Korea 10 days itinerary: the very best of a trip to South Korea

Understanding Korea is like trying to understand your crazy ex; one second you’re placidly sipping tea beside palace grounds, the next you’re slamming soju in a BBQ smokehouse. Bounding straight from the serene mountains of Bukhansan into the frenetic street-dance battles of Hongdae, it’s hard to keep up with the capital’s split personality but it’s certainly a thrill ride while it lasts. Though Seoul captures around half of the national population within its sprawling borders, there’s much more to uncover outside of its embrace. Take the high-speed train to Busan (no zombies, just sleek convenience), stopping off at Joseon Dynasty kingdoms, Hanok villages and grand national parks before resting up along the laidback southern coast for top seafood, spotless beaches and UNESCO-listed volcanic isles.

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Seoul | Photo: Sunyu Kim

South Korea

Connected to Eastern China through the Korean Peninsula yet separated from the North by the DMZ, South Korea couldn’t be more different or its insular Northern kin. Since splitting from North Korea in 1953 after the Korean war, South Korea developed as a key player in the global economy, embracing democracy and modernity to become a high-tech hub of commerce, laden with incredible natural beauty and intact cultural traditions. For its unique Confucian history and ornate Chinese-influenced architectural styles, Korea is a pure joy to explore. And though you can certainly find neon nights, pumping nightclubs and untempered consumerism, the nation may also surprise you with unexpected grace and a distinctive food scene like nowhere else on earth.

LGBTQ+ Travellers in South Korea

The subject of gay rights in South Korea is somewhat taboo, particularly among older Koreans from beyond the capital. While there have never been laws incriminating homosexuality, Korean society is not overly accepting or tolerant of that which they don’t understand, closed off as it was for centuries. Though the current progressive democratic party has pushed for the inclusion of sexual orientation in anti-discrimination laws, far-right conservative groups push back. You’ll see a similar tension play out if attending Seoul’s annual pride parade when gay rights campaigners face a picket line of religious conservatives. Gladly, however, the nature of Korean society is pretty placid and therefore issues such as these rarely lead to outright confrontation or violence.

Interestingly, despite denial of queer culture among some older Koreans, in celebrity culture, you’ll find openly gay K-pop stars, transgender TV personalities (such as Ha Ri-Su) and even national K-pop treasures BTS openly advocating for LGBT rights. And while younger people are more and more open on the subject, many remain ‘in-the-closet’ in avoidance of family and cultural stigma. Regardless of traditional values, queer culture is very much alive and well in the nation if you know where to look. Along with the recent success of Seoul’s first gay drag parade and the growing popularity of Hongdae and Itaewon’s gay clubs and bars, the South Korea gay scene gets bigger and better each year. For downbeat fun, Haebangchon district near Itaewon is where you’ll find the liberal expat scene, but for something a little more age-appropriate, try the fancy gay bars around Jongno. Outside of gay Seoul meanwhile, you’ll also find fun gay neighbourhoods in the cities of Busan and Daegu.

Photo: Harry Cunningham

Photo: Maxx Gong

When to go to South Korea

Split neatly into four seasons, with winter and summer getting increasingly longer and more intense each year, South Korea is best visited in spring and fall when the humidity is low yet the sky remarkably blue. While locals will complain about the fine dust that veils the city during low rainfall in spring, the perfect temperatures and the allure of the cherry blossom season makes April the best month to visit Korea. Mother nature also puts on a show for visitors in fall (around October) when the leaves go rusty and set the rocky mountains aflame with colour.

At all other times of the year, Korea is a harsh mistress, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid her! In summer, temperatures average around 27°C but often soar above 30°C with high humidity. In winter meanwhile, high snowfall and dry winds run alongside average temperatures of -3°C (with brittle lows of -15°C!), making for remarkable landscapes and optimal skiing conditions.

Korea 10 days itinerary

In just ten days it’s possible to see many of South Korea’s best bits, concentrating on the two main metropolitan cities of Seoul and Busan. In addition to the shopping hubs of Seoul and the seafood markets of Busan however, this South Korea travel itinerary will take you to the historic villages of Jeonju and aboard the ferry to Korea’s very own version of Hawaii. This 2020, bear in mind that COVID-19 travel restrictions require anyone entering South Korea from abroad to undergo a 14-day self-isolation before beginning any travel adventure.

