South Korea is famous for being the land of kimchi, K-pop, K-dramas, tech giant Samsung, automotive manufacturer Hyundai, soju, Korean fried chicken, Korean barbecue, the 12-step skincare routine, and of course, Gangnam Style.
But there’s so much more to this East Asian tiger than the trends it has given birth to. From food to technological advancements to cultural sites to wonders of nature, there’s plenty to see and experience in South Korea.
Here are just 30 of those things that South Korea is famous for.
Korea is famous for Korean popular music or simply K-pop.
K-pop is an umbrella term that refers to Korean pop, hip-hop, electronic music, ballad, and rock. K-pop music is notable for its catchy melodies, impressive choreographies, cool and colourful music videos, and group members looking very polished.
Although K-pop has only become mainstream in the international market in the last decade, it dates back to the 1950s, when Korean music started getting influenced by Western music and pop groups. Modern K-pop emerged when trio Seo Taiji and Boys first performed on a talent show in 1992. This led to the formation of big entertainment companies like SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment.
The first idol group to debut was SM’s H.O.T., who popularized K-pop idol culture, gathering fandoms of teenagers and young adults. Some of the popular groups from the last decade include TVXQ, Super Junior, Girls Generation, Big Bang, Wonder Girls, Shinee, EXO, 2EN1, BTS, Twice, and BlackPink.
2. Psy and Gangnam Style
In 2012, pop dance song Gangnam Style by South Korean singer-rapper Psy took the world by storm.
Gangnam Style makes fun of the consumer culture and lavish lifestyle associated with the affluent Gangnam district of Seoul. The song itself received mixed reviews, some pointing out its catchy and addictive beats and some dismissing it as silly. But it was undeniable that Gangnam Style had cemented its place in history.
The music video, which featured Psy’s amusing dance moves, had 500,000 YouTube views on its first day and became the first video to reach one billion views on YouTube. It also topped domestic and international charts and led increased interest in K-pop.
Korea is famous for kimchi. Distinct for its spicy taste, crispness, and pungent smell, kimchi dates back to the early period of Goguryeo (37 BCE–668 CE) and is a part of every Korean meal.
There are over 200 types of this traditional side dish. Depending on the fermentation process, ingredients, region, and weather, the kimchi’s taste changes. This fermentation process also makes it one of the healthiest foods in the world. It is full of vitamins and lactobacilli, a healthy bacteria.
The most famous kind of kimchi is the tongbaechu kimchi or whole cabbage kimchi. Napa cabbage is seasoned with salt, sugar, gochugaru (chili powder), spring onions, crushed garlic, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood), and fermented for weeks or longer.
Other typical kinds of kimchi include baek kimchi (white kimchi), which uses cabbage marinated in salt; chonggak kimchi, which uses whole baby radishes and a lot of gochugaro; and nabak kimchi (watery radish kimchi), which is popular for its cold and refreshing broth.
The spread of Hallyu, or Korean wave, has popularised not just K-pop but also Korean dramas, simply known as K-dramas. These television shows have interesting storylines, plot twists that can either be shocking or predictable, and visually satisfying cinematography.
Most K-dramas have only 16 to 20 episodes, which run from 30 minutes to 1 hour each, making it easy to binge. K-dramas also often portray the fashion, culture, and sceneries of Korea, driving Korean fashion trends worldwide and ushering in increased tourism activity.
Some of the most popular K-dramas include Jewel in the Palace, Full House, Coffee Prince, Boys Over Flowers, My Love From The Star, Winter Sonata, My Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo, Descendants of the Sun, and Goblin.
5. Korean age
Korea is famous for using a different method to count age. It is always one or two years more than one’s international age. This is because Koreans consider the time spent in the womb (almost one year) as counting towards their age, so everyone is one year old at birth.
Everyone also gets one year added to their Korean age on New Year’s Day, not on their birthday. This means when a baby is born on December 31, he or she turns two the next day. Koreans still celebrate their actual birthdays but this doesn’t affect their Korean age.
This method of counting age has its origins in China, further spreading in other parts of Asia. However, South Korea is the only country that still practices this method.
In Korea, depending on whom you are speaking to, you must use different honorific titles. Age often determines how one speaks or acts towards other people, but gender, social status, social relationship, and degree of intimacy are also important factors. Although polite language is practiced in general, there are several words or honorific titles that recognise and reflect this hierarchical status. Below are some words commonly used to show respect.
