Korea travel advice?
May 22, 2008 4:39 PM   Subscribe

South Korea travel advice: Seoul, Jeju, elsewhere?

The partner and I are traveling to Korea in July for 10 days. We're flying through Seoul to Jeju island to attend a conference for 5 days. The other 5 days we have free time for travel. The easiest things to do are to stay in Jeju or Seoul, but we could go to other places.

I've gotten some useful info from these previous threads, but welcome more input since I'm pretty clueless about Korea.

We like to be outdoors and exercise, so are currently leaning towards more time in Jeju. On the other hand, we really like to eat and have had a great time on previous food-centered trips in Japan and Taiwan, so maybe more time in Seoul is better (especially since we're vegetarians). People seem to recommend a temple stay so we'll probably try that in Seoul.

If you've traveled in Korea - how would you split your time between Seoul, Jeju, and elsewhere? What would you recommend doing?
posted by betterton to Travel & Transportation around South Korea (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've lived in Korea for almost 10 years, out of the last 12 or so.

Travel for non-Koreans is not easy, at all, in most of the country, although this is changing, to some extent.

For my part I loathe Seoul, but I dislike large cities in general, so take that with a grain of salt. I'd probably hit a few of the historical highlights downtown, do the DMZ tour (cliched, but very very much worth it), and get the heck out.

On the other hand, I love Jeju-do. I'd definitely spend most of my time there, and stay in one of the many small 'pensions' that have sprung up in recent years. It's one of the few places domestically that I really enjoy visiting, along with Sorak-san in Gangwon-do in the Northeast and the historical stuff in Gyeong-ju, down in Gyeongsangnam-do. Jeju's beautiful, and not as depressingly sullied as much of the rest of the natural beauty in the country. If you spend any time in Jeju, I strongly recommend renting a car, and get one with a GPS navigation in-car (generally free, and in Korean, probably, but not hard to figure out, and invaluable for cruising around).

The food in Jeju is generally recognized to be substandard compared to the rest of the country (by Koreans), but is fine if you're not a K-food expert.

I don't know about temple stays, but there are some beautiful temples around. Most (almost all, in fact) have been substantially rebuilt in the wakes of the various invasions that have occurred over the centuries, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:14 PM on May 22, 2008

Also, a little glossary.

Thanks to the vagaries and changing standards of standard romanization of Korean (3 changes over the last few decades), you'll probably see various spellings of the placenames I mentioned. An initial G, as in Gyeongju, used to be K, so you'll also see Kyeongju. The 'eo' sound, which is basically 'uh', is also often spelled with a 'u', so you'll see Gyungju and Kyungju sometimes. They're all the same damn city. It's very frustrating for visitors. Jeju used to be spelled Cheju, as well.

It's very easy to get city names confused, because 90% of them are two-syllable words (thanks to the historical influence of Chinese, written and spoken), and the syllables themselves are pulled from a fairly limited pool.

The -do suffix can mean 'island' or 'province', so Gangwon-do (or Kangwan-do) is Gangwon Province, but Jeju-do (or Cheju-do) can mean either Jeju island or Jeju province, because it's both. Confused yet?

All occurrences of the letter 'a' are pronounced 'ah'.

The Korean for the places I've mentioned are 서울 (Seoul), 재주-도 (Jeju-do), 겅주 (Gyeong-ju), 경상남-도 (Gyeongsangnam-do, or south Gyeongsang province), 강원-도 (Kangwon province), 소락산 (Sorak Mountain (산/san meaning 'mountain')).
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:35 PM on May 22, 2008

I don't have nearly as much experience as Stavros, but I can add that I really enjoyed Gyeong-ju. From my perspective (long-term Japan resident, traveling with Japanese, and speaker of Japanese), travel in Korea wasn't that complicated.

It's certainly easier to navigate than Japan.

Like Stavros said, Seoul is just your run of the mill big city. I like sleaze so I enjoyed the trek out to Seoul's one and only casino, which was (is?) off limits to Korean nationals. The clientele were all intimidating looking high rollers from all over Asia.

By all means go to the DMZ. It's a truly singular experience.

I also liked Pusan a lot and the seafood there was great.

Gwang-ju was boring. I can't remember why we went there but it had something to do with paying respects to someone.
posted by vincele at 7:43 PM on May 22, 2008

Er, Sorak Mountain = 설악산

I'm from Seoul so I personally love Seoul, but I don't think it's very tourist-friendly and definitely not geared towards tourists who like outdoor activities and exercise. Seoul is great if you like to eat, shop, and go to clubs and bars.

I would definitely recommend a temple stay, especially for sampling the vegetarian temple food. If you haven't seen this yet, this is a good source of info on temple stays, including participating temples. Definitely check out 겅주. Gyeongju is actually in North Gyeongsang province, but in the southern part of it. Which means you're not too far away from Haein Temple (Haeinsa, 해인사) in South Gyeongsang province. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home of the Tripitaka Koreana, Buddhist scriptures carved into woodblock. Actually, this might be one way to structure your trip, to visit Buddhist temples, since they are usually in beautiful mountain locations, and have unique vegetarian food available.

Have fun!
posted by needled at 8:18 PM on May 22, 2008

Heh, I just noticed I had a typo for Gyeongju, it's 경주, not 겅주. Also note that Gyeongju is not the same as Gwangju (광주). The latter is a city in South Jeolla province which frankly won't be very interesting unless you have a personal interest in the Gwangju Massacre. Gyeongju is the old capital of the Shilla Kingdom and is home to Bulguksa and the Seokguram grotto, among other things.
posted by needled at 8:33 PM on May 22, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments so far. Very helpful.
posted by betterton at 8:39 PM on May 22, 2008

Sorry, yeah, typo for Soraksan. My bad -- I didn't proof before I posted, which was pretty dumb, considering the context.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:03 PM on May 22, 2008

One more typo correction on Stavros's otherwise excellent answers: Jeju-do really should be spelled 제주도, not 재주도.
posted by tickingclock at 12:40 AM on May 23, 2008

Goddamn it! I am teh suck, sorry.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:07 AM on May 23, 2008

Not sure if Stav has spent time down there (not too far from his home, I think, right?), but Shinan-gun (신안군) is my favorite place in the entire country. There are several islands there with pristine beaches and incredibly fresh seafood. Maybe too tough without language skill though.

(I've been in Seoul for 6 years, and I love it)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:27 AM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

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