2 weeks in South Korea
South Korea TRAVEL GUIDE
MY ITINERARY FOR The Land of the Morning Calm
Travel planning and thoughts pre-travel
Last October I have spent two weeks in South Korea. It took me endless hours to draw out the perfect itinerary, checking train and flight connections as well as places, festival and events I wanted to see the most.
The final shortlist of places included Seoul, Andong, Daegu, Haeinsa in the Gayasan Park, Busan and Gyeonju.
As a proper travel-nerd with a fetish for organisation, I also used Google dynamic Maps to plan my journey better. While you read the article you’ll be able to go back to the map I used during my trip, to locate most of the places I mention. Hope this will come in handy if you are planning a trip to South Korea yourself.
Click on the below map to access my journey and see locations for each place I visited.
Is South Korea safe to travel?
If you are planning to visit South Korea, you are probably aware of the situation with North Korea and - in spite of your desire to travel there - you might be a bit worried about your safety. I felt the same and I even thought about rescheduling my trip as my parents and friends were growing worried for me and tried to persuade me to change plans.
Easy guess, I decided to go anyway and during my trip day I found no signs of tension at all. Some local guys I met told me that most south Korean people are pretty much used to living their life in a normal and peaceful way despite the ongoing climate of tension.
As an overall rule before booking your trip you should read the official communication on sites like https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/south-korea or for my Italian readers http://www.viaggiaresicuri.it/paesi/dettaglio/repubblica-di-corea.html
I personally stopped worrying as soon as I landed and enjoyed one of the best holiday I ever had.
Thursday 28th September / Friday 29th September
Living in Canary Islands might be amazing for many reasons (you can read more about what I love and what I hate here), but a downside definitely includes the lack of flight connections. Flying abroad is more expensive than from Italy or UK and if you plan to travel in the US or Asia, there’ always an extra 5 hours travel time to be added to the journey.
I started my trip on Thursday with a Tenerife – Madrid flight. In the Spanish capital I then took an AirFrance flight to Seoul, with a stop in Paris, where we spent the first night and we arrived in Seoul the morning after.
Now we can finally start the Korean journal!
Saturday 30th September
Saturday! Arrival in Seoul at 08:55 in the morning. The first thing we do at the airport is to rent a 3g wifi router. I know you might travel on a budget, but I can’t recommend this enough. We have been completely independent throughout our trip, even in the smaller cities where most people won’t speak English, we have been able to find directions or bus routes ourselves. I am sure we would have wasted a lot of precious time without it. I personally used LG and would deffo recommend it. Support as well has been spot-on.
From the airport we take a train to the center of Seoul. We took the direct train but there is a cheaper and slower option, however the price difference is really not much but try and ask for it if you want to save a bit. From the city center we then take the underground and in just two stations we reach our hotel in Insadong, the Centermark Hotel. We have booked this hotel for both the beginning and the end of our journey so that we could leave some luggage while travelling to other cities with just a backpack.
This is what I visited on day 1:
Insadong: focal point of Korean traditional culture and crafts, you will find many antique stores as well as art stores and traditional tea houses. This is the first area we strolled around and if I think of Seoul, this is the first image that comes to my mind. Foodporn tip: I would absolutely recommend a meal at Bukchon Sonmandu Insa. It won’t affect your wallet, very traditional and super-tasty. In particular, their dumplings are to die for.
Joyesa temple: the focus of the Joyesa temple is the giant wooden hall Daeungjeon, Seoul's largest Buddhist worship hall.
Bukchon Hanok Village: This is where you can appreciate a lot of the Korean traditional architecture. This village, built in the 14th century, is filled with narrow streets lined with restored traditional homes. It will feel like walking in the past. During our visit many people were wearing an hanbok, the traditional Korean costume, taking selfies and pictures. There are many shops renting hanbok even for few hours should you wish to try them for a bit.
Samcheon-dong: This Neighbourhood is a mix of old tradition and new architecture. We also stopped here for a coffee with an amazing view of the Bukchon Hanok Village.
Avenue of youth: After a break at the hotel, we spend the night at the avenue of youth, a few minutes walking from the hotel. I am a day person, but If I was living in Korea I would go out every single night. The roads were filled with neon street signs, bars, restaurants and arcade centers with tons of gashapon machines.
Late in the night we also try to visit the 24 hours street markets Kwangjang market and the Gwangjang market. Unfortunately, we find these both closed – probably because we visited Seoul during the Chuseok.
Sunday 1st October
Second full day in South Korea! We are spending another day in Seoul to see:
Myeongdongarea: A shopping district on the south of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. This area is crowded with shops (Korean brands and international ones) and there is a food market every day starting at 12:00. We walk until here from the hotel, probably taking less than 30 minutes. The Cheonggyecheon stream itself is amazing to see, we walked by this stream many times during our journey. You should take some time to appreciate it, they also host events by the river, especially during summer.
Namsan and Seoul tower: From Myeongdond it’s a quick bus ride to the Namsan mountain and the Seoul Tower, where you can get amazing views of Seoul. You can get up by walk or with a cable car. We went for the cable car due to the rain.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art: After the Seoul tower we take a bus for the national museum of modern and contemporary art. If you visit the museum during the Chuseok the visit is free as well. Even if I appreciated the museum, I won’t feel like suggesting a visit if you have only 2-3 days to spend there. Seoul has so many other amazing places to see that I think are more worth of a visit.
