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5 Reasons to get out of Seoul when you visit Korea

Ever Evolving Primate: Travel, photography, food, cooking, and just about anything else.: 5 Reasons to get out of Seoul when you visit Korea

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

5 Reasons to get out of Seoul when you visit Korea

Seoul is an amazing city, that's for sure. Since moving to Korea I've been to Seoul more than a few times, and every time I go I'm amazed by how cosmopolitan and massive the city is. Seoul-proper is surrounded by Gyeonggi province, but it's not very provincial. Seoul's metropolitan area covers most of Gyeonggi province and includes smaller cities like Cheonan and Suwon. With it's great collection of cultural and historical assets, it's no wonder many visitors to Korea never even leave the capital. If I visited this country on a quick stopover, or even a seven day vacation, I might be hard pressed to get out of the biggest city on the peninsula, but there's a lot of reasons to get to Seoul Station, hop a train, and get out of Seoul.

Busan has a great mix of nature and architecture

Busan has plenty of places to bask in the neon

If it's seafood you're after, Jagalchi Market is the place to be.

1. Busan is probably my favorite city in Korea. It's the second largest city on the peninsula, but feels distinctly different than any other place in the country. As a port city, Busan has a lot of great things to offer. Do you like beaches? Busan has Korea's most humanity covered stretch of sand at Haeundae Beach. Do you like mountains and temples? Busan has a fair selection of those too. Do you like seafood? Yes? Then you would probably enjoy a walk through Busan's Jagalchi Fish Market, where the fishing boats are constantly pulling in and out, and the days catch is so fresh that it's still swimming at the vendors' stalls. Yes. Swimming. Literally. If you're into nightlife, Busan has plenty of that to offer as well, with stretches of neon lined streets that light up the night just as brightly as any comparable street in Seoul.

Korea has a variety of easy, affordable rail options
2. Korea's mass transit system is amazing. If you want to zip around this country on high speed rail, it's easy. If you'd prefer to save a few dollars and move at a slower pace, you can do that too. The Korail system is not only easy to use, but pretty inexpensive as well. Trains come in 3 flavors, KTX, the 300kph high speed train that will get you from Seoul to Busan in around 4 hours; Saemaul a lower speed train that makes slightly fewer stops and is priced at a mid-range (meaning less crowded cars); and the incredibly inexpensive but slower and slightly more crowded Mugungwha. While the KTX is the sexiest beast on the rails here, the other trains are perfectly good ways to get around too, and make for a great way to see the countryside. Express intercity buses cover the routes that the trains don't, and within the cities the subway systems are cheap and easy to use, the bus systems are relatively easy to use (although it helps if you can read Hangeul or are comfortable asking for help), and taxis are cheap. There's no excuse to not get around and see the country from a transit point of view.

Ancient burial mounds are the final resting places of former kings

Gyeongju just looks ancient.
3. Gyeongju is Korea's cultural navel, where you will be most in touch with what Korea was like before Western contact. While it's still a relatively small city, it's easy to reach by any of the train options, and its sites are more than worth the fare to get here. Where else can you see the ancient graves of dynastic monarchs and visit a raunchy sex museum on the same day? The array of cultural sites available in Gyeongju is matched equally by its lovely backdrop of verdant green mountains. In the warm months you can rent bicycles and tour around the city and its fields, and in the springtime Gyeongju turns a beautiful pink color as the cherry blossom trees bloom everywhere.

Jeongdongjin waterfront

Limestone cliffs drop into beautiful blue-green water
Seaweed drying in the sun
4. Jeongdongjin and Gangneung are two small beach towns nearly as far to the northeast as you can go in South Korea. While many people's perception of Korea is of a cold, frozen, industrial wasteland, these two towns might fool you into thinking that you're in Hawaii, well, if it wasn't for the lack of palm trees. A 3 hour bus ride from Seoul into Gangwan-do province will land you in Jeongdongjin and Gangneung. Here the air is clean, and you will see old ladies picking seaweed in the surf and drying it on the beach for their soup. There's not much to do here other than sit in the sun and enjoy the scenery, and what scenery! Imagine if you will tall, green mountains, limestone cliffs that drop dramatically into the sea, white sand beaches, and beautiful blue-green water, and you've got a good description of the area. If you like seafood this is a great place to be as well, with plenty of hue (raw fish, Korean style) and seafood stews to keep your belly full. A trip to this part of Korea not only feels like a trip away from the city, but also like a trip back in time.

Gwanam Temple at Palgongsan

Lanterns lining the walkways at Dongwhasa Temple

Dongwhasa Temple

Dongwhasa's massive Buddha statue

5. Palgongsan Natural Area just outside of Daegu is an easy to reach mountain retreat, complete with colorful Buddhist temples and alpine trails for hiking. It's easy to reach, as you can take any of the trains into Dongdaegu Station, and take a Daegu City Tour bus from the station directly to the mountain. The Gatbawi hiking trail is a challenging hike to the top of Palgongsan that ends with a stone Buddha wearing a traditional Korean hat. On the way you'll find Gwanam temple, where you can stop for lunch, or just take pictures. Smelling the incense as you get closer to the temples and finally hearing the chants and bells of the temples as you break through the forest is an enchanting experience.
Another stop on the tour is Dongwhasa Temple, one of the biggest temples in the area where you will see a massive stone Buddha sculpture, plenty of monks on their daily meditative walks, and gorgeous structures that have been built and rebuilt over the years. If you really like the idea, you can even participate in a temple stay, living as a monk for a couple of days and enjoying the environment.

So, you're traveling and have a layover in Seoul, why not make that layover a few days and visit a country that's often nothing more than a place to stretch your legs in between flights? Korea isn't the dismal, frozen, industrial wasteland you imagine, but a country distinctly different from all of its neighbors, but similarly beautiful.

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At June 13, 2012 at 11:42 AM , Blogger C dub said...

These are all really great places! I don't even know if I can pick a favorite.

At June 13, 2012 at 4:06 PM , Blogger Charlie Patrick said...

I know, do you believe it? ;)


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