- oppa – used by a younger female to call an older male friend or sibling
- hyung – used by a younger male to call an older male friend or sibling
- unnie – used by a younger female to call an older female or sibling
- noona – used by a younger male to call an older female or sibling
- sunbae – senior; used to call a female or male student who’s older than you at school or at work
- ssi – used to call someone whom you need to show some respect to especially in work settings
- nim – more polite and respectful version of ssi
- eomeoni – formal way of saying “mother”
- abeoji – formal way of saying “father”
There are also honorific pronouns (i.e. I is ‘na’ in its plain form and ‘jeo’ in its formal form). Adding words like –yo, and –nida at the end of each sentence also shows the different levels of politeness.
7. Korean fried chicken
Korea is famous for creating food trends. This includes Korean fried chicken, which is different from the typical fried chicken we get from popular Western chains.
Korean fried chicken is lighter than most styles of fried chicken. The exterior is very thinly battered in cornstarch (sometimes wheat flour or rice flour is added), allowing for a paper-thin like crispiness. The chicken is fried twice, a technique that surprisingly produces less oily chicken. The meat is moist and tender inside. Variants like the yangnyeom (sweet and spicy) chicken and ganjang (soy sauce) chicken are also popular.
Just how famous is fried chicken in Korea? As of February 2019, there were a staggering 87,000 fried chicken joints in South Korea, according to Korea Economic Daily. Locals usually consume it as a meal, an appetizer, after-meal snack, or served with beer or other alcoholic drinks.
8. Hanbok (traditional clothing)
Korea is famous for its colourful and elegant traditional attire known as hanbok. Although the term means “Korean clothing,” hanbok usually refers to the vibrant clothing worn during the Joseon era. It was worn daily up until just 100 years ago.
An enduring image of traditional Korea, the dress is easily recognisable with its distinct shape, having a slim top and wide bottom resembling a bell. Hanbok fabric of the olden times used natural dyes as coloring. Traditional women’s hanbok set includes jeogori, a blouse shirt or jacket; and chima, a wrap-around skirt. Men’s hanbok consists of jeogori and baji or trousers.
In present Korea, hanbok is usually work on special occasions like first birthdays, wedding ceremonies, major family events, and Korean holidays. Through hanbok rentals, tourists can also experience wearing hanboks when visiting historical sites in Korea like the old palaces in Seoul.
9. Love for sport
Korea is famous for being a sport-loving nation as well as a sporting powerhouse. The country gave birth to ancient martial art sports like taekwondo, hapkido, and taekkyeon, and Korean wrestling known as ssireum.
Korea also notably hosted two Olympic Games: the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It first participated at the Olympic Games in 1948 and has won 337 medals since, ranking 19th in the list of countries with most medals.
The South Korean national football team has also appeared at 10 World Cups, placing 4th in the 2002 tournament, making them the first country outside Europe and the Americas to reach top 4. The country has also produced some of the best athletes in the world such as figure skater Kim Yuna, Texas Rangers outfielder and designated hitter Choo Shin Soo, Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min, and former Manchester United midfielder Park Jisung.
10. Korean barbecue
Korean barbecue, known locally as gogi gui, refers to the popular method of grilling meat, usually beef, pork, or chicken over gas or charcoal grills sometimes set into the table itself or over a portable stove. Common forms of gogi gui include bulgogi (thinly sliced marinated beef sirloin, ribeye, or brisket), galbi (short ribs), samgyeopsal (pork belly), and dak galbi (spicy marinated chicken).
Guests usually cook their own meats, although servers sometimes do the grilling, too. The meal usually comes with various banchan or side dishes like kimchi, jeon (pancake), and fried anchovies. Koreans usually wrap their meats in lettuce before dipping it in different kinds of sauces. The meal goes well with alcoholic drinks like soju, makgeolli (rice wine), or beer.
11. Jeju Island
Korea is famous for its volcanic holiday destination, Jeju. Also known as the ‘Hawaii of Korea,’ Jeju Special Self-governing Province, or Jeju Island (Jeju-do in Korean) has a mild coastal climate with four seasons and an average yearly temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. The island is popular for natural wonders, including waterfalls, a dormant volcano, beaches, national parks, and caves. It also famous for tangerines, Jeju black pig meat, and haenyo divers.
UNESCO designated the entire island and its lava tubes as a Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Global Geoparks in 2007. In 2011, Jeju Island was named one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Although more than 70% of the visitors are domestic travellers, travel shows and K-dramas have also helped drive foreign travellers to the island.
