Korea winter break itinerary for young solo traveler
September 27, 2016 10:46 AM   Subscribe

My daughter (college sophomore) is fulfilling a dream by spending her whole winter break in Korea and we've got tickets booked, but she's getting a little stuck with planning an actual itinerary. Possibly relevant is the fact that she's dealing with moderate generalized and social anxiety. Looking for suggestions of maybe the top 3-4 destinations other than Seoul that will be relatively easy for her to negotiate as a solo traveler and allow her to appreciate what the country has to offer over her 28-day stay.

She is on her second semester of Korean language classes and so has some basic language skills and can read Hangul phonetically even if she doesn't always understand what she's reading. At least some time in a homestay environment might be good for her to practice her language skills. She does not drive. She likes cold weather and snow, non-strenuous hiking and nature, photography, but does not ski. We are hoping to make this a fairly budget-minded trip so while I've looked at some outfits that offer things like guided day trips and shorter overnight excursions they seem a bit pricier than she/we are wanting to spend.

My initial thoughts would be for her to do something like 1 week in Seoul, 1 week each in a couple of towns in the interior with good historical sights/scenery, and then maybe 1 week on Jeju Island? I realize that probably by ordinary tourism standards spending a whole week in some popular destinations may seem like overkill but I think she'll be much more comfortable if she can settle in a little, take lots of downtime, and not feel pressured to be constantly on the move or fit in too much--slow boat rather than whirlwind travel.
posted by drlith to Travel & Transportation around South Korea (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also forgot to mention--she'll be celebrating Christmas there, followed shortly thereupon by her 19th birthday. Would appreciate any suggestions on where/how to have a great Korean Christmas and memorable birthday as a solo traveler.
posted by drlith at 10:49 AM on September 27, 2016

I went to Korea a few winters ago and had a wonderful time!

In addition to Seoul I went to Gyeongju , I took the rail there from Seoul which was easy and affordable. I visited the cultural sites in town and went to Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple nearby, I believe we took a taxi to Seokguram and then walked down the mountain. It was a great few days and the combination of public transit and taxis made it very easy. After the bustle of Seoul it was a welcome peaceful place to spend some time and I would recommend it.

I don't know if she is considering a DMZ tour, but they are offered out of Seoul and I would recommend it. It was a look into a history I was familiar with but from an entirely different perspective. There's a large variety of tours from viewing memorials to walking across the divide in the diplomatic talks room. The tour I took left from a large hotel in Seoul and stopped along the way for lunch at a traditional farmhouse, which was also a nice part of the trip.

A bit of advice: dress warm. I brought full length fake fur coat and was the only person in my group that wasn't painfully cold. Small chemical hand warmers are going to be helpful. And eat everything being sold by street vendors, the food was one of my favorite parts of the trip!

As for a memorable birthday there's a bakery chain called Paris Baguette which makes the most lovely small cakes, if having cake is an important part of celebrating this would be a good place to get one.
posted by lepus at 11:48 AM on September 27, 2016

Jeonju was interesting enough for a day or two, maybe another if you speak the language. I didn't get to make it to any hot springs; I looked at one in Seoraksan National Park, but didn't have enough time to visit. There are probably others, but it really sounds up her alley.
posted by flimflam at 1:21 PM on September 27, 2016

The northern parts of South Korea are really cold in the winter, so I second lepus' suggestion that she should pack very warm clothes, especially considering she's going to be walking around a lot. Hat, gloves, scarf, layers, and definitely long underwear. If she's not used to cold winters (like upper midwest or northeast USA cold), pack one more layer.

Public transport is great everywhere in Korea so not driving won't be an issue, although in smaller towns she will likely need to rely on her Korean skills or the kindness of strangers to direct her (Koreans are generally helpful and friendly, although sometimes a bit shy to try out their English).

Outside of the Seoul area, Busan and Jeju, I'm hard pressed to think of places in Korea that have enough to fill up a week of sightseeing. For most of the towns/cities in Korea I would recommend 2-3 days at most. I lived in Seoul for two years and traveled to pretty much every region of the country, and other than the places I mentioned I can't think of anywhere in Korea I'd want to spend more than a weekend unless I was visiting friends, or engaged in some kind activity like work or volunteering. Of course, that might just be a reflection of my personal tastes when it comes to travel. (If I had a month in Korea I'd probably spend the entire time in Seoul, because I love that city).

Keep in mind that's it's a small and well-connected country, so getting from Daejeon to Daegu (for example) would take less than an hour on a high speed train, or only a couple of hours on a cheaper bus. Moving from city to city would be pretty easy unless she had huge amounts of luggage. If she's comfortable with it, I would recommend not booking the whole trip in advance, that way if she gets bored somewhere she can just move on.

