When looking for a bike touring destination, South Korea isn’t one of the countries that first comes to mind for most. Yet despite being overlooked, the country has everything for a thoroughly enjoyable and cultural cycling adventure.

South Korea has developed a surprisingly impressive and ever-growing network of dedicated bike trails, boasts a rich cultural heritage and a variety of landscapes from river valleys and mountains to cliffy coasts and miles of unspoilt white sand beaches. You’ll discover a striking contrast between the modern and the traditional: one moment you’re in a jungle of newbuilt highrises, the next cruising through tranquil farmland with the elderly farmers hand-picking their crops.

It never hurts that the cuisine is top-notch, especially if you’re open minded and don’t mind not knowing quite exactly what you ordered. Talking of which, the language wall and culture shock is real – to me this just adds depth to a proper bike tour adventure.

Logistically, Korea is well set up for touring, with thousands of affordable motels that you can just rock up to in any town without prior planning, and a nationwide bike-friendly bus network.

So if you’re thinking of an exciting and unusual bike trip destination – Korea is a fantastic shout. And I hope this guide will help you plan it.

 

Which routes should I choose for bike touring Korea?

The million-Won question. At least it was for me: it took hours of research and asking for advice on local Facebook groups to figure out which route combo offers the widest variety to discover different shades of Korea in the space of 3 weeks. Hopefully my write-up will help you decide and save you some time.

Many will opt for the 4 Rivers Trail stretching along river valleys right across the country from Seoul to Busan. I’m sure this makes for a great tour, as well as being the easiest logistically and not particularly straining physically. 

Others will point to the “Fantasy Bike Path” around Jeju Island – South Korea’s warm holiday island, blessed with natural sights and a warm climate. And easy riding given the mostly flat terrain.

However, craving a little more adventure, climbing and variety of inland and seaside, I opted for something different. So I focused on 2 routes:

Seomjingang is a lesser-known river trail that gently takes you through the picturesque countryside down to the South coast. 

From there you’re just a couple hops away from Namhae Island. Much of it is a hilly adventure on public roads, but you’re endlessly rewarded with beautiful sandy beach bays, views rivaling the Amalfi Coast, quaint fishing villages where time seems to stand still – and even an entire German village.

Daraengi, on Namhae Island bicycle tour

 

Separated by a couple rest days in Busan, the second part of the Korea adventure is the mighty East Coast Trail. Stretching along the entire Eastern shore of South Korea, the trail takes you through far more than a collection of fishing villages. You’ll discover towns entirely dedicated to snow crab tourism, vast sandy beaches, surfers, cruise-ship-shaped resorts, industrial scapes, and even an open-air penis museum.

At its Northern end towards the DMZ, you won’t help but notice increasing signs of the uneasy frontier with North Korea – like increasing stretches of barbed wire, Korean War murals and a captured submarine.

Seaside bike trail on the East Coast, South Korea

I sincerely recommend both these routes for their contrast and variety. So if you’re interested in something different, read on for my own experience.

Read More: Cycling the Korean East Coast Trail

The routes

Use these routes as a rough guide to help make your own. You do you! Give and take, I covered around 80km a day with light luggage, and chose these routes based on what I felt was the most interesting and realistic in the 3-week timeframe.

Cycling the Seomjingang Trail & Namhae Island

~300km

~2,600m

Download GPX Route

Cycling the Korean East Coast Trail

~430km

~3,500m

Download GPX Route

Tips for bike touring South Korea

If you’re used to touring in Europe and don’t speak Korean, you’ll likely find it more challenging navigating the country and even doing the simple things like ordering food or finding a hotel. I find that’s a wonderful aspect of cycling adventures and with the help of these tips, you’ll be just fine.

Language Barrier & Communication

Korean Language Barrier

Useful Apps: Google Translate and Naver Papago

 

Language barrier is very much a thing in Korea. Given its interconnectedness with ‘The West’, it’s surprising that most people especially outside of Seoul speak close to zero English, or are at least shy to apply what they learned at school. So I recommend picking up a few basic phrases, and definitely get Google Translate app which you can point at signs and menus to get an idea of what’s going on. I’d also get Naver Papago which has a similar purpose but I found works best for speaking into in order to translate conversations in real-time.

You could also try learn Hangul, the ingenious Korean alphabet (it’s surprisingly easy), but then again you still won’t know what most of the words you can now read actually mean.

Navigation

Useful Apps: Naver Maps and KakaoMap

 

Google Maps isn’t great in Korea as it’s mostly just used by foreigners. Google is dominated by Naver and so Koreans use local apps. Of which I’d suggest Naver Maps and KakaoMap for navigation.

Both have pretty good bicycle route suggestions which I found useful throughout. You’re able to search in English although the English-language capabilities in both apps were still limited at the time of writing. You’ll get the hang of it.

