South Korea is a popular destination with Asian tourists but is still less explored by travelers from the rest of the world. The country has a rich history and offers its visitors everything from the ultra-modern capital city of Seoul to villages like Andong where it seems that time has stood still. The country has countless National Parks, one of them even adjacent to Seoul, where we did some impressive but tiring hikes. There are over 3500 islands to discover. One of the most famous is Jeju island. So, there’s a lot to explore in South Korea and the hospitable Koreans made our stay impeccable. In this Korea itinerary blog article we share our 7 days Korea itinerary with things to do and some good hotels.
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South Korea travel tips
Let’s start this Korea itinerary blog with some travel tips.
What’s the best time to visit South Korea?
May, September, and October are the best months to visit South Korea. June, July, and August are rainier and hotter with temperatures reaching 25 to 30 degrees. Moreover, the risk of typhoons is also greater. In May everything starts to bloom and in September and October, the autumn colors make the landscapes very photogenic. We visited South Korea in April and had 2 rainy days over the course of 2 weeks and a half.
Cheap flights to South Korea
If you want to score cheap flights to Korea we advise you to have a look at Momondo and Skyscanner. Both are flight aggregators that compare several hundreds of booking sites and give you an overview of the best flights and the cheapest sites to book them.
Momondo and Skyscanner are both very good at finding good deals, of the two, Momondo is probably the one with the most intuitive user interface.
Those who are always on the lookout for the best deals should join the Dollar Flight Club. Joining is free and once you’ve joined you will get alerts in your mailbox whenever cheap flights out of your home airport have been found.
I recently joined the club and already saw some incredible deals. Joining is free and it can literally save you thousands of dollars.
Exploring South Korea by car
We would encourage you to explore South Korea by car. There’s nothing wrong with the public transit system in cities like Seoul. But there’s nothing that can beat the freedom of having your own car. You’re the master of your own schedule and you just need to load your bags in your trunk. Taking the train often means that you will be dragging your bags up and down several flights of stairs. Yes, there’re elevators but they’re not always very easy to find. So here we will share what you need to know to do the perfect South Korean road trip.
Money in South Korea
Cash is king for visitors. Koreans can swipe their cards everywhere but foreign cards are not always accepted. There’re many ATM’s at Incheon airport and it took us at least an hour to find one where we could withdraw cash. Most tourists were helping each other pointing out other ATM’s to their fellow-tourists. It seems all foreigners were having the same problems.
Once we had left the airport things didn’t get better. It was always a hit or miss with the ATM’s we tried. Most wouldn’t accept our cards, some did. Usually, we never suggest to bring cash but it looks like it may be a good idea to bring some cash to South Korea.
And once you have found an ATM that gives you cash make sure to withdraw enough! We couldn’t use our credit cards for toll fees. We had better luck in restaurants and gas stations were our cards were usually accepted.
Excursions in Korea
It’s almost always cheaper to book your tickets for excursions online in South Korea. Most attractions offer discounts from 10% to 50% for tickets that have been bought online.
Safety in South Korea
We didn’t encounter any problems whatsoever (except getting cash :-)) during our 7 days in Korea but if you would you can call the travel hotline in 4 languages (Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese) 24/7.
Internet in South Korea
South Korea has the fastest internet in the world. A lot of places offer free wifi. We don’t know why, but we didn’t always manage to get on the wifi. Because we used quite a few apps to help us to travel around Seoul and to check for the best places to eat we bought a local sim card. This way we were certain that we always had internet.
Handy South Korean apps
Mangoplate is the app to check for restaurant reviews and the best places to eat.
Naver Maps is your GPS companion for your road trip. Google Maps navigation is not working in South Korea and despite some people that reported that Waze was working for them it was not for us. The Naver Maps app is available in English (their website is only in Korean) and the app’s look and feel is very intuitive and very much similar to any other GPS app.
Korea Seoul Metro Navi will guide you quickly and efficiently through Seoul’s extended subway system. The app calculates the fastest route to your destination.
Last but not least… As you might expect health care in Korea is excellent but it comes at a high cost. Make sure you have some sort of insurance before you leave for Korea. We never had anything serious happen on any of our journeys around the world but you know what they say, better safe than sorry…
General travel tips
Tipping is not required or expected in South Korea.
1 week in South Korea: Our South Korea itinerary
Just as many other travelers we started our Korea trip in Seoul.
