6 Most Overrated Tourist Experiences in Korea and Where To Go Instead

6 Most Overrated Tourist Experiences in Korea and Where To Go Instead

Weary of the usual amusement parks, foggy city skylines and repetitive K-beauty shops? We uncover the lesser-known alternatives for you to experience in Korea.

South Korea makes for a fairly well-loved holiday destination especially in recent years, but we understand how sometimes the crowds and hype can ruin otherwise-charming attractions.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re looking to take the road less travelled when it comes to conventional experiences in Korea. Well you’ve come to the right place; here are six major experiences that you could ditch in favour of other more remarkable ones:

1. Overrated: Palaces

Gyeongbokgung | Image credit: mandy yuri

Ah, sprawling grounds, ornate architecture and the spirit of the season rustling between the leaves. The five grand palaces of Seoul are among the list of must-visits for both repeat and first-time visitors alike, as part of their exposure to Korea’s historical monuments and illustrious culture.

Gyeongbokgung Palace is one that experiences the highest volume of traffic in comparison to its siblings, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to being the largest and oldest palace built, it is also within close proximity to two other major tourist attractions: the National Folk Museum of Korea and The National Palace Museum of Korea.

Why are palaces overrated? Don’t be mistaken, they definitely have their charm, and donning yourselves in traditional Korean outfits for picture opportunities is not something you get to do everyday. However, visits to overpopulated palaces like Gyeongbokgung can make for a slightly disappointing experience, especially if you’re looking to snap a fancy photo against an empty backdrop of the royal grounds.

Unhyeongung | Image credit: Wei-Te Wong

If you’re determined to get your hanbok on in your own make-believe historical Korean romance, why not spread some love to the other palaces of Seoul? In addition to Changgyeonggung’s dreamy grounds and striking architecture, the palace also has a garden for visitors to wander around. Cherry blossoms and other beautiful flowers also adorn the border of the palace during spring, so don’t miss out on them if you happen to be visiting.

Fun Fact: Don’t forget to check out the large stone jar sitting out in the garden while unassuming, it was once used to store the umbilical cords and other fetal fluids of generations of royal children!

Another little-known alternative to satisfy that palace kick would be the Unhyeongung Royal residence. While not technically a palace, it was the former home of the young Gojong, who was later crowned Emperor during the Joseon Dynasty.

There’s a limit to how many times you can roam the grounds of palaces before everything starts to blend together. For those seeking an unconventional way to soak up the delights of Korean culture, why not consider…

The alternative: Visit royal tombs and other royal structures for more varied cultural experiences

Donggureung | Image credit: Jordi Sanchez Teruel

Instead of admiring the royal quarters, pay a visit to royalty themselves. The 40 Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty were constructed and subsequently preserved to honour their achievements and assert their royal authority. They make for excellent ensembles to learn more about the history of Korea’s emperors. While the tombs are scattered across 18 cities around South Korea, Donggureung alone is home to 15 of them, making for a great starting point for your adventure.

Another emblematic experience would be the Tomb of Sejong the Great. Discover more about the man who personally created and promulgated the Korean alphabet (Hangul), encouraged scientific advancements and decreed abundant efforts to stabilize and improve prosperity. He and his wife Queen Soheon lie within a burial mound, surrounded by statues, a quaint pond and memorial shrines.

Most tombs have also short hike trails that lead into nearby forested areas, so arm yourself with repellent and go forth we promise that the reticent views are well worth your time and effort. For those without the luxury of time, drop by the easily-accessible Seolleung and Jeongneung tombs, located just 340 metres from the Seolleung Station.

Jinjuseong Fortress | Image credit: 최옥석

Had your fill of royalty? Soak up the history and tranquil surroundings of the Jinjuseong Fortress, where the structure was once a key area for protection of the Korean Peninsula from Japanese invasion. The Kansong Art and Culture collection in Songbuk-Dong contains the most important relics of ancient Korea, such as the Hunminjeongeum, which is the original manuscript detailing the formation of the Korean language all the way from the 15th century.

2. The overrated: Namsan Tower’s skyline

Namsan Tower | Image credit: Jimmy McIntyre

Say hello to another popular icon of your K-drama dreams! If you’re looking to catch a glimpse of the city’s skyline, hop on a cable car or hike your way up to its outdoor observatory tower. Namsan Tower features an indoor observation deck, a 360-degree restaurant view and the star of the show love locks.

Be warned: the weather really plays a part in how grand a view you can get. Going during peak periods and when visibility is poor, is a sure-fire way to ruin your impression of this towering beauty. Don’t even mention the crowds, you’re not getting away with a great photo of yourself with dozens of heads that will mar your background.

The alternative: Ascend Korea’s mountains for better views

Seoraksan Mountain | Image credit: Bryan Dorrough

Who said Korea was solely for the urbanites? If you’re willing to tug a sturdy pair of shoes, we can guarantee unbeatable views. Forget city skylines be one with luxuriant foliage and never-ending skies as you trek up Korea’s galore of majestic mountains. Bid goodbye to rambunctious crowds and embrace the enthralling trills of the birds overhead.