Soondae | Photo: Harry Cunningham

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Known as Namsan, this small central mountain is a favourite among Seoulites, featuring accessible trails and bike paths leading towards the city’s most romantic spot for panoramic sunset views across the city

Seoul - 3 Days

A key first step on every South Korea travel itinerary is to the international city of Seoul, a place so convenient and vibrant you might never want to leave. If time is limited, however, we’d recommend allocating three days in Seoul, condensing all its many palaces, tea shops and city hikes into one manageable bite. Home of approximately 10 million people, Seoul seems to stretch without limit, crossing the banks of the Hanggang River in the south and creeping into the foothills of Bukhansan Mountains in the north. The city’s labyrinthine subway system makes every neighbourhood reachable but can leave newcomers a little overwhelmed by the sheer selection of train lines and colours.

To gain perspective on Seoul it’s necessary to climb a little. Though there are guided bus tours serving the serene hills around the President’s residential ‘Blue House’, we recommend navigating the buses or hailing a taxi to reach the trailhead of any of Seoul’s best mountains – from Bukhansan to Gwanaksan – where the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ finally delivers. Read up on all the best bits of South Korea’s capital with our dedicated Seoul travel guide, or follow our three-day plan below…

Photo: Ivan Babydov

Photo: Bundo Kim

Day 1

Day one in Seoul centres us among the biggest and best palaces within the heart of the city. Gyeongbokgung Palace may get all the glory as the one-time King’s residence but Deoksugung beside the futuristic City Hall offers an equally worthy Changing of the Guard performance with stunning – if smaller – royal gardens within. Strolling out from the palace, you’ll soon reach the quaint Hanok village of Bukchon, one of the city’s most popular districts for its photogenic slate houses and heritage tea shops among cobblestone streets. If you fancy playing dress up in traditional garb, rent a Hanbok from any of the stores here and re-enter the palaces for free.

Within walking distance of Bukchon, Insadong is the perfect place to catch a bite to eat among the cafés and artsy souvenir stores running through to Ikseondong, another historic village. At night, Insadong will morph into a night market hotspot but for more options and a slightly more frenetic pace, brave Myeongdong for high street fashion and beauty stores, each fronted by street food vendors plying everything from Strawberry Mochi to BBQ squid.

Day 2

The second day of our Seoul itinerary takes us north, first to the shopping district of Namdaemun for discounted cosmetics and fashion, before passing the US military base of Yongsan on the way to Seoul’s War Memorial Museum. Though hard-hitting, the museum is a sure-fire way to gain some insight on the nation’s turbulent history, along with details on countless wars and dynastical takeovers, spanning Japanese colonial times and the Korean War.

After a heavy morning, clear your head with the freshest air in the city, on the hills surrounding Seoul N Tower. Known as Namsan, this small central mountain is a favourite among Seoulites, featuring accessible trails and bike paths leading towards the city’s most romantic spot for panoramic sunset views across the city. Nearby Itaewon hosts the city’s most active nightlife (also the centre of gay Seoul), but, alternatively, the upmarket bars of Gangnam or the youthful clubs and private karaoke rooms in Hongdae may hold appeal.

Day 3

On day three, we journey beyond the city limits to find the much talked about DMZ (‘Demilitarized Zone’), a popular dark tourism attraction from Seoul, offering an up-close look at the border between North and South Korea. Both half-day and full-day trips leave from the city centre, allowing for observatory views of the ‘no-man’s land’ between north and south, with an optional visit to an abandoned tunnel and suspension bridge. If the DMZ leaves you cold, other interesting and easy to reach Seoul day trips include Incheon’s Chinatown and harbourside, the historic fortifications of Suwon or the beautiful fall foliage of Nami Island, accessible by boat or zip wire.

Photo: Jenny Kim

Jeonju - 2 Days

Moving down south towards the Jeollabuk-do region via KTX high-speed rail, we settle ourselves in Jeonju, the birthplace of both the Joseon Dynasty and the bibimbap, Korea’s staple dish of rice, egg, vegetables and hot sauce. While Seoul is not short of Hanok villages, Jeonju’s Hanok Maeul brings a rather more authentic example, where traditional wooden houses line wonky alleys clustered within the city’s historic centre. Less crowded than the capital’s offerings, Jeonju also has the added appeal of being the nation’s foodie capital, once named a UNESCO city of gastronomy, with museums dedicated to the craft of soju and rice wine as well as other traditional handicrafts. From there, hunt down the city’s Gyeonggijeon Shrine and rate some art within the Royal Portrait Museum, with a second chance of dressing up in traditional Hanbok for the best holiday photos. Other highlights in the city include the Omadae Viewpoint and the Jaman mural village for local street art and small town vibes.