Things to do in Seoul
Seoul represents the futuristic race the country has run over the past years. The pace at which this city has been undergoing development is similar to those of Chinese cities. Seoul expanded enormously over the years and now houses almost 12 million people. It borders Incheon in the West and Bukhansan National Park in the North. The highlights can be visited in a few days but you will need weeks to discover all areas of this stretched-out megapolis.
The city counts 5 palaces. We visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, the most popular one, to watch the changing of the guards but went to Unhyeoungung Palace and later on Deosugung Palace for a complete and tranquil visit. From Unhyeoungung we made our way to Bukchon to stroll between the traditional Hanok houses. From Bukchon it’s not far to Insa-dong, one of the most traditional and cultural districts in Seoul and a great place for lunch. Make sure to drop by the beautifully decorated Jogyesa temple. A little bit further out, but worth the detour, is Gwangjang market. This is a traditional street market where you can mingle with the Koreans to taste some of the local street-food delicacies. Have a look at the stalls that sell San-nakji which is raw octopus that is killed by cutting it in pieces on your plate so that the tentacles are still moving while it is served. I can assure you that we did not try this either but there’s a lot more you can enjoy like the Soonday (blood sausage), different kinds of rice rolls and bindaetteok, a kind of pancake.
Coming back from Gwangjang we took a left at the futuristic Jongno tower towards Myeong-dong. You will find several food trucks where you cross the Cheoggycheon river. After you have discovered the Myeong-dong shopping district you can make your way to the modern city hall and walk along the wide Sejong-daero boulevard back towards Gyeongbokgung palace.
Read also: The ultimate Seoul itinerary for 3-7 days.
Organized Tours in Seoul
Here is an overview of the best-organized tours in Seoul. An organized tour saves you time and, moreover, the tour guide will enlighten you about the different sights you visit.
We partnered up with GetYourGuide for these activities. We love GetYourGuide because they’re flexible. Sometimes your plans change last-minute and then you want to be able to cancel your tickets and get your money back. It’s also good to know that GetYourGuide has your back when the local tour operator doesn’t show up or cancels your trip.
GetYourGuide is a reliable platform where you can book thousands of tours anywhere in the world.
We selected 5 excellent tours in Seoul just for you.
Seoul City Tour
If you want to discover the highlights of Seoul but you are short on time, this tour is for you. In one day you will discover the top city attractions and learn about Seoul’s history and culture.
Perfect for first-time visitors.
Visit the DMZ
Visiting the DMZ is a must do when you are in Seoul. The DMZ area is located around 60 km up north from Seoul and can only be visited with a guided tour.
Make sure to book your tours well in advance as they often sell-out. Trips to the DMZ run Tuesday to Friday.
Book a full-day tour that includes the JSA, the Joint Security Area, the place where the 2 countries meet and where you can step across the border and be in North Korea for a few minutes.
You can read more about the DMZ in Day 3 of this itinerary and we have a full article online that compares the different tours that you can book to visit the DMZ.
NOTE: Unfortunately, at the moment JSA tours get canceled very often. The new protocols to accept tourists after the disarmament have not yet been put in place. An alternative DMZ tour will be offered when the tour is canceled.
Experience a Nanta show at the Myeongdong Theatre
If you are looking for a fun night out in Seoul this nonverbal Nanta show is perfect for you. The narrative centers around 3 charismatic chefs and integrates the traditional rhythms ofSamulnori with comedy and drama.
Lots of fun and perfect for the whole family.
Explore Seoul with a private walking tour
Go on a walking tour in Seoul and discover Seoul as a resident. The guide will tailor the tour to your interests.
Perfect to get more insights into Korean culture and life.
Go on a walking tour with a North Korean Defector
Explore Seoul with a North Korean defector and professional tour guide. This tour gives you the opportunity to create your own itinerary.
Perfect if you don’t like pre-organised group tours and you want to learn more about the history of the two Koreas.
Where to stay in Seoul?
Seoul is a large city with lots of districts each with their own styles and attractions. Here we share the best places to stay for tourist and first-timers based on our own experience.
Myeongdong – City Center
Myeongdong is right in the heart of Seoul’s city center. This is one of the most popular places to stay. The district does draw large crowds of tourists as well as shoppers and once the sun settles people flock to the streets to stroll along the pop-up food stalls and enjoy some of the best street food that Seoul has to offer. You will also find plenty of restaurant options, we had some of the best dakgalbi in this district. By staying in Myeongdong you are close to the Namsan Seoul tower and the Namdaemun Sungnyemun gate.