Jeonju is a nice smallish city with some good historical/cultural sights. As noted by flimflam, there isn't really a week's worth of activities, but I'd say it's worth a visit. Gwangju has a lot of museums and art-related things to do, as well as being a site of importance for modern Korean history. I really liked Daegu, although I was there more to visit friends than as a tourist.

Also, due to the way the country rapidly developed and urbanized, a lot of the cities in Korea can feel very similar to each other, so if she's into soaking up atmosphere is important to her, she'll probably want to try to get some rural areas into her visit.

It's not everyone's cup of tea (definitely not mine), but when I lived in Korea a lot of my friends enjoyed doing temple stays as a cultural experience.

Hope that's somewhat helpful!
posted by dadaclonefly at 2:22 PM on September 27, 2016

This is why they publish guidebooks.

This isn't meant to be a snarky answer. For real, send her to the nearest bookstore (or order on Amazon) a copy of Lonely Planet South Korea. It will have everything she needs, including a section on popular itineraries so that she doesn't even really need to figure out when to go where, or how to get from point A to point B. (The guidebooks craft itineraries in a way that takes convenient travel into account.)

There are also chapters on what to see and do, how to get around, where to stay (if homestays are a thing this information will absolutely be in there), what kinds of things there are to do around Christmas, etc.

One thing to consider might be to plan things somewhat flexibly, so if she enjoys a place she can stay longer, or if she finds out about something interesting that wasn't in the guidebook or didn't seem relevant before, she can still check it out. Especially if she has a month or more there, since Korea is a pretty small country. It will be to her advantage to be able to change plans if she wants to.

It's also important that she take an active role in planning. She is young enough that I think it's good that she's involving you, but if she's going to Korea on her own, she's going to have to rely on herself a bit. Also, if she's not fully clued in on the travel arrangements, she won't be able to figure things out if something goes wrong on the fly. Or even basic things like figuring out what time to get to the train station, which hotel she's supposed to be at, etc.
posted by Sara C. at 3:21 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm currently living in South Korea, so if she needs help or has personal questions, feel free to me mail me. I'd be happy to help a fellow me-fite here on the ground.
I agree with what a lot of people have said about outside of Seoul or Busan that there isn't enough in a lot of cities to keep her interested. However, that said, it'd be quite easy to choose a few cities and work out of them as like a hub. With that in mind, I'd recommend someplace like Iksan. Iksan is on the two main train lines that run alone the south western parts of the country. From there, you can get to Jeonju which is beautiful and historical (as the others have said. This may not jive with your daughter's anxiety but the night market was a thrill. Packed with people but you could easily gorge yourself on a truly impressive variety of food for about 10,000원. But I was just there and it's surprisingly affordable to rent a room at one of the many hanok guesthouses and just relax on the heated floors.) From Iksan, you can get to Jeong-Eup. Seonunsan mountain is in that area and there's a beautiful temple and plenty of hiking to be done. I used to climb there and the nearby old fortress in Gochang is one of my favorite places in Korea. You can tour the fortress, have dinner in one of the many restaurants and then hit a teeny tiny 5 dollar movie theater where they still use old fashioned projectors. And you can to Gwangju which I've never been but I've heard is really nice in under an hour by KTX. Someplace like Daegu would be nice for the opposite side of the country. Relatively close to Gyeongju, Jinju, and Ulsan, even Andong and it's Hanok village is an option. And if she likes the cold and nature-y things, Gangwon-do is a good place to be. I've been a couple of times but I really like Sokcho (and she can be one of the few to claim she played Pokemon Go in the ROK). Further down the coast is Gangneung and there was a surprising amount to see and do in the area. And it might be fun to pop further south along to coast and spend her birthday in Samcheok at the famous Penis Park (I'm biased because that's definitely something 19 year old me would have found HILARIOUS. Her mileage may vary).
I'll say that Christmas is not a big holiday at all here. People have Christmas day off but it's basically a normal holiday here. I don't know your daughter but if I were her, I'd plan on making sure that I spent Christmas in a bigger city. There are going to be larger populations of westerners and probably a foreigner run western restaurant that's serving traditional Christmas fare. I often get homesick on Christmas, so I, personally, prefer to be around other people who have the same background as opposed to being alone eating a bowl of kimchi jjiggae. (though I've done that too. I just didn't enjoy it as much).
posted by FakePalindrome at 8:56 PM on September 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

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