Seoul, South Korea has been my home for going on 3 years, and I still feel lucky every single day that I get to see so much of what this beautiful country has to offer. South Korea was never at the top of my travel bucket list, but when I decided to move abroad long-term, it was the clear winner when it came to livability. Now, I also appreciate Korea for the fantastic travel destination that it is.
One of my favorite parts about living here is the ease of domestic travel, with nearby destinations offering any kind of getaway you could imagine, from the scenic beaches of Jeju to the small historical town of Gyeongju. Whether you’re chasing a modern city, rocky coastlines, national parks, or traditional villages, South Korea is the destination for you, and this South Korea travel guide is the resource you need to plan your perfect trip.
South Korea Travel Guide: FAQs
How can I get around South Korea?
South Korea is extremely well-connected by public transportation. In big cities such as Seoul and Busan, there are extensive subway and bus systems. However, don’t rely on your maps app from home to get you around! Apple Maps and Google Maps do not work in Korea. You will want to download Naver Maps and Kakao Maps, two great options that are accurate. While these apps have English options, they are not flawless and sometimes revert back to Korean, so just be prepared to take a little extra time when adjusting at first.
You will need to head to a convenience store first, such as 7/11 or CU, to buy a T-Money card, which can be used to pay for both buses and the subway. You can refill these cards at a ticketing kiosk at any station. The ticketing kiosks have an English setting that makes it an easy process. Be sure to carry cash, as you can only fill up your transportation card using cash (more on this below!). When you ride on the bus or subway, you will swipe this card upon both entering and exiting.
Taxis are also decently cheap, which you can call through the Kakao Taxi app.
Korea also has a great high-speed railway, the KTX, along with intercity buses. These are great options for getting between cities without having to rent a car. You can book KTX tickets here and intercity bus tickets here (English is available on both sites).
When should I visit South Korea?
The best time to visit Korea is in the spring or fall, from March to June and September to November. This is when weather patterns are most desirable, not too hot and not too cold, with low rainfall. April is often considered the best month to visit, with cherry blossoms blooming across the country. However, it can be hard to plan a trip based on blooming predictions. Some years it’s early, some it’s late, some it’s right on time. But even if you miss the perfect timing, April is still a great month to visit overall, with enjoyable weather and clear skies.
I’d recommend against visiting in July and August when the weather is extremely hot and monsoon season descends on the peninsula. I’d also recommend against visiting in the peak of winter, which can get unpleasantly cold. For detailed information on weather by month, take a look at this article.
Each season brings unique experiences, from seasonal sports and activities to changing landscapes and annual festivals. Check out my South Korea seasonal guides: 31 top things to do in Korea in spring and 25 top things to do in Korea in winter.
How can I get phone service in South Korea?
My favorite option for accessing the Internet across the world is the Airalo eSIM. An eSIM doesn’t need to be physically put in and taken out; it’s simply installed onto your phone and connects to Internet anywhere in the world as soon as you land. Instead of wasting time looking for a local plastic SIM, you can activate the eSIM immediately after installation or upon arrival in Korea. This is the easiest and most convenient option, and it’s reliable. I’ve used Airalo all over the world and I’m always a happy customer. Plus, if you are continuing your travels after Korea, you can get a regional Asia eSIM that works in 14 countries.
Keep in mind that eSIMs only provide data service for connecting to the Internet, not calling and texting plans. If you need to make calls or send texts abroad, then you can order a physical SIM card to your house before you depart here, or you can pick up a physical SIM card at the airport upon arrival by pre-ordering here.
What about money?
Korea’s currency is the Won (₩). Although card use is widespread throughout Korea, and sometimes cash is not accepted at all, it’s best to always have some cash on you. As I mentioned before, you will need cash to load your T-Money (transportation) card at kiosks in subway stations. You will also need cash to eat delicious street food at markets. If you travel outside of major urban areas, you might also come upon some establishments that only take cash. So head to an ATM labeled “Global” to make a withdrawal (I’d say at least 100,000 won) shortly after arriving. You can find these ATMs in almost every subway station.
Make sure to bring a Visa and/or Mastercard to Korea, as they are widely accepted. American Express is rarely accepted.
Is South Korea vegetarian-friendly?
