South Korea in 10 alternative sights

Bulguk-sa temple in Gyeongju
Decoration inside Bulguk-sa temple in Gyeongju

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

10 days in North Korea
NomadXpress, 10 days in South Korea

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.

Gamcheon Culture village, Busan
View of Gamcheon Culture village with its colourful houses

Never seen something similar in our trip so far !

Gamcheon Culture village, Busan
Some of the many murals in the village

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

Food street stalls in South Korea
Street food stalls in South Korea

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.

Korean food accompanied by banchan
Korean food accompanied by banchan

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.

Fish sellers inside Jagalchi Market, Busan
Fishmongers inside Jagalchi Market
Jagalchi fish market, Busan
People enjoying a fresh fish meal in Jagalchi market

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.

 Jamal Culture Village (Jeonju)
Mural decorating Jamal Culture Village

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.

KOREAN MASK DANCE DRAMA (HAHOE), South Korea
One of the highlights in the mask dance

As privileged foreigners, we also took active part in it : )

Medieval hanok village of Hahoe
Example of traditional house in the hanok village of Hahoe

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.

At the entrance of the Greenvill bathhouse, Daegu
At the entrance of the Greenvill bathhouse

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 !

GREENVILL BATHHOUSE (Daegu)
Basic accommodation in the SPA

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.

OPEN AIR MUSEUM IN NAMSAN (Gyeonju)
One of the 57 stone Buddhas in Namsan

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.

OPEN AIR MUSEUM IN NAMSAN, (Gyeonju)
View from the open air museum in Namsan !

We were also amazed with the odd prayers and rituals performed by the staunch worshippers in front of the sacred images.

OPEN AIR MUSEUM IN NAMSAN (Gyeonju)
Believers performing some rituals in front of a Buddha’s effigy

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.

Third Tunnel , DMZ tour, South Korea
Close to the main entrance of the Third Tunnel

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.

Observatory pointing to Nort Korea
Dora Observatory pointing to North Korea

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).

Peace house in Panmujeom (JSA), DMZ tour
South Korean soldiers facing the North Korean ones next to the Peace house

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.

Namsan hill, Seoul
View of Seoul from Namsan hill

We also took a brief detour to visit the Namsangol Hanok Village with yangban (upper class) houses from the Jaseon period.

Namsangol Hanok Village, Seoul
Namsangol Hanok Village with a contemporary art intervention

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

Great mosque in Itaewon, Seoul
Great Mosque in Itaewon

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 !

ITAEWON (SEOUL)
Some of the many galleries in the neighbourhood

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).

From Japan to South Korea by boat
On our way from Japan to South Korea by boat !

Nevertheless, it is well connected to Japan and China by regular, year-around boat services

A great opportunity not to be missed then!

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