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kja Jan 9th, 2014 08:31 PM

Please help me plan 3.5 weeks in South Korea
I’m in the early stages of planning a trip to South Korea and could really use some help, as there is WAY too much I want to see and do in a 3.5-week journey. 

My goal is to have as diverse a range of experiences as possible, including cities and towns, different styles of architecture, varied natural scenery, etc.

FWIW, here’s a bit about me:
- I typically enjoy art, architecture, museums, temples and shrines, parks and gardens, natural scenery, castles, markets, picturesque villages, good food and wine, folk customs, traditional performances, and the chance to see and experience other parts of the world.
- I’m a woman, will be traveling solo, and generally prefer to proceed at my own pace (rather than with a tour).
- I don’t mind changing hotels frequently, even every night or so. In contrast, I hate backtracking if I can avoid it. 

- I’m not seeking down time (except, perhaps, for a brief soak in a Korean spa); I’m sure I’ll have enough time to relax while dining or in transit. Instead, I hope to take full advantage of the time I have to see and experience things. (OK, I’m unlikely to get up at the crack of dawn every day, but will do so when necessary to see or experience something that I would otherwise miss).
- I’m not seeking sporting activities, with the exception of a few easy, scenic hikes of no more than about 4 or 5 hours duration.

I have not been to Korea. My only trips to the Orient include 3 weeks in Japan and 4 weeks in northern China. I don’t currently speak any Korean except “thank you”; I’ve ordered my Pimsleur lessons and, if experience is any guide, I should be able to at least learn some civilities in advance of my trip.

I’ll be traveling in May, and – if I’m reading schedules correctly – I expect to be in Seoul for “Buddha’s Birthday”, maybe Dano-je, and probably the Jesa at Heoninneung. I believe there are a number of other festivals that I may be able to catch in various locations and will keep those options in mind as I plan. Please let me know of any special events that might influence my plans!

The places that are currently on my wish-list are, in no particular order, as follow:

• Seoul + (here and elsewhere, the + means “and nearby sites”)
• Suwon +
• Buseok-sa
• Andong +
• Gyeongju +
• Daegu +
• Busan +
• Tongyeong +
• Suncheon and Yeosu +
• Jeju-Do
• Gwangju +
• Jeonju (thursdaysd, I read your warning! But I keep reading and hearing positive comments, so I haven’t ruled it out yet. I hope to learn more through responses to this post.)
• Gongju +
• Daejeon +
• Cheongju +

I welcome any comments you care to offer. I am particularly interested in suggestions for how to trim this wish-list, but will (of course) also appreciate comments about places you think I should add to my list.

One last thing: I think everything I’m considering can be visited by public transportation, but will consider renting a car for part of my travels if doing so will substantially enhance my experience. Thoughts?

Thank you all in advance!

amln Jan 10th, 2014 04:36 AM

I've only been to a few of those places, but 15 locations in 24 days seems a lot. Maybe doable, but you'd be travelling every day.

For Seoul plan 2-3 days. It's a nice city with plenty to see:

I found Busan not that overwhelmingly interesting, while in contrast Gyeongju was nice.
Here is my trip report:

thursdaysd Jan 10th, 2014 10:38 AM

Hi kja - not much I can add to my TR. If I were going back (and SK didn't make my revisit list), I would want to get to Seoraksan national park, and Jeju-do. There really isn't much of historical interest that survived all the wars and invasions, but I thought the scenery was good.

Away from Seoul I found very little English, but didn't have too much trouble getting by. Meals, as in much of Asia, are really set up for groups, so you may find you're being offered way too much food. And good luck with Korean chopsticks!

Is this trip just SK, or are you headed elsewhere in Asia?

kja Jan 10th, 2014 06:18 PM

@amin -- Thank you for the links to your wonderful photographs and your trip report!

I wholeheartedly agree that I cannot visit 15 locations in 24 days – that’s why I need help figuring out what to skip!

Your comments about Busan are making me re-evaluate whether to visit that city. My priorities for Busan had been Beomeo-sa and Tongdo-sa. Am I correct in thinking that you skipped them?

I was also surprised that you suggested 2-3 days for Seoul, as I had thought I would need much more time there. I’ll reconsider that, too.

