South Korea is a fascinating East Asian country. With a population of over 51 million people, South Korea is renowned for its unique culture, rich history and dynamic technological and economic development.
South Korea has a rich and complex culture influenced by its long and tumultuous history. The country has been inhabited for thousands of years, with evidence of human presence dating back to the Neolithic period. Over the centuries, South Korea has been occupied by various powers, including the Mongols, the Japanese, and the Chinese. In the 20th century, South Korea followed a rapid course of modernization, transforming its poor agricultural economy into one on par with the world’s richest industrialized countries in just a few decades.
South Korea was created as a nation in 1945. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Korean Peninsula was freed from Japanese colonial rule and the United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea into two occupation zones.
In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and a three-year war broke out that ended in a stalemate, with the two countries separated by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel. Since then, South Korea and North Korea have had a hostile relationship and remain technically at war, as the 1953 hostilities ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. In recent years there have been attempts at diplomatic rapprochement and summits between the leaders, but major unresolved issues such as the North’s nuclear weapons and human rights abuses remain.
In the 1960s, South Korea’s economy began to grow rapidly, with the government implementing a series of policies to promote industry and exports. This period, known as the “Miracle on the Han River”, saw the establishment of large factories such as Samsung and Hyundai. From 1961 to 1979, a dictatorship prevailed, during which policies of development and modernization, but also suppression of freedom, were implemented. In 1997, the Asian financial crisis hit South Korea, leading to a sharp economic contraction and high unemployment. But the government implemented reforms to restructure the economy and strengthen financial institutions, and the country quickly recovered.
Since the turn of the millennium, South Korea has become a leading player in the global economy, with major industries in electronics, automobiles, and shipbuilding.
One of the hallmarks of South Korean culture is its cuisine, which is famous for its use of bold and spicy flavors, as well as its emphasis on fresh ingredients. Another notable aspect is the love for technology and innovation. South Korea is home to some of the world’s leading technology companies and its citizens are very familiar with using it. K-pop, Korean pop music, has also become a global phenomenon, with groups such as BTS and Blackpink gaining global fame.
South Koreans place importance on education, with high academic achievement. The country is home to many top universities and has an excellent education system. Citizens have strong professional passion and dedication to their work, with long working hours and high productivity. However, they also value family and social relationships, hospitality and sociability.
They are a people proud of their country’s economic and cultural achievements and have a strong national identity. Innovation, fashion and pop culture have brought them to the forefront of global popularity in recent years.
Cinema and images of traditional Korean Buddhist temples have affected our perception of a religious people who embrace Buddhism. Surprisingly, the majority of the population is atheist (56%), followed by Christianity (Protestantism, 19%) which spread during the colonial era. Buddhism, specifically Shintoism, was the main religion of the country until the 20th century, but it gradually lost ground as a national faith.
South Korea has a significant number of tourist destinations that highlight its culture and history.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a destination that most visitors to the country will visit. Seoul is a vibrant metropolis that combines ancient history with modern technology. Highlights include Gyeongbokgung Palace, a magnificent 14th-century palace complex. The Namsan Telecommunication Tower, a towering structure offers stunning views of the city and the bustling Myeong-dong shopping area is of particular interest.
Jeju Island is located off the southern coast of South Korea and is a scenic destination known for its natural beauty.
Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, a bustling port city with a rich history and vibrant nightlife. Highlights include the colorful Gamcheon Cultural Village, the majestic Beomeosa Temple, and the bustling Jagalchi Fish Market.
Jeonju is a city in the western part of South Korea with a population of 650,000 and is known for its rich cultural heritage, particularly its traditional Korean architecture and cuisine. Jeonju is home to many historical sights and attractions, such as Jeonju Hanok Village, which has over 800 traditional houses, as well as Gyeonggijeon Temple. Jeonju is also famous for its local cuisine, particularly bibimbap.