Jeonju | Photo: Rawkkim

Jeju Island - 3 days

Before kicking it to the southeast coast, consider heading west to the small fishing village of Mokpo, an understated spot mostly forgotten as a transit port to Jeju Island. Instead of rushing off to the ferry port, however, spend a few hours soaking up the authentic atmosphere along the rugged coastline, picking up a few words of Korean from enthusiastic seafood vendors along the way. Alternatively, fly direct to Jeju Island from Seoul, Busan or Jeonju city, booking in advance for the cheapest fares.

Day 1 & 2

Requiring a flight or a ferry to reach, Jeju Island ducks the crowds and excitements of the mainland to remain a blissfully calm island retreat on the south coast. One of the most popular domestic holidays among Koreans, Jeju is famed for its clean air and sustainable vision, demonstrated by its carbon-neutral mission and ecotourism attractions. Though public transport is available across the island, buses can get crowded and renting an electric vehicle to get around is definitely the better option! With your own two or four wheels, you can circumnavigate Jeju with ease, stopping off at any of the island’s best attractions – from volcanic peaks to Hello Kitty theme parks – at your own pace.

With as many as three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in reach of a lively capital city, Jeju Island is sure to keep you entertained for at least a weekend. Choose to tackle Mt. Hallasan (Korea’s highest peak) on a full-day round trip before taking to the underground caves and lava tunnels hidden beneath the landscape on day two. If seeking a challenge other than Mt Hallasan, consider the Olle Trail, a coastal path which loops the entire island passing by waterfalls, rock formations and tea fields.

Jeju | Photo: Ashim D. Silva

Jeju | Photo: Dave Kim

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With as many as three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in reach of a lively capital city, Jeju Island is sure to keep you entertained for at least a weekend

Day 3

In addition to outdoor adventure, our Jeju Island itinerary also gives us the chance to unwind in style at any of its luxury spa hotels, many offering volcanic treatments and locally-sourced beauty products from Innisfree. Alongside volcanic wellness, the city centre can also provide shopping and café culture, in reach of the Jeju National Museum, Chocolate Museum and the slightly more risqué Museum of Sex and Health. For street eats and souvenirs, however, Dongmun Market is sure to satisfy as the largest indoor market on Jeju.

Jeju | Photo: Kawai So

Busan - 2 Days

And on to Busan, either by flight or ferry and train, to spend our last few days along the metropolitan coast of Korea’s second capital. A world away from the fast-paced tempos of Seoul, our Busan itinerary offers a rather more down-to-earth version of South Korean life. An old school port town turned dynamic global city, Busan is the place to be for casual beach days amid cliff-side temples, bustling markets and inviting hot springs.

Things to Do in Busan

Though not as conveniently laid out as Seoul, Busan has its own humble subway system serving all the top urban attractions, with buses running regularly into the mountains for hiking and temple excursions. Tour the city’s eclectic markets – circling out from Jagalchi Fish Market – finding everything from raw octopus delicacies to second-hand fashion, besides any number of chic cafés and no-fuss restaurants. The hip commercial district of Seomyeon with its video games arcades and neon-lit restaurant scene is also an option to while away an afternoon.

Outside of deep winter and high summer, the weather in Busan is often perfect for a beach day. Head to the ex-pat district of Haeundae for California-style coastline fronted by glittering hotels and cedar-lined walking trails, moving inland come sundown for quality seafood restaurants and a spot of local nightlife at nearby Gwangan Beach where gay Busan is centred.

If you have another full day to fill in your Korea itinerary and still have the energy, gain some perspective with one final hike within the region. There are a number of paths running along the coast – such as Moontan Road to Songjeong Beach, Igidae viewpoint walk or the more challenging Geumjeong-san hike – but other more rural options include the breath-taking temple hike around Seokbul-sa.

Photo: Yi Liu

Photo: Insung Yoon

Last day in Busan

No Korea trip is complete without a temple visit and if Seokbul-sa wasn’t for you then our last day in Busan can surely provide. Rise early to see the region’s most famous attraction of Haedong Yonggung Temple set into the rugged cliffs of the south coast. Built in 1376 and still operating as a Buddhist site, Haedong is a good way to spend a few hours before returning to the city for a pre-departure lunch. If your flight doesn’t depart before evening, however, rest your head at a jimjilbang (traditional spa) for an affordable sauna and hot spring experience complete with napping room!

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