12. Bap (rice)
Koreans are rice-loving people. A staple in Korean cuisine, rice or bap comes in various forms.
Ssalbap (steamed white rice) is the most typically consumed rice among Koreans, commonly served with various side dishes. Bibimbap is steamed rice topped with various seasoned vegetables and meat, mixed with gochujang (Korean chili paste). Japgokbap is rice cooked with grains such as beans, millet, barley, and corn. Byeolnibap is rice cooked with oysters, kimchi, bean sprout, and other ingredients. Gimbap, or rice rolls wrapped in seaweed, is also popular, as well as kimchi bokkeumbap (fried rice with kimchi).
Rice is also made into popular rice cakes (tteok) which are then made into different dishes like tteokbokki (spicy stir-fried rice cake) and injeolmi (rice cake rolled in bean powder).
13. Taegukgi (South Korean flag)
The South Korean flag, known to locals as Taegukgi, is one of the national symbols of the country.
The flag’s field is white, a traditional colour in Korean culture. It represents peace and purity.
The design symbolises the principle of the yin and yang forces in Asian philosophy. The red and blue circle respectively represents the proactive cosmic forces of the yang and yin. The two forces together embody the concepts of continual movement, balance, and harmony in the universe. The trigrams on each corner of the rectangular flag symbolise the natural elements heaven, earth, water, and fire.
14. Hangeul (Korean alphabet)
Korea is famous for Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, which is arguably the best Korean invention of all time.
Hangeul is a series of creative and scientific characters. Composed of ten simple vowels and 14 consonants, the characters imitate the shape lips and tongue make when making that particular sound and reflect the five core elements of oriental philosophy.
A group of scholars led by King Sejong the Great developed this systematic rendition in a document called Hunminjeongeum, which means “ Correct Sounds to Instruct the People.” The historical document provided instructions to educate people on the use of Hangeul.
In 1997, UNESCO confirmed Hunminjeongeum as the world’s only alphabet whose creator and purpose of creation are known. UNESCO also awards the “King Sejong Literacy prize” every year in memory of the inventor of Hangeul, and October 9 is celebrated as Hangeul Day in Korea.
Korea is famous for one of the biggest automobile companies in the world, Hyundai Motors.
Hyundai is a Korean word, which means ‘modernity,’ a fitting name for the maker of Korea’s first automobile. Hyundai Group started as a construction company in 1947, and 20 years later, the Hyundai Motor Company was born. The Hyundai Pony, released in 1975, was Korea’s first mass-produced and exported car.
Hyundai’s Ulsan factory is the world’s largest automotive manufacturing facility, producing about 1.6 million cars each year. Kia Motors, Genesis Motor, and electric vehicle brand Ioniq are subsidiaries of the Hyundai Motor Group, and the company holds the largest market share in Korea. Hyundai vehicles are also available in almost 200 countries through some 5,000 dealerships and showrooms.
Korea has swiftly transformed into one of the world’s leading economies over the last 50 years. This development is largely due to the heavy industries and export boom. One of the biggest names to come out of this boom is Samsung, a multinational conglomerate with revenue that amounts to about one-fifth of South Korea’s GDP. Most of this revenue comes from Samsung Electronics, the world’s largest IT and consumer electronics company.
Other notable subsidiaries include Samsung Heavy Industries, one of the largest shipbuilders in the world; and Samsung C&T, best known for being the main contractor of Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.
Korea is famous for black comedy thriller Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho.
The breakout movie is a social commentary highlighting the gap between rich and poor in South Korea. It follows the members of a poor family (Song Kang-ho, Choi Woo-shik, Park So-dam, and Jang Hyejin) who planned to become employed by a rich family (Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong) through posing as unrelated, highly qualified individuals.
The movie was a domestic and worldwide success. It made history by becoming the first non-English language film in Academy Awards history to win Best Picture. It was also the first South Korean movie to win the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Thanks to recent accolades of Parasite, South Korean cinema is gaining more fans internationally. Although not as internationally acclaimed, other movies like My Sassy Girl, Oldboy, The Host, Snowpiercer, and Train to Busan have also gained positive critical response and international success.
Thanks to its receptive audience, South Korea’s pop culture export doesn’t stop at music, television, cinema, and technology. Korean fashion is now gaining global recognition, too.
