16 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in South Korea

Jul 22, 2021

It doesn't matter what your background is, or what you have seen before, you will want to visit South Korea to experience it all.

Once a subject of communist rule, and rife with Confucian traditions, modern South Korea is very different from what you may imagine. It's a market economy, where great wealth is generated by powerful corporations, and a country in the throes of rapid change and transformation. But even if you don't have any interest in the politics or lifestyles of this modern nation, South Korea will be one of the most fascinating trips you ever make.

Our list of the top tourist attractions in South Korea will take you to the top sites, from its spectacular capital, Seoul, to fascinating destinations like Silla Park, the mythical cliffside kingdom of Jeju, and of course, the brand new city of Daegu, which has become a modern haven of art and commerce.

Soak up the sights, sounds, and experiences of South Korea with our list of the top places to visit.

Seoraksan National Park

Photo of Seoraksan
Seoraksan: en.wikipedia.org

Seoraksan National Park is a mountainous plateau located a mere 21 km from Seoul, that is home to several rock carvings and several temples, dating back to the Baekje dynasty, the first Korean dynasty. Built on a craggy mound, the Fortress of the Kim clan, which served as a defensive fortress for the Jongcheons who ruled the area, dates back to the 15th century and is said to be one of the largest goryeo towers in Asia. Don't miss Ssireum, a traditional Korean wrestling sport with a display of gymnastic and acrobatic displays, typically performed by men from the Yonebi village, in early May. These acrobats are known for their astonishing feats of strength and skill. Also worth visiting in the park is the Yonggungsa temple, an active Buddhist temple and the birthplace of Korean Buddhism, built in 584, making it one of the oldest temples in the area.

Busan

Busan is the bustling capital of South Korea's second largest city, and the country's largest port. Best known for its amazing seafood restaurants, for scuba diving in the neighboring waters, for pleasant city parks, and for the Bosaengno seawall walk, this metropolis of nearly 3 million has many sites of interest for tourists. The best way to explore the city is by hopping on one of the tourist buses run by KCC Tourist Company or KTB Bus Company. The buses give you a window to the sights and the sounds of this city's rapid modernization, as you head out to see sights like Lotte World (Park), SsangYong Beach, the famous Gwangalli Beach and, of course, the colorful Mansudae Grand Palace and the spectacular Geumneung Hill.

Jongmyo Shrine

Photo of Jongmyo
Jongmyo: en.wikipedia.org

Jongmyo Shrine (Chongmyo-sa), considered to be the spiritual center of the Korean people, is the ancestral shrine of Korea's Joseon Dynasty royal family. The site sits on the grounds of the former royal city of Gyeongju and contains within its walls the remains of a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is currently believed to be the last remaining wooden structure in the world and is in the process of being restored to its former glory, with the idea of allowing visitors to see a glimpse of the past. Reopened in 2003 after being closed for 21 years, it has a new museum, the Gyeongju Gallery, that showcases the thousands of art pieces that decorate the building. The last time the building was open to the public was before World War II and only very limited tours were conducted. There are a number of ceremonies, rituals and festivals that are held at Jongmyo Shrine, one of which is the famous Gyeongju Autumn Festival. Taking place in late September, it is characterized by beautiful floral arrangements on the grounds and lots of booths and food. Also, be sure to check out the exhibits at the Gyeongju Gallery during this period, including life-sized dioramas and clothing of royal servants. If you wish to see the real-life wooden house that was used by the Korean royal family, plan your visit during the spring when the front and backyards are filled with colorful traditional Korean art.

Bulguksa Temple

Photo of Bulguksa
Bulguksa: en.wikipedia.org

The temple is in northern South Korea's mountains and is home to one of the world's oldest rock carvings. A popular site among tourists and Koreans, the temple has nine temples, three pavilions, a hall, and a cliff face covered in 80,000 Buddhist carvings, most dating back to the Goryeo period. The cliff face contains more than 40,000 drawings of Buddhas, serpents, and other animals, in intricate detail. The cliff carvings are in the style of Song-dynasty Korean art, showing Chinese influence. The earliest Buddhist carvings in the region, on a small temple at Tongdo in the southern Goguryeo region, are from the 5th century.

