There are many reasons why Korea should be on your 2016 Bucket list and here's 9 reasons why!
Year in, year out Korea seems to escape the travel radar. This in its own right is one of the many reasons you need to visit this year. It's a little hidden gem that has yet to be discovered and bombarded by the hordes of backpackers that flock to Asia each year.
There's no Statue of Liberty, no Leaning Tower, no Great Wall or Taj Mahal but that doesn't mean that Korea is without its own worthy wonders. There are endless attractions, beautiful scenery, mouth-watering foods and jam- packed itineraries that make Korea a hot destination in 2016.
We've had the pleasure of living and working in Seoul, South Korea for over four years now. Sadly, that chapter will soon come to and end and we feel it is our obligation to share with you how great this little once hermit kingdom is. Forget what they say in the news about North Korea and how it affects the South! It's all a load of baloney!! South Korea has a booming economy and a great a lifestyle, all at a cost that will suit any budget.
9. Korean Spa's (Jimjilbangs)
A real treat awaits you in the form of Korean Spa's, if you are prepared to leave your inhibitions at the front door! If you consider yourself a little prudish or naked bodies make you uncomfortable, then maybe think twice when someone asks you to go to a jimjilbang. But you are certainly missing out if you don't !!
Our first experience in a jimjilbang was one of amusement, shock, embarrassment and finally pure relaxation. The ajuma's (old ladies) are very friendly and super curious about foreigners that I had one sit uncomfortably close trying to engage in a full conversation in Korean (which at the time I couldn't speak or understand a word of!). Once you get over the initial embarrassment, you will embrace the laid back atmosphere and realise that no-one takes any notice of you.
For a fraction of the price you would pay in Europe or the UK, you can enjoy a full 24 hours (if you like) for around $10. This will allow you access to the hot springs, the cold baths and saunas. You will also get your very own pair of pjs to slip into after your scrub. Trying to find a mat in the communal area is more challenging but not as much as trying to sleep amongst the chitter chatter, farts and snores around you!
You can find them everywhere but the most popular one used by tourists and expats would be Dragon Hill Spa at Yongsan Station.
It would be such a shame to visit Korea and not admire the view from one of the many mountain peaks. There are plenty of hiking opportunities both inside of Seoul and throughout the country, with mountains making up 70% of the landscape. You will find that you are never more that 30 minutes from a great hiking day if you are staying in Seoul. Bukhansan, Dobongsan, and Yongmasan are to name but a few are some of the best hikes within the city.
If you have more time and you fancy venturing outside the city, you can enjoy the spectacular views and hiking facilities of some of Korea's National Parks. Seoraksan, Jirisan, and Taebaeksan are all on the mainland but if you plan on visiting JeJu Island during your stay, you could hike Korea's biggest - Hallasan. Make sure you pack soju alongside your water, you will only be joining in with the majority of other hikers in toasting at the top to celebrate your achievement! It makes the decent a lot more interesting too!!
7. Coffee Culture
If like us, one of your life's little essentials includes coffee, then look no further than Seoul to cure that craving. Seoul has one of the most extensive & impressive selections of coffee streets (actual streets dedicated to coffee) for coffee lovers to drown yourself in.
Hongdae (sangsu station) ~ Located just a few minutes from Sangsu Station, hidden in the back streets, you will find a mix of cute little coffee cabins, funky interiors and great hand drip or dutch coffee. From Sangsu Station exit 1, walk straight and turn right, in the direction of Hapjeong Station. A short walk along this road, one street back off the main road, you will find not only coffee but cute bars and restaurants to tickle your fancy.
Garosugil ~ A trendy, upmarket area with a European feel, Garosugil is the soho of Seoul. With quaint boutiques, and a bohemian atmosphere, most folk flock here on weekends to soak up the feel good vibe, look chic and celebrity watch. With healthy eats and yummy dessert cafe's, it's a great spot to enjoy a coffee.
Samcheongdong ~ In our opinion, this is one of the most unique and funky places to explore in Seoul. Famous for Bukchon Hanok Village, its surrounded by chic galleries, cafes, restaurants, museums all in traditional hanok buildings. This clever mix of modernity, whilst still keeping its traditional flare is what makes Samcheongdong so charming.
Insadong ~ For all you Tea Lovers out there, Insadong is your serene place to enjoy a hot beverage. The main street is lined with tea houses, galleries and traditional artefacts. Visit antique shops, browse in the oldest book store in Seoul and tantalise your tastebuds with the array of restaurants. Be sure to wander down the winding alleys, you never know what you will come across around the next corner!
6. Korean Quirks
The great thing about Korea is that there are numerous quirky things you will come across that are unique only to Korea. Ok, you may find a few of them in China, Japan and Taiwan but these countries are top destinations for tourists, therefore experiencing them all in Korea will save you travel time and money!
Love Motels ~ Love motels are very popular throughout the country and are a great budget option if you need to spend the night somewhere. Whilst they might sound sleazy and less appealing considering they can be rented by the hour! The reality is that most Korean couples actually only rent the rooms to spend time alone, hang out and play computer games or watch movies. This may sound strange, but due to cultural habits and relationship restrictions, young couples are unable to spend time alone at home until after they are married.
Theme Hotels ~ are a fun, unique sleeping option. You wouldn't believe some of the themed rooms you can book on a nightly basis; Giant ramen noodle rooms to Starbucks themed, glow in the dark, to your own private nightclub theme complete with dance floor and disco lights. It's definitely one you want to add to your list of things to do whilst in Korea, although be prepared to pay for it.