The Korean fashion scene is relatively new. Known for his evening and wedding gown collections, Andre Kim became the first South Korean designer to hold a fashion show in Paris in 1966. Korean fashion gained a wider audience in the 90s as Hallyu began to spread through K-pop and K-dramas.
Contemporary Korean fashion playfully mixes youthful streetwear with luxury, with trends often sparked by K-pop stars. Today, Seoul is a major fashion hub in Asia and Seoul Fashion Week has elevated itself as one of the top fashion week events in the world.
19. Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
Korea is famous for a strip of land running known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ. Dividing North and South Korea for over 60 years, is a 250-kilometre (160 miles) long and 4-kilometre (2.5 miles) wide ceasefire line at the 38th parallel. The DMZ was created in the Armistice Agreement in July 27, 1953, where both North and South Korea agreed to move their troops back 2,000 metres from the front line and ceasing hostilities.
Within the DMZ is a meeting point called Joint Security Area (JSA) where troops of both nation are present. A portion of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) goes through the JSA. All negotiations since 1953 are held at the JSA, including high-level meetings among North and South Korean leaders, United Nations officials, and the recent brief meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump.
The area is one of the most heavily militarized borders, but tourists may visit through guided DMZ tours.
20. Hangang (Han River)
Korea is famous for Seoul’s Hangang or Han River. A symbol of the South Korean capital, Hangang is the most important physical landmark in Seoul. It divides the city’s north and south areas and runs through Seoul from east to west. An important part of Korean history, the Han River was once a trade route to China. It also serves as a water source for Koreans.
There are 26 bridges across the river and ferries operate between Yeouido and Jamsil. Parks and recreational facilities along the river are plenty. Sports facilities like soccer and baseball fields, volleyball and basketball courts, and swimming pools are available. It is also the perfect place to rent bikes, enjoy picnics, go skiing or boat cruising, and even fishing. Being one of the most scenic locations in the city, Hangang serves as a backdrop for a lot of movies, music videos, and TV shows.
21. Martial arts
A nation of sport lovers, Korea is famous for not just producing amazing athletes but also spawning a variety of martial arts. These martial arts have been adapted as methods of physical improvement, self-defense, and as a form of recreation.
The most popular type of Korean martial arts is taekwondo, which uses kicks, blocks, throws, takedowns and grappling. It’s the only Korean martial art that’s an official Olympic sport. Most Koreans have taken taekwondo lessons as children.
Other popular Korean martial arts are hapkido, tang soo do, gungdo, and the traditional Korean martial art taekkyeon, which is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Korea is famous for world-class beaches. Water surrounds the country on three sides, making it a perfect destination for either surfing or beach bumming.
The most popular and most visited beach in South Korea is Haeundae in Busan. This urban beach is busy all year-round but it sees the most number of tourists in summer and in October when it hosts the Busan International Film Festival.
The beaches of Jeju, including Jungmun Beach, Hamdeok Beach, and Seobin Beach are also popular to tourists. Hangjodae Beach in Gangwon is a favourite among surfers. Daecheon Beach in Boryeong is famous for hosting the annual mud festival.
23. The Five Grand Palaces of Seoul
Seoul has been the capital of South Korea for more than 600 years since the Joseon Dynasty. The home and political seat of Korea’s kings, Korea is famous for its beautiful royal palaces.
The Five Grand Palaces of the Joseon period include the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gyeonghuigung Palace, Deoksugung Palace, Changgyeonggung Palace, and Changdeokgung Palace. Although they appear similar to the untrained eye, each palace has its own story.
Gyeongbokgung was the representative legal palace of the Joseon dynasty, and remains the largest of all five palaces. Its main gate, Gwanghwamun Gate, is a famous landmark in Seoul. Gyeonghuigung served as the secondary palace for the king. Deoksugung Palace has a distinct and elegant stonewall road. Its modern seal engraving and Western-style garden and fountain makes it unique among all the palaces. Changgyeonggung Palace served as residential quarters for queens and concubines. Its greenhouse was the first Western-style greenhouse in Korea. Changdeokgung Palace is the most well-preserved of the five remaining royal Joseon palaces and is known for Huwon, its back garden, which is the largest garden of all the royal palaces.
Along with Jongmyo Shrine, which holds the ancestral tablets of kings and queens of Joseon, the five grand palaces of Seoul are some of the most visited sites in Seoul.
24. Cherry blossoms
Korea is famous for its enchanting cherry blossoms. Spring, which lasts from late March to early May, draws a lot of visitors because of its mild, pleasant temperatures and the spring flowers that are in full bloom. It’s also one of the liveliest seasons in South Korea.