Choose from the likes of Bukhansan, one of the more prominent mountains in South Korea that harbours everything from granite peaks, streams, gorges and Buddhist temples; Seoraksan, a UNESCO biosphere preservation district with dazzling backdrops and the scenic Geumganggul Cave; or for beginners, Mt. Bunseongsan, which features a relaxing 326m climb, along with a fortress and a temple at its peak to explore after completing the journey.

3. The overrated: Shopping

Myeongdong shopping street | Image credit: el_ave

We move on to one of Korea’s main attractions shopping. From bold, ostentatious Korean fashion items to delectable street food and cult-favourite K-beauty products, South Korea has amassed a sizeable demand for its wares in recent years. Enter prominent shopping districts such as Dongdaemun, Myeongdong and the streets of Ehwa, filled with throngs of hopefuls looking to snag the latest sweater trend or skincare holy grail off the shelves.

While these districts are certainly a heaven for the uninitiated, most prices and touted promotions are less attractive than what you would find in less populated shopping heavens. Myeongdong has pretty good street food, but if you’re tired of finding the exact same sweater in five different stores and can’t seem to find that elusive sebum powder, maybe it’s time to hit up a new locality.

Seomyeon shopping street | Image credit: Carey Ciuro

Step into Hongdae, the centre of youth culture and home to affordable yet stylish clothes and great outdoor performances. Ditch Dongdaemun in favour of Namdaemun if you’re in the market for street fashion, or sniff around the streets of Sungshin Women’s University for a variety of interesting shops and savoury eateries.

Looking to experience high-end Korean culture? Head over to Apgujeong Rodeo, where the young congregate to shop till they drop along the street and the neighbouring Sinsa shopping district. Be warned; while Apgujeong Rodeo is one of the best areas to get up close with the lives of the local youth, prices around here are generally steeper.

Shopping’s not just limited to Seoul Busan wants in on the fun too! If you’re looking for something similar to Myeongdong, explore the depths of either Seomyeon or Nampodong underground shopping street. Nampodong is also the theatre district of Busan, where you can find a host of movie theatres and playhouses for your cinematic enjoyment.

Feeling peckish? Ditch your dreams about seafood at Noryangjin Market if you’re hanging out in Nampodong; the Jagalchi Fish market is where it’s at.

The alternative: Stretch your legs with more hikes

Suncheon Bay | Image credit: Seyong Back

If you’ve had enough of crowds and mountains are a little out of your league, how about more gorgeous landscapes? There are more meaningful ways to stretch your legs other than window shopping when your wallet’s bust South Korea has a plethora of underrated stunning natural wonders to trek out to and keep your soul full.

If you’re into flora and fauna, venture into the wetlands of Suncheon, where the reserve features several antiquated temples, a boat cruise, a migratory bird sanctuary, a tea ceremony experience at a folk village and second-to-none views of the wildlife throughout your hike. There is even an observatory for you to catch a bird’s eye view of one of the most protected wetlands in South Korea!

Hyeupjae beach | Image credit: Jacques Beaulieu

Looking for that perfect sunset? A drive down to the flaxen sands of Ggotji Beach is more than worth it for the unparalleled view between two large rock formations known as the Granny Rock and the Grandpa Rock. Or Hyeopjae beach, if you’re a sucker for seafood and crystal-clear shallow waters?

Matcha fans, who remembers Jeju when you can have the Boseong Green Tea Field? Get ready to film the next series of your favourite K-drama at this pastoral location and feast on a buffet of green tea-related specialities (green tea pork belly, anyone?). It’s time to rest those eyes away from city lights and in the arms of nature.

4. The overrated: Nami Island

Nami Island | Image credit: Richard Lee

If you’re into K-dramas, there’s no missing out on Nami Island, a landmark in the first popularized Hallyu drama “Winter Sonata”. Breathe in the fresh air as the sun rays filter through the multicoloured leaves that hang overhead, and marvel at the exquisite European-style buildings at Petite France. With a series of other beauties waiting to be discovered at Gapyeong, it’s no wonder that travellers flock to the area in search of a relaxing day trip as opposed to just a few hours of sightseeing.

Head over before 9am and you’ll get to enjoy Nami Island in more privacy, and we recommend skipping the ferry ride in favour of a unique arrival via zip line. However, the popularity of Nami Island means that it won’t be long before the peace is broken, so visitors have to be prepared for crowds that will eventually assemble. We still recommend Nami Island for first-time visitors for its charms, but if you’re a seasoned tourist, it’s time to move on to less conventional island treasures.

The alternatives: Explore the islands of Ulleungdo, Oedo and more!

Image credit: (left) Ulleungdo by dconvertini | (right) Tongyeong by Nanshil Kwon

If you’re looking for something similar to the colourful splendour of Nami Island, Oedo Botania would be the first to visit on your list. Often hailed the “Paradise of Korea”, this gargantuan botanical wonder houses more than 3,000 different flora, with Mediterranean-style structures dotting the landscape.

