World

5 Reasons to Visit South Korea

... Before the 2018 Winter Olympic Games

By Maria Iotova
If visions of figure skaters (and ice lugers, bobsledders and hockey players) dance in your head, you might already be pumped for the next Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. But while plenty of people will flock to South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, all we can think about are the many reasons to visit the peninsula before then: the stunning hiking trails, the Buddhist path to enlightenment, the botanical gardens and the breathtaking sunrises. (Oh, and the food. So much food.) Hanguk, aka the Republic of Korea, simmers like green tea in summer, so we picked a few of our favorite places and activities to add to your Korean bucket list.

Seokbulsa Temple

Seokbulsa Temple. Photo by Al Case


“Though we search the world over for the beautiful, we find it within or we find it not,” wrote the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wise words — though we suspect he never saw the 40-meter-tall Buddha sculptures etched into Geumjeong Mountain. Seokbulsa Temple is a glittering gem located outside the urban districts of Busan. And like most treasures, it requires determined hunting. Lace up your boots, fill your water bottle and repeat this mantra as you complete the final, steep 600 meters of your climb: “My effort will be rewarded.” The utter serenity coupled with endless vistas of mountains, sea and sky are worth the aches you’ll feel the next day.

Location: Busan

Alternative

If you’re a morning person (we mean it: monks will be chanting at your door at 5 a.m.) and seeking a more complete spiritual experience, stay overnight at the Mihwangsa Buddhist temple in Haenam. A monk will guide you through the practice of meditating and introduce you to the vegetarian diet and the tea ritual before you are left to experience it all for yourself — for as long as you can stay away from your phone and laptop. 

Boseong Daeham Dawon Tea Plantation  

Boseong Tea Plantation. Photo by Quan H. KIM


It’s no longer a secret that green tea helps you stay healthy and even live longer. But where does this magical elixir come from? We can’t vouch for every packet on the supermarket shelf, but 40 percent of Korea’s tea is produced in the tiered fields of Boseong. A short walk down the forested path will set the mood for the climb to the lookout point, which affords you expansive views of the verdant fields. If you haven’t yet loaded up on souvenirs for everyone back home, pick up clusters of dried green-tea bags. (For that special someone worthy of international shipping costs, we recommend a complete tea set with cups, saucers and pot.) If the scent of the tea reminds you of wintry coziness, reclaim summer just 10 kilometers away on the sandy, pine-tree-lined shores of Yulpo beach.

Location: Boseong-gun, Jeollanam-do 

Alternative

For a more intimate experience, visit Mrs. Sen-mi’s guesthouse in Seola Da Won. Your stay includes a tour of the family’s tea plantation, unlimited fresh tea and musical performances. Mrs. Sem-ni sings and plays traditional instruments — kayagum, jang-goo, kengari, piano and guitar — along with her 17-year-old daughter, and they encourage you to play with them. Bread smeared with homemade mulberry marmalade, accompanied with shots of magnolia tea, will kick off your day.  

Suncheon Bay

Suncheon Bay Garden. Photo by Quan H. KIM


Mother Nature was generous with South Korea: Even big cities are nestled in thick forests, with views of mountains and access to beaches. But why stop there? See proof that humans can, in fact, improve nature at Suncheon Bay. Home to a diverse range of plants and marine life, this coastal marsh is even more dazzling thanks to a massive man-made world garden. One moment you’re strolling through the Medici Villa gardens of the Italian Renaissance, and the next you’re balancing on stepping stones in front of a Chinese pagoda. Just don’t get so turned around in the maze that you can’t see anything else.

Location: Suncheon

Sηινsegae

Photo by Thomas Wanhoff


Size does matter. At least when it comes to shops — and Shinsegae is the clear winner. This massive department store stands out for another reason, too: Its jjimjilbang. The traditional Korean bathhouse offers the ultimate experience in soaking and scrubbing. Whether you’re after smooth skin or relief from back pain, Spa Land’s hot springs and saunas will cure what ails you. When you’ve had enough of the heat, escape to the secluded, cool outdoor rock pools. Then swing by the snack bar and refresh with bingsu, a popular shaved ice dessert. Or try something more substantial: Shinsegae’s food court offers a variety of cuisines, from classic Korean to Western, all with a view of a gigantic ice-skating rink.

Location: 35, Centumnam-daero, Haeundae-gu, Busan

Jeju-do Island 

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall. Photo by Mohamed Yahya


Set three alarms if you must, because you’ll want to wake up in darkness to make sure you arrive at the bottom of Seongsan Sunrise Peak an hour before the sun peeks above the horizon. This will give you enough time to climb 180 meters to the highest point of the 5,000-year-old volcanic crater, stake out a seat, set up your camera and tripod, and savor the dawn of the new day. After you’ve captured the sky’s spectacular theatrics, spend your day on Udo Island, where the white sand beach meets the emerald sea. Rent a bike near the ferry and you can explore the whole island in under two hours, minus the time you spend eating fresh seafood in one of the many restaurants. For more natural drama, visit the 22-meter-high Cheonjiyeon Waterfall near a busy marina dotted with people eating and drinking to their hearts’ content. Pro tip: Visit again at night. The moonlit version may just convince you never to leave.


By Maria Iotova

Maria is an avid traveler (from Bulgaria, to Ghana, to Korea and back again). She loves stretching her legs, seeing the world, and writing about it.