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Seven dazzling days in South Korea
Our dream itinerary around the land of morning calm, rip-roaring nightlife and 5,000 years of history
This itinerary is for the helpless Korea virgins (and despite Korea's burgeoning tourism, we know you're out there), not been-there-done-that backpackers in search of the obscure. But the adjective "dazzling" here is no meaningless tag. It's a nod to the process of aggressive elimination and selection that gave us the model itinerary for seven days of travel in South Korea.
It's not a comprehensive list -- being selective tends to make that difficult. But while you may not be seeing everything, what you're seeing will still be thrilling.
Good old Seoul
Incheon International Airport is the gateway to Seoul. Numerous taxis, airport limousine buses -- and now, a specialized railway line -- shuttle passengers to and fro, but the airport limousine buses offer the best value. Bus 6701 towards the Seoul City Hall from Gate 4B or 11A will take you straight to the Westin Chosun in downtown Seoul. The fare is ₩15,000.
As temptingly comfortable as the rooms may be, the surrounding attractions will make it worthwhile to shake out your air legs and walk off your post-plane bloat with a tour of the surrounding palaces.
Across the street from the Westin Chosun is Deoksugung, one of the five Joseon-era palaces in Seoul. Deoksugung's noteworthy features include an art museum and Western-influenced architecture. Admission is ₩1,000 (less than US$1)
Further north along the main road is the next stop, Gyeongbokgung, Seoul's largest and arguably grandest palace. It's certainly the oldest, dating back to 1394, a mere two years after the birth of the Joseon Dynasty.
The road you're walking along is Sejongno, named after Sejong the Great, the Joseon Dynasty king who invented Hangul, or written Korean.
The iconic statue looking down at the road and shaking his spear is Admiral Yi Sun-Shin.
And the anachronistic, palatial gateway up ahead is Gwanghwamun, through which you enter Gyeongbokgung.
Samgyetang, a traditional boiled chicken dish served at the nearby Tosokchon Samgyetang, makes a healthy and filling midday meal.
Gyeongbokgung, former seat of royal authority and site of inventions and assassinations, is now accessible to visitors for ₩3,000.
Formerly home to kings and consorts, it is now home to the National Folk Museum of Korea, easily spotted by its pointed pagoda-tipped roof. History buffs might find it worthwhile to tour the museum. Shutter-happy aesthetes in a hurry will find the lovely gardens, ponds, and pavilions enough.
If you exit Gyeongbokgung through the National Folk Museum entrance you will find yourself in the photogenic district of Samcheong-dong, poster child for the tasteful fusion of traditional and modern, and replete with endearing cafés and boutiques.
At the southern end of Samcheongdong is the ostentatiously traditional Bukchon Hanok Village, a 600-year-old neighborhood of winding alleys and cozily packed hanok, or traditional Korean-style residences with sloping eaves, tiled navy-blue roofs and latticed sliding doors.
Further south is Insadong, shamelessly touristy but not without its charms. Most of the attractions are gathered along one main pedestrian street strung with divergent alleyways, and consist of tea houses, art galleries, antique shops and souvenir shops.
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As with souvenir shops all around the world, Insadong's stores are also inundated with cheaply manufactured, pseudo-local goods, but there's still much that's salvageable: a notebook of hanji -- an improbably tough and stringy traditional Korean paper with the translucence of tissue paper -- for wordsmith friends, or celadon ceramics for your mother -- are much better than a logo-inscribed mug.
Once you've reached Gwanghwamun Station on Line 5, you've completed your circuit of historic Seoul for the day. A short walk will take you to City Hall Station on Line 2.
A few stations away from City Hall is the Gwangjang Market, your multi-stop, multi-shop market for a traditional Korean wardrobe. But it's better known for its street foods -- sundae, bindaetteok, mandu, perfect for dinner on the move. The Euljiro 4-ga stop on Line 2 will take you straight to Gwangjang Market.
Coming alive as Gwangjang Market shuts down for the day is the sprawling Dongdaemun Market nearby, a labyrinthine shopping district of nocturnal malls and hundreds of wholesale traders, retailers, and traditional markets.
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While many of the traders keep regular hours, closing around 6:30 p.m., others -- for example, Doota Mall -- keep less conventional hours, opening at night and closing at dawn.