This is a sore subject for me because the answer has been my least favorite aspect of living in Korea, by far! Korea is not very vegetarian-friendly, as the cuisine is heavily based on meat and fish and so few Koreans are vegetarians themselves. Only recently did plant-based diets start catching on, with some vegan cafes and restaurants opening in Seoul and Busan. I’ve found that the concept of “vegetarian” has still not made waves, with many Koreans not understanding what it means. It seems like there are two options: eat meat or eat vegan. And if you go with the latter, whether you are truly vegan or not, you are extremely limited in what you can eat. Most restaurants don’t have vegetarian or vegan options, meaning you have to intentionally seek out restaurants that cater to such diets.
While this can be frustrating and difficult, it’s possible. I’ve done it for 3 years, so you can definitely do it for a few weeks with the right resources. My absolute favorite app when traveling as a vegetarian is HappyCow, which has been extremely useful in many countries across the world, including Korea. It uses your current location to pull up a map of vegetarian and vegan options nearby. Make sure to download this app before heading to Korea so you can easily pull up convenient options near you. Be aware that you’ll want to research your meal options before you head out for the day, as you can find yourself in a “vegetarian desert” where there is not a single option within walking distance. It’s best to make your plan for the day based on your meal options.
Is South Korea safe for solo female travelers?
Yes, Korea is very safe for solo female travelers. Most people are polite and keep to themselves, and crime rates are low. Also, you will see women walking around alone all the time, even at night! As long as you practice standard safety measures, as you always should, Korea is an ideal destination for a solo female traveler. I’ve traveled around Korea alone for years, so this South Korea travel guide is curated with solo female travelers in mind.
As a foreign woman, you might be approached by men who want to “practice English”. Simply tell them that you’re in a rush to meet your friend, who is right around the corner, and walk away. You also might be approached by older ladies in the streets talking about religion. Be careful and walk away quickly, because these are almost always cults!
While there aren’t any outstanding safety concerns as a solo traveler in Korea, be mentally prepared that being alone isn’t the norm. If you sit down to eat alone at a restaurant, you will probably be the only one eating alone. Plus, lots of Korean meals are meant to be shared, meaning they’ll come in portions for multiple people. And as you travel around the country, you will notice that most Koreans don’t hang out alone. There will be lots of couples, friend groups, and families everywhere you go, but few individuals. I’ve gotten used to this over the years so it doesn’t bother me much anymore, but it’s something to be aware of before you visit.
Wondering what you need to know before going to South Korea to ensure smooth sailing? Read my 33 tips from a local including advice, cultural norms, and best practices.
South Korea Travel Guide: Itinerary
Days 1-7: Seoul and optional day trips
Seoul is the perfect place to start your trip to South Korea! This special city has a unique blend of history and modernity, with something to satisfy every type of traveler. You can easily spend 4-5 full days exploring the city, and I recommend including at least 2 more days for day trips to the surrounding areas.
Things to do and see in Seoul
- Stroll the grounds of the grandest palace in all of Korea, Gyeongbukgung Palace
- Visit the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace
- Explore the cafes, restaurants, and handicraft shops housed in Ikseondong, a Hanok village
- Enjoy traditional teahouses and search for traditional souvenirs in Insadong
- Get the best view of the city and leave a love lock at N Seoul Tower
- Indulge in Korean street food at the best night market in Seoul, Myeongdong Night Market, and then stock up on K-beauty at Myeongdong’s many K-beauty shops
- Explore one of the largest and oldest markets in Seoul, Gwangjang Market, where you can find authentic street food
- Visit the small, underrated Tongin Market for a “build your own lunchbox” experience using traditional coins
- Bike or walk around Seoul Forest, which is especially vibrant in the spring and fall
- On a day with bad weather, explore the huge archives at the National Museum of Korea
- Hike Inwangsan Mountain, a short trail set against the Fortress Wall of Seoul, for a great view
- Take a Korean cooking class (vegetarian option available!) with a lovely local family in their home
- Hit the streets of Hongdae during the day for cafes and shopping galore or at night for the Korean going-out experience (don’t expect to be home any earlier than 4 a.m.!)
- Go cafe hopping in Yeonnam-dong, Seongsu, or Ikseondong, to name just a few of my favorite neighborhoods for cafes!
Looking for unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences in Seoul that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world? Incorporate these 15 unique things to do in Seoul into your itinerary.
