Something about South Korea feels just right. It ticks so many boxes for travellers who want to experience Asian culture but not be intimidated by it. Often overshadowed by its noisy, northern neighbour, it’s now deservedly becoming a must-see holiday destination.
South Korea is A wonderful collision of contradictions, it’s ultra-modern but cultured. (Image: GETTY)
A wonderful collision of contradictions, it’s ultra-modern but cultured. Lively but safe. Foreign but familiar.
My Korean adventure began, strangely, via Finland.
Helsinki is a good connection for Korea as it breaks up the long flight and offers easy transfers.
And as our Korean guide pointed out, the two countries have a lot in common.
Finland and Korea? Really?
“We’re both in the shadow of neighbouring countries and we’re a little shy but we are proud and interesting all the same,” she said.
How prophetic those words were to prove.
Flying from Helsinki to Seoul in just over eight hours also helps ease the jet lag, which is just as well as you need all the energy you can when you arrive in South Korea’s lively capital early in the morning.
The smorgasbord that is Korea starts as you pass through uber-efficient, ultra-modern Incheon Airport.
Gyeongbokgung Palace. (Image: GETTY)
But as the immigration officer handed my passport back, she smiled and gave me a reverential bow.
You don’t get that at many international borders but Korea effortlessly mixes efficiency with old-style charm.
Bowing, you soon discover, is an integral part of Korean culture. It’s the way to show respect or simply say hello, goodbye or thanks.
The bigger the bow, the more respect you’re showing.
For tourists, an informal nod of the head and a smile is enough but a bow will serve you well when engaging with Koreans.
The airport is 45 minutes away from Seoul, a truly 24-hour city.
Koreans like to shop, they adore eating and they love to party.
They even have their own hangover soup – a beef broth with bean sprouts.
Seoul is a shopping mecca where the malls never seem to close.
The internet and mobiles are everywhere but shopping on foot is still cool; something Koreans want to do with friends and family.
Shops announce their sales as happy weeks.
Korean barbeque. (Image: GETTY)
And it’s hassle-free even for the most nervous traveller, with practically everything labelled in Korean and English, and a quick bow to a shop assistant is greeted with a smile and offers of help – in English.
If you wonder why Koreans, boys and girls,
all have flawless, peachy complexions, the answer is simple
cosmetics and skincare shops are everywhere.
We started our shopping marathon in Myeong-dong – the largest and hottest spot in the city.
It’s a sprawling labyrinth of malls, department stores and street stalls with Body Shop-style outlets everywhere.
Moisturisers, face masks and skin creams are all the rage.
The latest trend to banish those wrinkles is (get this) snail cream.
But if it’s your tummy, not your face, that needs a lift, there are rows of street-food stalls as far as your now bag-less eyes can see.
Here, KFC stands for Korean Fried Chicken – and it’s a must-try delicacy.
The locals’ love for it knows no bounds and they even have their own word, “chimaek”, which means a pairing of chicken and beer – a national obsession.
Try odeng, a fishcake on a skewer, or a pajeon, a savoury vegetable pancake.
And if you’re not adventurous you can always have sausage and cheese on a stick.
The fun doesn’t stop at street level.
In the basements of most malls are amusement centres with attractions such as video games and baseball batting cages.
That’s right, baseball.
The American influence is still strong here a by-product of the US support during the KoreanWar in the 1950s.
Some 25,000 US troops are still stationed here, which may be one of the reasons Korea feels such an open, westernised society.
Staging two Olympic Games has given them the confidence to claim their place as a global power.
You imagine East Asian countries sipping tea from ornate china cups but in Korea, coffee is king.
Coffee shops serve every style of beverage but make sure you specify you want a hot drink, as a latte or cappuccino will usually be served cold.
Seoul is remarkably low-rise for a modern city. It’s walkable, clean and has a modern, highly efficient metro system.
But it’s fun to take an Artee, a street rickshaw, to find the hidden gems of the city and get an insight into the local culture too.
Our saddle warrior told us about his experiences in the Korean army – national service is compulsory and all men aged 18-35 have to serve for two years.
It’s not compulsory for women although they can enlist and many sign up for voluntary work.
In Britain, national service was often viewed as a punishment dealt out by a barking sergeant major but young Koreans see it as a noble duty and a badge of honour to serve their country.
Footballers and celebrities are expected to do their bit and enlisting adds to their popularity.
It seems to give young Koreans a maturity and they show respect for others, particularly their elders.
We were pedalled to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the ancient seat of Korean royalty.
It seemed the meeting place for thousands of Koreans.
It was a national holiday and most locals were wearing the Hanbok, traditional Korean dress.
Bibimbap, a meat and vegetable dish stirred together and served in a hot stone pot. (Image: GETTY)
You can rent the costumes by the hour or the day and practically every teenager was wearing one.
It reinforced the idea that as modern as Korea seems, even the youngest generation are immensely proud of their roots and culture.
It was barely 5pm and our guide was itching for us to see the trendy suburb of Itaewon.
It’s the centre of cosmopolitan nightlife, full of bistros, boutiques and bars and Korean barbecue restaurants.
A traditional barbecue eatery is a work of art, and that’s before you get to the food.The MapleTree House restaurant is typically Korean.
Decked out with thousands of green bottles hanging on the walls, the tables are designed like the engineroom of an old cruise ship, with huge brass pipes hanging from the ceilings directly above.
They are the brilliant extraction system to take away the steam but not the smell of the food cooked in front of you.
No wonder the waiters in Seoul are fit – every restaurant table in the city seems to have a bell so you can ring for service.
We tried black pork belly and marinated ribs, which are grilled to your taste and served with bowls of rice and vegetables.
Korean cuisine is more side dishes than mains.That, and the huge choice of restaurants, means the cost of eating out in Seoul is competitive, not crippling.
Try Korean cuisine staple kimchi, a vegetable dish made from fermented cabbage and radish and coated with garlic and ginger.
Blossom in Seoul. (Image: GETTY)
Bibimbap, a meat and vegetable dish stirred together and served in a hot stone pot, is another favourite and it is delicious.
Wine is expensive and limited, so you wash your meals down with beer. Be adventurous and mix your beer with the Korean national drink soju, an alcoholic rice wine. It sounds a bit weird, but is wonderfully refreshing.
The next morning we were booked on the KTX, Korea’s version of a bullet train.
It travels at up to 187mph but you hardly notice the speed as you hurtle through the green mountainous countryside to arrive in Busan, Korea’s second city 200 miles away on the south east coast, in barely two-and-a-half hours.
Busan is just as modern as Seoul. It boasts a thriving port and ferry terminal and you can get to Japan in just three hours. But being on the coast and with lovely sandy beaches around the bays, this feels more like a resort where Koreans go to chill out.
We took the stunning cable car ride across the main harbour. Some of the cars have glass bottoms and it’s worth paying the few-quid supplement for these to get a real bird’s-eye view.
The strangest waterside sight of all is Haedong Yonggungsa, a beautiful Buddhist temple perched above the rocky coastline.A spiritually uplifting spot indeed.
Our whistle-stop trip to Korea had ended and we didn’t have time to fit in a trip to Panmunjom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone straddling the ceremonial border between North and South Korea.
“Don’t worry, you might see it on your next journey to Korea. But be quick,” said our guide. “We will be one country again one day soon.”
Finnair flies daily from Heathrow to Seoul via Helsinki. (Image: GETTY)
Finnair flies daily from Heathrow to Seoul via Helsinki with fares from £480 return in economy and £2,145 return in business. finnair.com; 0208 001 0101.
Tourist info: english.visitkorea.or.kr