Jeju-do

Photo of Jeju Island
Jeju Island: en.wikipedia.org

South Korea's lush Jeju Island is famous for its beautiful beaches and pristine national parks. On the island's east coast, the picturesque village of Seongsan Ilchulbong, a former capital, contains the Jeju Provincial Museum and Park, which is filled with ancient art and artifacts. Jeju is famous for its beaches and the island's pristine national park, the Whale Island (an island of whales and dolphins) and the Moak Sandal Beach, one of the most beautiful white sand beaches on the entire Korean Peninsula. Access to the island is either from the Chinese border via Busan, or by air from Korea's capital, Seoul. Visitors to Jeju Island should be wary of the reckless driving of local motorcyclists. The small island is also one of the most expensive places to live in South Korea.

Deoksugung Palace

Photo of Deoksugung
Deoksugung: en.wikipedia.org

In his 30 years of rule, King Gojong built one of the most exquisite palaces in the world. This magnificent building serves as the official residence of the Korean head of state and is a national treasure in its own right. For the full effect, visit the palace at sunrise or sunset. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to Gojong's grandfather, King Min, and includes: a meticulously reconstructed temple, the Leeum Gonjeon (which houses the King's Memorial Hall); a circular palace, originally King Gojong's study; and several halls housing the artwork and furniture of the Joseon Dynasty, including a room full of paintings of tigers, the largest collection of its kind in the world.

Haeundae Beach

Photo of Haeundae Beach
Haeundae Beach: en.wikipedia.org

South Korea's Jeju-do is the southernmost of its group of islands, consisting of approximately 60,000 volcanic rocks scattered over a steep, volcanic cliff. Highlands are relatively scarce. Of the dozen cities on the island, Haeundae is the most developed; tourists frequent this beach town, known for its beaches, windsurfing, and clear sea. Haeundae Beach is the island's best, with long, clean stretches of sand lapped by turquoise waters and fringed by pine trees and swaying palm trees. Haeundae Beach is in the southwest corner of the island, where the Tsushima Strait opens up to the ocean. Here the beach ends abruptly. Most visitors head to South Korea's most popular, crowded, and expensive resort in Seogwipo. If you go to Seogwipo, you will find its most iconic sights, including Jeju-do's most-photographed volcanic rock tower (the Olle). Jeju's other attractions are the fish, including the prized Jeju halibut and rice (kkaennip) freshwater fish.

Changdeokgung Palace

Photo of Changdeokgung
Changdeokgung: en.wikipedia.org

Beside the quaint and very pretty Keumsan waterfall in South Korea's Daedong River valley lies the most notable of the country's early 20th-century royal palaces, the Changdeokgung Palace. Surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens, the palace itself is a 15-room, 60-room edifice which sits on a small island, Kwanghwamun, in the center of the palace moat. The grounds are studded with more than 300 different specimens of Korean art, including rare and ancient paintings and sculptures. And if all that isn't enough, you can get up close to the beautifully restored palace grounds, including parts of the wall surrounding the palace, the palace moat, the bridge to the island, the island palace gardens and even the actual underground residence of Emperor Gojong's son-in-law, the Japanese consul.

Daegu

Daegu is the largest city in the country with a population of 2.5 million and lies in the province of Gyeongsangbuk-do. It has over 1,000 years of history, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Daegu is the center for a variety of interesting things to do, some examples of which are the Gyeonguido Museum, the World Information Center, the World Peace Pagoda, the Daegu Historical Park, the Dangun Shrine, the Daegu Mall and the National Folk Museum. Those who want to visit the birthplace of Koreans are encouraged to spend a few days at the ancestral home of the Korean people, Jeonju.

Lotte World

Photo of Lotte World Tower
Lotte World Tower: en.wikipedia.org

Lotte World, located in Seoul, South Korea, is the largest amusement park in Asia. The $4.2 billion project was designed by the Lotte corporation and opened in 1997. For the most part, visitors simply follow the path that leads from the entry point in central Seoul through several themed zones and past a massive rides collection. Major attractions include Aengyo and Light In The Land of Noryangjin, a 34,000-seat amphitheater built on a lake that offers free water rides during the summer. Next, visitors pass through Micro World, a miniature-landscape park with over 1,000 exhibits; Dream World, a fairy-tale-themed fantasy world; and Dream Land, a water park. In addition to these theme-park attractions, Lotte World also contains a casino, restaurants, shops, and 24-hour eateries.

Gangneung

Photo of Gangneung
Gangneung: en.wikipedia.org

Gangneung is the only Olympic winter sports venue to be located on a mainland beach. The beautiful sight of the Olympic arena built over the water amid the beach and snow-covered mountains of Gangneung are enhanced by performances, exhibitions, and cultural events. For the Olympics, an on-site observation tower provides dramatic views across the lake and was included as a historic site. The area is also home to the Gangneung Asian Art Museum, which was opened in 2007 and features a large collection of traditional Korean art and art inspired by the Korean modernism style.

