Many may not think of South Korea as one of the top tourist destinations in Asia. Since it’s typically so overlooked, it surprised even me to learn that it ranks as the 7th most popular country on the continent, with about 15 million visitors each year. But one visit here and it will be apparent to anyone just why that is. This small country is packed with so much to offer, from futuristic urban settings to charming countryside villages; jaw-dropping mountain peaks and natural wonders to majestic palaces and temples dating back centuries ago. Having a fascinating history of over 5,000 years, plus a colorful and unique culture, does not hurt either. There was so much to see and do that I found it quite overwhelming trying to fit it all in my short 5 day trip and on my flight back home, I was already plotting on how to go back and visit again soon.
This is one of the many places I’ve dreamed of visiting since I was just a little girl. Except, not just for reasons like history, culture and food, as it typically is for most other destinations I long to see. This one is for very personal reasons. Korea is the homeland of my grandma. Back when she was growing up there in the early 1950’s, much of the country was war-torn and poverty stricken. In other words, it was completely different than how it is today, as the nation experienced miraculous growth and now continually tops listings of the world’s strongest economies and most technologically advanced countries. So when I finally got to visit a few weeks ago, I was in awe. Not just at how modern and beautiful Korea surprised me to be, but also because I couldn’t help but think about how different it must be than what my grandma experienced before she fled to the U.S. many decades ago.
I was extremely close with my grandma, so when she passed away in 2013, it made my desire to finally journey to see her homeland even stronger. When I recently found out that I still have relatives living in Korea, I became determined to plan a trip and go. Even still, I did not have expectations beyond being able to go sight-seeing and hopefully meet them over lunch or dinner. What ensued completely blew my mind and changed me in ways I never imagined.
You see, Korean culture is very different than any other and one of the main aspects of it that I love is the extreme importance of family. Koreans take care of each other in ways you rarely see anymore. It is unheard of for them to let their American relative they’ve never met before and never even knew existed stay in a hotel and travel through their country on her own. My family insisted that I stay with them, that they show me around, and that they pay for everything. I was so taken back by their generosity, kindness, hospitality, and thoughtfulness. They treated me as if they’ve known me my whole life and made me feel so welcome. They went out of their way to teach me about our heritage and along the way, my understanding of what family means was completely transformed as well. I was emotional the entire time not only because of how touched I was by how sweet my family was, but also because I connected with this land so deeply knowing this is where my grandma came from and could feel her presence the entire time.
Aside from laughing, learning about each other’s lives, and sharing pictures and memories, I had such a blast with my family exploring as much of Korea as time allowed. I spent a couple days in Seoul and a couple days visiting other areas in the northern region of the country. That was the beauty of having locals as my tour guides – they took me to see things most tourists never get to see and gave me their perspective on everything. Plus my awesome cousin served as a fabulous translator the entire time. So I was extremely fortunate in this aspect.
The thing that impressed me the most is how the capital city of Seoul somehow manages to balance very traditional aspects with an extremely modern and dynamic edge. Among skyscrapers and flashing lights, you will stumble across a royal palace built hundreds of years ago or old hanok style architecture. The contrast is so stimulating and fascinating, mixing old world with new in such a harmonious way. Technology is a big deal, not just because of tech giants Samsung and LG hailing from here, but because everyone you see seems to be connected. I couldn’t help but find it amusing how everyone ages 2 to 80 seemed to be tech savvy and glued to their electronics of some sort.
Seoul is a pretty large and spread-out city which you’d really need several weeks to explore in depth. So trying to cram in everything was impossible. We did the best we could. I did not see a lot of American tourists, mostly Chinese. But it turns out that this is a fabulous destination for Americans, since it’s so Westernized in every way. Most people speak some English, it’s pretty clean, and it’s extremely easy to get around. Their public transportation system was much like Tokyo’s and is rated one of the best in the world. However, despite the two cities of Seoul and Tokyo constantly being compared, I found Seoul extremely different. A major observation of mine was that Koreans in general seem to be much more friendly and warm. During my visits to the neighboring country, it was a little hard to adjust to how the Japanese really do not show much emotion in public. Koreans still have the same graciousness and modesty typical of Asian cultures, but they seem to be more Americanized and thus more expressive. I also found Seoul more exciting, lively, and vibrant than Tokyo. However, it’s obvious that I am biased since I am 1/4 Korean so take that with a grain of salt. Both are absolutely fabulous cities and cultures. I just happened to fall in love with Seoul in a way I never expected and it easily became one of my favorite places in the world.
Oh and don’t even get me started on the food. Even for a picky eater like me, I enjoyed many delicious meals including the famous Korean BBQ that has become wildly popular in recent years. This is total paradise for foodies.
My favorite highlights from Seoul include:
- The bustling streets of Myeongdong, Seoul’s business and shopping district which has tons of delicious street food. Kind of similar to Times Square in NYC.