Places to eat in Seoul (vegetarian-friendly!)
Check out my blog entirely dedicated to my favorite restaurants in Seoul, from vegan restaurants to restaurants with vegetarian options. To name of my absolute top choices:
- Oh Se Gae Hyang – vegan Korean, Insadong
- Ikseon Atteut – Korean, Ikseondong (get the kimchi corn cheese pancake!)
- Little Gangster – vegan Asian & Western, Yongmun-dong
- Plant – vegan Western, Itaewon and Yeonnam-dong
Where to stay in Seoul
Seoul is a huge city, so it’s best to prioritize staying in an area that is not only exciting but also well-connected to the rest of the city. For this reason, I recommend staying in Myeongdong, Hongdae, or Insadong. Each of these neighborhoods has something to offer every traveler, including entertainment, street food, shopping, cultural sites, and convenient locations.
For more on why to choose one of these neighborhoods, check out my local’s guide to where to stay in Seoul.
Here’s a quick overview:
|Why stay in this neighborhood?
|Best affordable hotel
|Shopping, street food, good location
|Philstay Myeongdong Station
|Nightlife, shopping, budget
|Nabi Hostel Hongdae
Optional day trips from Seoul
I designed this Korean travel guide so that you have time to take some amazing day trips from Seoul. If you have a week in Seoul, I recommend using 2 of those days for day trips. If you have less than a week, I still recommend setting aside at least 1 day for a day trip. Seoul’s surrounding area is so diverse, with a day trip to satisfy any type of desired getaway. And because Korea is so small, none of these day trips are further than 2.5 hours away.
For nature lovers, Nami Island is the perfect city escape only 1.5 hours away. Nami Island itself is a beautiful tree-covered island where you can stroll along the scenic paths, bike around the island, and explore the riverside. The nearby Garden of the Morning Calm is another must-see, featuring beautifully sculpted flowers, trees, and pathways. It’s especially worth a visit in the winter during the light festival. Other attractions in the area include Petite France, the Italian Village, Alpaca World, and Gangchon Rail Park. These destinations are hard to reach via public transportation, so I suggest you join an organized tour for convenience, ease, and efficiency.
For ultimate flexibility, choose which attractions sound best by building your perfect custom day trip to Nami Island and its surrounding sights here.
If you’re looking for more tradition and culture, the historic town of Jeonju is perfect for a day trip. Jeonju, home of its famous Hanok Heritage Village, is 2.5 hours away from Seoul. Spend all day wandering the streets of a huge Hanok village full of traditional houses, craft shops, and food stalls.
Things to do and see in Jeonju
- First and foremost, head towards Jeonju Hanok Village and spend a few hours discovering the small museums, culture centers, and shops
- Stop for a refreshment at Jeonmang, a cafe with a stunning view of the Hanok village
- Get another perspective of the view at Omokdae
- Rent a Hanbok (traditional Korean wear) and stroll around Gyeonggijeon Shrine
- Admire Jeondong Catholic Cathedral and Pungnammun Gate before walking through Nambu Market
- Enjoy authentic bibimbap, a famous Korean rice dish that originated in Jeonju!
- Pick up Jeonju’s signature dessert, a “choco pie” from PNB
If you want to relieve the stress of having to organize your own transportation and tour route, you can book a guided day tour here.
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
If you have any interest in Korean War history or North Korea-South Korea relations, the DMZ is a must-visit. You’ll learn about the tragic history of the two Koreas by stopping at significant sites, such as an infiltration tunnel and an observatory where you can look into a propaganda village in North Korea.
You must take a guided tour given the security of the area, and I recommend this one. It’s the exact tour I personally took and thoroughly enjoyed.
If national parks and beaches sound like your thing, Sokcho is the perfect day trip. Just a 2-hour bus ride east of Seoul, Sokcho is home to the stunning Seoraksan National Park. The famous Ulsanbawi Trail, a challenging 4.2-mile out-and-back trail, offers amazing views of the park and the East Sea. After 3-4 hours completing this hike, head to Sokcho Beach for white sand and beautiful scenery.
Days 8-10: Busan or Gyeongju
Your next destination is either an impressive beachside city or a quaint culture-packed town. You can’t go wrong choosing between Busan, a stunning metropolis set against the East Sea, or Gyeongju, a town so historic that the entire area is considered an open-air museum. Both are an easy and quick train ride from Seoul, taking slightly over 2 hours.