Depending on your stamina or how interested you are in browsing through hundreds of stores and thousands of clothes, shoes, accessories and other miscellaneous items, Dongdaemun might either take 30 minutes or three hours.
Westin Chosun Hotel
87 Sogong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 소공동 87번지); +82 2 771 0500; www.echosunhotel.com/Eseoul.action
49-14 Yulgok-no, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 율곡로 49-14); +82 2 725 7979; eng.hyosundang.com
Tosokchon Samgyetang (토속촌 삼계탕)
85-1 Chebu-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 제부동 85-1); +82 2 737 7444
Gwangjang Market (광장시장)
6-1 Yeji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 종로구 예지동 6-1); +82 2 2267 0291; kwangjangmarket.co.kr
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Less Seoul, more Seorak
A walk through Changdeokgung, five minutes from Anguk Station, Exit 3, is a great way to start a Tuesday morning. Changdeokgung is a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its appealing and decidedly East Asian architecture and landscaping.
Of course, for the casual traveler, UNESCO designations may not always be most trustworthy of indicators. Historically significant doesn't always mean a breathtaking experience. You can photograph yourself in front of that 3,000-year-old rock; at the end of the day it's still a rock. But the exquisitely preserved Changdeokgung does seem to have it all, artfully blending the natural and artificial not in a manicured, imposing way, but in an organic and subtle way.
Admission is ₩3,000. Add ₩8,000 for access to the Secret Garden, or Huwon, at the rear of the palace.
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For lunch, Baesangmyeonjuga at the Finance Center in Gwanghwamun serves eel and galbi versions of bibimbap -- tasty and light.
Then, via the Seoul Express Bus Terminal in Gangnam, you can take a four-hour bus ride (with a short break halfway through) to Sokcho, coastal city in Gangwon-do.
A mere 500 meters from the Sokcho Express Bus Terminal lies Sokcho Beach, where you can while away the rest of the afternoon as you take in Seoraksan to the west.
Lodgings at the Kensington Stars Hotel, with its overtly British theme -- the bar's dubbed Abbey Road and the restaurant's called The Queen -- may not be the quaint mountain pagoda you were imagining for an excursion away from the city. But the view from the window, whatever the style of the window, will be spectacular.
84 B1F, Taepyeong-ro 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea (서울특별시 중구 태평로1가 84 지하1층); +82 2 773 3238; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; www.soolsool.co.kr
Seoul Express Bus Terminal (서울 고속버스 터미날)
19-4 Banpo 4 dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 서초구 반포4동 19-4); +82 2 535 2591; www.kobus.co.kr
The Kensington Stars Hotel
106-1 Seorak-dong, Sokcho-si, Gangwon-do (강원도 속초시 설악동 106-1); +82 33 635 4001; www.kensington.co.kr
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Take a hike. Or several.
Seoraksan may not be Korea's tallest mountain. Or even the second tallest. But its enduring popularity speaks of a better time, when first and biggest wasn't necessarily the best. Anyway, whatever it lacks in height it makes up for in beauty.
Depending on your level of self-perceived athleticism, you might feel either reluctant or ready to tackle a two- to four-hour hike up one of Seoraksan's numerous peaks. Alternatively, you can aim for one of the many waterfalls, or a temple.
If you're feeling particularly confident, the popular Ulsan Bawi course leads to the top of the Ulsan Bawi, a staggeringly enormous rock -- bawi literally means a huge rock or boulder. Although the distance from the bottom is a mere 3.8 kilometers, the trail is notoriously challenging due to the steep slope.
Another "express" bus ride from terminal to terminal and you will be in Seoul exhausted. But that's OK, because Seoul knows how to pamper tired bodies.
But if you're not ready to unwind just yet, Myeongdong Gyoja, in Myeongdong, serves some of Seoul's best kalguksu. Such is the popularity of the place that even on a weekday lunch hour the line, which starts at the restaurant at the second floor, stretches down past the stairway and winds down the street. Dodge the crowds by avoiding conventional meal times.
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Although Myeongdong is frequently touted as a "destination," and does enjoy a certain wild popularity with shoppers, immersing yourself too deeply in its jostling crowds might not be the best idea if you're suffering from exhaustion or if you regularly suffer from claustrophobia.
A quick gander around the perimeter and a glimpse of the huge waves of locals and tourists alike will convince you that the view is better from where you stand.
