Planning your first trip to South Korea and looking for bucket-list-worthy activities to do? Here is our list of things you must absolutely do while in South Korea. The capital Seoul is one of the most modern cities in the world and the other cities are slowly catching up. Korea is one of the few countries where you will find traditional markets opened 24/7, skyscrapers scattered around ancient palace grounds, beauty stores at every corner and locals sitting under tents while sipping on soju and enjoying themselves.
- 1 Korea bucket list: Things to do in Seoul
- 2 Visit quaint Insa-dong
- 3 Cafe hopping
- 4 Have a picnic or take a cruise on the Han River
- 5 Visit a noraebang booth
- 6 See the beauty of Seoul from the Namsan Tower
- 7 Visit the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul
- 8 Fill your bag with beauty products in Myeongdong
- 9 Take a romantic walk along Cheonggyecheon
- 10 Museum hopping in Seoul to learn about Korean history
- 11 Explore two of Seoul’s largest markets: Namdaemun Market and Dongdaemun Market
- 12 Party all night long in Hongdae or Itaewon
- 13 Korea bucket list: Experience in the rest of Korea
- 14 Enjoy a zen moment in Buddhist temple
- 15 Bathe in a jjimjilbang (Korean spa)
- 16 Colourful Gamcheon Culture Village
- 17 Conquer M. Hallasan, the Tallest Mountain in Korea
- 18 Hiking in Bukhansan National Park
- 19 DMZ
- 20 Dress in hanbok
- 21 Stay in a traditional hanok house
- 22 Go to the beach
- 23 Hadong – authentic folk village
- 24 Take part in a Buddhist temple stay
- 25 Meet the Haenyeo women of Jeju Island
- 26 Boseong Tea Fields
- 27 Explore Nami Island
- 28 Admire the royal tombs in Gyeongju
- 29 Attend a festival
- 30 Korea bucket list: Food-related experience in Korea
- 31 Dine at the Netflix Street Food stand
- 32 Devour the sweet hotteok
- 33 Eat a true Korean barbecue
- 34 Try Korean Street Food In ….everywhere
- 35 Taste a Korean pancake
- 36 Check out Korean Convenience Store Foods
- 37 Sample fresh seafood at Jagalchi Fish Market
- 38 Eat bibimbap in Jeonju
Korea bucket list: Things to do in Seoul
Visit quaint Insa-dong
Insadong is a quaint neighbourhood located in the northeast of Seoul. The area offers a concentration of palaces and older buildings like the Jogyesa temple. Wandering in the traditional district is quite xxx (especially if you have been to Gangnam the day before!) Insadong is home to traditional shops selling everything from traditional clothes like hanbok to artwork, pottery and food. If you are looking for meaningful souvenirs, this is the place. The streets are filled with souvenirs shops. If you are tired of shopping, venture in Ikseon-dong, where you will be able to enjoy Korean tea/cafe in a nice cosy cafe/teahouse.
If you love coffee, Korea is the country you have to visit. They have cafes everywhere from well-known chains, cute or themed cafes. Fancy sipping your coffee from a toilet bowl? Welcome to Poop Cafe! Want to stroke a cat while enjoying a latte? Visit a pet cafe! I highly recommend visiting a couple of cafes for experience and a good time. Head over to Seongsu-dong, a popular cafe district, to sample some of Seoul’s best coffee.
Have a picnic or take a cruise on the Han River
People love to visit the various parks on the Hansan, the river that separates the north to the south of Seoul. The parks including Haneul Park and Sky Park offer lots of activities to people. There are cycle paths, playgrounds for kids, duck boats rental and other couple activities. Young crowds love to hire a mat, order chimaek (fried chicken and beer) and play games. Another popular activity is taking a cruise after sunset. Catch a boat on Yeouido and admire the lights of the city’s skyscrapers and bridges reflecting on the river. It’s very romantic so expect to see lots of couples.
Visit a noraebang booth
Similar to Japanese karaoke, Korea’s noraebangs which means “singing rooms” are private rooms you can hire with your friends to sing your favourite Korean pop songs or international chart-topping hits. Hongdae is a popular location for noraebangs as many nights out ends with a visit to a noraebang. But they are everywhere in Seoul or other cities. Prices vary depending on the location and time of the visit.
See the beauty of Seoul from the Namsan Tower
There are lots of places in Seoul where you can enjoy taking in the Seoul skyline. Several hotels, buildings and bars have rooftops or viewing platforms but nothing beats the Seoul N Tower. As the tallest building in Seoul and third tallest in Asia, it is guaranteed to offer you the best bird’s eye view of Seoul. Accessing the tower via the cable car makes it even more magical.
