CONTRIBUTED BY CHRISTINE BRUNS
As inevitably happens for most who get stationed in South Korea, the tour will end and it will be time to move on to a new duty station. For some this is a welcome change; for others, the tears will continue to flow as they finally board the plane to leave. It was just before that point in my own family’s journey that we started to take stock of what we had been able to do and see in Korea… and how much more awesomeness we could try to cram into the last two months!
I pulled out my list of “things we must do” that I had been steadily adding to. This is a picture of my actual list (yes, I am old school and used paper!):
I also polled our Korea Ye friends on Facebook to see what everyone else had on their “must” lists. For all those just arriving and for those who are looking to expand their own itineraries, I present a brief “Korea Bucket List”. The items are in no particular order and there are a TON of other things one could add, but here is a good start, at least!
1) See the Palaces and Temples
Want to see, feel, hear, and experience traditional Korea? Then you definitely need to visit at least one of its beautiful palaces or temples. There are often special performances, such as the changing of the guard, and many other experiences held at each site. The most visited is probably the main palace in downtown Seoul, Gyeonbokgung, but there are numerous other options all over the peninsula. Here are a few other options to consider:
2) Learn to read Hangul
Whether you decide to immerse yourself in a longterm class to learn the Korean language or opt to simply make do with a few common phrases (Hello – Annyeong Haseyo!), learning the Korean alphabet will serve you well during your time here. It is a very easy system to learn to read, and with a small amount of practice you’ll be able to read things like signs and menus in no time. Here’s a quick primer to get you started.
3) Visit Different Cities – Busan, Incheon, Jeonju…
No matter where you are based in South Korea, traveling around the country by train, car, or plane is relatively easy. Take advantage of any opportunity to go visit other areas, where you can see more history, taste regional delicacies, and hear or see a variety of cultural events. To find a new place, the Korea Tourism Organization is a great resource. Here are just a few suggestions from our writers:
4) Go Shopping, Shopping, Shopping!
There are markets, malls, and street vendors a-plenty in Korea – everywhere you turn, above and below ground, day and night, you will find a unique shopping experience. The markets are often divided into specific sections, such as the clothing and fabric areas of Dongdaemun, or the flower and crafts of the Express Bus Terminal. There are modern and traditional side-by-side. Your best bet is just to pick an area and go explore; treasures will be found!
5) Take a Class
There are many, many, MANY opportunities for foreign guests to learn and experience various aspects of Korean culture. Classes in painting, music, dance, martial arts, language, crafts, and others are offered at local tourism offices, museums, theaters, and schools. Very often, these classes are FREE! As you can see from the pictures, all members of my family enjoyed learning while we were stationed here. If you can find the time, I highly suggest you attend a class – even if only for an hour or so. A good place to start, when in or visiting Seoul is the Seoul Global Culture Center in Myeongdong.
6) Visit Jeju Island
A volcanic island off the southern coast, Jeju is often called the “Hawaii of Korea”. It is a beautiful place to visit, with a TON of things to do and see. There is something for everyone – hiking, museums, resorts, kid’s areas, beaches, amusement parks. Go if you get the chance:
7) Attend a Festival
I think there may be a festival or celebration of some sort going on every week, all year long, somewhere in Korea. There are festivals for rice, fish, lotus lanterns, Buddha, pottery, music, cherry blossoms, mud, soju, snow…the list goes on and on and on. You will see live performances, eat wonderful food, find excellent handicrafts, and hopefully take lots of pictures to remember them by.
8) Visit a Neighboring Country (or two or three)
Korea is a GREAT central location to hop to a number of other countries in this part of the world – go, go, go! Even with limited time or resources, there are ways to take a trip, whether it be through the USO, MWR, a tour group, or on your own. Popular places include Japan, Thailand, China, Australia, Guam, and the Philippines. Need tips or ideas? Here are just a few:
9) Attend Live Korean Musical and Theater Performances
Koreans love their music and theater, whether it’s old or new – Pansori or K-Pop or Ballet or Hip Hop plays. There are a good number of orchestras, many open-run theaters, and a TON of teen-scream inducing K-Pop groups. If you get the chance to go to a live concert or play, absolutely go to hear something new (or old). You may find a new favorite along the way, like a K-Pop show.
10) Eat the FOOOOOD!!
I am writing this article after we have already PCS’d out of Korea and the thing we miss most – other than the amazing people we met there – is the food. The street food, chicken and beer joints, galbi, fresh (and sometimes moving) seafood… oh, the tastes and smells. If you are not adventurous in the spicy food department, you can still enjoy the tastes of Korean cuisine without eating a ton of kimchi. Look for sweet or savory dishes, such as bulgogi, hoddeok, or mung bean pancakes. Yum!
11) Attend a Korean Baseball Game
When someone told me this was a “must”, I was skeptical. How different could it be? Well, Koreans take being a spectator to a whole new level, complete with continuous songs, chants, movement, and fun, fun, fun. Plus, there are the food choices (yes, again with the food). If you get the chance, definitely go spend a day at the ballpark.
Pro Tip: DO buy the 2,000 won inflatable clappers; they will come in handy!
12) Spend a Day (or Two) at a Korean Amusement Park
With or without kids, there is something to see or do at the numerous parks around the country. The big ones include Lotte World (which has an indoor only option), Everland, and Seoul Land. There are also many water parks, such as Caribbean Bay and Woongjin Playdoci.
13) Go Pottery shopping
Everywhere you look in Korea, the iconic kimchi pot will be seen – in use or simply as decoration. Beyond that, there are many, many forms of beautiful Korean pottery. Groups will often schedule bus trips for a day just to visit pottery villages, such as those in Yeoju, for large buying trips. Don’t leave Korea without a special piece of Korean pottery in your collection.
14) Get Naked at the Jjimjilbang
Sorry – no pictures for this one! This was on my own personal bucket list, and though I was pretty nervous about going, I ended up enjoying the experience. Each spa has varying options – with or without clothing – that can include hot tubs, body scrubs, massage, and steam rooms. Be brave, take a friend or family member, and pamper yourself.
15) Go Hiking
This is definitely an “unofficial” national pastime for many Koreans, complete with coordinated hiking outfits and gear. Whether it’s urban or in the mountains, they LOVE to go hiking. Korea is very mountainous, so there are a plethora of accessible trails to visit within a short distance from most cities. There are even great options within cities, such as hiking the old fortress walls of Seoul or Hwaseong.
16) Tour the DMZ
While visiting the neighbor to the north may not be an option for most, you can at least step foot across the boarder for a minute or so at the DMZ. There are a number of tour options – through the USO, MWR, the DMZ Train, or private companies – and it is definitely a unique experience. Considered the most fortified border, and most dangerous place on Earth by some, the DMZ offers a peak into conflicts of the past and the hope by many for reunification of the two Koreas some day.
Whatever your feelings about your time in Korea (and I’m wishing you many positive ones), I sincerely hope you will be able to look back and say, “Wow, we experienced a lot!” Make your own list and start exploring!