With bustling urban life as well as scenic rural getaways, a trip around the Korean Peninsula's friendly south side offers something for everyone in a friendly country that just works.
Just a two-hour flight from Beijing, Seoul could easily be a spot for a weekend mini-break on its own. It's a sizeable capital, but is easy to navigate with a convenient metro system and a few pretty hanok villages to get lost in.
Jungle Pocha (197 Yongsan-gu) in the buzzing area of Itaewon serves up hearty stews and sticky, sweet fried chicken that'll get you going for a night on the town. It's also one of the few places where you can have a kimchi-free meal, if you're staving off the easily encountered phenomenon of kimchi fatigue. For the morning after, head to Terarosa Coffee, which has branches around town and offers aromatic blends, delicious baked goods and restorative brunch fare at the weekend.
The people of South Korea are the most prolific drinkers in Asia, according to the World Health Organisation. This is probably ultimately a cause for concern, but worrying is for the morning and the evenings are for making the most of the impressive nightlife scene that this dedication to the sesh has spawned. Itaewon is popular with expats and is overflowing with bars, but the cool kids hang out in the student area of Hongdae, which is famed for it's hip hop culture. The Henz Club (86-22 Sangsu-dong) is the brainchild of the hip streetwear brand of the same name and is the home of underground music in Seoul.
There is oodles to see and do in Seoul. Head to Gyeongbokgung (161 Sajik-ro) for a history fix. The palace is a beautifully preserved former imperial residence dating from the 14th century, although it was ransacked not once but twice by Japanese invaders over the centuries; the current complex has been undergoing restoration since 1990. Relentless history buffs will also want to check out the War Memorial of Korea (29 Itaewon-ro; +82 2 709 3139), which tells the story of the Korean War in clear and engaging detail.
Suitably educated, it's time to go shopping and make like the Koreans do in their achingly hip tailoring. Hongdae is packed with local and independent boutiques. If fashion isn't your thing, there are plenty of charming antiques shops in Itaewon.
If you want to visit the North Korean border, known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
, you'll have to book onto a dedicated tour company, some of which can also take you to the Joint Security Area (JSA), where you can actually see into North Korea. VIP Travel
offers tours which start at 322RMB per person. It's worth noting that tours are subject to political winds and may be cancelled at short notice.
Image credit: Four Seasons Hotel Seoul.
The Four Season Hotel Seoul
(97 Saemunan-ro) is a glamorous spot of luxury in downtown Seoul, right next to Gyeongbokgung. The hotel has no less than seven high-end restaurants and bars, including the underground speakeasy, Charles H, which is a stylish destination for Seoul's rich and beautiful.
Rooms start at 1,700RMB per night.
For a more budget option, try the Ibis Ambassador Seoul Insadong (31 Samil-daero 30-gil), which is in the heart of Ikseon-dong, a pretty hanok village that's full of cool bars and restaurants.
Rooms start at 420RMB per night.
Once you've got your city fix, hop on an express bus headed east to the beautiful national park of Seoraksan, which is the name of the third-highest peak in South Korea housed within the reservation. There are multiple trekking routes which range from one hour to eight in length, and easy to very difficult, although the flocks of elderly Korean hikers would suggest it's all a walk in the park. There are beautiful waterfalls, Buddhist caves and impressive rock formations to explore, and clean mountain air to detox your Beijing lungs with.
Image credit: The Kensington Stars Hotel.
The Kensington Stars Hotel
is, for some reason, a British-themed hotel right next to the national park. It's got Diana tributes, Harrods teddybears, 'the world's first Beatles-inspired bistro', a floor dedicated to sports stars and – crucially – two London buses parked in the front garden. It also has epic mountain views, if that's what you're into.
Rooms start at 885RMB per night.
If you've got a bit more time on your hands, skip the tourist trap of Jeju Island and head to Ulleungdo instead, a dreamy island situated off of South Korea's eastern coast. Treacherous ferries run once a day from the port towns of Gangneung, Pohang and Mukho, all taking about three hours and likely involving some serious seasickness. It's worth it when you get there though, for an idyllic and sleepy oasis of untouched natural beauty.
South Korea's southern coastal hub, and now just two-and-a-half hours from Seoul on the KTX high-speed rail, Busan is a relaxed city to round off any South Korean trip with (there are also direct flights from Beijing if you want to head over for just a weekend).
(58-34 Daeyeon 3-dong; +82 51 622 2212) is a legendary local jazz club in Busan's university district, which hosts groovy talent every day of the week. Sip on an G&T and tap your feet in style, before releasing your inner Sinatra at the pay-per-hour KTV joint Coin Singer
(68-5 Daeyeon-dong) round the corner.
The picture-perfect Gamcheon Culture Village is a mirage of colourful dwellings that some have dubiously named 'South Korea's Machu Picchu'. We'll let you make your own minds up on that one, but it's certainly a charming, if a bit touristy, area to wander through and then head down the the beaches.
Image credit: Park Hyatt Busan.
The Park Hyatt Busan (51 Marine City 1-ro) is an understated yet luxurious hotel in the Haeundae area of Busan that's popular with a more sophisticated crowd.
Rooms start at 1,350RMB per night.
Get there Direct flights from Beijing to Seoul start at 1,938RMB for a round trip on Ctrip.