Accommodation in Korea

Useful Apps: Agoda

 

Motels hands-down offer the best value-for-money for your bike touring needs, often as low as £20 (€25) per night. Traditionally reputed as love motels for romantic ‘encounters’ (you can often get a room per hour as well as per night), they’re everywhere in Korea. Although quality varies wildly, for a decent price you usually get all the comforts, an ensuite, a TV, a fridge with some freebies and sometimes even a computer (motel rooms are also used by revising students).

Best of all, they don’t usually require booking in advance (probably outside of national holiday weekends), so you can just turn up.

If you like the security of a booked place, there are local apps which show you the biggest variety of motels, guesthouses and hotels in the area. However they don’t have an English option so I quickly gave up on the idea. Instead I used Agoda, which has a wider spread of options than Booking.com and Airbnb in Korea. And it’s in English so easy to book (which I usually did on the day).

For a very local experience, try the traditional Korean hanok room – essentially a thin mattress on a heated floor. Personally I wasn’t a fan, having gained a sore neck for the next two days. But you should just for yourself

If you plan on camping, the country has an impressive amount of official organised campsites (found on the Naver / KakaoMap apps), and in the most rural parts you should be fine with finding wild camping spots, if you’re discreet enough and out of the way.

Bicycles & Public Transport

Bike on Korean Intercity Bus

Buses are your best friend for getting around Korea with a bicycle. You can place assembled bikes in the luggage storage and there’s usually plenty of space. Of course there’s a small risk of damage especially if you get one of the Schumacher-esque bus drivers. But my carbon frame road bike survived 4 intercity journeys with barely a scratch, so you should be OK if you place it carefully.

The Intercity and Express bus network together serves pretty much the entire country so you can reach even the small towns in the peripherals.

Booking can usually be done on the day at the station (booths and machines, latter were easier as you’re guaranteed able to choose ‘English’. However as I painfully learned if you’re getting a bus during weekends or public holidays, the seats may be sold out. That’s how I ended up waiting around Seoul for 4 odd hours until the next available space.

At the time of writing, you can’t book online without a Korean card, but Bustago and Kobus are good websites for bus info. You can book without much hassle in the bus terminal machines.

Some trains also take non-folded bikes, but these rules seemed fairly convoluted and eligible routes limited, so I stayed away from that.

Bringing Your Bike to Korea

While renting is always an option in the bigger cities, the idea of having your own bike especially for longer tours makes a lot of sense.

Flying into Seoul with Korean Air, I had no issues with the semi-hard bike bag (Scicon Aerocomfort), in fact it was counted as my free luggage allowance rather than paying extra. Airport express buses will happily fit your bike, as will some of the taxis.

Paying in South Korea

Many establishments take cards, including foreign cards and the likes of Revolut or Monzo. But you should always carry some cash, especially if you plan on staying in some of the more traditional family-run motels that often won’t take cards.

ATMs are widely available even in the smaller towns – you’ll often find one in or near one of the national convenience store chains.

You’ll run into problems on some Korean websites that only take Korean cards – like the bus ticket booking sites I’ve listed above. For this you either need local help – motel staff were very willing to help me out with bus tickets on both occasions I asked.

Useful Tip: Tmoney Card

Especially if you plan on spending some time in large cities like Seoul or Busan, the Tmoney Card is a handy top-up card that you can use to pay for (and get a discount on) a wide range of public transport or small purchases in convenience stores. You can get one at the airport or chains like 7-eleven, GS25 and CU. Upon leaving the country, you can leave any unused

Food in South Korea

One of the many aspects that make South Korea an excellent bike touring destination is both its excellent cuisine and the ease of finding food on the go.

Restaurants

Most restaurants are affordable and of a decent to excellent quality. In the 3 weeks of travels, I’ve not had a single bad experience.

If you don’t like spicy though – watch out. Koreans love the punchy Gochujang sauce and kimchi, and many dishes feature a nice kick. The classic go-to across the country is bibimbap – often with local variations depending on the region. Seaside towns will usually serve up fresh seafood.

Most restaurants outside of the big cities won’t list items in English, so unless you fancy Korean roulette I recommend Google Lens to get a sense of what’s on offer. I say get a sense – because often the direct translation won’t give much away and is just as likely to confuse you even more.

Once you order the dish, you’ll get an orchestra of accompaniments – always a bowl of rice, kimchi and some form of seaweed, and the rest depending on the place. So don’t worry, you’ll end up well fed.

Korean BBQ is another must-try experience, although traditionally being a group experience, you’ll struggle to find one that will serve up a solo portion.

If you prefer Western food, you’ll find bakeries, cafes or pizza restaurants especially in the bigger towns. A local alternative you’ll probably love is the famous Korean fried chicken. Available in multiple flavours, it’s another crowd pleaser although I often wondered just how much sugar goes in some of the flavours.

If you fancy something more adventurous, head to the food markets. You might come across the tiny raw octopi, served still wriggling around on your plate. Nope, they’re not alive (although you can find that dish too) – it’s just the muscles reacting to the seasoning. Still, not everyone’s plate.