Visit the Five Grand Palaces of Seoul
South Korea has a rich history. All around the country you can see testaments of the ancient kingdoms that ruled the country. You can learn all about the history in museums but nothing beats seeing the architecture from your own eyes. Luckily Seoul has 5 grand palaces you can visit: Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung and Gyeonghuigung. Gyongbokgung and Changggbokgung palaces are my favourites. The first one is the biggest and has a beautiful and vibrant architecture. The latter has an exceptional secret garden and has been built with the Korean aesthetics in mind: be one with nature.
Fill your bag with beauty products in Myeongdong
K-beauty (skincare and makeup) is very popular nowadays. No matter the city or the town you are visiting, you will no doubt see many shops and brands on the high streets. Try to explore as many shops as possible as some might be more appropriate depending on your needs. Some of the brands are: Tony Moly, Innisfree, La Neige, Etude House, etc….Sheet masks, snail serums, essence, be sure to fill your bags. And make your skin look beautiful!
Myeongdong is THE shopping street in Seoul (similar to Oxford Street in London). Not only the streets are filled with fashion, cosmetics stores but also some of the best street food in the country.
Take a romantic walk along Cheonggyecheon
Cheonggyecheon stream is a hidden green gem. The 10 km long stream is surrounded by plants and flowers. Along the stream which starts at the City Hall. There are fountains, bridges, murals, sculptures and statues. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants in the streets above making it a good spot for morning or late afternoon strolls. Cheonggyecheon is the perfect place to take a long walk and unwind. Since the stream is located below the street level, you hardly hear the busy traffic.
Museum hopping in Seoul to learn about Korean history
There is no better place than museums to learn about Korean history. To understand how history shaped the country (from the multiple invasions to civil wars) visit the National Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum of Korea. The first museum is where you can see the evolution of the country from its prehistoric times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty (1897). It houses more than 220,000 pieces of art including artefacts, calligraphy and Buddhist sculptures. The folk museum located on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace covers the history of traditional life.
Explore two of Seoul’s largest markets: Namdaemun Market and Dongdaemun Market
No bucket list will be complete without a visit to a local market. Namdaemun market, located in the city centre between Seoul City Hall and Seoul Station, is the largest open-air traditional market in Korea. With more than 10,000 vendors, retailers and wholesalers, you are sure to find everything you need: household items, clothes and shoes, tools, accessories, children’s clothes and toys, household goods, cookware and food. Also, prices are super affordable. Dongdaemun Market is one of the largest markets in the world. With more than 30,000 stores, 50,000 textiles manufacturers no wonder it is one of the top attractions in Seoul. Shopaholics will love the cluster of inexpensive clothes and accessories shops.
Interestingly both markets are named after gates used to surround the walls of Seoul. “Namdaemun“ means the south gate whereas “Dongdaemun” means east gate.
Party all night long in Hongdae or Itaewon
Whether you like clubbing or not, one night in Hongdae or Itaewon is a good way to experience Seoul nightlife. Hongdae is the preferred place for younger crowds (thanks to the many universities located in the neighbourhood). Even if you are not into partying, you can still explore, play a game or two in an arcade or watch a live k pop performance.
Itaewon has a more international vibe since the US military base is located nearby. The pubs and restaurants in Itaewon offer cuisines from all origins. You can easily find both high-class restaurants and cheap places.
Korea bucket list: Experience in the rest of Korea
Enjoy a zen moment in Buddhist temple
Not sure what else to do after days of shopping? If you want some time to find your inner peace and relax, then visit a Buddhist temple. There are several temples but the most popular temples are Bongeunsa and Jogyesa. Boggeunsa is located in the middle of skyscrapers of Gangnam whereas Jogyesa is situated in the traditional neighbourhood of Insadong. As well as appreciating some peacefulness, you will also be able to take part in various activities like a tea ceremony, lanterns making or temple stay.
Bathe in a jjimjilbang (Korean spa)
Public bathhouses are a huge part of the culture and should, therefore, be part of your South Korea bucket list. These 24-hour bathhouses can be found in every neighbourhood. They are popular with young and old alike (people usually go there with their family or friends). Once you’ve exfoliated your body, you go to the common area where you can choose from a variety of sauna rooms, medical baths, whirlpools etc…
Colourful Gamcheon Culture Village
The city of Busan is home to the most colourful and artistic neighbourhood in the country: Gamcheon Culture Village. The former slum nicknamed “Santorini of Korea” is one of the top attractions you should add to your South Korea bucket list. Strolling through the winding alleys, admiring the murals and artworks or taking a break in one of the delightful cafes or restaurants will leave you with great memories. The area revitalised by the residents thanks to the Korean Government is a great example of an effort to help and support a community.