Gyeongju-si is a city located in the southeastern part of South Korea. It was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Silla, which ruled much of the Korean Peninsula from the 1st century BC. to the 10th century AD For this reason, Gyeongju is known for its rich cultural heritage, including many temples, tombs and relics from the period of the Silla kingdom. Some of the most famous attractions in Gyeongju-si include Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto, and Cheomseongdae Observatory. Gyeongju also boasts remarkable natural beauty, with parks, mountains and beaches nearby.
South Korea opened its borders since the covid-19 pandemic relatively late, in 2022. But for Chinese tourists there were restrictions until early 2023. At the time of the visit, Western visitors were few, but Asians – mainly Koreans, Japanese and Chinese – there were enough to overwhelm some of the points of interest.
South Korea has a higher cost of living than most of East Asia, but significantly lower than Greece. As an example, accommodation cost an average of €35-40 for a double room with private bathroom, a meal in a restaurant around €20 per person and travel on high-speed and long-distance trains from €20 to €33. A ticket on the subway and buses costs ₩1200 (€0.8).
Some travelers, the first thing they ask about a place is safety. So, South Korea is considered one of the safest countries in the world.
The bizarre South Korea
South Korea is a country with quite peculiar customs and manners, which have been shaped by the course of its history as well as influences from neighboring Japan and China as well as modern Western culture. In the modern era, traditions are mixed with technological development, the new generation guides global trends and modern Korean culture is expressed in original habits, often foreign to the visitor.
In South Korea, as elsewhere in the Far East, bowing is a common form of greeting and showing respect. Depth and duration determine the level of respect shown.
Using the left hand in a handshake can be perceived as bad luck, having a negative association with death. Most Koreans won’t be bothered if you accidentally use your left hand. However, the elderly and those in official meetings may be offended. During a handshake or offering gesture, it is customary to use the wrist of the left hand to support the right hand. Women can extend both hands and shake each other’s hands in the handshake.
The Korean cuisine
Korean cuisine is a huge part of the travel experience in this country and reflects the country’s rich history and cultural traditions. From pickled vegetables and grilled meats to rice-based dishes and seafood, Korean dishes offer a wide variety of flavors for the visitor to enjoy. Korean cuisine stands out from other East Asian cuisines because of its bold, even eccentric flavors and ingredients.
The geography and climate of the country play a role in shaping the cuisine. Korea’s mountainous regions are ideal for growing grains such as rice and barley, which find their place in many dishes. With a long coastline and an abundance of seafood, fish and shellfish also play an important role. Korean cuisine is not easy to excite the taste buds of a European, but among the countless options, one will surely find interesting and unprecedented tastes.
Seoul has two airports and in close proximity to each other, south of the mouth of the Han River. The arrival in the country takes place in Gimpo which is now the 2nd in size, after the completion of the Incheon airport, from where we will take the return flight after 11 days.
After buying a local phone card from the LG company, we board the modern metro network. Along with the sim card we are given a gift and a rechargeable card for the means of transport. The one-way fare is 1200₩ (€0.85) and allows transfer to other lines or buses for some extra cost which I never understood how it is determined. When disembarking from buses, it is advisable to validate the card again so that it is charged less.
The first stop on our country tour is the Myeong-dong suburb, a vibrant area of Seoul that is filled with hotels, shopping malls, shops, restaurants and cafes. It is one of the most ideal starting areas to discover Seoul.
The traditional Bukchon Hanok village is nearby, but the one way there, due to the uphill slope, is by bus. Bukchon offers a tourist taste of Korean traditional culture and architecture as it is a preserved district in the center of Seoul between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Changdeokgung Palace, giving a sense of what the country was like in the past. Of course, the large number of tourists does not allow this reminiscence, although the hanbok costumes that most of them wear, have some fun. A group of Greek tourist agencies makes its presence resounding. Some of the hanok houses are now guesthouses, others are cultural centers, but most are private residences. These staged, mass tourist attractions do not appeal to me at all.
Gyeongbokgung was built in 1395 and was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty. During war in the 16th century it was destroyed and abandoned for two centuries. In the 19th century, the 7,700 rooms of the palace were restored and in the 20th century it again suffered significant damages under the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Like most palaces in Korea, it is built primarily of wood on a stone platform and decorated with paintings depicting real and imaginary creatures. The courtyard is surrounded by several wooden monasteries.
