South Korea is very much a land of contradictions. Rugged mountain ranges slope down to pristine beaches, and bustling, cosmopolitan cities are surrounded by farmland. An exotic land of colorful celebrations and beautiful landscapes, it's rife with traces of its thousands of years of history. At the same time, the country has industrialized so profoundly and so rapidly that, in urban areas, you may sometimes have to look a bit deeper to see the beauty amid the high traffic and towering concrete apartment blocks.
Looking at a map, you might think it would be easy to traverse South Korea's 99,237 sq. km (38,316 sq. miles). But nearly 70% of South Korea is made up of seemingly impenetrable mountainous terrain. That terrain has helped many of South Korea's regions maintain their unique charms and has gifted the country with some of the most stunning national parks in all of Asia.
Viewing a larger map, traces of South Korea's tumultuous past emerge. Extending south from China, and just north of Japan, the Korean Peninsula has long been strategically desirable to both countries. As a result, Korea has fought off invaders from Mongolia, Manchuria, China, and Japan over the course of its 5,000-year history. But the most traumatic moment in Korea's past came after a 35-year Japanese occupation that ended with the close of World War II. The Soviet Union was to oversee the northern half of the peninsula, while the U.S. oversaw the south, ostensibly until fair elections could be held. But it was not to be. The Soviets and the U.S. were unable to agree on how to reunify the country, and on June 25, 1950, Soviet-backed troops from what had become known as North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The United Nations sent troops (predominantly American soldiers) to the South's defense, but Korea had fallen victim to the Cold War.
Though an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, it resulted in the formal division of the peninsula into North and South with a buffer, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), in between. Its name is a tragically ironic one, as the DMZ is one of the world's most heavily guarded places. But while North Korea remains essentially sealed off to outsiders, South Korea, which makes up 45% of the peninsula (making it the same size as Portugal), is one of the most fascinating tourist destinations in the world.
Most visitors to the country see Seoul and think that they've experienced all that South Korea has to offer. Sure, Seoul is an exciting city with crowded markets, centuries-old palaces, and gourmet restaurants. But the real excitement of South Korea lies outside its modern confines.
All the more reason then to get out of the major cities and explore. You'll be well rewarded by the quiet beauty of the mountains and the sea, and the mystical charms of South Korea's ancient temples and fortresses, as you explore a vast countryside rarely visited by international tourists. Although English speakers are hard to find in some of these more remote areas, it's all part of the excitement and adventure of taking the roads less traveled.
Outside of Seoul, South Korea is a land little known to foreign travelers. Yet with its mountainous terrain, expansive beaches, modern cities, and traditional temples, it has much to offer first-time and repeat visitors alike. This section details everything you need to know to make your trip to South Korea easier, from how to get there and advice on accommodations to tips on money, safety, and special festivals.