As I ambled through the ancient Gyeongbokgung Palace, the scent of jasmine flowers filled the air, the sun shone through the distant mountain peaks, and pastel-colored cherry trees, filled with blossoms, lined the path. It felt as though life had truly slowed down, and I had entered the past.
No one was checking their phones for Facebook responses, no one was rushing or pushing to get a photo, and everything was very calm and peaceful. I was surrounded with smiles from people wearing the traditional hanbok dress. I felt I came as close to ancient life as possible without access to a time machine to bring me there.
After just a few days in the country, I could easily see why Pyeongchang, about 100 miles east of Seoul, was selected to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. While tourists usually stay in Seoul, the beautiful surrounding countryside with its large mountains and great resorts will encourage talk about the Olympic games for years to come.
Here are 10 of my favorite places in the northern region of South Korea.
10. Gwangmyeong Cave
Gwangmyeong means “prosperous life,” and the cave has a long history of both prosperity and tragedy. It was originally a goldmine when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule in 1912, and then, during the Korean War, it provided shelter for refugees. In 1972, it became a space to hold salted shrimp, and finally in 2011, Gwangmyeong city opened it as a theme park dedicated to Korea’s industrial heritage. To this day, there are still deposits of gold in the cave and you can go panning for it yourself, one of many activities offered inside.
Some highlights of the cave include the botanical garden, where cutting-edge technology is used to grow vegetables, used in the cave’s restaurant, without sunlight; Aqua World, where aquariums hold different species of fish from around the world; and the Golden Waterfall, a natural waterfall inside the cave is nearly 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide and pours 1.5 tons gallons of water every minute. A vintage-themed restaurant inside the cave serves over 100 kinds of wine; on weekends, visitors can enjoy free tastings.
With a depth of almost 900 feet and over 4 1/2 miles long (with one mile open to the public), the cave got the attention of director Peter Jackson and inspired the design of the dragon Smaug’s lair from the the second film in the “Hobbit” triology, “The Desolation of Smaug.” A few props from the “Lord of the Rings” movies, as well as a large dragon, are displayed around the cave.
Price: $1.00–5.50 (1,000–6,000 won)
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
9. Suwon Hwaseong Fortress
Built by King Jeongjo of the late Joseon period in the 18th century, this massive structure is a sight to see. With its walls stretching almost four miles, it was originally built to show the king’s filial piety toward his father, whose tomb he relocated behind its walls. It was carefully designed with the most sophisticated science and astronomical knowledge from both European and Asian influences at the time, which impacted its layout, construction, floodgates, and its ultimate purpose—to protect the inhabitants from enemy forces within its massive military compounds.
Unfortunately, during the Korean War in the 1950s, the fortress was partially destroyed. Years later, construction began to restore much of this mighty fortress to its original form. However, because of the massive size of the structure, construction continues to this day.
A few must-see places are the north floodgate, the beacon tower, and the east cardinal gate.
The UNESCO World Heritage site serves as a venue for a variety of events, performances, and tours every day.
Price: $.50–1.00 (50–1000 won)
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
8. Insadong Market in Seoul
Out of all the shopping areas I explored, this area was one of the best. There aren’t many English signs on the storefronts, but if you are looking for traditional Korean clothing, crafts, calligraphy, or simply nice Korean cuisine, this market has it all.
One of the best places we discovered was a traditional Korean teahouse on the second floor. As soon as we walked into the all-wood space, the smell of herbs and tea filled the air, and an elderly woman greeted us with a bright smile. It was as if we had walked into a family’s home, and we were served the best tea any of us had while in Korea. That day, it was raining hard outside, and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect spot. We liked it so much that we stayed for hours, drinking tea, sharing stories, and immersing ourselves in Korean culture.
Hours: Depends on stores
7. Cherry Blossom Festival
It’s unfortunate that the 2018 Winter Olympics will miss the cherry blossom season in April. Cherry trees bloom all around South Korea and are a highlight of the year, celebrated by cherry blossom festivals. One of the most picturesque sights is in Gangneung city, near Korea’s northeastern coast: the Gyeongpo Cherry Blossom Festival located around Gyeongpoho Lake, with misty mountains as a backdrop.
If you don’t feel like walking, there are bicycles for rent that hold anywhere from one to four riders. Hungry? Just down the road sits an American style restaurant called L Barbecue, which surprisingly served some of the best ribs and pork loin I’ve ever had.
Time Period: End of March to Early-mid April
6. Seoul Bamdokkaebi (Yeouido) Night Market
Seoul is known for its nightlife and popular night markets. On Friday and Saturdays evenings, Koreans enjoy delicious food catered from countless food trucks, music and dancing, shops, or picnicking at Han Riverside Park. Come early enough to watch the sun set over the river.
