Annyeong haseyo! Hello! Welcome to South Korea!
Set aside that spicy bowl of kimchi for a moment and settle in for a crash course in South Korean lodging choices. As a major East Asian tourist destination and convention hub, South Korea is home to an array of accommodation options that include the luxurious and modern, the cozy and conventional … and the downright bizarre. (It’s not every day you can boast to your friends about that time you spent the night in a love motel in Seoul.) In fact, South Korea has options to suit every budget and virtually every fancy.
South Korea Hotels
The most obvious place to begin your time in South Korea is at a hotel. Hotels in South Korea are largely the same as you’ll find at home, and just like those, hotels here vary in standards and service. An average room can be quite inexpensive outside major tourist destinations like Seoul, Busan and Jeju Island, but prices may skyrocket depending on the time of year or local events.
You can browse hotel listings throughout South Korea on review sites like TripAdvisor. Avoid those branded as “tourist” or “business” hotels; quality is often sub-par at best. Agoda.com is also an excellent website for hotel booking in South Korea.
South Korea Luxury Hotels
You’ll find plenty of luxury hotel options in South Korea, operated by many of the same global hospitality chains you’re familiar with back home. If you’re willing to splurge, you’ll have an opportunity to experience legendary Korean hospitality, a king-sized bed, swimming pools, and all the other modern amenities you could ever want. Standouts include the JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul, where the impeccable rooms include marble bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows; the Conrad Seoul, known for tremendous services and world-class hospitality; and Lotte Hotel Busan, the most luxurious place to stay in the southern part of the country.
South Korea Luxury Hotel Resources:
South Korea Resorts
The resort experience in South Korea can be incredibly unique. Sure, you can unwind at a contemporary island resort on the beach in Jeju, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, book a stay at the Happy House Santorini, a complex modeled after — you guessed it — the famous Greek island. Or cruise (but not really) aboard the Sun Cruise Resort, a giant ship firmly affixed to solid ground in Jeongdongjin, offering a faux deep-sea adventure for the consummate landlover. South Korea is home to myriad quirky resort properties such as these.
South Korea Resort Resources:
South Korea Jjimjilbangs
On the other end of the spectrum from the luxury brands are Korea’s ubiquitous saunas, also known as jjimjilbangs. For about the cost of a fast food meal at home, you can sleep on the (heated) floor in a community space.
Hang on — this is not nearly as bad as it sounds. In fact, jjimjilbangs, almost always open 24 hours, are an excellent option for weary travelers simply looking for a place to rest for a while. These social gathering places include access to steam baths and saunas, so despite sleeping on the floor, you may actually come away feeling rejuvenated.
Listings are difficult to find online and typically only in Korean. Visit Korea has a good listing of Seoul’s jjimjilbangs below.
South Korea Jjimjilbang Resources:
South Korea Motels
Travelers beware; not all motels are created equal. More often than not, South Korean motels double as houses of ill repute. “Love motels,” as most motels are known, are usually rented by the hour — your first clue that you’re not in Kansas anymore. That said, if you’re in a pinch or you arrive late to a destination that is otherwise sold out, motels actually aren’t a bad option. Beds are usually large (surprise, surprise), and most rooms are surprisingly clean and well appointed. If you don’t mind sleeping next to a condom dispenser or walking across a floor of velvet, a love motel could be for you.
Love motels are not usually listed on sites like TripAdvisor, and rarely advertise — the easiest way to find one is to learn to recognize the Korean symbol for love motel, and then inquire within. Don’t worry, they’re easy to spot — most marquees and logos include a heart shape somewhere.
South Korea Guesthouses & B&Bs
Koreans are famously hospitable. Staying at a family-run guesthouse is a great way to peek inside Koreans’ everyday lives; a night at a guesthouse often includes a community breakfast, tea time and more socializing than you’re probably used to when traveling. Guesthouses are similar to Western bed and breakfasts, though the term B&B is relatively new to South Korea. A property advertised as a B&B is probably recently opened and more expensive than a guesthouse.
South Korea Guesthouse Resources:
South Korea Hanok Lodging
A hanok is a traditional Korean building; think clay tiled roofs, massive wooden support beams, overhanging eaves, and plenty of peace and quiet. Most often built of wooden materials and sparsely styled, a hanok will usually feature ondol (traditional home) standards, beautiful paper doors and manicured gardens. More expensive than a guesthouse, a hanok stay is a uniquely Korean experience, and worth the inflated price.
Some of the best hanok experiences include Hahoe-ri, at the Hahoe Folk Village, Rakkojae in Seoul and the stunning Hyangdan folk house in charming Yangdong. For many guests, the best part about staying in a traditional hanok is the blissful disconnect from the everyday. No TV, no Wi-Fi, no distractions: not something you can say often about visiting South Korea.
South Korea Temple Stays
The only type of accommodation more unique than the hanok is the temple. A Korean temple stay is a charming experience; imagine waking up at dawn each day and watching monks in saffron-tinted robes wander about a perfectly manicured garden while lost in thought. Join monks in prayer, enjoy simple meals, meditate and reconnect with your spiritual self at any one of South Korea’s many overnight temples.
Tapsa Temple is an outstanding option for first-time visitors looking for an experience that won’t overwhelm. Originally built in a valley near Maisan — Horse Ear Mountain — by a Buddhist hermit, Tapsa features dozens of stone pagodas (some standing more than 30 feet tall), each built by hand over a period of years. The temple has an almost ethereal air about it, especially at night.
South Korea Temple Stay Resources:
South Korea Yeogwans
Yeogwans were once the most common type of accommodation in Korea. These simple rooms are notable for their ondol stylings; instead of a bed, you sleep on a mattress on a (sometimes heated) floor. The explanation? Koreans like to travel in groups, and by removing the bed, you can get more people into a room.
Whether this is truth or myth doesn’t matter much: Yeogwans were the standard in travel for generations, though they’re far less popular these days. A night in a yeogwan is pretty cheap, but be prepared to share restroom and dining facilities. The cozy minbak (see below) is a step up from the yeogwan.
Yeogwans are frequently listed alongside hostels on major accommodation websites.
South Korea Minbaks
Cheaper than hotels, a minbak is a family-run outfit that offers modest accommodations. Expect a simple room that may or may not feature a bed. If your room does not come with a bed, make sure the floor is heated. Restroom facilities may be shared, and kitchens are often provided. Minbaks vary wildly in comfort and size, so it pays to have a look at your room prior to booking. Minbaks are often listed alongside hostels on sites like TripAdvisor.
South Korea Hostels
South Korea’s range of hostels is no different from what you might expect to find in other parts of the world. The best offer tidy dormitory rooms, shared kitchen facilities, clean bathrooms and community living spaces. Most of South Korea’s hostels are located in Seoul; jjimjilbangs are far more popular in other parts of the country.
South Korea Hostel Resources:
–written by Flash Parker
Editor’s Note:is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.