/ stories

South Korea: 5 magical places I would revisit in a “COVID-Free Alternative Universe"

Ah,the nostalgia that looking at old photos can evoke! Thistime, last year, I was in my Korean university dorm, very busy preparing for my midterms. But today, I find myself scrolling through my phone's camera roll from the coziness of my childhood bedroom back home in Panama.

For 3 years, I got the opportunity to live and study in South Korea, a chapter of my life that I had to put on holddue to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I will forever be grateful for the priceless experiences I had as an expat student in this sensational country, the beautiful people I met and all the amazing photos I got to take!

My life attending a Korean university was packed with tons of work, so I cherished every little trip I managed to squeeze into my tight student schedule. All of them were fun, full of discoveries, shareworthy locations and “instagrammable” coffee shops (an important part of Korean popular culture). But looking back, I realize they were also quick and mostly one day getaways, making me wish I could revisit them to grant them all the time they deserve. Therefore, without further ado, here are 5 magical places I would definitely be paying a visit again if COVID never happened and I were still living in the Asian country.

South Korea

1. The coastal city of Pohang

Pohang is one of those places that was not in yourbucket listbut that you are glad you visited. What started as an impromptu weekend trip with my Japanese friend,resulted in one of the best experiences I ever hadin Korea,travel-wise.

It was Chuseok (the biggest holiday of the country, also known as Korean Thanksgiving), and since Koreans usually travel home to their families during this time of the year, for us international students, things get a little bit quiet around campus. Driven by a mélange of loneliness and boredom, my friend and I found ourselves taking the morning train to the nearby city of Pohang.

Pohang is definitely not a tourist favorite, but people are missingouton so much if they don't visit.From the moment you reach the city, you are met with the characteristic smell of sea salt, as the sun kisses your skin and a fresh marine breeze dances around you.

Pohang is divided into the Northern Ward (Buk-gu) and the Southern Ward (Nam-gu). There is a lot to do on both sides of town, but if you venture out to the North, you will find a literal Instagram gem: Do Not Disturb Cafe (donotdisturb.co.kr). Giving off strong Santorini vibes, the three-story coffee shop is located by the sea and is always buzzing with animated conversations. The pictures taken here are nothing less than spectacular, since the backyard has been fashioned to simulate a Greek island scenery. Going there is not only worth it because of the coffee shop itself and the breathtaking areas surrounding the cafe but also because of the bus ride, that offers fabulous sights of the picturesque coastal scenery and a glimpse at what everyday life looks like in Pohang.

To enjoy adelicious pastryand a sip of coffee, ingood company and with this stunning view in front, is something I hope I can do again before leaving this world.

2. The Historical City of Gyeongju:

City of Gyeongju

If Pohangisan underrated tourism destination, in contrast, Gyeongju is a popular favorite. Boasting quaint little coffee shops and holding important pieces of Koreanhistory, Gyeongju is a must-visitfor foreigners, as well as a local favorite. Home to precious cultural treasures and ancient heritages, the city's official website calls Gyeongju “a museum without a roof”.

On the day of our visit, my Korean friend and I were blessed with the most beautiful of sunshines and the perfect weather to rent a bike and pedal around the city. At every turn, we would find evergreen fields and patches of grass, perfect for a picnic, but as we were short of time, we were only able to stop enough time to capture them with our phones' cameras.

After standing in line for around an hour to snap a shot in Gyeongju's must-take photospot (the royal tombs at Tumuli Park, shown in the picture above), we made our way to a popular restaurant where an interesting local delicacy called the “Strawberry Pizza” is the star of the menu. If you enjoy Hawaiian pizza, then strawberry pizza will surely have a place in your heart.

A visit to the seasonal pink Muhly grassfield, blooming at the beginning of the fall each year, put an end to one of the best one day trips I ever had. However, there was so much to do, seeand eat in Gyeongju, it definitely deserves a longer stay. Out of the many activities to be enjoyed in the city, costume rental shops were the ones that caught my attention the most. Here you can rent anything from Korean high school uniforms to medieval dresses that you can wear for a day to walk around the city and take the most memorable pictures.