BTW, I sure hope I have better luck with meals than you did!

@LiveLearnTravelTeach – Thanks for the links to your blogs and wonderful photographs!

Your hike up Bukhan-san looked awesome – I’m glad I got to experience it vicariously, because trust me, nothing like that will be part of my future. I might consider a few long hikes, but only ones that are of the decidedly easy variety. :-)

Changdeokgung and its garden are definitely on my must-see list, as are Suwon and Hwaesong Suwon. I’m glad to learn that the palaces in Seoul are similar enough that I can reasonably skip a few.

Your comments about Cheong-ju were particularly helpful – I may drop it from my wish-list. I had hoped to see Beopju-sa, but if that remains a priority, I'll see if I can reach it from a different base.

Sokcho is definitely tempting. I had given it a lot of thought, but decided it would take too long to get there and thought that it might be a bit redundant in light of some of the other coastal places I hope to see. But you do make a case that it is worth considering!

Now, please get to some of my other potential destinations ASAP – I still have time to benefit from your experiences! ;-)

@Thursdaysd – At least as I currently envision it, I plan to visit only South Korea on this trip. I admit to a fear that I will be underwhelmed – there are simply too many places I have yet to visit in this world to “waste” what little precious travel time I have. Nonetheless, what I’ve read is intriguing enough that – at least for now – I think I would like to spend enough time in that country to experience some of the diverse settings and cultures that my reading leads me to anticipate.

BTW, I had been seriously considering a visit to Danyang until I re-read your blog. I suspect I would find things to enjoy there, but you helped me realize that I could make it a low priority. Thanks so much!

As for the chopsticks, LOL, I’m seriously considering buying a pair here so I can take a metal rasp to them until I create enough texture to enable me to pick up a noodle. As you said, there is something perverse about the persistent use of chopsticks in a culture for which slippery things are core elements of the cuisine. I expect to encounter some delicious meals on this trip -- I sure hope I can get the food from serving dish to mouth!

JC98 Jan 11th, 2014 10:23 PM

Why Daegu?

Try to get to Heinsa Temple in the mountain and do an overnight temple stay. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wonderful place for a templestay experience.

kja Jan 11th, 2014 10:40 PM

@ JC98:

Why Daegu? For Haein-sa!

From what I've read, Daegu is a good access point for Haein-sa, which is a high priority site for me. (I admit to being a sucker for UNESCO World Heritage sites. They aren't always the very best sites, and they don't always have the infrastructure they really need, but I tend to think that they don't get that designation without substantial merit.)

I'm not sure I want to do a 2-night temple stay, but I would love to hear more! And if I use Daegu as a base for Haein-sa, I believe there are some other things that I would enjoy there, such as the herb market. But it sounds like you have some experience here -- please do tell!

kja Jan 11th, 2014 10:54 PM

PS - I also thought that I might be able to see Jikji-sa and/or Donghwa-sa and/or Palgong-san from Daegu. Did you visit them?

thursdaysd Jan 12th, 2014 06:40 AM

The herb market in Daegu was a big disappointment, it's been cleaned up and santized. Most everything was indoors and wrapped in plastic.

kja Jan 12th, 2014 09:17 AM

Thanks for reminding me, thursdaysd -- I remember that you had said so and thought I had made note of it; obviously, I didn't. That candy octopus was memorable though....

JC98 Jan 13th, 2014 01:23 PM

kja, OK, I vaguely remember Daegu enroute to Heinsa. We just took the bus there and transferred to another bus to go to Heinsa and stayed only 1 night in Heinsa. Didn't see anything in Daegu. From guidebooks' descriptions, Daegu didn't sound too interesting to me at that time.

Heinsa is definitely worth it, and you should try to do a one night templestay. I talked to some Korean friends and colleagues in the US and they were so impressed that I went there. They've heard a lot about it, and none of them has ever been there!

JC98 Jan 13th, 2014 01:25 PM

Even Koreans in Korea were very impressed that I made it to Heinsa, as many of them have never been there. It has the reputation of being remote. Andong was the other place a lot of Koreans were astounded that I knew about and visited.

kja Jan 13th, 2014 07:23 PM

@ JC98 - thanks again! I was under the impression that Heinsa only offers 2-night temple stays, which doesn't strongly appeal to me. But a one-night stay would be something I'd happily consider -- I will definitely pursue the question!