Conquer M. Hallasan, the Tallest Mountain in Korea
With more than half the country covered with mountains, no wonder Korean love hiking. For avid hikers, what a better place than hiking the tallest mountain in the country. The volcanic island of Jeju is home to Mt. Hallasan. At 1,950m above sea level, Hallasan offers five trails that take you to the summit. Each trail has a different degree of difficulty, therefore, can take you from a few hours to a full day to complete. Also no matter the trail you choose, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of the island’s coasts. In addition or as a replacement, you can join one of the island’s walks. The Olle Trails offer about 21 routes to explore the island in its entirety.
Hiking in Bukhansan National Park
Even though Seoul is a big metropolis filled with skyscrapers, it is surrounded by mountains. Seoulites love hiking and outdoor activities, so this includes Mount Bukhan. Bukhansan is the highest peak in Seoul and offers lots of paths to choose from. All the paths offer amazing views over Seoul and its surroundings. Accessing Bukhansan National Park is easy thanks to Korea’s great public transport system.
The 235-kilometre demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates South Korea to the North is without a doubt a popular attraction. I wasn’t quite interested in exploring while in Korea but I wished I had, especially after watching the hit drama “Crash Landing on You”. The DMZ is only accessible via guided tours (without entering the zone) but you will still be able to observe the other side. Be sure the dress respectably as you will be unable to access the Joint Security Area (JSA).
Dress in hanbok
Wearing a hanbok (traditional clothing) while visiting the traditional areas in Seoul like the palaces or the Hanok Village, is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the Korean culture. Rent a hanbok and stroll through one of the palaces, you even get a free entry! Wandering in the traditional district of Hanok Village, the preserved neighbourhood, is like walking back in time. As if you were part of the Joseon dynasty’s nobility!
Stay in a traditional hanok house
Staying in a hanok house (a traditional Korean house) is an absolute must-do experience when visiting Korea. It’s the perfect opportunity to experience traditional Korea. These traditional Korean houses were built in a specific architectural style with exposed wooden beams and relaxing gardens. They were designed to morph within the surrounding environment and were primarily for the noble during the Joseon Dynasty. Hanok are now trendy not only because they are beautiful and hold history but because they are eco friendly. There are many places where you can enjoy a night or two in a traditional hanok house. Bear in mind that rooms are small and walls, doors are made of wood and paper. You will need to take off your shoes and wear your socks or slippers throughout your stay. Sleeping is done on Korean-style thin mattresses laid on the floor.
Go to the beach
South Korea has amazingly beautiful beaches thanks to its numerous islands and wide coasts. If you are planning to visit during the summer season, be sure to visit one of the pristine beaches. There are several activities you will be able to enjoy: seaside festivals, water sports, sunrise festivals and many other events. However, note that beaches are only officially open from June to July. so you want to dip in the water in August, it will be at your own risk.
Hadong – authentic folk village
Andong should be added to your Korean bucket list if you want to discover authentic South Korea. The town is known for its traditional culture and the main attraction is the Hahoe Folk Village, a Unesco World Heritage site, situated along a picturesque river surrounded by pine trees. The village is full of large tile-roofed residences, thatched roofs houses and old pavilions. Stroll through the narrow streets, visit the traditional houses and explore the Hahoe Mask Museum, with its intriguing collection of Korean and international masks.
Take part in a Buddhist temple stay
If you are looking for a truly unique experience while in South Korea, then a temple stay will offer you just that. Not only will you be able to get a glimpse into the life of monks in a traditional temple but will also be able to relax and destress while there. Sometimes, you just need some space for yourself to forget about the stress in your daily life (social media, work etc…) so a temple stay is a perfect opportunity for that. During their stay, visitors learn about Buddhism, practice relaxation, copy sutras and do other activities in order to keep concentrated and relaxed at all times. There are many programmes available in several temples across the country. Jogyesa Temple in Seoul or Beomeosa in Busan are popular options. More information can be found here.
Meet the Haenyeo women of Jeju Island
Haenyeo is a traditional profession from the island of Jeju. They are women divers who plunge in the sea day in and day out to find shellfish to sell. You can see them at work every day at Sunrise Peak. You can’t miss them: they all wear wetsuits, face masks, flippers but no oxygen tanks. These ladies have developed a breathing technique that enables them to stay underwater for a long period of time. They are exceptional and bucket list-worthy.
Boseong Tea Fields
Boseong is famous for its green tea plantations (most of Korea’s tea is produced here). The magnificent and photogenic green plantations are a must-see when on a trip to South Korea. Walk to the top of the plantation to admire the gorgeousness of the location, appreciate the gentle smell of the tea leaves and try some of the tea (you can even have green tea flavoured ice cream!)
Explore Nami Island
The independent island of Nami Island is one of the most popular day trip options from Seoul. Seoulites love to make a trip there to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city. The half-moon shaped island is a nice place to explore no matter the season. The garden of the Morning Calm lined with ginkgo trees and beautiful flowers are particularly spectacular in spring and autumn.