Gyeongju

Photo of Gyeongju
Gyeongju: en.wikipedia.org

Gyeongju means 'Shining Capital' and this historic city in the shadow of a rugged mountains range is just that. According to one of history's largest archaeological sites and the former capital of one of the country's most popular dynasties, this is the ideal stop if you're interested in both the past and the present. There are over 100 attractions in Gyeongju, including a superb museum, which houses over 200,000 artifacts from the site, and dozens of temples, the best known of which is the imposing Daeungung-sa Temple. Walking through the manicured garden-lined streets of this well-preserved city is a reminder of just how prosperous and well-polished life was here for the lords and ladies of the Goryeo kingdom who lived in this part of the country between the 9th and 13th centuries. Gyeongju is just 160 km from the capital Seoul, and is served by a number of flights and coaches, from KTX or KTF airports. The trip can be made in a day if you have plenty of time on your hands.

Jongno

Photo of Jongno District
Jongno District: en.wikipedia.org

Jongno is the heart of the Namdaemun plaza (6.3-hectare area), the largest traditional public market in South Korea. This part of the capital is also home to a number of shrines and temples, including Yongsan Samcheongdang, and Tongil-sa. Several houses of worship, including Yongsan Sunhak Chonghakpilseondang, and Tongil-sa, dating back to the Joseon Dynasty, and a red-clay temple called Ku-Yongdaegong from the late Joseon Dynasty, are also found in the area. A number of famous temples and shrines, including the Jogye-sa Temple, also known as the head temple of Korea's Jogye Order, the best-preserved in South Korea, are found within the historical city of Deoksu, which is located nearby. Another famous temple is Namdae-myun, which is regarded as the largest wooden structure in the world. A visit to Jongno Market should be the first stop on a trip to Seoul. There are a number of different food markets, including the traditional and modern markets. The traditional market offers a range of Korean specialty goods, including live seafood, while the modern market is more popular with tourists than Koreans and sells a variety of products.

The Samcheong-dong Cultural District

Geologically interesting, politically ambitious, the hills around the capital are rich in history. Within the large district lies the usual array of attractions for visitors - a mix of cultural sites and recreation centers - including the headquarters of the Korean Red Cross Society, the Tomb of King Onjo, and the palace of King Jungjong, which are all within walking distance. The main tourist district is centered on Hwabong-dong, an old merchant area dating from the Joseon dynasty. Today it's a lively, trendy place to shop for gifts and boutiques in the area are lined up along the streets. Despite being located near the Cheongnyangni Metro Station, it is most easily reached by cab.

Yongsan-dong

Photo of Yongsan District
Yongsan District: en.wikipedia.org

Yongsan-dong, situated in the heart of Seoul, is one of the few neighbourhoods where you can live in a traditional Korean house. Take the subway line 6 or 9 to Yongsan Station and get off at Exit 4, Honggil Intersection. Walk one block east on Osman Hill Road to Gudam-dong (닥다동) and then go down Osman Hill Road to Hwabang Park. Honggil Intersection is a colourful area of traditional Korean culture and houses, which can be rented by foreigners for a minimal amount, but prices increase substantially after the Lunar New Year. You can also look for used kimchi refrigerators in the area and find restaurants serving Korean food and other dishes. There are plans to build a large number of real Korean houses for rent, mostly to non-Koreans, but these will be of course very expensive.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Photo of Gyeongbokgung
Gyeongbokgung: en.wikipedia.org

Built in the late 17th century to the designs of the French Jesuit architect, Gabriel de L'Estang, the largest, most extensive, and perhaps most exquisite palace in all of Korea, Gyeongbokgung Palace (Gyeongbokgung Gyoghwasa), in Seoul, is a masterpiece of architecture and intricate design. Known also as Changdeok Palace (Sukjongsa), Gyeongbokgung palace was actually the last of the four palaces (at the time it was built) built by the Joseon (Korean) kings to honor their ancestors, and became the symbol of Joseon royal power. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the current structure was the palace of Gyeongdeok, the 13th King of the Joseon Dynasty. Totaling around 56,200 square meters, the palace consists of 47 main structures, including buildings, offices, secret rooms, and tower rooms. The palace was where much of the king's business was conducted. Today the palace houses the National Museum of Korea and a wide array of exhibition spaces and presentations. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was also declared one of the Top 10 World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2008.