Did you enjoy Andong? From what I know, it is also a high priority for me.

dgunbug Jan 14th, 2014 08:20 AM

Hi Kia - interesting that you've chosen South Korea for your next trip. I loved your china trip report which inspired us to visit Datong, pingyoa and some of the other places on our visit to china. I look forward to your future report. Curious though - what made you decide upon South Korea which is rarely reported on here?

JC98 Jan 14th, 2014 02:13 PM

Andong is interesting, and the old village in Hahoe is nice to wander around in.

Andong's visitor info office was very helpful to us. They gave us the bus schedule to Hahoe and the place with the Confucian Academy (worth a visit too)outside of Andong, and booked us at a traditional villa (called hanok) to stay for the night.

That hanok was a wonderful experience -- we got a small room in a rambling old traditional Korean villa with a well in the courtyard. The floor was heated just like the old days, by burning wood fed through a hole on the floor platform outside. It felt a bit creepy at night since it was so quiet and we might have been the only visitors there. Like we were in an old haunted house in some Asian ghost movie. :) But in the morning, we walked around the compound and it was very beautiful. You should try to stay in a hanok once.

kja Jan 14th, 2014 03:30 PM

@ dgunbug - thanks again for your kind words about my old trip report from China. I wish you had enjoyed your time in China as much as I did.

At this point in my life, I select destinations from my very long wishlist based primarily on four things: What will be most different from my most recent trips? (My last three trips were to western France, western Turkey, and Switzerland.) What will work well within my time frame? (I’m fortunate in that I can take 3-4 weeks off from work at a time, but this year, it has to be in May. Because I’m extremely sensitive to high heat and humidity, I ruled out almost all of southeastern Asia for this trip.) Will I be able to have a diverse set of experiences within that location? (For South Korea, I anticipate diverse types of natural scenery, rural and urban settings, different types of temples and shrines, various folk arts and events, artifacts from a variety of ages, etc.) Of the places that I’m still considering after asking these three questions, is there one is more “time sensitive” than others? (For example, if I go to South Korea, I would like to do so while I can hike. I can no longer manage challenging hikes, but I still love relatively easy ones and even an occasional short hike of more moderate difficulty. Another time-related issue is Seoul’s pollution. As I understand it, Seoul is not yet terribly bad, but it is getting worse.) After exploring several options, South Korea “won” this year’s where-will-I-go-next competition, and after going through six different guidebooks, I still think it will be an interesting trip.

I am a bit surprised by how few Fodorites have posted about South Korea - for such a well-travelled bunch, it does seem an odd gap. Fortunately, I don’t turn to Fodorites to plan a trip because no one else is likely to have exactly my tastes and interests. Instead, I plan my trips with guidebooks and other resources. I do turn to Fodorites to fine-tune my plans, and have been the recipient of some truly great advice over the years. And while there may not be many Fodorites who have posted about South Korea, you can see that I have already gotten some very helpful input. :-)

@ JC98 -- I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed Andong and Hahoe! They sound quite interesting, but one never knows. And yes, the Dosan Seowan is also on my list -- at least that's the Confucian Academy I think you mean. (There's another, the Byeongsan Seowan, that I might also try to fit in if I have time.) For this area, I've also made notes to make a particular effort to see the mask museum in Hahoe, a mask dance in Hahoe that I should be able to work into my schedule, the folk museum in Andong, a paper factory/museum that is in/near Andong, and the view of the area from a nearby cliff. Also in the area and candidates for my trip are Bongjeong-sa (which I think has South Korea's oldest wall mural, as well as its oldest wooden structure) and Chilcheung Jeontap, which one of my books said may be South Korea's oldest and largest brick pagoda.

Staying in a hanok is something I definitely want to do, and one of the places I had flagged as potentially a good spot for that is Hahoe, so again, I appreciate your recommendation.