After the museum we then head to the Gyeongbokgung Palace garden. This UNESCO site was the royal residence during the Joseon dynasty. You can visit the palace with a tour only, until 17:00, but you can visit the garden until 18:00.
Deoksugung Palace: This is one of the few temples that you can visit in the evening, and so we did to optimise our time and prioritise sites and locations only available during the day. Walking through the gardens of the palace while looking at the skyscrapers all around is an incredible experience, really astonishing.
Itaewon clubbing at Thursday Party: Itaewon is one of the best areas for a night out in Seoul. Thursday Party is famous also for being very popular and welcoming with foreigners and has a good mix of travelers, international students and Koreans. After the Thursday party, we try few clubs around the area. In some of them you can walk-in without an entry fee, so you’ll have the chance to find the best option for you. The only bad side has been finding a taxi to head back home, it took a break in a pizza shop and some patient to finally get one.
Monday 2nd October
Day 3 in Seoul. We have spent two days in a row clubbing. The second night we didn’t get back to the hotel until 5am, so we had to spend part o the morning to sleep and recover from the hangover. Once up and running, we head to the south of the town for more city sightseeing.
Bongeunsa temple: Built during the Silla reign. This temple also offers the option to sleep there with the ‘temple stay’ programme.
Gangnam: We then head to the Gangnam district. This is definitely one of the places I liked the most in Seoul. The streets are huge, the amount of displays and lights is astonishing. there are myriads of people walking by and a never ending selection of shops, coffee shops, karaoke bars, gashapon stores. Basically, every kind of store you could think of. After winning few stuffed animals at the gashapon machines, we then have dinner in one of the side streets with kimchi and dumplings.
Tuesday 3rd October
On Tuesday the 3rd after three full days in Seoul we head to the south. There are few stops planned before reaching Busan on the south coast. We leave our luggage at the hotel (that we will visit again for 2 days at the end of our journey) and head to the bus station with just our backpacks.
We have had few issues with timings and traffic due to the Chuseok, I wrote about the entire experience here on my blog, you can read what has gone wrong and how to avoid it yourself. Due to the buses being fully booked until lunch time we use the time to stroll around Seoul a bit longer, after leaving our bags in the security lockers at the bus station.
Garosugil shooping area: We visit the Garosugil area, another commercial area of Seoul, full of nice shops and bars. Most of those places only open at 11:00 so don’t head here too early. We then go back to the bus station. In our original plan we were planning to visit the Hahoe folk village, but we didn’t have enough time due to the delay with the buses and the traffic, so instead we went to the center of Andong.
Here we visit the seven story bricks pagoda and then we keep walking across the river until we reach the Woryeonggyo bridge. I would suggest paying a visit to this place! It’s so beautiful and relaxing to walk here, especially during the evening when the purplish and blue lights on the bridge are switched-on. It will probably make you feel spirited away.
We then take the train again to end our day in Daegu, where we sleep in a typical Korean Hanok house. Daegu is a very modern city but much to my surprise in the very center it is hiding a labyrinth of old traditional houses that makes you feel like living in the past (or being in a manwa). This is our first time sleeping on a futon. I found it more comfortable than I expected, the room is really small, but we didn’t mind this at all as the place itself was too magical. Just one suggestion, some mosquito repellent might come handy.
Wednesday 4th October
On Wednesday the 4th we head to the Haeinsa temple in the heart of Gayasan park. We spend the morning in our temporary new house, having a tea on the patio, consuming fresh figs from the garden, enjoying the sunshine. Even washing our clothes in the garden has been therapeutic.
Around lunch time we then head to the Haeinsa temple. This has been an incredible experience that deserves its own post, as there are too many details that I want to share. If you haven’t read the other post (even if you should have), I’ll summarise the highlights from this experience here below.
From the center of Daegu we take a bus to the west terminal bus station and then a second bus to the Haeinsa temple. You have the option to visit the temple in a day or you can spend the night, joining a ‘Temple Stay Programme', an amazing cultural program which allows visitors to experience the life of Buddhist practitioners at traditional temples which preserved the 1700 year old history of Korean Buddhism. (find out more here: link to https://eng.templestay.com/page-templestay.asp)
The early morning ceremony at 03:15 has been my favourite moment of this experience. Just remember to set-up your own alarm as no-one will force you to wake up. More pics and info here
Thursday 5th October
After breakfast we could have stayed in the temple until lunch time (approx. 11:00) but we prefer to temporarily leave to explore the Gaya-san park.
The path across the river lead us to another temple close to the Bunok falls. Here you can climb few set of stairs to reach a small temple with an amazing view of the park.
We skip the final lunch at the temple to catch the bus back to Daegu and then the train for Busan. Our hotel in Busan is the Marina Motel, that we have chosen due to his position being close to the station and for the sea view.
Going back, this is probably the one accommodation I would change from my trip. The quality of the room was not impressive, and I would also go for a different area, probably going for Seomyeon or Gamcheon.