A bus from Myeongdong Station Exit Number 3 will take you to the top of Namsan, and the base of the N Seoul Tower, formerly Namsan Tower.
Admission is ₩9,000 -- perhaps a bit high, but then so is the tower, at 236.7 meters. From the top you can take in most of Seoul's cityscape; at night a glittering blanket of lights.
If you're just about ready to collapse at this point, a few hours in the heated saunas of the Dragon Hill Spa in Itaewon will leave you scrubbed and cleansed, Korean jjimjilbang style.
Myeongdong Gyoja (명동교자)
25-2 Myeong-dong 2 ga, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 중구 명동 2가 25-2); +82 2 776 5348; www.mdkj.co.kr (Korean)
N Seoul Tower
San 1-3, Yongsan-dong 2 ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 용산구 용산동2가 산1-3); +82 2 3455 9277; www.nseoultower.co.kr
Dragon Hill Spa
40-713 Hangang-no 3 ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 용산구 한강로 3가 40-713); +82 2 792 0001; www.dragonhillspa.co.kr
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South Korea's southern belle
If the trip to Seoraksan in the north was all about nature, the southern part of your journey can be all about culture. And there's no better destination for culture than southern jewel Gyeongju, former seat of the Silla Dynasty, trove of East Asian Buddhist relics galore, and UNESCO World Heritage designation magnet.
Buddhism in some contexts means eschewing worldly riches, asceticism, and attaining nirvana. But Silla's Buddhism was of the kind that erected impressive temples and pagodas, and left behind ancient valuable statues.
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It's not a coincidence that the Silla Dynasty also inspired the name of one of Seoul's most luxurious hotels -- the Shilla Hotel. The Silla Dynasty, which lasted nearly a millennium, traditionally connotes wealth, luxury, and refinement.
The KTX, Korea's bullet train, speeds from Seoul to Gyeongju in just two hours.
The most obvious beginning for a Gyeongju adventure is Bulguksa, a huge Buddhist temple complex and another proud member of the UNESCO World Heritage club. The Seokguram Grotto, within Bulguksa, is also included on the list as a separate item.
In the mountains behind Bulguksa lies the Seokguram Grotto. Seokguram is not a naturally occurring cave, but another impressive example of cunning Silla craftsmanship. The entire cave-like structure, built into the hills above Bulguksa, was constructed with hundreds of stone blocks, no mortar involved.
In walking distance of the Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal, the venerable Pyeongyang Naengmyeon restaurant specializes in naengmyeon, a dish of chewy buckwheat noodles in either a cold, meaty broth or mixed with a spicy gochujang-based paste.
At the Gyeongju Bus Terminal, you can take City Bus No. 70 for ₩1,500 and get off at the entrance of Daeleungwon, or Tumuli Park.
Tumuli Park is actually an old burial ground.
The remains and relics of ancient Silla kings and queens, dating back centuries, are still protected inside grassy mounds. Some of the tombs have been opened up to the public; you can go inside and admire the riches of dead Silla royals.
Within walking distance is Anapji Pond, an artificial lotus pond dating back to 675. Back then Anapji Pond, and the lavish surrounding garden, dotted with dainty, picnic-sized pavilions, were the site of many a royal outing. Today it's far less exclusive, but no less lovely.
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Hanok-styled hotel Ragung received considerable attention when it appeared in the popular 2009 Korean television drama series "Boys Over Flowers" as the house of an insanely wealthy kid (a K-Drama staple).
With admirable attention to detail in terms of architecture, bedding, furniture, and meals, Ragung prioritizes luxury above authenticity -- which is probably more true to the spirit of the Silla Dynasty anyway.
Pyeongyang Naengmyeon (평양냉면)
Nodong-dong, Gyeongju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 경주시 노동동 81-1); +82 54 772 2448
Ragung, at Shilla Millennium Park (신라 밀레니엄 파크 라궁)
55-12 Expo-ro, Gyeongju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 경주시 엑스포로 55-12); +82 54 778 2000; www.smpark.co.kr/eng
This bean-shaped accessory off Korea's southern coast is more than a tropical getaway. In fact, despite the palm trees, Jejudo is far from tropical, as anyone who has ever visited during their windy winters might tell you.
Yet as a volcanic island province with a distinct cultural and ecological identity, Jeju Island does have an exotic getaway element.