BTW, I was surprised to see your comment on the other current South Korea thread that discouraged visiting Jeju-Do unless one is interested in beaches. I'm not interested in beaches, but had the impression that Jeju-Do offers some unique (or at least relatively unique) geological features, such as lava tubes and the isthmus with crater at Seongsan Ilchulbong. Too, I read that Jeju-Do offered some relatively easy hikes, readily accessible scenic settings, and a sites (gardens, folk villages) that might be interesting. I would appreciate anything you can add about your experience there. (And anywhere else you visited!)

And I was very please to see your comment on that thread about your success with the phone number to call for live English/Korean translation – good to know!

dgunbug Jan 15th, 2014 06:28 AM

Kja - we did enjoy our trip to china immensely and have even considered returning to south and southwestern china, which we did not explore. Your info was immensely helpful. I was only disappointed that we did not get to visit the "old" china. As I noted in my own trip report, some of my disappointment likely stemmed from the fact that much if what we saw was not entirely new for us, having been to other areas in Asia. It is smart that you are seeking experiences that will be very different from those you've already had.

kja Jan 15th, 2014 06:47 PM

I suspect that the "old" is rapidly disappearing everywhere. I hope to find some of "old" Korea; I won't be surprised if most of what I find has been "upgraded" and just hope that it hasn't all been "Disney-fied."

AskOksena Jan 16th, 2014 02:04 PM

Warm morning greetings kja and congratulations on future journey to South Korea. (And thank you for your brilliant reflections on your China holiday. Finally got around to reading your China report this past Sunday - from Seoul, S. Korea. Writers like you make so many business travel moments "on the road" that much more enjoyable; keep up the great work.)

Regarding potential Seoul hotels for you, writing to inform of yet another efficient and pleasurable business travel stay at the Park Hyatt. And, another fine business dinner at Arirang. Checked out of the PH ~ two days back and no complaints. My review of her - and Arirang - on my profile page still stands. A quality hotel with warm, welcoming staff. And no surprise there, given my ongoing and positive Park Hyatt corporate stays in Melbourne and Tokyo. Best of Seoul lodging fortune to you.

So wish could help with additional suggestions, but sadly, Seoul is a bit like another occasional business travel locale of mine, Shanghai, in that my brief visits have consisted almost entirely of hotels, office buildings and airports (and the occasional fine restaurant, including a new Seoul favourite of some Seoul-based colleagues, Pro Ganjang Gejang Sinsa).

Regarding airport, will give the ongoing high praise to Incheon. Remain partial to my (our) home port of Changi, but will say have never had a bad experience at ICN. Of late, have experienced more than adequate Asiana lounges (and a Singapore Airlines SilverKris Lounge) for work related travel.

Savour your planning kja; very happy for you. Should your ever desire suggestions for our fine home of Singapore (and Singapore Airlines), honoured to assist.

Early and warm weekend wishes to you and all,

macintosh (robert)

... Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly ...

kja Jan 16th, 2014 04:58 PM

@ AskOksena - Thank you so much for your kind words, Robert (or should I say MacIntosh?)! My trip to China was wonderfully memorable -- and decidedly outside of my comfort zone. I fear that all of you who read that trip report and remember anything about it will be sorely disappointed by any report I might eventually post about my time in South Korea. I plan to be much more conventional on this trip, with advance reservations and detailed plans and maybe even a rental car for part(s) of the trip.

I appreciate the hotel, restaurant, and airport notes -- I will keep them in mind!

And I will do my best to keep you to your promise when I take my turn visiting Singapore. :-)

kja Jan 22nd, 2014 08:52 PM

I suspect you've all provided what input you can, but just in case, here’s my current plan, which now involves a 4-week trip (from which I would prefer to cut a few days, so feel free to suggest can-skips!):

Day 1: Reach Incheon late in the afternoon; head to Seoul. Night in Seoul.

Day 2 = Sunday 4 May: attend the Jongmyo Daeji (Should I expect that to take all day? Are there parts that I should be sure to attend, even if I skip others?) Night in Seoul.

Day 3: Move on to Suwon (with more time in Seoul later); visit the Korean Folk Village. Night in Suwon.

Day 4: Visit Hwaseoung. Night in Suwon.