Hours: 6:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m.
5. Woljeongsa Temple Stay
Woljeongsa means “beautiful moon of the heart,” a perfect name for this cultural experience that gives visitors a chance to connect with their inner self while being surrounded by nature.
Religion is very important to Koreans, and it seems to reflect on how honesty plays a role in their lives. Temples can be found everywhere, whether in the city or dotting the countryside, and as both tourists and natives attend on a regular basis. The Woljeongsa Temple is the oldest temple, originally built in 643 and later rebuilt after it was burned down by the Japanese centuries later.
Experience what it is like to be a monk: Make Buddha prayer beads, learn about Buddhist painting, do a walking meditation, and, of course, eat a vegetarian meal, all while exploring the grand history of this ancient temple.
Visitors may register for just the activity program that lasts two to three hours, for a one-day program, or, if they are feeling adventurous, for one to four nights for the full temple experience.
Price: $18.00–$250.00 (20,000–270,000 won)
Hours: Depends on the program
4. Alpensia Ski Resort and Ski Museum
The Alpensia resort is gorgeous and has plenty to offer, whether or not you like to ski. Learn all about the history of Korea’s snow culture through artifacts, antique photos, and facts on how their ancestors created and used skis. Also take a ride to the top of a 160-foot tower, where you can see breathtaking views of the whole resort.
Just a 10-minute drive away is the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Promotion Hall, where you can experience what it is like to fly down the ski slope using a 360-degree virtual reality headset. Or take a ride in a 4D theater as you become a virtual member of a bobsled team zipping down the new Pyeongchang snow track.
Near the resort are the Odaesan National Park, the Korea Botanic Garden, and the beautiful Heungjeong Valley.
Hours: Morning 8:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m., Afternoon 12:30 p.m.–4:30 p.m., Evening 6:30 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
3. Jeong Gang Won: The Institute of Traditional Korean Cuisine
Aside from the amazing sights and wonders of the Korea, one of the most important aspects is Korean cuisine. Even if you have eaten at a Korean restaurant before, your experience simply cannot be compared to the local flavors of Korea. The restaurants we visited in Korea were all fantastic, from the rich local flavors, very tender meats, to the locally grown vegetables. But one place that stands out is Jeong Gang Won.
At the large gate at the entrance, visitors are greeted by rows and rows of barrels filled with various kinds of homemade fermented vegetables. The kimchi was the best I’ve ever had.
Be prepared to spend at least a few hours here. Better yet, stay a few nights in one of their traditional houses. All of the food is organic and grown onsite. If you have 10 or more in your group, you can take part in a traditional cooking class to learn how to make your own bibimbap.
The area surrounding the institute covers over 33,000 miles, so take a stroll in their park, see the waterfall, visit the museum, and admire their collection of exotic birds.
Price: $9.00–27.00 (10,000–30,000won)
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.
2. Korean Folk Village
Located in the city of Yongin, just south of Seoul, is a huge village comprising houses from the late Jose Dynasty that have been relocated and reconstructed to show the traditional way of life: great food, master craftsmen making tools, and performances with traditional Korean music and dancing. Kids can enjoy the large area of amusement park rides, games, and crafts. Many rent hanbok clothing to don while strolling around the village, which I highly recommend; even if you are a foreigner, it just adds to the overall experience.
If you plan to visit, make sure you at least book for half a day, there is so much to see and experience that you won’t want to rush through.
Price: $10.00–16.00 (11,000–18,000won)
Hours: 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
1. Gyeongbokgung Palace
Seoul has five grand palaces, and Gyeongbokgung (meaning “greatly blessed by Heaven,”) is the largest and most stunning. It was built in the heart of Seoul in 1395 and was deemed auspicious at the time.
The King resided in the palace, which houses his throne and a reception hall. It was burned down during a Japanese invasion in the late 1500s and was reconstructed in 1867, only to be torn down when Japan took control of much of Korea in the early 1900s. Today it has been almost completely restored.
Enter at the massive Gwanghwamun Gate (meaning “Let the light of enlightenment blanket the world”) to see the changing of the guards every hour. Don’t miss the best photo opportunity of this most picturesque site: the beautiful pavilion.
Price: $1.50–2.75 (1,500-3000won)
Hours: Winter: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Spring: 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m., Summer: 9:00 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Autumn: 9:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
With Korea’s rich and long history, you could spend a month and still not see and do everything you would like to. But if you are planning to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, or just wanting to visit in the near future, don’t pass up the chance to experience the country’s breathtaking landscapes and the rich heritage of Korea’s well-preserved traditional culture.