South Korea is preparing to host the Winter Olympics, but folks in the know have been talking up this destination even before PyeongChang got the bid. From tasty street food to rich culture, South Korea is a top travel destination for 2018.
Winter is creeping closer and, with the first snowy days, I’ve started to think about one of my favorite events: the Winter Olympics. Taking place next year in PyeongChang, South Korea, the 2018 Winter Olympics promise to be a spectacle of light and sound, not to mention—of course—some pretty amazing feats of athletics. But the upcoming Olympics are igniting more than just a desire to watch the half-pipe competition: They’re also sparking my wanderlust.
South Korea has been on my to-visit list for years, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself—yet. However, with all of the talk about South Korea and the Olympics, this Asian country is rapidly speeding to the top of my list. I talked to several friends who have made the trip and one friend who has been living in South Korea for almost 10 years to learn more, and their insights have more than convinced me to plan a trip to South Korea in 2018.
Eat all the things
The first thing that comes up in conversations about South Korea is the food: All of my friends took plenty of time to wax poetic about the amazing food that you can try, from high-end cuisine to street food. In addition to classics like kimchi and bibimbap, Korean fried chicken (spicier than its American counterpart) is a popular late night snack. Jjajangmyun, a noodle dish with meat and black beans, and pajeon, which are Korean pancakes, are also on my list. Korean barbecue is another must-try—there are even restaurants that specialize in just one kind of meat, like samgyupsal, which is pork belly. Of course, there are more exotic offerings for those with adventurous palates, like soondae, the Korean version of black pudding, or bundaegi, which are silkworm pupae. Yum.
Soak up some culture
South Korea is rich in culture, with temples dotting the landscape like exotic flowers and festivals that celebrate everything from books and music to ginger, kimchi, and soybeans. I’m all about immersing myself in a culture and, if that means attending every festival that I can fit into a visit, I’m happy to make that sacrifice (especially if it’s food-based).
Each city has a different feel, too. As one friend explained, “Seoul is like New York City; Busan is like San Francisco.” Seoul is known for its nightlife (Bars and night clubs don’t have a last call or closing times, so it’s not unusual to stumble out of the clubs at daylight) and its design aesthetic, which is apparent in sights like Dongdaemun Design Plaza or the small fashion boutiques in the subways. It’s also the place to visit a “cat café,” where you can get a cup of coffee and cuddle with a feline friend at the same time. The beach-side town of Busan is more laid-back: It’s known as the summer capital of South Korea. Here you can relax on busy Haeundae Beach or visit the fish market on the pier, where you can point at whatever catches your eye and they’ll cook it to order on the spot. And Jeju Island is a volcanic island much like Hawaii that’s known for its beaches and mountains.
However, one cultural opportunity that really caught my eye is a “temple stay” in an area like Gangwondo. A temple stay is a way to experience the daily life of monks or Buddhist ascetics at the temples, where the history and culture of Korean Buddhism is very much alive. As someone who has always been fascinated with temple life, this is high on my list.
Of course, if you have enough time, a visit to the DMZ is highly recommended. This heavily guarded border serves as the “demilitarized zone” between South and North Korea. Though it’s not exactly scenic, a visit will give you insight into the countries’ histories as well as the safest glimpse into North Korea available.
Explore the outdoors
If you really want to experience South Korea, you need to take to the trails. It’s not something that immediately sprang to mind, but about 70 percent of South Korea is made up of mountains, making it an ideal location for exploring by foot. For residents, hiking is more than a pastime—it’s a way of life. You’ll see locals kitted out in all of the latest gear, complete with hiking poles and backpacks, even for short hikes. Bukhansan National Park, outside of Seoul, is a popular destination, and Hallansan is South Korea’s tallest mountain, located on Jeju Island.
The overarching theme that I got from asking friends about visiting South Korea, though, was that the people are amazing and that it’s never a bad time to plan a trip. With all of the lead-up to the Olympics, I’m sure that I’m not the only one who is searching flights to Seoul—and I hope to get there sooner rather than later.
Is South Korea on your travel list? What are you most looking forward to experiencing? Let us know in the comments below!