Myeong-dong is one of the many places where the visitor can feel the bustling rhythms of this Asian metropolis, which at night takes on a different aspect, more chaotic, food stalls start to open and excellent street food options are available of the visitors.
An interesting place to visit in Seoul is the Noryangjin Fish Market. Many of the sea creatures are alive in tanks, some of them may look alien. My dining experience will take place in another market, that of Busan.
Not far from Myeong-dong is Seoul tower, a telecommunications tower that offers a spectacular view of the city from the top of Mount Namsan. A cable car takes the public up to the base of the tower, with observation points all around, and with an additional ticket one can go up to the tower and the revolving restaurant. Due to heavy cloud cover in the first few days, our visit will take place on the way back to Seoul at the end of the trip.
During the last days in Seoul, the accommodation will be in another tasteful area, Hongdae, with lower buildings, with many cafes and restaurants. We will visit, among others, the Deoksugung Palace, the SeMA art museum that had a tribute to Edward Hopper, the shopping center with the 555m high Lotte Tower (6th in the world), the Starfield bookstore and the upscale Gangnam district that inspired the famous K-Pop song by rapper Psy.
In the meantime, we head southwest on the KTX train that crosses the Korean countryside at 300 km/h, while sporadically passing by the window are cities with tall buildings.
This well-visited town has a picturesque center with traditional Hanok houses. One of them is our guest house, with a heated floor and a thin quilt as a mattress that didn’t make it hard for me to sleep at all.
Besides the Hanok neighborhoods, other points of interest are Gyeonggijeon Palace, Jeongdong Cathedral, street food night market, Hanbyeokdang Pavillion, Omokdae Monument on a hill with a panoramic view, Jaman traditional village with its elaborate wall murals. Also the hill of Wansan Park which at this season with the blossomed cherry trees, gets dreamlike colors.
Busan, the coastal jewel
Το Busan βρίσκεται στη νοτιοανατολική ακτή και είναι μια πολυσύχναστη πόλη, η 2η σε πληθυσμό, που προσφέρει ένα συνδυασμό φυσικής ομορφιάς και αστικής γοητείας. Με τη μεγάλη ακτογραμμή, τους περίτεχνους ναούς, τις πολυσύχναστες αγορές και την απολαυστική κουζίνα, το Busan προσφέρει μια αξέχαστη ταξιδιωτική εμπειρία.
Located on the southeast coast, Busan is a bustling city, the 2nd most populous, offering a combination of natural beauty and urban charm. With its long coastline, ornate temples, bustling markets and delectable cuisine, Busan offers an unforgettable travel experience.
Busan is a city with a large area and the attractions are spread quite far from each other. Of course, the city has an extensive metro network as well as buses. So the original thought of renting a car for a few days was abandoned. I confess that driving in a place with so much organization, rules and a complex road network is more stressful for me, surprisingly much more than the chaotic conditions in African countries or the unimaginable driving situation in Iraq. Combined with the incomprehensible alphabet, however, it will be difficult to even find a parking space in Korea. The accommodation area we choose is Nampo.
Maybe the most famous spot in Busan is the enchantingly colorful neighborhood of Gamcheon Culture Village. It is a preserved traditional village with colorful houses, art installations and narrow streets that make this place an artistic feast. Small streets, local cafes and galleries complement the artistic atmosphere of this unique neighborhood.
Songdo Beach is an artificial beach, the first beach constructed in Korea. A cable car connects the beach to Amnam Park which is located on a verdant hill with scenic paths above the sea and one can enjoy excellent views including the Namhang Bridge and the craggy cliffs along the coastline.
North of Busan is Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, an impressive Buddhist temple perched on a cliff overlooking the East Sea. Unlike most Korean temples, this one is located by the water and the view is complemented by ornate buildings and statues. However, the peaceful and picturesque setting is disturbed by the large number of tourists. During Buddha’s birthday, colorful lanterns illuminate the entire area. The temple is quite far from the town but there is a bus to some point and then some walking is required. Nearby is a shopping center with architectural references to a Cycladic island.