On-the-go food & snacks
Korean convenience store lunch / bento box
Typical convenience store meal stop

For quick on-the-go food and getting some breakfast to fuel the next day, convenience stores are a real savior. The offering caters well to the calorie-heavy needs of a hungry cyclist. Although packed with sodium, I found the local bento boxes ideal for a quick meal. Kimbaps (Korean sushi rolls), onigiri (those sushi triangles), corn dogs, ready-to-eat soft boiled eggs and a huge variety of noodles add to the vast on-the-go fuel range. All convenience stores have microwaves.

Korean Bike Passports

For a small fee, you can get a special cycling passport. No, you don’t need a passport to access Korean bike paths – it’s essentially a stampbook for the official bike trails, and along the journey you’ll find red booths (that sort of look like the classic British phone booth) with stamps specific to that checkpoint.

Why get one? It adds an element of gamification to your route, and the sense of completion once you’ve finished a trail and even as you reach each checkpoint. (And a place for a brief respite from the rain and wind if you’re unlucky with the weather gods). But more importantly, it’s a nice and unique souvenir to remember the trip by.

Korean Passport Stamp Booth

Those that complete certain bike trails (or all of the big ones) can even apply for an official certificate and even a medal, if you want to take it a step further.

Where to get a Korean bike passport

You can get the bike passports in one of the official manned certification centers. If you’re taking the East Coast or Seomjingang trails, your best bet is to go to one of the centers in Seoul or Busan that mark the end points of the Four Rivers Bike Trail.

There is a handy list of checkpoints and certification centers here.

The passport costs around 4,500 Won and come with a handy map of the official trails and checkpoints.

Cultural Etiquette

The biggest faux pas to beware of is not taking shoes off before you enter a place – especially someone’s home or a hotel room. Something that took me a few days of getting used to. There is a special mini-porch area for shoes between the corridor and the room itself, and that’s where you leave the shoes. Room slippers are always provided, and on top of that you get separate bathroom slippers. A bit of a faff if you ask me, but when in Rome..

In restaurants, you can generally keep your shoes on, unless it’s the type of place where you eat sitting on the floor.

In terms of other things, you’ll generally get away not following them being a tourist. But if you want to follow the etiquette, use both hands to take and give money, food etc. Don’t leave chopsticks stuck upright in your dish.

Oh, and don’t throw toilet paper in the toilet – use the bins provided. It’s one of those retro plumbing countries.

Best Season to Visit South Korea

hidden gem travel destinations

Spring and autumn. The country has distinct climates, so winters are actually cold and summers get hot and stuffy with plenty of rainfalls.

I’d say September-October and May are the best months – great weather and lower chance of high air pollution (yellow dust pollution tends to peak in the first months of the year). If you opt for March or early April, you might catch the cherry blossom (alas, coming in late April I missed it by a couple weeks). If you go for October, you’ll catch the colourful autumn leaves.

That said, you’re not guaranteed perfect weather in these transitional seasons. Having started the tour at the end of April, I got ⅔ beautiful sunny days and a hefty portion of soggy stormy days – the worst day dropping to a chilly and windy daytime +10C. So be sure to get your waterproofs sorted.

Is Korea Expensive?

South Korea is moderate on the cost-of-visiting scale – far from cheap if you compare to Southeast Asia or Latin America, but not as expensive as much of Western Europe.

Motels are generally fairly cheap – you can often find a room for around €25. Intercity buses are more than affordable, and as far as food goes there are plenty of great value local restaurants and the relatively cheap convenience store food.

Is Korea Safe for Bike Touring?

Korean East Coast Trail through a fishing village

Yes. In terms of road safety, the majority of official trails are either separate from the road or use dedicated bike trails. However even on the public roads, I haven’t come across any hairy near-misses. You can often make use of hard shoulders, and most drivers are bike-aware and patient, bar the odd aggressive bus driver.

Riding in big cities is often less pleasant unless you use the dedicated paths. Cycling through parts of Busan, for instance, felt chaotic and not very bike-friendly, something I’m sure will gradually change over the years. Naver and KakaoMap will tend to route you through the bike-friendly paths or pedestrian pavements.

Unlike some other countries, you’re very unlikely to be chased by dogs in Korea.

In terms of crime, there’s very little to worry about – Korea enjoys low crime levels, I certainly felt safer leaving my bike unattended than I did anywhere in Europe.

The only remaining health issue is air pollution – at times it can get pretty bad when the yellow dust sticks around. You can’t predict it entirely, but the best you can do is to avoid the early months where it’s typically worst.

More Resources

This post isn’t the definitive guide to touring South Korea – it’s more to share my experiences and hopefully inspire you to a bike tour of your own. For a much more comprehensive resource to cycling Korea, I recommend Koreabybike. He charges a small fee for full access to his fine work but it’s easily worth it as it was extremely useful in helping me plan and navigate this wonderful country.

You can also check out the Korea Cycling Community Facebook group – lots of useful info on there about touring Korea and helpful members.

Sunset over Seoraksan National Park, Korea
Sunset over Seoraksan mountains

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Have questions about bicycle touring South Korea? Use the comment section and I’ll do my best to help.

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