubtlessly a curious must-see.
As privileged foreigners, we also took active part in it : )
6) GREENVILL BATHHOUSE (Daegu):
Spending a night in this downmarket SPA is certainly an outstanding experience. Not only you will relax and chill out in hot and cold tubs, but also try a different type of “accommodation”. The place includes a jjimjilbang (sauna), a steam room and pools at various temperatures. Men and women are separate though.
However, the real catch is that the establishment is open 24 hours and offer a “warm floor” (with a basic pillow) to sleep over after the tiring session. A cheap and unique option, very popular among locals !
7) OPEN AIR MUSEUM IN NAMSAN (Gyeonju):
A great solution to associate the physical with the spiritual exercise. This hill is a verdant, holy place with numberless sights (122 temples, 64 stone pagodas, 57 stone Buddhas and many royal tombs) to marvel at.
The area is a bit touristy and crowded but somehow encloses a deeply rooted enchantment. You can stroll purposelessly along the main trails and river or follow the marked route from Samneung park entrance. The best views are the headless and stone-carved Buddhas.
We were also amazed with the odd prayers and rituals performed by the staunch worshippers in front of the sacred images.
8) DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) & JSA (Joint Security Area):
Although only accessible through a costly (around 100 €) and obligatory (at least for the JSA) tour, these areas are surely a unique highlight in our entire trip so far.
Placed 55 km north of Seoul at the very border with North Korea, this 4km-wide (2 in South Korea and 2 in DRPK) buffer land is a weird legacy between the old Cold War and the new tourist opportunities. Although technically you are in a military area, you are carefully allowed to wander about and take pictures of the sights (not all of them though). Very difficult nowadays to imagine the troops movements through this hot border, despite the still very visible remnants and the high military controls.
The Dora Station, Observatory, Third Tunnel and Panmujeom (JSA) are bitter-sweet views with huge (and perturbing) historical value but quite ruined by the inevitable mass tourism. Probably other border areas are more genuine (but you need own transport or plan in detail the visit).
At least we can say to have set foot in North Korea though !!
9) NAMSAN WALK (Seoul):
We truly appreciated this panoramic and relaxing hill in the bustling Seoul. It infused us with a great feeling of countryside calm and affordable urban life. We took a 4 hours, pleasant stroll in the verdant park gazing at hidden temples, almost-earthed city walls and the emblematic Seoul Tower.
We also took a brief detour to visit the Namsangol Hanok Village with yangban (upper class) houses from the Jaseon period.
In spite of the freezing temperatures, we deeply enjoyed the stunning views from the top of the hill. You can satisfactorily encompass the ineffable magnitude of the metropolis without needing to pay a costly ticket to ascend the more advertised tower.
10) ISLAMIC LIFE IN ITAEWON (Seoul):
Another unexpected scenery we bumped into during our free wanderings in Seoul.
Charming and successful blend between Far-East and Middle-East, the district is a sudden, impacting break with the surrounding environment
House for the GLBT community, red-district life and simple Turkish bars and eateries, the area offers traditional day strolls and vibrant nightlife. Besides it is enriched with interesting art studios, galleries, antiquities shops and so on. Pleasant discovery !
To sum up we believe that our detour through South Korea surprisingly inspired us. It presented us with a totally new perspective and perception about this “side” country, often neglected by the main tourist fluxes.
Instead, it has much to offer and a very reasonable prices (somewhere between Japan and China)
As said above, the cultural villages, traditional theatre and “food world” are the most striking assets, together with a myriad of curious, typically Korean sights. Pity for budget overlanders that the country is not accessible by land (the border with North Korea is still closed).
Nevertheless, it is well connected to Japan and China by regular, year-around boat services
A great opportunity not to be missed then!