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My friends and I were in South Korea for a considerable amount of time… definitely longer than your average tour. However, it still felt like we had more to see and more to do. The country is just so rich in culture, history and even modern attractions that it was impossible to hit all the stops in our original itinerary. Something was always bound to distract us from our plan; and that’s what I loved about the flexibility and ease of our trip. That is why I won’t go into our day-to-day activities. I will instead write about certain highlights and attractions based on what they have in common. Hopefully, these posts could give suggestions as to where you should go and what you should prioritize depending on your main objective in going to this country.

South Korea undoubtedly has a rich history… a country that went through a number of challenges before becoming the developed economy that it is now. Much like Japan, Korea shows great appreciation for their heritage by rebuilding and preserving relics that remind people about their past. And if you’re the type who loves to learn about history and catching glimpses of what life might have been like before, here are some attractions that you may want to visit:

BUKCHON HANOK VILLAGE
Accessible from: Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 2.
What I Saw/Did:
– Walked around and saw the many traditional houses (called hanok) in the area.
– Experienced an overnight hanok stay in Manaedang. There are a number of guesthouses that accommodate tourists and visitors… allowing them to briefly immerse in one aspect of Korean culture.
– Did some window shopping. There are a number of adorable shops and small stores that sell various souvenirs.
Why Go There:
It’s definitely a charming place that brings you to the past; but it’s also mixed with subtle hints of modernity (through the many coffee shops, gift shops and even churches) that show you how far they’ve come.

GYEONGBOKGUNG PALACE
Accessible from: Gyeongbokgung Palace Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 5 OR Gwanghwamun Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 2.
What I Saw/Did:
– Watched the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony.
– Toured the grounds in the company of a student guide. These are young Koreans who volunteer during the weekends and offer free tours. We were approached by the exit of the subway station and of course, we said yes! It’s a really good program that allows them to interact with tourists and practice their English.
– Got lost in the HUGE Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds… and to think this is just a fraction of how it was when it was originally built (side note: The current Gyeongbokgung Palace is already a restoration of the original structure because it was destroyed during the war).
Why Go There:
This is a must see historical landmark when in Korea. Allow yourself to get lost in the beautiful structures and the magnificent views from all angles.

MYEONG-DONG CATHEDRAL
Accessible from: Myeong-dong Subway Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Exit 8
What I Saw/Did:
– Saw Pope Francis and heard mass in Korean.
– Visited and prayed in the cathedral.
Why Go There:
Again, I was lucky enough to be there in time for the Pope’s visit. If you’re a devout Catholic, it would be interesting to see the birthplace of the Roman Catholic Church community in Korea.

DMZ TOUR (Korean Demilitarized Zone)
Accessible from: special tour that I suggest you book with an agent
What I Saw/Did:
– Got a brief history lesson and learned about the division of North and South Korea.
– Went down the Third Tunnel (one of the tunnels linking North to South Korea, which were believed to have been planned as a military invasion route by North Korea). This is 240ft below ground. The trip down was tiring but fascinating nonetheless. I was a few hundred feet away from North Korea!
– Saw a glimpse of North Korea (though from a great great distance) and the demarcation line between the two countries.
– Visited Dorasan Station, the last railway stop in South Korea that links them to North Korea.
Why Go There: Even with a half-day tour (There’s a whole day option available.), it was a really interesting crash course into the background of the division between North and South Korea. If you love history, this is something you should definitely experience.

NAMSANGOL HANOK VILLAGE
Accessible from: Chungmuro Station (Seoul Subway Line 3 & 4), Exit 4.
What I Saw/Did:
– Took a leisurely walk around the village that features 5 restored traditional Korean houses. (Also took a lot of pictures!)
Why Go There:
Namsangol Hanok Village serves as a showcase of traditional Korean houses from the Joseon Dynasty. The 5 houses restored and featured in this village range from those owned by a peasant to those owned by a king’s family. We just missed the hanbok wearing experience by a few minutes; but you could definitely do it here for a small fee. In addition to that, there are different ceremonies that you could witness or even experience and traditional games that you could play. It’s a great cultural immersion.

SUWON HWASEONG FORTRESS
Accessible from: Suwon Station (Seoul Subway Line 1). Take Bus 2, 7, 7-2, 8, or 13 and get off at Jongno 4-geori (intersection).
What I Saw/Did:
– We got lost getting there… But we got there; and that’s what’s important!
– Took in the sights and took pictures.
Why Go There:
The Suwon Hwaseong Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a very imposing structure, a very long walk (if you go from one end to the other), but at its core, it’s simply an impressive historical site to see.

UNHYEONGUNG PALACE
Accessible from: Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3) Exit 4 OR Jongno 3-ga Station (Seoul Subway Line 5) Exit 4
What I Saw/Did:
– Got a chance to wear a traditional hanbok and went around the grounds taking pictures.
Why Go There:
This is an example of a royal residence from the Joseon Dynasty right in the heart of the city. It’s a small compound; but it’s another opportunity to have a glimpse of the past and how royals lived during that time. Like Namsangol Hanok Village, Unhyeongung Palace offers activities that allow tourists to experience some cultural immersion while in Korea.

hanbok wearing experience in Unhyeongung Royal Residence

hanbok wearing experience in Unhyeongung Palace

There are definitely a few other sites we planned to see (a couple more temples, palaces and other UNESCO World Heritage Sites); but these few pieces of history allowed us to travel back in time and served as a good introduction into the culture, history and heritage of South Korea.

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