Heading to South Korea can be really intimidating. I booked a ticket two weeks before I left (yes I know I'm insane) and when I started researching what to do and see I immediately felt like I had made a terrible decision. And let me be clear - it is NOT because South Korea is a bad option to travel to but actually quite the opposite. There is SO. MUCH. TO. DO. I felt like I needed a lot more time to research and plan exactly what was time effective.
But if you know me at all you know that planning is not my strong point (whoops) - but helping YOU plan is. So here are the top things I did in South Korea in order of must do's to strongly recommended options. Pick and choose what you decide to do based on preferences and as always if you are planning a trip to Korea and have any questions feel free to shoot me an email! I am more than happy to help you plan. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Palaces in Seoul
Of course this tops the list as the best things to do in South Korea. They are impressingly old (built originally in the 1300's) and have been rebuilt so many times (the Japanese reallyyy like to burn them down). You can't miss a trip to at least one of the palaces in the city.
Knowing which ones to visit is a whole different story - Full guide to the Palaces in Seoul here
Visit Jeju Island
Jeju is known as the Hawaii of Korea and for good reason. It is stunning. The small island has everything; waterfalls, easy hiking trails, mountains and volcanic craters. Plus they have an impressive (and cheap) public bus system that takes you to all the major sites.
Full guide to Jeju Island here including where to stay, where to eat and the best places to see in as little as 48 hours.
Namsan Park/Seoul Tower
A "mountain" (read very large hill) inside the center of Seoul. You can choose to take the funicular up to the top or hike. I of course recommend the funicular because of the gorgeous views you get on the way up (and not because I'm lazy and didn't want to hike up to the top myself).
Bukchon Hanok Village
In my opinion, Bukchon is the best of the various hanok villages - but it is the most crowded.
By the way the village is what is left of a 600 year old Korean neighborhood and is full of traditional houses called "hanoks". The hanoks now house museums, galleries, restaurants, tea houses and cultural centers. Arrive early to avoid selfie sticks and get lost on purpose.
Full guide on the top things to see and do in the Hanok village here.
wander seoul at night
Seoul comes alive at night. It lights up with a million neon signs and at least 3 or 4 stories full of restaurants and bars.
Sip Tea at a traditional tea house
Choose to go to one inside the hanok village like I did (more on that here) or find a different one in the city proper. But don't leave South Korea without drinking traditional tea. Full guide on what to eat in Korea here.
Visit the DDM
A crazy modern UFO looking building in the middle of Seoul this complex holds a museum, underground shopping mall and crazy modern architecture galore. If you are into photography at all you can't miss this place.
explore the Ihwa Mural village
Big disclaimer: their most famous mural of the Koi on the stairs was recently taken down and is due to be repainted as something entirely new soon. The rest of the murals in the tiny village are pretty impressive though so it's still worth a visit regardless. Come early in the morning to beat the crowds with selfie sticks.
Try authentic Korean BBQ
It is expensive (especially if you are traveling solo) but you have to try this phenomenon that is all over major US cities in the place it originated.
Full guide on ALL the Korean food you should try here
Ride the Metro
I know - sounds boring. BUT there are underground shopping malls and great food in the metro as well. Plus it is the cheapest way to get around and incredibly quick and efficient.
Head to a Themed cafe
There are so many which is why I have a full list of the best ones (here). But don't miss the crazy cafe culture in Korea. Pick your favorite out of dog cafes, cat cafes, hello kitty cafes and so many more and drink way too much coffee.
Full list of the best themed cafes in Seoul here
Visit Haedong Yonggungsa
Busan has so many things to do and see it deserves it's own visit and I totally understand focusing on Seoul. But if there is one thing you must do it is visit this seaside buddist temple. The views are gorgeous and if the sound of the waves and wind don't bring you inner peace nothing will.
Full guide to Busan here