The Metro hotel is within walking distance to shopping areas, street food, and public transportation. Small clean rooms with complimentary water, tea and coffee facilities. The hotel offers a complimentary smartphone which you can use to make local calls and take out when exploring. The hotel offers a free massage chair to use in the main lobby which is nice after a tiring day sightseeing.
Insa-Dong – Palace Quarter
Insa-dong is one of the most traditional and cultural districts in Seoul and a very touristy district. The streets are lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and tea houses. You are within walking distance of most palaces, the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, Bukchon Hanok village and Gwanghwamum square. This is probably the best location if you’re short on time and want to visit the highlights on foot.
The Sunbee hotel is close to 2 subway stations, the Bukchon Hanok village and Seoul city center. There are many nice restaurants, tea houses, and cafes near the hotel. This is an excellent location for sightseeing. The rooms are large and have good beds. The hotel staff is always friendly and willing to help and most of them speak English.
We stayed in Gangnam the commercial district of Seoul that attracts the rich and young crowds who come here to spend their hard-earned money in the many exclusive bars, restaurants and nightlife venues. Its huge boulevards are lined with skyscrapers and are best enjoyed after dark when Gangnam comes alive and the huge billboards lighten up the neighborhood.
Gangnam is a little outside of the traditional tourist spots and might not be ideal if this is your first visit to Seoul. Seoul has one of the worlds largest subway networks and the trains run frequently. Still, it took us 45 minutes to get from Gangnam to Anguk, one of the major stations in Insa-Dong, the Palace District. The advantage of staying in Gangnam is that the hotel rooms tend to be a tad larger here compared to the city center.
Aloft Seoul Gangnam
Aloft Seoul Gangnam is about 5 mins walk to Cheongdam station (line 7). The subway system takes you relatively easy and fast to all the places of interest. It is very easy to get to from Incheon (Airport Bus 6006 literally stops in front of it) and is in the nice Cheongdam Area with a bunch of good food and coffee shops. Nice rooms with great service. Friendly and helpful staff.
As soon as we had left Seoul we were surrounded by the idyllic countryside that we had missed so much during our trip in Japan. Endless green landscapes were crossed by rugged mountains. We continued our itinerary in Korea in Gyeongju.
The Andong Hahoe Folk Village
Gyeongju used to be the capital of Korea during the Silla dynasty and till today it is still recognized as the cultural capital of the country. It’s a must visit on your 7 day Korea itinerary. On your way from Seoul to Gyeongju, you will pass the Andong Hahoe Folk Village.
Allow 2 hours for a visit to this folkloristic city. We had mixed feelings about our visit. This is an ordinary, albeit well-preserved, village. All houses are inhabited and most are hidden behind high ramparts and closed gates. Therefore you cannot visit the houses, you can only stroll through the streets or drive through them with a golf cart as many Asian tourists do. It feels strange to pay an entrance fee just to walk through the streets of an ordinary village. I hope our entrance fee helps the inhabitants to conserve their village but as a visitor, I would have loved to see the inside of some of these houses and some more historical context like you get in most folk villages.
Without a stop in Andong it would take you 4 hours to drive to Gyeongju.
Things to do in Gyeongju
You can combine many of the highlights of Gyeongju by walking from the city center past the Royal Tombs (often compared to teletubies houses) and the observation tower to the Donggung Palace with the Wolji Pond. The most charming moment to visit the Palace is after dark when the reflection of the palace in the water turns your visit into a fairytale story.
Still, it is a good idea to buy your tickets during the day so that when you come back in the evening you can walk straight in and skip the huge lines at the ticket machines.
Bulgaksa is a popular temple near Gyeongju. Recognized as Unesco World heritage it houses 7 of South Korea’s national treasures. From the temple you can hike to the nearby Seokguram Grotto which is part of the temple and also recognized as Unesco World heritage. It’s a scenic 45 minute uphill walk. It is a small but peaceful temple with a stone-carved buddha in the cave. No photographing is allowed and a glass wall has been put up to protect the interior of the cave.
