From street food to food fit for royalty in Seoul to cold water dives and horse rides on Jeju Island, South Korea is home to iconic sites and lesser known finds you should discover. I love the diversity of experiences in Seoul and beyond. If you’re thinking of traveling to South Korea, read on to find out why I love Korea and why you should go.
With locals as my guides, I was able to visit South Korea to film for my PBS TV series, Travels with Darley. We paired the capital city of Seoul, with its dynamic history and culture, with Jeju Island, the “Hawaii of Asia.” On Jeju Island, exotic seafood and strong women mixed with stunning landscapes and tasty tea.
The eight reasons why I love Korea obviously have to start with the food.
#1 Korean BBQ
One of my all-time favorite dishes is Korean BBQ. Dining on Korean BBQ in Korea is truly a treat. The diversity of accompaniments for your grilled beef, chicken or pork are spectacular. Many of your typical side dishes may include kimchi, rice, egg souffle, spicy radish salad and green onion salad. Make sure to try galbi, marinated beef short ribs, as they are usually super tender and tasty.
If you’re on Jeju Island, dive into pork from the Jeju black pig. This thick, fatty pork can sometimes look more like a steak. Whether you like your barbecue with marinated thin meats (bulgogi), thick, smokey or garlicky, you have lots of choices. For a more street food style experience and to sample lots of different food options, head to Gwangjang Market.
I loved it well before I went to Korea and often try to find the best in NYC in Koreatown and beyond. I recently did, dining at a Michelin-star Korean steakhouse, Cote, located near Madison Square Park in NYC. What an amazing feast of various cuts of steak, as well as Korean “bacon”, marinated short ribs, kimchi, egg souffle and more. Fantastic!
#2 Jeju Island Seafood
Jeju Island is known for its seafood and if you’re visiting, you can have a sea to table experience with the locals… if you’re brave. A strong community of women represent a semi-matriarchal society on Jeju Island and have for centuries. Called the Haenyeo, still today, these women, many of whom are now older, free dive in Jeju’s sometimes chilly waters to harvest seafood for their families and communities. During the summer, they work the fields to bring in crops. On UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Haenyeo continue their practices today and also run a diving school outside of Jeju City.
Established in 2008, their diving school works to pass down traditions to the younger generations on Jeju Island as well as sharing them with outsiders through a live theatre performance and meal. You’ll try what the women have caught, likely that day, including dishes like sea urchin noodles. Make sure to visit Shindaepark Sushi Restaurant and wash your meal down with a local beer from Jeju Beer Company. If you’ve never had it, abalone is another popular fish, including abalone porridge.
Heard of the boy band BTS? How about the girl group Miss A? If you don’t know them by name, you may recognize a song or a few! K-pop is a global phenomenon that is thought to have begun to taken off in the 1990s. K-pop encompasses hints of hip-hop, R&B, Jazz, black pop, soul, funk, techno, disco, Afrobeats and house. I love the music and think a great way to experience it in South Korea is to dance! At Dance Joa in Seoul, you can take a k-pop dance lesson with the locals and truly get a sense of how dedicated locals are to K-pop. It’s fun!
Korea is known all over the world for its beauty products and locals have quite the beauty regimen. If you’re traveling to Seoul, take some time to visit a spa, like Sulwhasoo, to learn more about K-beauty and to give yourself a break. In Seoul, numerous spas provide a K-beauty experience, and focus not just on your face, but other parts of your body too. At Seoul’s Sulwhasoo spa, I indulged in a red ginseng foot scrub. Ginseng is a big ingredient in a lot of the K-beauty products. My guide Jooyeon Cho relayed to me that on average Koreans have eight steps in their bedtime regimen.
If you’re looking to buy more inexpensive K-beauty gifts for friends and family, head to Olive Young, akin to a US Sephora. You’ll find these stores throughout Seoul.
#5 Jeju Horses
Horses are thought to have been on Jeju Island from the end of the Stone Age or the beginning of the Bronze Age. Smaller in stature and sweet in temperament, they remind me of horses from Iceland and their modern versions may have influences from Mongolia. I love these sweet horses, which you can see grazing along in fields driving around the island or for horseback riding on the beach.
I was able to go horseback riding on a beach with views of Sunrise Peak, another of Jeju’s, distinctive crater formations that draws in travelers for sunrises, especially on New Year’s Day. It’s also listed by UNESCO as an outstanding landscape.
You don’t just need to travel outside of Seoul for a nature adventure in the capital city. The city’s much-loved park at N Seoul Tower is a wonderful green space with both green and urban views. You can hike on trails here and go up in N Seoul Tower, also known as Namsan Seoul Tower, to take in sweeping views of Seoul from the highest point in the city.
On Jeju Island, nature enthusiasts will enjoy the beaches and inland areas, where you can find a diversity of terrains. Take a walk at Sangumburi Crater, where silvergrass lines a nearly vertical crater that’s over 425 feet, 130 meters deep, as deep as the highest mountain on Jeju island. Popular with honeymooners and photography enthusiasts, it’s a great place to get further insight into life on Jeju island. For nature lovers who also have a sweet tooth, take a break at One & Only Café on the beach. This coffee shop and eatery reminded me of California with striking beach views. Order their signature chocolate lava cake, modeled after Sangbangsan Mountain, a large lava dome on Jeju’s south shore that’s considered to be sacred, it’s one example of the more than 300 volcanic domes, craters, cones and rings on the island.
#7 Historic Architecture
The old mixes with the new in Seoul and throughout South Korea. Traveling around, you’re sure to find amazing and beautiful architecture. One must-visit location is Bukchon Hanok Village, you can get a sense of how the noble people used to live. It’s one of the most visited neighborhoods in Seoul, where traditional Korean architecture has been preserved for a couple of hundred years. One of the key words of Korean architecture is harmony. The curved roofs here resemble Korea’s hills and mountains. It’s so well preserved that it is definitely worth the trip.
Another great location to combine history, culture and architecture is at Gyeongbokgung Palace, which served as the home of Kings of the Joseon dynasty. Much like Buckingham Palace, they also have changing of the guard ceremony.
#8 Korean Culture
At the Korea House in Seoul, travelers can learn about Korean customs firsthand, including cooking classes and royal cuisine in an onsite restaurant. I tried on a hanbok, a traditional Korean costume known for its delicate lines and angles. The colors of the hanbok get more vivid as your status increases. I walked with Andrew Park to see the clay pots where kimchi made on site would ferment from a month to six months. The longer you ferment it, the deeper taste it gains. We then went inside to enjoy a cooking lesson with a master kimchi chef. Chef Mikyung Lee has been making kimchi for 36 years and shared that there are more than 200 kinds of kimchi. That’s a lot of diversity.
There are many more reasons why I love South Korea. Check out my “Travels with Darley: South Korea” episode to see my adventures first-hand and find out why you should plan a trip to Korea. Want to explore Korea vacations? Check out Darley Vacations and our South Korea trip itinerary modeled after my trip there. You can book this trip through my preferred travel advisor, Cathy Moha.