Noraebangs ~ are the equivalent to Karaoke in the UK, but with a twist. Rather that singing to a room full of strangers in your local pub, you get the VIP treatment complete with your own private room, bar service and endless hours to sing and dance the night away with friends. They are great fun, and in my opinion you haven't experienced Korea until you lose your voice in one of the many noraebangs found on every street corner. Head to the popular university areas for themed norabangs with a fun and friendly atmosphere.
DVD Bangs ~ are another fun option if you feel like watching a movie but you want more privacy. Popular with students and young couples who aren't yet married, DVD bangs ("bang" meaning "room" in Korean) allow you to rent the room by the hour (or movie running time), bring your own snacks and drinks and cozy up on the large leather sofa's with your very own Wide Screen TV. Pick a new release or simple watch and old-time favourite. A great way to unwind "mid trip" when you need a night to rest your dancing shoes.
Seoul is known far and wide as a Shopping Mecca, well at least in Asia! You can literally shop for clothes, fashion accessories, shoes, bags, hats, scarves, sunglasses and much much more....I think you get my point.... 24 hours a day in the popular area of Dongdaemun! Certain shopping mall's actually only open at 8pm and close at 8am, designed for buyers, tourists and wholesalers to shop around the clock.
I've also found that the shopping market in Seoul and Korea as a whole, caters for all shopping budgets. You can barter on a budget at the market stalls, get more for your buck in the giant shopping malls or extend your spend on those designer brands in the plush departments stores located on most street corners.For those of you who aren't a Korean size zero....you may need to search a little further afield to find a label with a "one size fits all" that actually fits 'You'!!
4. Night Life
People think the Irish love their drink but they haven't seen anything until they've been to Korea! Young and old alike love to party hard in Korea, especially in Seoul. Whether its soju shots after a hard days hiking, makgeolli rounds at the local 7/11 or the craft beer craze in the popular student hot spots; Seoulites know how to socialise. Affordable booze prices and an 'open-all-hours' attitude make it all the more acceptable and possible in this city that never sleeps.
With Hongdae, Gangnam, Konkuk and Iteawon maintaining their reputations for the places "to be" and "be seen", the only downside is choosing what hoff (bar), club or lounge to party in. And just when you think you've done all the partying you can do, you can be sure to get dragged to a norebang (singing room) for more endless hours of screeching out the pop songs, k-pop tunes and golden oldies until you literally have no voice.
The nightlife in Korea really is reason enough to visit this amazing country and party like it's 1999!
Korean food, in my opinion is very unique and all about spice and flavour. Kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) is, along with rice, Korean's staple dish. It's definitely an acquired taste. Once you acquire it however, you may find you just can't get enough of it. It's a good thing there are over 180 varieties to choose from. Just like soups, makgeolli and side dishes; kimchi variations depend on region. Each region offering assortments of flavors to tantalize your taste buds.
Korean's love their BBQ. You will find more bbq restaurants that any other throughout the city. Cooking your own food with a self-service attitude is not something I would predict to be popular at home in Ireland, but in Korea it's all about socialising, chatting over dinner and cooking in your own time (which can last hours).
A highlight for me when it comes to food is the street food. Strange assortments of fish, cooked, fried and dried, sweet delicacies in new and adventurous concoctions, oversized snacks to colourful creations; the street food is an attraction in itself. They can be found all over the city, mostly in busy or tourist areas.
You can travel the length and breath of Korea on any budget due to low travel costs and a variety of budget friendly motels, restaurants and drinks. If you consider yourself a flash-packer or luxury traveller you can definitely spend a few hundred pounds fast.
Given that Korea is still a developing country and is often overshadowed by its counterparts, Japan and China, allows it to remain very much a budget friendly destination in 2016. If you want to splash some cash and live it up under the big city lights there are an abundance of fancy restaurants, exclusive lounges, designer boutiques and top-notch hotels to indulge in.
In 2016 you can do all and more for less than $100 a day, and that's being generous. If you travel as a couple or with friends, then you can save even more in Korea, as most restaurants, activities and accommodations offer group prices, potentially splitting your costs.
1. Adventure Activities
There's no shortage of Summer activities. Seoul, the capital city of the South is divided by the famous Hangang River. Here you can soak up the summer heat while wind surfing, wake boarding, sailing, canoeing, paddle boarding and much much more. Busan is famous for Haeundae Beach which can attract around 120,000 visitors each year in high season. If that doesn't interest you, Seoul has one of the best cycle routes I have yet to see and bikes can be hired for a small fee in many locations along the river. Check out our guide to Biking in Korea for more information. For a chance to roll around in the dirt and give your skin a natural boost, venture down to Daecheon Beach for the very popular and very fun 'Boryeong Mud Festival'.
With all this on offer only a short subway ride away, there is never a dull day in Korea.
There are also an abundance of winter sports to wet any appetite, such as snowboarding, skiing, ice fishing, ice climbing, ice skating and more. Check out Our Guide to Snowboarding in Korea for all you need to know. Many of these activities can be enjoyed within many of the major cities or less than 1 hour from Seoul. With so many ski resorts within close proximity to Seoul and at such low prices, you can be sure to find yourself on the slopes most weekends without breaking the bank. If you're brave enough to face the polar bear swim, head to Busan's Haeundae Beach in Winter for the annual dip to welcome the new year.
So there you have it, our 9 reasons to visit Korea in 2016!
I'll leave you with a cute little quote from the big man himself.....
The trouble is, you think you have time. ~ Buddha
Don't forget to check out our guide on packing for winter in Korea for lots of tips on what to bring.
Happy Travels from Hitchhikinginheels xx