Day 5: Return to Seoul (I know that this routing is not efficient, but I want to be in Seoul for three separate events – Jongmyo Daeji, which I believe is on the 4th, the jesa at Heoninneung royal tombs, which I believe is on the 8th, and at least the night before my flight home. I played with a few options; this seemed best, even though it means changing hotels with ridiculous frequency. Feel free to suggest a simpler solution!) Night in Seoul.

Day 6 = Thursday 8 May: Attend the jesa at the Heoninneung royal tombs (again, timing information would be greatly appreciated!) Night in Seoul.

Day 7: Go to Buyeo (with more time in Seoul at the end of my trip), visit fortress. Night in Buyeo.

Day 8: Visit the Buyeo National Museum (a very high priority for me) and a bit more of Buyeo. Move on to Gwangju. Night in Gwangju.

Day 9: Visit Gwangju museums (national and folk) and Gochang. Night in Gwangju.

Day 10: Visit Soswaewon and, if time permits, Damyang. Night in Gwangju.

Day 11: Travel to Jeju-Do, probably via Wando (see day 15, below). Stay in Jeju City or perhaps Seogwipo -- still deciding – input welcome!

Day 12 – 14: Jeju-Do. I’m considering renting a car for my time on the island. Any thoughts?

Day 15: Travel to Jinju (base for Ssangyesa, Jiri-san, and Hadong), perhaps via Mokpo. From what I’ve been able to learn – and it isn’t much – it will be easier to get from JejuDo to Jinju via Mokpo than via Wando, and if that’s the case, then I would rather go to the island via Wando and return from the island via Mokpo. (I would prefer different ferry routes so I can see different scenery on the two crossings. I do not want to fly to/from JejuDo.) Any information any of you can shed on my transportation options for Gwangju to JejuDo and then from JejuDo to Jinju will be appreciated! Night in Jinju.

Day 16: Ssangyesa, perhaps Buril waterfall, Hadong. Night in Jinju.

Day 17: Go to Busan. Go to Tongdo-sa ASAP (because it’s museum will, I think, be closed the next day). Night in Busan.

Day 18: Beomeosa & Geumjeongsanseong. Night in Busan

Day 19: Explore Busan, then move on to Gyeongju. Explore Yangdong. Night in Gyeongju.

Day 20: Bulgaksa & Seokguram, along with places within Gyeongju that I can see afterwards. Night in Gyeongju.

Day 21: Explore Gyeongju and move on to Daegu. I think I might arrive in time to go to Haeinsa, take a bus to Gimcheon, and then visit Jikjisa before returning to Daegu. (Is that realistic?) If not, I will visit one of those temples after my arrival and either skip Jikjisa or see it the next day. Night in Daegu.

Day 22: Move on to Andong. Depending on the time of my arrival, visit Dosan Seowan, Hahoe, or Bongjeongsa that afternoon. Night in Andong.

Day 23: Visit the two remaining sites I hope to see in the area (Dosan Seowan, Hahoe, and/or Bongjeongsa), as well as places within Andong. Night in Andong.

Day 24: Finish visiting Andong and move on to Yeongju (solely to see Buseoksa). Night in Yeongju.

Day 25: Visit Buseoksa, then take a train to Seoul. Can I reach Seoul in time to check in to a hotel and still have dinner? Or would it be better to stay in the area, perhaps another night in Yeongju or a night at a hotspring in/near Uljin?

Day 26: If necessary, return to Seoul. Visit sites in Seoul. Night in Seoul.

Day 27: Seoul. Night in Seoul.

Day 28: Return to the US.

Comments / suggestions are welcome! Some other questions:

• Are left-luggage offices available in most cities? Are they in train and bus stations, or in tourist information offices, or …? With so many short stays, it would be great to be able to leave a main bag somewhere near a train or bus station, taking with me only what I need for a night or two.

• I believe the (G/K)ansong Museum of Art in Seoul is only open during 2 weeks in May (and another 2 weeks in Oct.) Do any of you know WHICH 2 weeks? and with what opening days / hours?

• Are there notable festivals or celebrations that I could easily incorporate into this plan?

• Is renting a car for any part of my time on mainland South Korea worth considering?

• What else?

Thanks in advance for any comments and advice!

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