Every country has spots that feel like best kept secrets. Perhaps it’s fallen out of sight due to larger and more popular tourist sites, its countrymen have overlooked it or it’s just never called attention to itself. Today’s guest post comes from Julio Moreno, a travel blogger and Korea expat, who is obsessed with visiting and rating UNESCO sites. He’ll share his discoveries of best kept secret spots in Korea.
Having lived in Korea for four years, there is one irrefutable fact about traveling in this tiny country. If you go to a place popular among Koreans, it is guaranteed to be bursting with crowds unimaginable anywhere else. The rule of thumb seems to be, ‘if it’s crowded, it must be good.’
I reject this notion and made it a goal to find places very few people visited. Much to my amazement, some of the best places in Korea are unknown, even to the vast majority of locals. Here are five of my favorite places in the land of the morning calm where I was often one of the few people there.
1) Buyeo Cultural Complex
Before Korea unified for the first time, there was an epoch known as the ‘three kingdom period.’ Baekje was one of these kingdoms which thrived until its demise in 660 CE. The once prosperous capital of Baekje was in Buyeo, a town known, but seldom visited by Koreans. Most are aware that it was completely destroyed centuries ago.
What most don’t know is that the old palace, the royal temple, and the very first throne were all rebuilt in 2012 in an attempt to reconstruct one of Korea’s lost treasures. The Baekje Cultural Complex sits a few kilometers outside of the modern town of Buyeo and gets only a handful of visitors every day, despite being truly remarkable.
2) Sa-do Island
If you ever need any information on Korea, you can call “1330” from any cell phone and the utmost (free) experts in the country’s tourism are ready to help you. The only time I’ve ever been able to stump them was when I called for information on reaching Sa-do island.
Sado, also known as ‘dinosaur island’ is home to one of the only places with preserved dinosaur footprints. The southern Korean coast actually boasts the largest such collection in the world.
If that is not enough, the water is crystal clear and definitely swimmable. That is, if you are okay with being possibly the only person who has ever attempted it.
On our ferry there, only 8 people boarded and only us two and an elderly woman (who lived on the island) got off on Sa-do. There are only around 3-5 ‘minbak’ style hotels, a single restaurant (not always open) and a single convenience store (ice cream and drinks only). Better bring some food or you’ll end up hungry.
3) Maze Park (Jeju Island)
There is something about mazes that is truly fascinating. Ever since I saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I always wanted to wander a maze myself and see if I could use my wits to find the way out.
The Maze Park on Jeju Island is one of about 50 ridiculous tourist traps distracting from the natural beauty of the island. The difference is, this one is actually worth visiting, and is also one of the most seldom visited. While everyone else is exploring the chocolate or teddy bear museums (come to think of it, those sound fun too), you can be getting lost in this amazing green puzzle.
4) Gochang Dolmen Sites
Stonehenge is a assortment of Neolithic earthworks marking a massive prehistoric graveyard. This type of burial ground is known as a ‘dolmen’ which are found all over the world from the UK to China to Korea. What many people don’t know is that Korea actually holds 40% of all dolmens in the world, the largest share of any country.
The Gochang dolmen sites in Korea are in three main zones (Ganghwa, Hwasun, and Gochang). While every Korean learns about them in school, very few visit them, making this one desolate wonderland for pre-historic enthusiasts. This incredible piece of early human history is not easy to reach, but definitely worth the trouble. The Gochang zone holds a few hundred and if you manage to get out there, you will be greeted with a wonderful museum, fantastic hikes, and the whole park almost to yourself.
5) Hamdeok Beach (Jeju Island)
For Korea’s most pristine beach, we must go back to beautiful Jeju Island. Despite Busan being known as the ‘beach city,’ the overcrowded (and often dirty) beaches have nothing on what you can find in Jeju. While every Korean knows this, they also have their favorites, mainly Jungmun and Samyang Beaches.
Hamdeok Beach has very bright blue and incredibly calm waters like nothing else in Korea. This gem is not as crowded as the other two, even though it is very close to Jeju city. If you like sun tanning, catching a game of volleyball, or just having a little piece of paradise to yourself, this is it.
6) Tripitaka Koreana
I felt a little guilty adding the Gochang Dolmens as they are known, just not well traveled, so here is a bonus.
Haeinsa is one of the most well known temples in all of Korea, despite not booming with the crowds of many other well known spots. Its location deep within Gayasan National Park a good hour and a half from Daegu City makes sure it remains off the beaten path.
Fun Fact: As one of the most important temples, Haeinsa is known to monks as ‘Buddhist boot camp’ for its unusually strict rules to new monks. One such rule forbids freshmen monks from speaking or looking up at the sky for a year.
Author Bio: Julio Moreno is a Latino-American from California who decided to take a one year break from life by teaching English in South Korea. That one year turned into the best four of his life and the adventure abroad has recently been shifted into an extended stay in New Zealand. He shares his passion for UNESCO World Heritage Sites among other travel destinations on his blog Travel World Heritage. Check out his Facebook page too. He also likes hippos.