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South Korea: Regions in Brief

Seoul

Although Seoul is much heralded as an ancient city, having been Korea's capital for over 600 years, only a few palaces and shrines remain. In its race to modernize and industrialize, the city has suffered growing pains. Remnants of Seoul's past are hidden in alleyways climbing up Samcheong-dong's hilly streets, ancient places in the Gwanghwamun district and the ceramic artists of Insadong. Visitors can enjoy the city's efficient and clean subway system, incredibly clear and fast cell phone and internet infrastructures and the newfound interest in modern, global cuisines.

A city that never sleeps, there's something to do all hours of the day. Early morning risers can hunt for bargains in Dongdaemun Market, or go for a hike along the Han River before most of the residents wake up for their hectic commutes. During the day, each neighborhood of the city comes alive with its own flavors and characteristics. Those looking for slower paces can take a walk in the gardens of Biwon, soak in a bath house or enjoy a cup of tea in an Insadong traditional house. The crowded stalls of Namdaemun and the boutique shops of Myeongdong offer more excitement. When the sun sets, the lights of the city illuminate and a different city emerges as youngsters hits the bars and coffee shops of Sinchon of Gangnam or just huddle around buying cheap eats from street stalls that seem to pop up out of nowhere.

Gyeonggi-do

The people of Gyeonggi-do are quite good at the balancing act of being many things at once. Not only does the province live in the shadow of Seoul, but its northern border is shared with that of North Korea. It shares half of the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) border and strives to open transportation and communication with its neighbors from the north, while protecting the country from unwanted infiltrations or military attacks.

Just like the rest of Korea, the region strives to move towards modernization, while preserving cultural and historical heritage. This balance of the new and the old is striking when you fly into the streamlined airport in Incheon and then pass rice fields on the way to your hotel. Some of the best historical experiences can be had visiting the traditional folk village and the fortress in Suwon. Those more culturally inclined will love the kilns and shops of Icheon, where you can also enjoy the area's rice once grown for kings.

Chungcheong-do

Located in the Central Western region of the country, the Chungcheong provinces are often overlooked as tourists just whiz right by getting just glimpses of the area as views from their train or bus windows. Like most of Korea outside its major cities, Chungcheong-do is prime farm land, growing cattle and grains. But it has some of the country's most beautiful beaches and the ancient capitals of Buyeo and Gongju.

The city of Danyang serves as a great base for exploring some of the regional caves and the mountain scenery of Sobaeksan. Korea's "Silicon Valley," Daejeon serves as the region's transportation hub, but still has cultural delights to explore, such as its specialty markets and an area just for the Korean traditional costumes, hanbok.

Jeolla-do (The Southwest)

The most rural of all of South Korea's provinces, Jeolla-do may not have benefited from the country's recent modernization plans, but that left it largely unmarred with large expanses of beautiful scenery, still quiet country roads winding through verdant hillsides and hugging rocky coasts. Famous for their developed cuisine, be sure to dine often on the traditional Korean fare in the area.

In the springtime, the graded hills of Boseong come alive workers hand picking tea leaves from the rolling green bushes. Summer is great for the cool whispers of the bamboo forests of Damyang. Any time of year, the region's independent spirit shines through in Gwangju and the scenery is always beautiful in Jirisan and along the coasts of Mokpo, Yeosu, Suncheon.

Gyeongju & Gyeongsang-do (The Southeast)

The Southeastern region is home to the former capital of the Shilla Dynasty, Gyeongju, and made of the plains created by the Nakdong River. Surrounded by the mountain ranges of Sobaeksan and Taebaeksan, much of the area's quiet beauty has been plowed over by growing factories all in the name of progress. Still, visits to the historic town of Andong and the gorgeous views from the rocky coast of Tongyeong.

The historic temples of Gyeongju and the celebrated Haeinsa and Boriam are in the area. Grab some apples from the city of Daegu and climb some of the region's mountains.

Busan

South Korea's "summer capital," Busan is the second largest city in the country and has wonderful beaches and hot springs which cemented its reputation as a resort city. Although the city has no major historic buildings or palaces, it's a great place to enjoy the fruits of the sea and watch the sunset over wide expansive shores. The beaches of Haeundae, Gwangalli, and Songjeong are the most popular, but there's still much to see elsewhere. The Jagalchi Seafood Market in Nampo-dong, the bustling underground market in Seomyeon and the hot spring spas in the Dongnae area are real crowd pleasers. Nature lovers will appreciate the bird sanctuary and a chance to see rare migratory fowl on Eulsukdo.

Gangwon-do (The Northeast)

Divided by the Taebaek mountain range, Gangwon-do has the distinction of being the largest and least dense of Korea's provinces. It also shares a border with North Korea (the line splitting the country also split the original Gangwon province in half). Although recent building of expressways followed by flooding has eroded some of the region's beautiful scenery, dramatic mountains still remain. The most popular, Seoraksan, will be crawling with tourists flocking from Seoul to see the changing autumn colors, but dramatic temples and wonderful ocean views can also be found here. When snow blankets the mountains, don't miss the area's potato dishes, ice fishing and winter sports.

Jeju-do

South Korea's popular honeymoon destination, Jeju-do is a volcanic marvel located off the southern tip of the peninsula. With turquoise waters surrounding lava black rocky coasts, the once poor island has enjoyed its revival as a tourist destination in recent decades. It has an indigenous culture separate and different from the rest of the peninsula and its history is reflected in the people and the artifacts left on the island (like the stone old man you'll see everywhere and the historic Seongeup Folk Village).

You'll find the usual trappings of major tourist destinations -- casinos, horse races, overwrought resort complexes. But there are also the strenuous hikes up the crater on Hallasan, wonderful sunrises from Seongsan's "Sunrise Peak," and waterfalls surrounding the city of Seogwipo. Lovers of seafood and citrus will find plenty to eat. And spelunkers can explore the magic of Manjang-gul.

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