The most popular cherry blossom festival in Seoul is the Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival, featuring over 1,800 cherry blossom trees along Yeouido Park at Han River. Namsan Park, also in Seoul, has the longest cherry blossom path in the city. Down south, Jinhae in Gyeongsangnam is the most popular cherry blossom destination, with its 360,000 cherry trees.
25. Fast internet connection
A hyper-connected country, Korea has consistently ranked first in the list of countries with the fastest internet connection. The Korean government has established policies that facilitated the expansion of broadband and commercialization of high-speed internet.
Compared to other nations, it also has various cheap broadband options. It’s not surprising that there is free WiFi everywhere – in cafes, bookstores, libraries, movie theatres, public parks, and even in markets. Koreans love to be connected and the government has prompted service providers to come up with more affordable and fast internet connections.
26. Medical technology
In recent years, Korea has become Asia’s leader in medical technology and medical tourism due to its cutting-edge facilities, quality services, and relatively affordable medical costs. It is also the leading country for clinical trial cases and international medical journal publications, as well as a top player in the field of living donor liver transplantation. Korea is also the third-largest market for plastic surgery in the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also recognized hanbang, or traditional Korean medicine, as valid medicine. This medical practice originated from Chinese medicine principles and uses herbal medicine, acupuncture, and moxibustion as methods of treatment.
27. Hanok (traditional house)
Korea is famous for hanok or traditional houses.
These houses were first designed and built in the 14th century during the Joseon period. Built using natural elements like wood, rock, and soil, they were eco-friendly and have excellent breathability. The roof is either tiled or thatched, with floors and fixtures made of wood. Walls are made of clay and rock, and windows and doors were made of paper called hanji. A floor-based unique heating system called ondol was used during cold winters and a cool wooden floor called daecheong was used to circulate air during hot summers. The posts of the house were also fitted into the cornerstones, keeping hanoks safe from earthquakes.
Today, hanoks are reborn as hotels, homestays, and for holiday rentals. The government’s Hanok Stay program lists down over a hundred hanok options in areas like the Bukchon Hanok Village, Jeonju Hanok Village, Andong Hahoe Folk Village, and Namsangol Hanok Village.
Korea is famous for its heavy drinking culture. Its most popular alcoholic drink is soju, a distilled liquor that’s traditionally made from rice, wheat, or barley. This clear drink famously comes in green bottles and has an alcohol content that varies from about 16% to 53% alcohol by volume (ABV). Although the original flavor is still the most popular variant, several fruit flavours are also available.
Despite the rather high alcohol content, Koreans enjoy socialising over soju. It is customary to shout “one shot!” and empty the shot glass. Koreans usually pair Korean barbecue, and strongly seasoned foods like spicy seaweed stew or bossam (steamed pork with vegetable wraps) with soju.
29. Korean skincare and cosmetics
Following its influence in pop culture, Korea has emerged as a trendsetter in the world of beauty products.
Korean beauty standards place value on youthful looks and the appearance of moisture on the skin. Korean cosmetics take both the scientific and natural approach to skincare, with products that are both innovative and inspired by nature. This is why a lot of Korean skincare products include natural ingredients like snail mucin, green tea, manuka honey, and volcanic clay. The Korean skincare routine is also famous for its extensive multi-step regimen, with routines ranging from 10 to 18 steps.
30. Traditional markets
Last but not the least, Korea is famous for its traditional markets. These bustling traditional markets are some of the best places to experience local Korean life.
Lined with stalls manned by ahjummas (Korean for aunt or middle-aged woman), you can find anything and everything in these traditional markets. Namdaemun Market in Seoul is the largest traditional market in Korea. Here, you can find a variety of clothes, kitchenware, toys, stationery, souvenirs, accessories, flowers, food, fine arts, and even mountain or fishing gear. Gwangjang Market in Seoul is also popular, but it is more known for its huge number of food vendors. Outside Seoul, Jeju’s Dongmun Market is famed for its fresh seafood. Busan’s Gukje Market is also large and sells a variety of good including food, apparel, agricultural products, machineries, and electronics.
Other famous traditional markets include Jeonju’s Nambu Market, Gyeongju’s Jungang Market, Daegu’s Seomun Market, and Suwon’s Paldalmun Market.
Armed with this extensive list of things Korea is famous for, it’s time to book that trip and experience these things for yourself. Start planning now!