Busan is the second largest city in Korea after Seoul, yet the vibes of the two cities are very different. Busan offers stunning beaches, temples, and mountains, while Seoul offers pop culture, palaces, street markets, and nightlife. After being introduced to Korea in its capital, this beachside metropolis is the perfect next destination for diving further into the culture.
Things to do and see in Busan
- Visit the stunning, tranquil seaside Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (my favorite temple I’ve visited in Korea to date, and I’ve visited a lot!)
- Take in skyline views as you walk along the white sands of Haeundae Beach
- Enjoy the sunset and a drone show (every Saturday, October to February at 7:00 and 9:00 and March to September at 8:00 and 10:00) at Gwangalli Beach
- Enjoy a premier Korean spa experience in the 13 themed saunas and 22 natural spring water spas at SpaLand
- Explore the colorful houses, painted murals, shops, and cafes at the vibrant Gamcheon Culture Village
- Ride the cable car and chill at a beachfront cafe at Songdo Beach
- Visit “Korea’s Santorini”, Huinnyeoul Culture Town, which features colorful narrow alleys, street murals, stunning ocean view cafes, and a waterside walking path
- Hop on the “train” at Taejongdae Resort Park and head to Taejongdae Observatory, where you can take in ocean, island, and cliff views. You can even see Japan’s Tsushima Island on a clear day!
- Take a day trip to the ancient capital of Korea, Gyeongju!
Places to eat in Busan (vegetarian-friendly!)
- ARP – vegan Western, Yeongdo-gu
- Soban Vegan – vegan Korean, Seo-gu
- Tofu Go – bibimbap, Gwangbok-dong
- Gimmyeonjang – kimbap, Namcheon-dong
- HOME Bistro and Cafe – vegan Asian & Western, Haeundae-gu
Where to stay in Busan
Haeundae Beach is an ideal place to be based during your Busan travels. It’s a huge city, so there is no perfect spot to be, as everything is spread apart. But Haeundae is an exciting, beachfront area, and it’s conveniently located near subways and buses that can get you everywhere else. Gwangalli Beach is also a great option if you’d prefer to be closer to the center of the city.
If you’d rather head out of the city completely and enjoy a few days in the ancient capital of Korea, Gyeongju will not disappoint. I visited Gyeongju on a whim in 2022 and it became my favorite place in all of my Korea travels! It’s known as the “Museum without Walls” because of its remarkable concentration of pagodas, sculptures, reliefs, and the remains of temples and palaces from the 7th to 10th centuries. The Gyeongju Historic Areas are even a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Things to do and see in Gyeongju
- See the oldest existing astronomical observatory in East Asia at Cheomseongdae Observatory (great for flying a kite and watching the sunset!)
- Walk around huge burial mounds housing over 11,000 artifacts at Daereungwon Tomb Complex
- Visit a traditional Silla Dynasty bridge, Woljeong Bridge, which is especially stunning at night
- Take in the ancient Silla palace complex by exploring Donggung Palace & Wolji Pond, another site that is especially beautiful at night
- Learn about relics of the Silla Kingdom at Gyeongju National Museum
- Walk or bike around Bomun Lake, stopping to admire the lake view at cafe Aden
- See masterpieces of Buddhist art at Bulguksa Temple & Seokguram Grotto
Want to visit these sites but don’t have enough time in your schedule? You can easily take a day trip to Gyeongju from Busan. This guided tour is highly rated and will take you to all the major sites with a professional tour guide.
Places to eat in Gyeongju (vegetarian-friendly!)
Where to stay in Gyeongju
The best place to stay in Gyeongju is near the Gyeongju Historic Areas, where you’re within walking distance of the main attractions and Gyeongju Station. You can also easily catch buses from here to further attractions, such as Bomun Lake and Bulguksa Temple. For a budget traveler, I recommend Maison Mini Hotel & Guesthouse.
This is where the 10-day itinerary ends, but if you’re lucky enough to have some extra time, keep reading! After your time in Busan or Gyeongju, head to Gimhae International Airport to jet off to the tropical paradise of Jeju Island.