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An early start from Gyeongju will get you to the nearest domestic airport in Ulsan in about two hours. From Ulsan, a connecting flight via Jeju Air (+82 1599 1500) will take you directly to Jeju Airport, Jeju-si, in less than an hour.
Public transportation on the island may be inexpensive, but it is poorly labeled and potentially confusing, particularly if you don't speak Korean. Renting your own car, or taking a taxi, right at the airport is ideal.
The Dragon's Head Rock, or Yongduam, is one such rock formation which supposedly resembles the head of a dragon. A 10-minute taxi ride from the airport, or a quick ride on a bus bound for Jeju-si Jungang-ro (get off at Yongdam Rotary and walk 10 minutes to the beach), and you can see for yourself.
Admittedly the rock may not look very dragon-like to some. But the convenient thing about dragons is that they don't actually exist, so a lot is permissible when claiming that anything resembles a dragon.
But poring over rock shapes will only take so long, and at the next stop, the UNESCO-recognized Manjanggul, you can puzzle over stalactites and stalagmites instead.
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To get to Manjanggul by bus you can board the Donghoe Line Intercity Bus at the Jeju Bus Terminal, which will take you as far as the parking lot near the Manjanggul Cave Entrance in about an hour. The actual cave is about 20 minutes' walk away.
Or you can save the hassle and hail a cab -- the trip will cost about ₩20,000.
Manjanggul, at 13 kilometers long, is the largest lava tube on Jeju Island -- although visitors are only permitted inside a fraction its full length. But it has more than size going for it. Not only is it home to the largest bat colony in Korea (bats are a symbol of good luck in Korean culture), it also houses the largest known lava column in the world (7.6 meters). Even without this superlative, however, Manjanggul's diverse ecological and mineral life and non-life are worth a look. A tour of the cave will take about ₩2,000 and forty minutes.
From Manjanggul Station you can take the Dongilju Bus to the Seongsan-ri Ipgu stop. From there it's less than a kilometer to Seongsan Ilchulbong, or Seongsan Sunrise Peak. The entire trip will take 90 minutes.
A ₩500 ferry for Udo leaves every hour from Seongsan, and the last ferry departs at 4:30 p.m.
To those who might question the point of going to see another island while on an island, comparing Udo to Jejudo would almost be like comparing the Moon to the Earth. Diminutive Udo has a lot to show -- large expanses of yellow rape flowers, beaches of volcanic rock, beaches of bleached-white coral, lighthouses, cliffs, and caves.
The easiest way to tour Udo is via bicycle or scooter. A bicycle will cost around ₩10,000 a day, while the scooter will cost about ₩20,000 per hour. Even on a bicycle, without pedaling like a madman, Udo is so tiny that it is still possible to circle the island in about three hours.
The Udo Ilchul Haeolle Garden near the center of the island serves pork barbeque, but with Jeju black pork, famous for not only its color but its supposedly chewier texture.
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Phoenix Island Resort is located on the green of Seopjikoji, with angular, modern buildings designed by world-renown architects Tadao Ando and Mario Botta -- whose architectural presence is already felt in Korea through landmarks like the Kyobo Building or the Leeum Samsung Museum.
The rooms start at ₩270,000 during off-peak season, including a complimentary breakfast.
Due to the grassy flatness of the area, everything within walking distance is pretty much visible. Most visitors stop by the "Seoldol," a prominent boulder and the white lighthouse at the edge of the cliff.
The front desk takes reservations for the next day's package tours to Hallasan up till 8 p.m.
Yongdam 1-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do (제주특별자치도 제주시 용담1동); +82 64 728 2114
41-3 Gimnyeong-ri, Gujwa-eup, Jeju-si, Jeju-do (제주특별자치도 제주시 구좌읍 김녕리 41-3); +82 64 4818
Udo Ilchul Haeolle Garden (우도 일출 해올레가든)
1344-5 Udo-myeon, Jeju-si, Jeju-do (제주특별자치도 제주시 우도면 1344-5); +82 64 782 0334
Phoenix Island Resort
127-2 Goseong-ri, Seogwipo-si, Jeju-do(제주특별자치도 서귀포시 성산읍 고성리 127-2번지); +82 64 731 7000; www.phoenixisland.co.kr
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Sunrises and volcanoes
Neighboring Seongsan Ilchulbong's supposed peak is, non-intuitively, concave -- an enormous crater sits at the top, and this gives the entire mountain a somewhat flattened shape.