We then spend the night at a club called The Monk to listen to Jazz music and then move at Thursday Party for some wine (since we liked this place so much in Seoul).
Friday 6th October
Busan tower: The first place we visit is the Busan tower. Today it’s our 10th anniversary!! Busan will now always have a special place for us.
Gamcheon village: We then visit the Gamcheon village. Colorful houses, street arts, unique shops make of this area an open-air museum. Gamcheon has managed to become in few years one of the top attractions of Busan. One of the most famous things to see here is the statue of the Little Prince. During my visit there are at least 100 people queuing to take a photo with the famous statue. Even if I am tempted I give up and only take a picture of the statue.
Seomeyon: After the sunset we go back to the hotel and then again go out to Seomeyon. A shopping area when we have coffee (did I mention that most of the coffee shops in Korea are open until midnight and some are 24 hours? Heaven!!) and some amazing sushi.
Saturday 7th October
The second day in Busan we head to the: Haedong Yonggungsa Temple: This is one of the few temples built on the seaside. It’s quite far from the center but totally worth the trip.
Igidae Coastal Walk: This is the first time we take a wrong bus and we arrive at the Igidae Coastal Walk area so late, that is almost dark. Despite this we take the path anyway, admiring the huge spiderwebs across the trees. It didn’t go exactly as planned but walking together with Gianni in such a quiet and magic area is more than worth.
Sunday 8th October
After three nights in Busan we are unsure if leaving Busan in the morning to arrive early in Gyeongju or stay in Busan for a bit longer, but at the end we decide for the latest to go and visit the Songdo Beach. Even if it is already Autumn the beach is quite crowded. We stroll around before heading to the panoramic bridge. Here you’ll find a statue of a fisherman and a mermaid, the story is also told on some drawings nearby.
We then walk to the train station, headed to our next destination:
Gyeongju. In Gyeongju we stay in a mini hotel in a traditional room with futon. After checking in and dropping off our luggage we walk around looking for some food and we happen to find out a food market which is selling everything we could dream of in that moment.
Gyeongju is so different from Busan, you can easily walk around from one side of the city to the other. Also, way less touristic than all the other cities we visited, we are probably the only foreigners at the food market (still, no problems to communicate with food vendors, as long as you point the food you want).
Monday 9th October
Gyeongu day 2. We start the day by having breakfast at the mini hotel. They have a self-service system when you can cook your own eggs, prepare a toast and have a coffee or a tea, then clean after yourself. There is a really nice atmosphere, closer to a hipster student canteen than a hotel breakfast bar.
We then head for the Daereungwon Royal Tomb. We already walked by it the evening before when few people were chilling while playing a guitar, but we pass again to take some pictures in the daylight. Just south of the Daereungwon Royal Tomb there is the historic area of Gyeongu, a neighborhood where time seems to have frozen.
In the same area, we catch a bus to the Namsan mountain ready for some hiking. The bus only takes 20 minutes, we track the entrance roughly thanks to google maps. Once you see a parking space with a small restaurant and wooden bridge you are ready to start the real hike. It probably take us 1 hour or less to get to the top of the mountain, including several breaks. The hike itself is not hard and the most amazing thing is that there are historic statues and building all scattered across the hike. Some areas were closed for safety reasons and to see all the historic elements you have to alternate paths a few times. Staying on the main road to get to the top won’t be disappointing, visitors will still be able to see some interesting point of interests (incl. monuments) across the way.
Back at the hotel, we pack to be ready to go back to Seoul.
Tuesday 10th October
I usually have my trips packed of activities and things to do, trying to see as much as possible of each city. I can easily walk all day forgetting to have food or stop for toilet breaks. But travelling for two weeks also means that you need to give your body some time to recover and enjoy those moments of break.
The last days of this trip have been less rich in terms of exploration and classic touristic visits but we enjoyed resting in the hotel, spending longer time in coffee shops and strolling around with no destinations in mind.
After taking the train from Seoul we go back to our hotel in Insadong, then spend time in the same area, buying art supplies and some souvenirs to take back home.
Wednesday 11th October
Last day in Seoul. We spend the morning in Gangnam, I liked this neighborhood so much that I decide to go once again during day time – we also use tis chance to satisfy my nerdy side by going and visit the Gundam store.
In the afternoon we head over the Mapo-gu district, where Gianni has an appointment at the Sol Studio to have a tattoo. He booked with the studio a couple of months before our trip using the app KakaoTalk. With a mix of English and Korean sentences translated by google we managed to get it all arranged.
Some Korean tattoo artists have a unique style of tattooing, using very small needles, their tattoos are super detailed and somehow look finer than the western ones we’re used to seeing.
While Gi is getting his tattoo done, I also walk a bit around the area, loosing myself in the streets of Seoul and, even if am alone and miles away from home, I feel happy and carefree.
Thursday 12th October
Two underground stops, a train and we are back to the airport, ready to head back to our normal life in Tenerife. With our flight being at 00:30 we spend the entire time sleeping, so flight didn’t seem that long. I am going this country so much.
Bye Bye South Korea ... at least for now..