3. The Metropolitan City ofBusan

Busan is Korea's second biggest city and home to what is probably the most popular beach of the country: Haeundae Beach, a place that I got the opportunity to visit at the beginning of the summer, last year. The water was still too cold to go in but I was able to dip my feet and have a picnic by the beach with a friend. Haeundae Beach is known, among other things, for holding many festivals, and by the time of our visit, they were in the middle of building the sculptures for the annual Sand Festival. It was such an amazing experience to see how much hardwork these artists put into their craft and how much talent they have. I would love to go back and enjoy the festival someday.

After Haeundae, we made our way to the Gamcheon Culture Village, a colorful place known as the “Machu Picchu of Korea” or the “Lego City”, because of the way the houses are layered in a stairway-fashion one above the other. The best activity to do here? To get lost in the endless alleys! Because a surprise is waiting for you at every corner. After climbing a ton of stairs, we made it to the top of the hill, where the view was very rewarding.

Gamcheon Culture Village is a popular tourist destination, but it is primarily a residential area, so the shops and attractions close relatively early, compared to other places in Korea. For this reason, we were not able to visit all the shops and restaurants the place had to offer. I would like to revisit the village someday, but this time dedicating at least a whole afternoon to the task of discovering this magical corner of Korea.

4. The TraditionalJeonju Hanok Village

Traditional Jeonju Hanok Village

I got the opportunity to visit this traditional village on a field trip with my language school during my first year in Korea. It was a short but memorable visit, where our teachers put their best tour guide skills to test, as they tried to show us the village in the record time of an afternoon.

Our visit kicked off with Jeonju's signature dish, Bibimbap, for lunch. Then, we strolled around the place, taking in the views, tasting the local delicacies such as the famous “Jeonju Chocopie” and taking pictures here and there, because every single corner of the village is absolutely photogenic.

This place is famous because of its architecture, composed mainly of traditional Korean houses called Hanok and its unique roofs. Unlike the Hanok Village, the surrounding city of Jeonju has an industrialized and modern landscape which contrasts beautifully with the ancient-looking village.

One of the most popular activities to do in Jeonju Hanok Village is to rent a Hanbok (the Korean traditional attire) and walk around the place, an experience that, along with the traditional ambiance of the place, gives you the impression of having “traveled back in time”. This is one of the things I would like to do when I visit again. Additionally, they say no visit to Jeonju is complete if you don't stay at a Hanok at least a night, so that is another bucket list item I look forward to checking off when revisiting Jeonju.

5. The Natural Paradise ofJeju Island

Koreans often refer to Jeju Island as “The Hawaii of Korea” and it just takes a quick Google search to know why. The place is probably the most popular holiday destination in the country, and boasts breathtaking beaches and equally stunning evergreen landscapes. Jeju is home to Korea's highest mountain: Mount Hallasan, a dormant volcano that is also a popular hiking destination.

My visit to Jeju Island happened during the winter of 2019. My sister had come to visit me from China and we got to spend a few days in the island. During our stay, we were able to visit the Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls, known as The Pond of God, as well as the Seonim Bridge, an arch bridge located very high above the Cheonjeyeon Waterfalls. I called it “the bridge to Heaven” because, at the Golden Hour, it seemed the bridge ledstraightinto the sky.

Another memorable destination we got to visit was Hyeopjae Beach, a paradise of white sand and cobalt waters, surrounded by trendy restaurants and pretty coffee shops. Beautiful even in the freezing winter air, Hyeopjae Beach is at its peak every year in the summer. Since it was too cold to go in, we were not able to enjoy the main charm of the place: going for a swim in the inviting waters. Therefore, I would love to visit Jeju Island again, but this time in the warmer months of the summer.

You might like also these articles