South Korea is not high on the list of many backpackers who travel to Asia.
Despite a booming ESL industry, English is not so widely-spoken in ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’ as you might expect, nor does Korea have a well-trodden backpacking route like Thailand, Indonesia or Vietnam.
However, hiding amid the largely homogeneous landscape and conservative cities, there are some weird and wonderful things to do in South Korea.
So just what are people missing out on?
Quite a lot actually!
I can’t cover them all, so I’ll just focus on some highlights.
Here are ten of the best things to do in South Korea…
Eat live octopus at Jagalchi Fish Market
Busan is the port city on the south-east corner of South Korea.
In this Irishman’s humble opinion, it is far and away the best city in Korea (Hi Seoul, sorry, not sorry!).
This world famous fish market is the biggest in the country, so if you’re into fresh fish this is where to go. Even if you’re not, it’s worth checking out for the opportunity to try some sannakji.
That’s live octopus. If you like your food squiggling and squirming, then look no further! A little tip, chew it well or it will stick in your throat! (Yes, really!)
Step foot in North Korea
The troubled history of Korea is no secret. What happens across the border in the enigma that is North Korea is quite a mystery though, often shrouded in a veil of terror and controversy.
While a visit deep into the heart of the bubble may be too far for many, you can get pretty close when in South Korea. Tours to the various parts of the heavily armed and ironically named De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) run daily.
The popular tour with a visit to the Joint Security Area (JSA) will set you back about $100. Dress conservatively and obey the rules. For example, don’t stand too close to the guards or they may push you.
Once again, not joking.
Chill with animals in a cafe
How does hanging out with animals while having a coffee sound?
This is one of the most popular things to do in South Korea, particularly in Seoul. Young Korean people and tourists alike will chat over a latte while cuddling dogs and cats in these themed cafes.
It doesn’t stop there though as you can take it further with sheep cafes, owl cafes and, most randomly, a raccoon cafe.
Some of these places carry a distinct odor but otherwise it’s a fun, if not pricey novelty to enjoy in Korea. In some establishments, drinks cost around $10.
So, one cappuccino? Would you like a rabies shot with that?
Go ice fishing in the mountains
Festivals are one of the easiest things to do in South Korea because there are so many. For an authentic cultural experience, venture outside the big cities for the opportunity to experience such wonders as the mushroom, apple or sweet fish festivals.
For the more adventurous souls, the ice fishing festival in far-flung Hwacheon is worth the jaunt. Right up near the border to North Korea, Hwacheon hosts this festival every winter.
The masses descend upon the frozen river and spend days catching fish through holes in the ice. It’s chilly but definitely a fun experience.
If you haven’t much luck fishing, you can always buy your dinner from the vendors on-site who will grill the fresh catch up for you!
Experience Andong Mask Dance Festival
When the Queen of England visited Korea she asked to be taken to the most Korean place there was. They brought her to Andong to experience the annual Mask Dance Festival.
If you want to immerse yourself in Korean culture then come here for an experience you’re sure to remember. You can even try the famous Andong soju – a premium strength version of the ubiquitous Korean rice wine.
Also not to be missed is the extremely tasty Andong Jjimdak. This hearty, saucy stew of vegetables and spicy chicken is sure to put a smile on your face!
Hang out on Haeundae Beach
Korea has some pretty good beaches, with the best being in Busan. The famous Haeundae beach and its white sands stretch 1.5 km along the coastline, attracting the masses at the height of summer.
For a slightly-less crowded affair but no less fun, a festival worth checking out is Holi Hai. The Indian celebration popularly known as the color festival is celebrated on Haeundae beach in early spring, which is late April in Korea.
It’s a fun day and you can get washed up in the ocean (or your hotel room) before heading out to the many great bars and restaurants in Haeundae.
See beautiful Ulleungdo
People who want to teach English in Korea may have the option of getting a job on one of the islands. For ESL teachers interested in a job on Ulleungdo, there are great financial incentives – compensation for the serious lack of a social life.
While it lacks ample opportunity for free-flowing conversation in your native tongue, Ulleungdo is a beautiful island, bountiful with great walks and trekking trails to stir the imagination of any adventurer.
Bring a project, stay a while, find you inner self. If you start talking to yourself a little too much, just visit the mainland again.
There’s a ferry every three weeks.
Visit the famous Dokdo
If you make to Ulleungdo, then you have to go one step further and check out the controversial Dokdo island.
The waters surrounding this group of rocky islets are rich in minerals and ownership of the territory is a serious bone of contention between neighbors Korea and Japan.
Dokdo is heavily policed by the Korean military but tourism is something the government actively encourages. Tightly-controlled visits are short and sweet but give you the opportunity to snap a few selfies with the police and pigeons while you try to sneak into the mysterious upper levels to see what’s really going on.
Just kidding, don’t do that.
Be shocked at Loveland
South Korea is a conservative country. Many Koreans would get awkward or shy when it comes to talking about romantic affairs. However, on Jeju Island, you’ll find a huge contradiction to these morals.
Loveland is an outdoor sculpture park with a sexual theme throughout its many erotic statues and provocative exhibits. It is a sight to behold and one not to be missed on any visit to ‘Korea’s Hawaii’.
While it is not suitable for kids, and perhaps awkwardly uncomfortable to visit with your parents, Loveland is a curious place worth checking out, for amusing photos if nothing else.
Walk through the sea
Ever wondered what it felt like to be Moses?
Well, when you’re looking for things to do in Korea, the Jindo sea-parting festival (another festival!) should be high on your list.
The sea between Jindo island and Modo island parts for about one hour on several days each year, including the most popular event in April.
It’s up to you whether you choose to believe the science behind it or the folklore of a woman’s wish to the god of the ocean so her family could escape the tigers on their island.
In any case, bring your wellingtons and prepare to splash around and have fun!
Which of these things to do in South Korea sound the most fun to you?