Women walking down the colorful street filled with signs and street vendors in Hongdae, Seoul.

Why I Can’t Wait to Return to Korea

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Every now and then, someone asks me if I’ve ever been to South Korea. “Yes, I have,” I tell them. “I spent three weeks in Korea.”

“Then why is there so little of it on your blog?”

Well.

That trip was taken in 2013, in the middle of a yearlong RTW trip. It was sandwiched between two weeks in Japan, where I tried to see as much of the country as possible while struggling with the searing heat; after Korea, I would be heading directly to the Northern Territory of Australia, where I would be busy on a press trip, camping out under the stars in Kakadu National Park.

I had three weeks in Korea. I would use this time to take it easy and get work done.

I visited Seoul, Korea’s capital and largest city; Busan, Korea’s southern seaside metropolis; and Yeosu, a smaller city in the south of the country where my friend was teaching at the time. And while it feels like I didn’t get much done, I have so many magical Korean moments in my memories.

I tried out over a dozen cafes in the trendy Hongdae neighborhood of Seoul, and burst into a grin when a barista casually drew me a perfect Marge Simpson in the foam on top.

I ate spicy, gochujang-drenched fried chicken in Seoul and watched an entire restaurant be captivated by K-pop band Exo’s music video for “Growl.” The nine men danced flawlessly in unison and the whole video was filmed in a single shot — you couldn’t look away.

I watched a trio of tipsy men walk down the street in Busan and one of them accidentally walk into a glass door with a loud THWONK, his two friends nearly falling to the ground in laughter.

I spent a day in my friend’s school in Yeosu and got to know her sweet, inquisitive students. I marveled at how they turned “toothbrush time” into a social period, at their photo poses for Instagram (so far ahead of their time!) and how they cheerfully cleaned the school at the end of each day.

I snuggled with tiny puppies at a dog cafe in Seoul, taking their desire for food as a sign of their affection for me.

I ate kimchijigae that warmed my soul as much as my body, and grew to love streetside servings of tteokbokki, stir-fried rice cakes in a fiery sauce that seemed a bit like Korea’s answer to gnocchi. I smiled as dozens of banjan side dishes clattered onto the table before the main dish was brought out. Oh, and I once accidentally ordered naengmyeon, a soup served cold with ice cubes in it — not exactly the steaming hot soup I expected!

I wove several of these experiences into my lone post about the country: Korea: A Tough Cultural Nut to Crack.

Even so, I know that I experienced far less than what a typical traveler would on a three-week trip.

One thing’s for sure — my spark for Korea has been lit once again. I want to go back to Korea and do it much better this time.

This #SeeKoreaNext post is brought to you by the Korean Tourism Organization, showing you why you could consider Korea as your next destination once it’s safe to travel again. And frankly, that sounds fabulous to me — once the world starts traveling en masse again, it’s hard to think of a better place to go!

Strips of sizzling steak on a Korean barbecue.

Finally Splurging in Korea

So what would I most look forward to on a return trip to Korea? Well, to be completely honest, being able to spend more money. Back in 2013 I was living off my blog, but only making enough to travel on a backpacker budget. I kept it quite cheap.

These days, I consider myself more of a mid-range traveler who likes to splurge on a few special things. This time in Korea, I would definitely splurge on a high-end meal — I’ve never experienced fine dining in Korea!

That, and I’d love to go accessories shopping, do a food tour, or maybe even experience a K-Pop concert.

You can definitely enjoy Korea on a bare-bones budget like I did — Korea is so different and visual that one of its greatest delights is just walking around and exploring. But I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my trip worrying about how much I was spending.

Having some extra money saved for a splurge will make your Korea trip all the better.

A black and white shot of people shopping on a street in Busan, Korea

Korean Skincare Products

On my first trip, I wasn’t familiar with K-Beauty at all — Korean beauty and skincare products. Korean skincare products have long been lauded throughout Asia, but in the last few years, K-beauty has become a powerhouse in western countries, too.

I adopted a Korean skincare regimen this past spring — not quite 10 steps when traveling, but at home — and now I know that it’s best to cleanse once with oil and once with regular cleanser, that sheet masks are for everyday use, and that snail serum is a magical ingredient!

