When I tell people I spent a year working in Korea, about one in three will respond with “hopefully not the North, har har!” We chuckle, there’s weird silence, and we move on.

Many people only know South Korea for what it’s not. What little awareness there is usually only extends to Seoul, the country’s high-tech capital.

A shame, because this little peninsula has some gorgeous sights if you know where to look — especially once you travel beyond the mega-tropolis that covers the northwest. For example…

Busan

After months of living in what can feel like a mono-cultural Seoul, one of my happiest moments was on a weekend trip to Busan. I strolled through a carved Chinese gate to a former U.S. military hangout known as “Texas Town” for some authentic Russian pierogies.

Melting pot, I’d missed you so.

Photo: Ianz

Busan may be big, but it’s tough to feel stifled in “the San Francisco of South Korea.” Its plum location on the Sea of Japan makes Busan a trade hub, where small foreign companies set up shop.

Over the years, foreign communities have planted their own districts within the city, giving it a friendly, welcoming feel.

But what really makes Busan is its easy juxtaposition of the urban and the natural. Swanky highrise blocks give way to cool, hikeable mountains.

The coast is lined with beaches, from quiet Songdo to see-and-be-seen Haeundae. The latter throws rock festivals and sandcastle exhibitions all summer long, and recently hit Guinness record fame for the most parasols set up on a single beach.

You can hit Busan’s galleries and shops at ten o’clock, take a mountain hike at noon, and come down well before sunset for a dip in the sea or some live music.

Damyang

Sitting between two mountains in southwestern Korea, the small town of Damyang has 25 dense hectares of green bamboo forests.

While Korean cities tend to get smoggy and humid in the summertime, this natural reserve is said to stay five degrees cooler than the rest of the town. This makes Damyang a refreshing summer trip; one that Koreans will happily make from the far reaches of the country.

Families come for picnics, couples carve their initials into bamboo stalks, and souvenir vendors will try their darndest to send you home with a set of bamboo wind chimes, placemats, toy swords, or panpipes.

Hungry? Local restaurant menus are inclined to feature bamboo in each and every dish, Iron Chef style. Expect to see bamboo soup, stew, noodles, pastries.

When waiters tell you it’s “very healthy” and “good for stamina” (wink wink), don’t assume that’s code for “yeah, it’s vile, just eat it.” Bamboo’s mild flavor takes to pretty much any dish.

Jeju

The island of Jeju-do is the #1 Korean honeymoon spot, a little bit Hawaii and a little bit South Padre.

It’s also got the mountain of Halla-San, South Korea’s highest peak. Hiking trails are graded and can take you to pretty lookouts, or all the way to the top.

Photo: giladr

Equestrianism is another big thing here, and there are a dozen horseback riding facilities, most of which will nonchalantly throw in cowboy costumes when you take a ride.

A laid-back holiday option is to rent a motorbike and tour Jeju-do’s pretty beaches. In the summer, the water is clear and cool. In the winter, the island attracts “penguin clubs” who take icy dips in the sea.

In the city of Jeju, hotels range from basic to honeymoon-cheesy, with heart-shaped beds, tubs, light fixtures, and rugs.

On that note, one of Jeju’s most popular after-dark activities is Jeju Loveland. It’s Korea’s only sex theme park, founded by a group of (who else?) university art students.

Here, you can stroll among larger-than-life sculptures of midcoitus couples, soloists, and huge, huge sex organs.

Gyeongju

Korea’s answer to Pleasantville is a breath of fresh, smog-free air. No skyscrapers, no 6-lane roads…heck, I don’t recall seeing any escalators.

Photo: yeowatzup

In the former capital of the Silla Dynasty, no one’s in a hurry. This is good news for visitors, since the town has some monumental historic sights. Take your time exploring them.

The nearby temple complex of Seokguram Grotto is one of South Korea’s proudest historic structures. The Buddhist park feel like an open-air museum of Eastern art.

Gilded Buddhas, stone pagodas, and the beautiful Bulguksa temple all hold National Treasure status as relics of the former dynasty (and all-around gorgeous artifacts).

A little less serene, Gyeongju’s also home to Han-Ho, an internationally rated high-speed go-karting track.

Those traveling in April can see the town get messy in its weekend-long rice cake and soju festival. The former is a sweet, addictive dessert; the latter, Korea’s most popular (and potent) alcohol. Festival vendors hand out generous samples of both.

Boseong

Picture yourself as the star of the most persuasive green tea commercial ever made. Rolling hills? Dewy tea leaves? Technicolor shades of green? Yep, that’s Boseong.

Photo: leojmelsrub

Its green tea fields have such pastoral beauty that cinematographers often use the location for movies and melodramas (and yes, a high-budget commercial or two). Korean daytrippers love it too, and will hike the fields with enormous, cumbersome cameras, trying to capture it all.

In addition to lovely views, this region of the South Jeolla province is said to grow the most delicious green tea in South Korea. The plantation of Daehandawon is the oldest and largest in the area, set in a cool cedar forest.

From the tea plantation, a 15-minute bus or cab will take you to the tiny coastal village of Hwa-dong. It’s worth a visit for a post-hike trip to the jinjaeban: a Korean public spa. The one in Hwa-dong offers a range of hot green tea baths.

Community Connection

If this post inspires you to plan a trip, make sure to study the 10 Korean Customs To Know Before You Visit Korea.

Many, many Matadorians have spent time in South Korea, including Trips editor Hal Amen. You can hit him up with your questions by visiting his Matador profile.

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