But it does provide a stunning backdrop for a sunrise -- hence the name.
Admission is ₩2,000, and an hour should be sufficient to get you to the top; the walk is easy and well worth it.
The Phoenix Island Resort runs a day trip package to Hallasan, Jejudo's mother volcano -- now extinct. There are two ways to approach Hallasan, South Korea's highest peak. You can trek to the top, 1,950 meters above sea level, or hike the famous Ollegil, a trail of routes that wrap around the mountain.
The tours end at Seongpanak, one of Hallasan's many parasitic volcanoes. From Seongpanak you can either take Bus 5.16 to Hongrang-no Ipgu , and switch to Bus 300 to reach Jeju International Airport. The entire journey will take about an hour. A taxi will be quicker, and cost around ₩20,000.
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The last dinner in Jeju just might be the most expensive dinner you have in Korea -- the prices at the Eobu Hoetjip, near Jeju Airport and with a second-story view of the ocean, range from ₩120,000 to ₩180,000.
The "Eobu Special Course" starts at ₩140,000, but can "feed from two to four people," according to restaurant staff. Included in the menu is, of course, hoe, the Korean name for raw fish, a local porridge of abalones, or jeonbokjuk, and Jebu, a local whiskey.
If you have time before your flight, ten minutes' drive from the airport is Jeju Loveland, an outdoor theme park devoted to sex and sex education, with more than 100 sculptures, many humorous rather than sexy, devoted to depicting and celebrating eroticism. And, er, love. A gift shop sells sex toys and related paraphernalia. The park, a favorite with honeymoon couple, is only open to visitors aged 18 and above.
Back in Seoul Saturday night is coming to life, as salarymen cast away their ties, women kick off their heels for even taller heels, and -- it sometimes seems -- everyone gets really, really drunk.
There are many ways to get drunk, but Seoul's makgeolli bars aren't a bad place to start the evening. If you dig dancing, Seoul's favorite clubs such as Club Ellui, one of the largest clubs in Asia, can be found on both sides of the Han River.
Eobu Hoetjip (어부횟집)
2363 Yongdam 2-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do (제주특별자치도 제주시 용담2동 2363번지); +82 64 711 7742; jejueobu.co.kr (Korean)
680-26 Yeon-dong, Jeju-si, Jeju-do (제주특별자치도 제주시 연동 680-26) + 82 64 712 6988; www.jejuloveland.com
129 Cheongdam-dong Gangnam-gu (강남구 청담동 129); cafe.naver.com/ellui; VIP reservations: +82 10 9111 6205
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Chungjinok in Jongno serves the perfect hangover cure: Hangover stew, or haejangguk.
For the morning, there is the exclusive, resplendent Korea Furniture Museum -- opulent, quiet, and controlled to ensure the preservation of their delicate Joseon-era furniture collection. In fact, it's so exclusive that they only accept visitors through reservation.
"We'll be taking reservations starting mid-March or so. Guests can make reservations through our website, or by calling," says Joshua Park, Director of Strategic Planning. "And of course, we'll be taking no more than 15 people or so at one time." Guided tours only.
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SamcheongGak is an upscale dining and entertainment complex nestled into the pine forest by the Blue House, Korea's presidential residence. They run a regular, free shuttle from the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.
Once limited to the politically connected, SamcheongGak is now open to the public.
And finally, a cruise along the Han River seems a symbolically appropriate way to end the week: the river has been by turns a patriotic symbol and a movie star ("The Host"), has caused wars and won wars for Korea's numerous kingdoms, and has watered the country before it was even a country. The prices depend on whether you opt for a round trip or a one-way, but start at ₩6,000 and reach up to ₩13,000. (Call for reservations at +82 2 785 0392, 3, 4).
24 Jongno 1-ga, Seoul (청진옥, 서울특별시 종로1가 24 ); +82 2 735 1690
Korea Furniture Museum (한국 가구 박물관)
330-577 Seongbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 성북구 성북동 330-577); +82 2 745 0181; www.kofum.com
330-115 Seongbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 성북구 성북동 330-115); +82 2 765 3700; www.samcheonggak.or.kr
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