A couple of years ago, my friends and I attended a convention in Seoul, South Korea. In a classic work/travel balancing act, we managed to sneak in a short road trip to the countryside south of Seoul.
Back then, we were all visiting South Korea for the first time. By the end of our first day in Seoul, we were so in love with the city – everything about it was amazing! From its delicious food to its dazzling nightscape, to the lively shopping districts…
But the best was before us: beautiful roads, stunning lakes and mountains, and lovely villages. An hour into the road trip, any misgivings we may have about trading extra days shopping in Seoul for a road trip to some unknown were immediately dispelled.
But I’m getting way ahead of this story. Here’s how my first trip to South Korea went – and why I’ve come back so many times since.
The journey began in Seoul where we:
spent an insane amount of time eating Korean BBQ for every meal…
spent an equally insane amount of time prowling the night markets of Myeongdong and every shopping district in Seoul, testing every skin care product — and eventually buying way too much than our suitcases can fit…
visited cultural landmarks such as the Changdeokgung Palace Complex, which is a fantastic example of pungu-jiri, the Korean geomancy that focuses on architecture’s harmony with nature…
got lost city-trekking the hilly streets of Bukchon Hanok Village — and I do mean literally got lost because only after a few hours of wandering around “Bukchon” did we find out that the real Bukchon was on the other side of the road…
and became acquainted with such culinary delights like the churfait (churros + parfait, and yes it is as awesome as it sounds!), blood sausages, gyeran bang or egg bread, and macaron ice cream…
After several hectic days in Seoul, we were ready to take our adventure to the countryside!
Road trip begins
But first up, city traffic in Seoul.
We spent a dismal hour or so crawling across Seoul, most of which was spent trying to figure out the Korean GPS. We eventually gave up and stuffed it into the glove compartment in disgust and relied on a combination of Apple Maps and maps.me.
(I’ve since then mastered the Korean GPS after several more road trips and loads of moments of desperation – here’s a guide I made for that.)
After about an hour or so, we finally hit the expressway. Apart from making a wrong exit which led to a 10-km-long-detour and holding up the line at one tollgate due to my extremely short arms not being able to reach for the ticket, we made it to our first destination: Andong.
Andong and the Hahoe Folk Village
The Hahoe Folk Village is a perfect glimpse of the traditional Korean countryside and a throwback to the Joseon dynasty.
We spent a few hours meandering around the stonewalled dirt roads, taking too many pictures of the well-maintained Joseon-style houses, going in and out of courtyards, tying up our wishes to the Samsindang, a 600-year old zelkov tree in the village’s center, and spending an unhealthy amount of time in each of the souvenir shops.
My personal favorite, though, was walking along the Nakdong River, which wraps around the Hahoe Folk Village in a “meander” (an actual geological term for this typographic feature). As a girl growing up in an archipelago, the call of the water is strong. Wherever in the world I find myself, I always tend to gravitate towards a body of water – be it the canals in Amsterdam, the Sumida-gawa in Tokyo, or the stunning Hallstatt lake.
But back to Nakdong. After a 3-hour drive, it was certainly a treat just staring at the relaxing, calm waters and the stone hill beyond while a boatman nearby finishes for the day. Apparently, I share this love for Nakdong with a lot of Koreans throughout history, as it has attracted many to build their homes along the river basin — all the way from the Neolithic period. It is also the longest river in South Korea, reaching all the way to Busan.
After a few more walks around and some last-minute shots of the village, we were off to our dwelling place for the night: Danyang.
Danyang in the middle of the mountains
The first part of our drive to Danyang was uneventful enough. With the concerted effort of maps.me, Navi, and Apple Maps, we found ourselves nearing our pension.
Just a few hundred meters before the endpoint, however, we were distracted by the bright, shiny lights coming from the inside of – you guessed it – a BBQ restaurant! So after a quick discussion, wherein we all agreed in a heartbeat to have dinner first before checking-in, we were inside the cheery restaurant, ready to stuff ourselves yet again with meat.
After a happy hour filled with meat and ban-chan, we finally set off to the pension. I remember looking it up a few days before and remembered that it was very near a river in a place which seemed to be buried deep within several mountains – definitely my kind of place.