What I love about Korean skincare is that the products are so gentle, they’re designed to be layered, and they are shockingly affordable. Seriously, I used to spend $100 on three Sephora skincare products, but with K-Beauty products I can get five or six high quality items for $100.

Since K-Beauty became popular in the US, a few of my girlfriends have traveled to Korea to discover new skincare products. Because while you can order tons of K-beauty products online these days, the most cutting-edge products are only found in Korea. I’d love to spend a day shopping for cool products!

The Best Place to Work While Traveling

Not everywhere in the world is a great place to work while traveling. (And I would know. I’m typing this while island-hopping in Croatia, where the closer you are to a beach, the slower the internet is.)

But Koreans are very technology-oriented and have lightning-fast internet speed. But more than that, they actually put outlets in convenient places — and enough so you don’t have to battle over them.

Of course, Korea is home to Samsung, and most locals use Samsung phones. When I visited in 2013, most Koreans had giant phones, or “phablets,” an anomaly at the time — and wouldn’t you know, soon the iPhone debuted its large-screen model. Tech trends start in Korea.

If you’re in one of Korea’s big cities, you’ll find it very easy to find a cafe with beautiful lattes and outlets built right into the table. It’s so much easier to get your work done when you’ve got fast internet and a reliable power source!

Jimjilbang Hopping

Korea is famous for its jimjilbangs — its spa facilities. I’ve never visited one in Korea, but I did visit in Spa Castle in Queens, which is a Korean-style spa!

Jimjilbangs are segregated by gender. After locking up your belongings, you get fully naked, like in a Japanese onsen, and you spend your time enjoying pools of various temperatures, or my favorite — the body scrub. After there are heating and relaxation rooms, a restaurant on site, and sometimes you can stay at them overnight.

Also, I love the video of Conan O’Brien’s jimjilbang experience with Steven Yeun, posted above. It didn’t exactly go according to plan…

Anyway, I’ve only visited a jimjilbang in the US, but I’d love to get the full experience on Korean soil.

Jeju Island — via Pixabay

Jeju Island

The #1 place I want to visit in Korea, without a doubt, is Jeju Island. This volcanic island is Korea’s answer to Hawaii.

Jeju is best known for its nature. You can do all kinds of crazy hikes, enjoy the glorious beaches, waterfalls, craters, caves, mountains.

There’s even a collection of quirky museums: the Teddy Bear Museum, the Trick Art museum (about optical illusions), the Haeneyo Museum (about female “mermaid” divers), the Cinema Museum. I’m a huge fan of niche museums.

There’s also Loveland, a sex-themed park. So there really is something for everyone in Jeju! I hope to get there soon.

What is on YOUR Korean bucket list?

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6 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Wait to Return to Korea”

  1. Kate! I am so excited that you will be returning to Korea. Like many people, I taught English there and fell in love with the country. Make sure you also build in time to experience nature and the mountains. Hiking is the national past time, for good reason. Many mountains have temples at the peaks as well as restaurants/cafes – get some pajeon and makgeolli at the top.

  2. My husband and I were supposed to visit Japan and South Korea before COVID cancelled our trip. I am so looking forward to when we can finally go.

  3. I recently read The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, and it was a phenomenal look into the mermaid divers of Jeju. It spans a huge time period and addresses what the Japanese and then American occupations were like during WWII and the Korean War. This is not the part of history that we were taught in American schools, and it was really eyeopening to see the injustices that locals faced because of the wars, intertwined with the unique culture of a matriarchal-ish society of women who provided for their families by diving for seafood year-round. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend adding it to your list before you head there! I haven’t yet been to South Korea but I hope to get there within a few years.

  4. Great post! We haven’t been to South Korea yet, only a layover in Seoul. Some day we must visit for the food.

    Have you read The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See? It’s about 2 women haeneyo in Jeju throughout many decades

  5. Hi Kate, I have been following your blog for quite some time but today I have seen the 10 tips for solo female travel and as a travel blogging newbie totally relate. And I also totally loved this Korea post, especially the part about the skin care products brand. I am totally going to give it a try! And once the borders open, Jeju island would my high on my bucket list. Thank you and I look forward to reading more. Sonia

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