Days 10-14: Jeju Island
Not even a 1-hour flight from Korea is the magnificent Jeju Island, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature! When you step off of the plane, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a tropical wonderland. Jeju is very different from mainland Korea, from its dialect to its food to its topography. With all that it has to offer that is so different from anything you’ve seen so far, Jeju is the perfect place to close your trip to Korea.
*Jeju is an exception to Korea’s fantastic public transportation system. Although there are buses and taxis available around the island, it is much easier and faster to rent a car. These buses have limited routes and come infrequently. You won’t want to waste any of your precious time waiting around for them! So come with an International Driving Permit (IDP), easily obtained from your local AAA office for $20, and rent a car for full flexibility. You can’t rent a car in Korea as a US citizen if you don’t have an IDP. Find an affordable, reliable rental car here.
If you don’t want to drive, you can base yourself in Jeju City near the airport and take guided day trips from there. To see as much as possible of what the island has to offer, I highly recommend doing both an eastern Jeju day tour and a western Jeju day tour. If you have extra time, you shouldn’t miss out on a southern Jeju day tour as well. These tours allow you to cover as much ground as possible in as little time as possible if you don’t have a car, so I recommend them all.
Check out my ultimate Jeju travel guide & 3-day itinerary to better help you plan your visit with detailed day-by-day itineraries and FAQs.
Things to do and see in Jeju
- Take in white sand, turquoise water, and views of Biyangdo Island at Hyeopjae Beach
- Learn about the culture and history of green tea on Jeju Island at Osulloc Tea Museum, and don’t forget to sample some delicious green tea goodies!
- See unique cliff formations, rocky coastlines, and scenic ocean views at Yongmeori Beach
- See where a volcanic rock formation meets deep blue waters at Daepo Jusangjeolli Cliff
- Visit Jeju’s top 3 waterfalls at Cheonjeyeon Falls, Cheonjiyeon Falls, and Jeongbang Falls. Cheonjeyeon is known for its 3 cascading sections, Cheonjiyeon is known for its peaceful river, and Jeongbang is known as the only waterfall in Korea where water falls directly into the sea
- Hike to the top (and bottom!) of Seongsan Ilchulbong, a volcanic peak with stunning 360 views
- Take a ferry to Udo Island for a day trip, where you can spend the day making your way around the scenic wonders of the island on a bike, shuttle bus, or scooter
- Watch surfers from a road filled with tea houses and coffee shops in Woljeongri Beach
- Relax at Hamdeok Beach, famous for its emerald waters, palm trees, volcanic stones, and white sands (this is my favorite beach in Korea!)
- Walk inside one of the many lava tubes that make up the island’s extensive system at Manjanggul Lava Tube
- Be in awe of nature as you hike a volcanic cone, such as Geomun Oreum
Places to eat in Jeju (vegetarian-friendly!)
- Pad Thai Maan – Thai, Woljeong-ri
- Raj Mahal Indian Restaurant – Indian, Jeju-si
- And 유 (Yu) Cafe – vegan Korean & Western cafe, Ongpo-ri
- Lan’s Kitchen – vegan Korean & Vietnamese, Jeju-si
- Bangin Taco – Mexican, Daejeong-eup
Where to stay in Jeju
If you rent a car, the best place to base yourself is Seogwipo, Jeju’s large city in the south. You’ll land in the north, but it’s worth making your way to Seogwipo right away, as it’s better located for the main attractions in Jeju. I recommend you spend your first day driving around the west side of the island, making your way from the airport to Seogwipo. Then spend a few days based in Seogwipo and doing activities nearby before spending your last day driving around the east side of the island. I had a cheap, nice stay at Shin Shin Hotel Cheonjiyeon in downtown Seogwipo, which I recommend for fellow budget travelers.
If you don’t rent a car, it’s best to stay in Jeju City near the airport because that’s where most day tours depart from. It also relieves you of the stress of having to find transportation to your hotel, because it’s very easy to find a bus or taxi to take you from the airport to a Jeju City hotel.
And with that, 2 weeks in Korea is already over! Although it’ll be sad to say goodbye, you can rest assured that this South Korea travel guide and itinerary took you to many of the diverse cities, nature, food, history, and culture that Korea has to offer.
Tokyo is only a 2-hour flight from Seoul – how about Japan next? If you enjoyed my Korea travel guide, check out my ultimate travel guide and itinerary for Japan!