So it was with a growing sense of doubt that we approached the destination point set by Apple Maps, as there were no rivers or mountains in the area – in fact, we were in the middle of downtown Danyang, with night markets and shops left and right. And when Apple Maps announced that the destination was on the left, and I did take a turn to the left, it was with confusion that we found ourselves in the parking lot of what we made out to be a broadcasting company’s building.
Realizing that Apple Maps was no longer to be trusted at this time, it was time to rely on our – trusty or rusty? – map-reading skills. Luckily, we were all born long before the advent of GPS navigation systems and had a bit of old school spirit in us, so we had a printed vicinity map of the hotel.
So off we drove away from downtown and deep into the mountains – zigzag roads, total darkness, and the biggest dog we’ve ever seen crossing the road in front of us completing the picture of our night-time mountain-driving adventure. And, seconds after crossing the bridge over the promised river, we made it!
The neighborhood was, by that time, all sound asleep with only one or two lights still shining. We kind of felt bad arriving at such a late time and disturbing the peace, and we were a bit worried that our room has been given away to someone else — but, lo and behold, the elderly woman who owned the pension was standing right by the door as we drove up. Like a kind grandmother, she was waiting up for us!
We immediately shuffled in, apologized profusely for arriving so late, to which she replied with smiles and reassuring shakes of the head, quickly showing us to our spacious and homey room. Needless to say, after a long adventurous day and a stomach filled with BBQ, we all fell asleep soundly soon after.
The next morning, we, at last, came to appreciate just how magnificent the surroundings were. We were really in the middle of the mountains!
We spent a good few hours in the early morning just admiring the view and breathing in the fresh air. The motherly hotel owner then spent half an hour herding us to all the beautiful photo spots around her hotel, smiling and taking our pictures the whole time. Though we did not exchange a single word, it was definitely one of the best conversations I’ve had on that trip.
Finally, it was time to head to Jecheon.
Jecheon – the Healing City
The road to Jecheon was one breathtaking scenery after another, accented by yellow fields, calm lakes, and mountains whose trees were starting to show early signs of fall. We passed several small towns, in which of course, we found a BBQ place in time for brunch.
By noontime, we made it to the Cheongpung Cultural Heritage Complex and a few minutes inside the very green, very breezy, and very relaxing complex and we were already convinced of Jecheon’s tagline as “The Healing City.”
The place was basically a sprawling garden set on a ridge, with views of the Chungju Lake and neighboring countryside below. There were several beautiful pavilions and a recreation of a traditional Korean folk village where several mini-TV series were filmed.
Outside the complex was an interesting bazaar, with all kinds of oriental medicine on sale. We later found out that this was actually why Jecheon was called the “healing city.”
With our flight schedule dangerously approaching and still a staggering 200-KM distance away from Incheon, we tore ourselves from Jecheon and started on the long way home.
But as all good road trips are bound to lead to, we passed by an incredibly irresistible roadside café sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the Cheongpung Lake. Now, a combination of mountain coffee, carrot cake, and views of the lake cannot be ignored, so we chose to risk it and spend half an hour enjoying the view.
The last stop was Incheon, and while by this time, the mountain roads which turned to expressways which eventually slowed down to a crawl nearing the major cities were common sights, I do have to admit that the 18,384-meter bridge connecting mainland Incheon to the international airport definitely left us gawking like country bumpkins for a good 10 minutes or so.
After navigating Incheon’s impressive network of flyovers, finding the Avis drop-off point, and making a run for a desperately-needed restroom break (damn that mountain coffee!), all that was left to do was dash around the airport and have one last bulgogi burger + Korean fried chicken combo meal for the trip back home.
End of the road trip – until next time, Korea!
And there you have it! Our KDrama-worthy road trip across South Korea’s countryside – with too many montages of us eating barbecue, all culminating in a mad dash across the airport.
Read next – adventures in South Korea
Ready to go on your own road trip in South Korea? Here are some more guides to get you started:
Everything you need to know from getting a rental car to navigating in Korean.
A road trip itinerary that brings you to the country’s most beautiful autumn-viewing spots.
Here’s another road trip recap from one of my trips to South Korea.
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I hope this road trip recap gives you some ideas on how to explore more of South Korea beyond its busy cities! If you have any questions or need any help at all planning your trip to South Korea, get in touch and I’ll do my best to help you out!