Ulleungdo, on the other hand, is Jeju’s underrated sibling. Created by a catastrophic volcanic eruption, the island is a panorama of mountain ridges, caves and rugged shorelines just waiting to be uncovered. Make sure to leave your (photographic!) mark on star attractions such as the Bongnae waterfall and the Haengnam Coastal Walking Path.

If you’re a true Instagram aficionado, then our last recommendation should interest you. Have your cameras ready while you hop around Tongyeong’s surrounding islands. Opt to swim in the languid bodies of water or camp on the beach to watch the rich and varied dyes of the sun fill the horizon. Remember to get a taste of puffer fish before you leave the islands; you’ll find few fresher than the ones on Tongyeong!

5. The overrated: Lotte World and Everland

Everland | Image credit: Jinho Jung

You’ve seen these coming from a mile away, haven’t you? With Lotte World holding the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest indoor amusement park and Everland being home to the world’s steepest wooden roller coaster, it’s not hard to imagine why these theme parks see a higher volume of visits than most.

In addition to heart-stopping rides, Everland features South Korea’s only safari experience and five unique zones of attractions. Lotte World is an amusement park right out of a storybook, complete with captivating performances for your viewing pleasures. But with most great tourist attractions comes massive crowds, so if you’re looking for new sources of adrenaline tucked away in lesser-known corners, scratch Lotte World and Everland off your lists and look a little further.

The alternative: Discover Wolmi Theme Park and Yongma Land  

Yongma Land abandoned theme park | Image credit: Christian Bolz

As a new twist to that carefully curated Instagram feed, one cannot miss a visit to Yongma Land. While the rides are now-defunct thanks to its abandonment, the grounds of Yongma Land are still mysteriously beautiful in its own 80s-way. Yongma Land is still open for visitation, and for only 5,000 won (~S$6.20) , visitors can look forward to hosting their own photoshoot.

If you’re a fan of Korean reality TV series such as ‘Running Man” and “We Got Married”, you would have heard of Wolmi Theme Park. This alternative theme park features a Viking Ship as its hot favourite for its dizzying swings that don’t just last for under a minute. Make sure to try out its 70-metre-high Hyper Shot Drop for that whoosh in your stomach!

Looking for some family fun? Hit up Seoul Land for its diverse medley of amusement park rides in various themes that stokes the imagination. Check out their riveting laser shows and fancy roller coasters such as the Magic Carpet.

6. The overrated: Black pork, ginseng chicken and the likes

Ginseng chicken | Image credit: p4177528

Foodies will have to agree that the journey towards unearthing fresh gastronomic delights is always worthwhile. The popularity of Korea has made its cuisine no stranger out of its home country, as we get to scarf down delicious portions of black pork, ginseng chicken and bulgogi beef in the comforts of our own food outlets.

Nevertheless, once you’ve tasted authentic versions of your favourite Korean dishes, it’s time to get an upgrade and introduce your taste buds to new flavours while you’re in the area. Forget live octopus and cabbage kimchi, it’s time for…

The alternative: Savour Ggak-dugi and seolleongtang instead!

Image credit: Gulbap by Alan C. | (right) Ggak dugi

Did you know that kimchi has in fact over 200 variations? While you’ve definitely tried this spicy, crunchy dish, kimchi can be made not just from cabbage, but also radishes and cucumber. To start with a twist of familiar aromas, seek out ggak-dugi, the sweet and sour radish version of kimchi.

If seafood is your thing, then gulbap should be right up your alley. This dish originated from the Yellow Sea area of Chungcheong-do, and is prepared by adding live oysters in the mix of boiling rice along with some soy sauce. Its amalgamation with a healthy mix of chestnut, mushroom and daikon radish makes for a highly nutritious Korean rice meal.

You’ve swallowed live octopus, so it’s now time for sundae, or blood sausage. As macabre as it sounds, the tasteful blend of pork blood with cellophane noodles and glutinous rice ends up as a chewy texture in your mouth. The blood is spiced up with other ingredients like sesame seeds, salt, sugar ground shrimp and chilli powder. It’s one of those delicacies that might gross you out at the beginning, but this street food is best paired with the salt and pepper powder or tteokbokki (spicy rice cake) sauce.

We’re not trying to keep you away from Korea, but you’ve got to admit that some attractions (as major as they can be) are only worth visiting once. With the number of sightseers that flock towards the land of the morning calm, sometimes it’s just not worth braving the crowds in order to experience something that can be found elsewhere in much more comfortable conditions.

Don’t worry whether it’s the theme park, scenic views or food for mainstream tastebuds, we’ve got a whole selection of alternatives covered to change up your next exploit!


About Author

Alvina Chan
Alvina Chan

Alvina wishes she got a tan from lazing around the beach with a book and mango juice, but instead she’s got it from hours of outdoor sports without sunscreen. Since she's currently low on the dough, she scratches the travel itch by stalking travel vlogs and fantasising about meeting her European online pals in person. Other times, she’s just trying not to accidentally die yet again in Overwatch.