Explore the Land of the Morning Calm. Ker & Downey’s guide tells you what to see and do on a luxury tour in South Korea.
By Vanessa Niven and Haley Beham
What to See and Do on A Luxury Tour in South Korea
History, culture, and kimchi: visiting South Korea offers something for everyone. The food alone is reason enough to head to South Korea. However, there’s also 5,000 years’ worth of history and culture to explore, including 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites. While the bustling capital city of Seoul seems to be in perpetual motion, Jeju Island, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, is a peaceful escape.
Seoul is a city that never sleeps. As such, there’s so much to see and do. The Blue House Sarangchae Museum, located across the road from the president’s official residence, houses cultural and tourism-related exhibitions. Visit the 15th-century Changdeokgung Palace complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for the harmonization between its natural setting and the official and residential structures originally constructed during the Joseon Dynasty. Take time to stroll through the Insadong shopping district, where local shops and restaurants make their home. For skincare enthusiasts, Sulwhasoo is one of South Korea’s most famous luxury holistic skincare brands. That’s saying a lot considering how many amazing brands the country has spawned. Pop in for a massage or facial treatment at the Sulwhasoo Spa Flagship store. The delightfully designed space of glass and metal creates a sparkling atmosphere.
A highlight: The Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is one of the only existing military buffer zones in the world that tourists may visit. For those interested in the Korean War, it’s a must-visit. It’s about an hour’s drive from Seoul. But take note, the tunnel that is open to tourists is not easily accessible to those with mobility issues or who are above average height.
Gyeongju is the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Silla. It’s a destination where Korea’s traditions and ancient culture take center stage. The entire city is essentially a museum with some of the best Buddhist art and architecture you’ll find. Explore Yangdong Folk Village, a Joseon Dynasty yangban (Korean aristocracy) village. It is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its careful preservation of traditional building styles and folk arts. Mt. Seolchang is just to the north of the village, and several viewpoints let you enjoy the stunning greenery covering this towering peak. Visit the Daereungwon Tomb Complex with royal burial mounds from the Silla period, and Cheomsongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia still standing. After the sun sets, explore Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond. Both are popular sites to visit after dark because they are lit up so spectacularly.
A highlight: Bulguksa Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Silla-era site, still serves as one of the head temples of Korean Buddhism. The complex is stunning with well-preserved art and architecture. Visit during the spring when the flowers are blooming if you can. The flowers juxtaposed with the brightly painted statues creates a truly beautiful sight.
The port town of Busan offers a mix of urban living as South Korea’s second-largest city with natural wonders like hot springs, beaches, and nature reserves. Visit the United Nations Memorial Cemetery, the only UN cemetery in the world. In addition to the graves of soldiers killed during the Korean War, the site is home to 29 permanent memorials and the Wall of Remembrance. The graves are interspersed with stunning red rose bushes. When in full bloom, they add a layer of ethereal beauty to this somber location.
Gamcheon Culture Village, often referred to as the “Machu Picchu of Busan” because of its layered streets and homes built up the mountainside, has a difficult history. It was originally developed by the city in the 1920’s and 1930’s to house the poor population out of sight but still within easy enough access of the bustling port to provide cheap labor. A 2009 renovation project saw improved infrastructure and homes painted in bright colors. They project has attracted small retailers, museums, and artist installations to the district.
A highlight: Spa Land in Shinsegae Centum City is a modern take on the jjimjilbang (Korean bathhouse). It offers 2 floors with 22 different spas and a delightful assortment of themed rooms. There’s a four-hour time limit to explore and soak, and you’ll want every minute of it!
Jeju is South Korea’s largest island and home to Mount Halla, the country’s tallest peak. There is so much to do and see on Jeju. The island is home to at least 100 museums, from the lighthearted (teddy bears or Zippo lighters) to the educational (seashells or computers) and culturally significant (the Tadao Ando-designed Bonte Museum of contemporary and traditional art). Visit Seongeup Folk Village. Locals still inhabit the village and continue a number of heritage activities like the production of traditional alcoholic spirits omegisul and gosorisul.
Explore the island coastline. From Jusangjeolli Cliff you can see the Jisatgae Rocks, hexagonal stone pillars formed during an ancient volcanic eruption, similar to Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Take a walk around Sangumburi Crater. The large diversity of flora growing in and around the crater makes it a beautiful sight year-round. However, it is especially magical in autumn when the silvergrass is in full bloom. Waves of gold and silver leaves undulate in the wind.
A highlight: Visit the Haenyeo Museum to learn about the incredible tradition of women who free-dive for seafood and mollusks, sometimes up to 30 feet deep, without oxygen support.
Start Planning Your Own Luxury Tour in South Korea
We’re just scratching the surface of all there is to see and do on a luxury tour in South Korea. Let Ker & Downey’s team of destination specialists craft the perfect trip for you. Contact us today to start planning. For even more travel inspiration, follow us on Facebook and Instagram.