From Songjeong station we take a scenic tourist train that moves at 15km/h parallel to the coast. A smaller carriage called the sky capsule runs on a higher level and offers more panoramic views, at a higher price. Halfway is the Daritlol station where there is an aerial glass walkway over the sea. I can’t say that I am impressed by such tourist spectacles. The train ends at Haeundae Beach, one of Korea’s most famous and picturesque beaches. With golden sand stretching for 1.5 kilometers and directly above an imposing building with three glass towers, Haeundae Beach attracts locals and tourists alike, especially in the summer months. In the wider area there is another market with food and other products.
An authentic culinary experience can be found at Jagalchi Fish Market, the largest seafood market in Korea. At the vendors’ stalls there is an abundant and impressive variety of fresh fish, shellfish and other marine delicacies. Upstairs are market restaurants, where the same menu is offered in everything, whether seafood cooked or raw. As I mentioned above, I ordered the live worms that were moving on my chop sticks, also sea cucumbers and ascidians (rock shells).
The Shinsegae Centum City Department Store is listed in Guinness World Records as the world’s largest shopping complex, offering a full range of entertainment options, from an ice rink to a cinema, golf course and spa. Shops include designer and brand names from around the world, and even an entire replica of the Fontana di Trevi! The department store is considered a landmark of Busan.
Busan, with its mixture of urban and natural beauty, I would say is a destination with more charm than Seoul.
Gyeongju is an important travel destination in the country, but surprisingly, the railway does not directly connect the city, but requires an additional one-hour bus ride. Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla, which ruled about two-thirds of the Korean Peninsula for a thousand years, peaking between the 7th and 9th centuries. The metropolitan capital Gyeongju was the fourth largest city in the world. A large number of archaeological and cultural monuments and finds from this period are still preserved, which is why Gyeongju is often referred to as “the museum without walls”.
Among the historical treasures, among the most important is the Bulguksa Temple. The temple is considered a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla kingdom. The building was completed in 774 after the death of King Kim, and was given its current name of Bulguksa (Buddha’s Earth Temple). It includes six National Treasures of South Korea, including the two stone pagodas and the two gilded Buddha statues. The temple has been designated as a world heritage site by UNESCO. The exquisite architecture and peaceful atmosphere in the verdant landscape is complemented by another garden with cherry blossoms that adorns its edges.
The city sights are at a great distance from each other and the distant places are visited by bus, while the nearby ones are by taxi – which is economical – or by a small electric vehicle that we rent for a few hours.
Gyeongju Donggung Palace and Wolji Lake was the kingdom’s secondary palace, and after its fall, the site was abandoned. The lake was called “Anapji” but recently a ceramic shard with the letters “Wolji” (a lake reflecting the moon) carved on it was found, which revealed the real name of the lake and the site has been renamed Donggung Palace & Wolji Pond.
The monument is beautiful during the day, but at night it becomes enchanting with the lighting and trees reflected in the pond, creating a mysterious atmosphere. A path around the perimeter of the lake allows views from different sides. I had been asked by OpenTv to do a live broadcast of the trip. The palace becomes an ideal setting and the time difference with Greece determines the night visit.
Woljeong Bridge is a covered bridge next to Gyochon Traditional Village. It was built around the 7th to 10th century, but was destroyed and only the stonework of the original bridge remained. In modern times the bridge was reconstructed and restored to its original glory. In the spring, the cherry blossoms and the river add to the picturesqueness.
Other attractions include the traditional Gyeongju Gyochon Village and the Cheomseongdae Monument, a cylindrical stone observatory that represents the solar year. With the neighboring Gyarim forest and burial mounds, it is an interesting place to tour.
The many and important attractions add to the picturesqueness and make Gyeongju one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea.
The trip to South Korea, although for me it lacked the factor of adventure, exploration, special natural scenery or humanitarian awareness, it was an interesting experience that completes another travel piece in the multicultural mosaic of East Asia.
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