Where to stay in Gyeongju
Gyeongju GG Tourist Hotel
We stayed at the Gyeongju GG Tourist Hotel. The hotel lies in a good location right in the city center near the bus terminal. It’s easy to walk to the Royal tombs as well as the other UNESCO World Heritage sites in the ancient tomb complex. The hotel has spacious and comfortable rooms with a big bathroom.
The only negative that we can say is that the walls of the room are quite thin. We had a lot of noise from our neighbors who were arguing until late at night. But I suppose we were just unlucky with our neighbors this night.
If you have a car you can also opt for a hotel near the Bomun lake where you can make long walks around the lake.
Hotel Hyundai Gyeongju
Hotel Hyundai Gyeongju offers comfortable rooms with a balcony. The hotel is in a great location next to the lake, a stroll around the lake is lovely, certainly during the cherry blossom season. The hotel has a buffet restaurant, Chinese restaurant, coffee shop, bakery & wine shop, kids play area and video gaming room. The professional hotel staff speaks English.
Things to do in Busan
We continued our one week in South Korea in Busan. Busan is a short 1-hour drive away from Gyeongju. Here you will find yourself near the beach. Haeundae beach is a nice place to stay if you fancy a romantic stroll on the beach before you retire to your hotel room. The nearby Dongbaek park offers splendid nocturnal views on the 7-km long Gwangandaegyo bridge, better known as Diamond bridge.
On hot days you can cool down in the Shinsegae Centum city shopping center. Holding the record of world’s largest shopping complex you will be able to tie on your ice skates and practice some rounds on the ice rink or relax in Spa Land. An enormous spa complex with 22 different spas and a mixture of 13 different Korean traditional ‘Jjimjil-bang’ saunas and saunas from all over the world.
A little outside of Busan is Taejongdae Resort park, a peninsula that offers breathtaking views. A nice hike but we would have loved it more if you could hike apart from the paved road that’s also being used by the shuttle.
We skipped the Oryukdo Skywalk after reading mostly negative reviews and we skipped the Sea Life Busan Aquarium as well. It’s highly regarded but mostly so by couples with kids. If you do go you can save a lot of money by buying your tickets online here.
Lastly, there is the colorful cultural village of Gamcheon. Due to the photogenic stacked houses, this place is very popular with tourists.
We wrote a complete article about what to do in Busan, you will find it here.
Organized Tours in Busan
Here we share the best tours in Busan. Perfect if you are short on time or you don’t want to spend time on plotting out your own itinerary.
Busan Full day city tour
This full day city tour brings you along a lot of the attractions we describe above. You will be visiting Taejongdae, the Songdo skywalk, Gamcheong village, and Haedong Yonggungsa temple. You will get lots of insight information about the history of the places you will visit.
Recommended for first-time visitors or if you are short on time in Busan.
Check reviews and book: Busan City Tour
Busan Private Tour with a Local
If you are like us and you don’t like group tours, this private tour might be something for you. With this tour, you will have the chance to explore Busan with a local guide who will customize your tour in line with your personal interests.
Perfect if you want to learn more about Busan but you don’t like group tours.
Busan Night City Tour
Busan is well known for its amazing night views. This tour is for you if you want to discover the city and night and take awesome night pictures.
2 tours are offered:
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday you will see the Illuminia Park, Gamcheon village and the Busan city observatory.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday you will visit the 168 staircase, Busan port viewing pont, yeongdo seaside park and igdiae Park which is popular along locals.
Where to stay in Busan
This is our selection of the best hotels to stay in Busan. Or you could also read our complete guide about where to stay in Busan.
Shilla stay Haeundae
We stayed in the brand new Shilla Stay Haeundae hotel, located right in front of Haeundae beach. The hotel has soberly decorated modern and comfortable rooms. They have a rooftop bar which is a great place to hang out. The hotel is within walking distance of many restaurants.
The last day of your 7 days South Korea travel itinerary takes us back to Seoul to spend more time in this huge metropolis.
Several viewpoints offer dramatic views on the vastness of Seoul. The Seoul tower and Seoul sky (in the Lotte world center) are perhaps the 2 most known and most accessible but we had one of the most beautiful views on Seoul from Bukhansan National Park. The walk to the Bogungmun gate of the old fort leads you all the way upwards but once you get there you are rewarded with a beautiful view of the park and the vast city. From here you can follow the ramparts of the old fort to the Daeseongmun gate. From there you can go back down via another road.
Other popular activities in South Korea
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