Admire the royal tombs in Gyeongju
Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty is a perfect destination for those interested in history and culture. The most fascinating thing about the charming city is the mounts you see erecting everywhere in the city. These ancient graves of the kings and royal family are impressive. The Daereungwon Tumuli Park houses about 23 tombs and the Oreung Royal Tombs (“oreung” meaning “five royal tombs”) is the resting place of four kings and one queen.
Attend a festival
Visiting Korea during the summer season is the best time to experience the many festivals organised in the country. May is the birth month of Buddha, therefore, all the temples organise festivals in celebrations. Hundreds Of colourful lanterns are hung in temples for the joy of visitors.
During Chuseok, which is known as Korean Thanksgiving Day, Koreans return to their hometowns to celebrate the festive period with their families. Visit a palace during that period to see various entertainment and folk games (mask dance, circle dance and wrestling among others)
Dine at the Netflix Street Food stand
If, like me, watching Netflix’s hit show “Street Food: Asia” gave you an insatiable appetite to explore all the stands featured on the show, you will definitely make a stop at Gwangjang Market. Cho Yonsoon is not only a lovely and remarkable lady, her kalguksu (knife-cut noodles) are delicious.
Devour the sweet hotteok
South Korea has become a global culinary destination. The street food is one of the best in Asia. One snack you should try is “hotteok” and the best place to try it is Busan. Of course, you can find a snack everywhere in Korea. Hotteok is a fried sweet pancake stuffed with a mixture of brown sugar, honey, cinnamon and crushed nuts. Once fried, the filling transforms into a delicious syrup, while the exterior gets crispy. It’s popular, yummy and addictive street food!
Eat a true Korean barbecue
Have you ever eaten a Korean BBQ? Slices of ultra-thin, long-marinated meat that you cook yourself on a grill placed in the centre of the table? The meat is usually served with a slice of lettuce leaves that you use to wrap the meat. The Korean barbecue uses two types of meat: beef (bulgogi) or pork belly (samgyeopsal). This is best enjoyed with friends.
Try Korean Street Food In ….everywhere
You can basically wander into the streets of any city in Korea, eat your fill of delicious street food without ever going into a restaurant. Every city has a street or section in a market dedicated to food. Not only the food is delicious but also cheap. There are a wide variety of options to choose from: tteokbokki (cylinder-shaped stir-fried rice cakes seasoned with gochujang (Korean chilli pepper paste) or ganjang (soy sauce, in its non-spicy version), hotteok (a deliciously sweet pancake filled with sugar syrup, honey, cinnamon and/or peanuts), gimbap (rice and other things rolled in seaweed) etc…Take a sit in a pojangmacha (covered tent) and eat all the food you can.
Taste a Korean pancake
Jeon which means pancake in Korean is prepared with chives, seafood, shellfish and eggs mixed with flour batter and then pan-fried. It comes in a number of varieties so the name differs depending on the ingredients. Aside from the seafood pajeon, you can have kimchi jeon and the simple spring onion pajeon (soegogi-jeon, gochujeon, etc…). Jeon is a popular snack or side dish. The pancake comes pre-sliced into bite-sized pieces that you dip in the accompanying light soy sauce. One word: delicious!
Check out Korean Convenience Store Foods
One positive thing about travelling in South Korea is that there are convenience stores on virtually every street in major cities and most are open 24/7. You can basically get all the things you need at any hour, no matter where you are. Whether you are looking for a bento box (dosirak), a late-night cup noodle or something for breakfast, the stores like 7-Eleven, CU, GS25 will surely have what you are looking for! Plus some of the stores have tables and hot counters so you can sit and have a proper meal for cheap.
Sample fresh seafood at Jagalchi Fish Market
Jagalchi Fish Market is a traditional fish market located in the port city of Busan. There you will find all kinds of fish and seafood: squids, eels, crabs or sea worms. Jagalchi is best visited early in the morning during the morning auctions, so be sure to be there extra early. The next thing to do after checking out the market is sampling the food. Here are three options for you:
- 1: visit one of the many restaurants and select from the menu
- 2: go to one of the pojangmacha (restaurants under tents) and try out some of their unique fish and seafood dishes
- 3: buy a fish or seafood of your choice and have it prepared for you, sashimi-style. The most daring one can opt to taste the traditional san-nakji, a raw octopus still wriggling or gaebul.
Eat bibimbap in Jeonju
The reasons to visit Jeonju are the history, culture, art and Hanok Village with its preserved historical buildings. Taking a stroll in the streets takes you back to the old days, especially if you are wearing a hanbok! The city is famous for the bibimbap so get a taste of the authentic dish.
Hopefully, this article will be useful to plan your Korea trip and will enable you to expand your South Korea Bucket list. If you need more resources to help plan your trip, why not have a look at our South Korea category. You will find articles on important things to know before planning your trip, Korean itinerary or city guides.