- Gyeokbokgung Palace, the largest and most beautiful of Seoul’s five palaces, which was built in 1395 and restored after being burnt during the Imjin war centuries ago. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous and could take several hours to explore fully, including the two museums within the complex. I became so obsessed with the colorful, unique, and intricate style of traditional Korean architecture, which is found not just here but everywhere you go in Korea. Another thing you can’t miss here is the changing of the guards ceremony at the entrance.
- Insadong, a busy shopping area that is a great place to buy cheaper souvenirs and gifts. Plus, I found my favorite tea house in the world where everything is made of delicious green tea from Korea’s Jeju Island.
- Bukchon Hanok Village, an charming neighborhood where traditional Korean hanok architecture has been preserved since the Joseon dynasty. Hilly streets are lined with homes, cultural centers, shops, restaurants, and tea houses, providing an authentic experience for those interested in traditional Korean culture. You could literally spend all day wandering around here and enjoying the scenery that will make you feel like you stepped back in time.
- Jogyesa Temple, where I got to meditate among beautiful golden Buddhas and observe Korean Buddhist rituals.
- Dressing up in traditional Korean hanbok dress, which is very popular among both locals and tourists, who can be seen walking around the city in these elaborate gowns. You can also opt to do a photoshoot in one of the many hanbok studios found all over the city, which is a lot of fun. For me, this had special meaning since I have been wanting to wear one of these my whole life!
- Namsun cable car ride, an inexpensive and fun way to get to the top Namsun Mountain. Here you can get great views of the city or go even further up in the beautiful Seoul tower. Not to mention this time of year was perfection because I got to see tons of pretty cherry blossoms everywhere!
Aside from these attractions, my family showed me some other cool places outside of Seoul that were far less crowded, since most tourists typically do not know about them. Lucky me! The only downside to these were that most of these were only in Korean so it would have been pretty difficult without a translator. Either way, I really enjoyed them and would definitely recommend them.
- Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is the land stretching about 160 miles long that separates the Korean Peninsula between the North Korean and South Korean borders. This is where the two countries, which are still technically at war, meet to negotiate and has been home to much infamous hostility. Many tourists take the journey here to visit various spots along the border. My family took me to see the East coast, where you can see barbed wire lining the beach on both sides. It’s actually pretty depressing when you realize this border separated families and ended many lives, including some in my own family. I never thought I would ever be standing steps away from North Korea, but I am so glad I got to go see this. My favorite part was a beautiful white Buddha statue along the border as a symbol of hope for peace.
- Seoraksan National Park, which was designated as a Unesco Biosphere Protection site. I highly recommend a ride on the Seorak Sogongwon Cable Car. This is the best way to witness the beauty of Seoraksan Mountain, the third highest mountain in South Korea. It can be very popular and crowded here during peak times, but luckily when we went, there was a very short line. The rock formations are breathtaking. Within the Park, there are several beautiful sights here including a HUGE Buddha statue that totally gave me life.
- Naksana Temple, a gorgeous Korean Buddhist temple complex in the Gangwon Provence, right on the slopes of Naksan Mountain and overlooking the Sea of Japan. This dates back over 1,300 years and offers incredible coastal views, plus a stunning statue honoring the Goddess Gwanseum-Bosal.
- Yongmunsa Temple, which was in the lovely town where my family lives, Yangpyeong. A short and relatively easy hike through a forest takes you to beautiful traditional Korean style temples, Buddhist statues, and even a bell tower. Plus, this is home to the oldest Ginko tree in Asia, estimated to be up to 1,500 years old! This is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever visited in my entire life.
While visiting all these amazing places, I was totally awestruck of Korea and all its beauty, which I will be honest and say I didn’t even expect to happen on this level. However, two things I learned along the way actually surprised and saddened me. The first was the amount of pollution. At first I thought it was just really bad fog, but my family told me it’s actually smog and finedust from China. It was overwhelming and made it hard to enjoy certain views. This is clearly evident in many of the photos I took. I cannot even imagine the health implications for those living there and dealing with it every day. The second thing was that almost every historical site we visited had been rebuilt at least once since being bombed and destroyed during Japanese Invasions or the Korean War. While it’s certainly impressive how well the Korean government managed to restore so much over time, it’s devastating to think that so much of our history was robbed in this way. Again, I can’t help but think back to what my grandma and her family endured during the Korean War, along with countless others. Among all the fun I had, it was very sobering to reflect on this.
There are some trips you go on for fun and sight seeing, and there are some that you NEED to go on to discover who you are. Visiting Korea was both for me, but ended up being mostly the latter. Something always told me that I needed to be immersed in this culture I belong to and really learn and experience our beautiful heritage. This was the most important and meaningful trip of my life without a doubt. The night before I left, my family took me to a little shop to pick up the custom-made hanbok dress they insisted on sending me home with. I was so filled with pride and joy to accept this gift and wear this beautiful and symbolic dress. I will treasure it, along with the memories of my first visit to Korea and all the Seoul searching that took place, for as long as I live.