This is the ultimate K-drama watch-list — Only the best of the best have it to the top 20 shows you absolutely need to watch before you press play on anything else.
How did I select these entries? I’ve spared no effort and taken quite a few criteria into consideration, including viewership ratings, popularity, plot and of course, my own due diligence! (From one ardent K-drama fan to another… you’re going to love this!)
Now I’m sure you’ve already watched a few of the shows I’m going to talk about. But I bet just reading about them may make you consider binging them a second time.
Here are the top 20 K-dramas everyone needs to watch:
1Crash Landing on You (2019-20)
Cast – Son Ye-jin, Hyun-bin, Seo Ji-hye and Kim Jung-hyun
Plot: Yoon Se-ri is a South Korean heiress and businesswoman who accidentally crosses over the border while paragliding and lands into North Korea, right into the arms of soldier Ri Jeong-hyeok (No, I’m not kidding — This scene happens word for word!)
Jeong-hyeok must find a way to get Se-ri back to South Korea safely, lest they’re both discovered and killed.
The show has been applauded not just for its highly engaging romance and action, but also for the way it handles North Korea’s depiction. This is worth investing your time and tears in for sure!
2The World of the Married (2020)
Cast – Kim Hee-ae, Park Hae-joon and Han So-hee.
Plot: Ji Sun-woo’s perfect life is turned upside when she finds out that her husband has been having an affair and all her friends have been covering up. As a successful, independent doctor, she has enough money to exact revenge… But will she?
Emotions and tensions run high in this show, which is also sits at #1 in the list of most-watched K-dramas of all time! It really makes your heart ache with pain as it navigates how complicated it is to be betrayed by the person you love the most.
3Reply 1988 (2015-16)
Cast – Hyeri, Ryoo Jeon-yeol, Ko Gyung-pyo, Park Bo-gum and Lee Dong-hwi
Plot: This slice of life K-drama is about five childhood friends and a few specific events that happen in 1988, which defines their lives.
Like the show’s usual approach, the story is told both in the present and past, with the present timeline providing a few mysteries that are solved through the past’s memories.
Reply 1988 is the third installment of the Reply series following Reply 1997 and Reply 1994. Typically these years are chosen because of their historic significance in Korea.
Cast – Kim Go-eun, Gong Yoo, Lee Dong-wook and Yoo In-na.
Plot: Kim Shin was a military general from the Goryeo Dynasty who was punished by the deities to live as a Dokkaebi (a Korean folklore creature known as “Goblin”) for all eternity.
He can only meet his timely demise when his destined bride Ji Eun-tak pulls out the invisible sword lodged in his abdomen that will kill him. If she doesn’t, she will die in his stead.
This is an epic tale of love and sacrifice curated by destiny and those who dare to defy it.
(Have I watched this K-drama over six times? No comment.)
5Stranger (AKA Secret Forest) (2017)
Cast – Cho Seung-woo, Bae Doona.
Plot: As a kid, Hwang Si-mok undergoes a brian surgery that causes him to lack emotion. As an adult, he works as a cold, lonely prosecutor, one of the only virtuous ones who does not accept bribes.
He crosses paths with police lieutenant Han Yeo-jin, with whom he has to solve a murder that could uncover just how vastly corrupted the Prosecutor’s Office is.
The plot is dark and compelling which successfully transitioned into a second season with one of the highest viewership ratings.
6Hospital Playlist (Season 1 & 2) (2020-21)
Cast – Jo Jung-suk, Yoo Yeon-seok, Jung Kyung-ho, Kim Dae-myung and Jeon Mi-do.
Plot: All about the life and times of five doctors (and best friends) at Yulje Medical Center who tackle both tough medical cases and life’s curveballs, one song at a time.
What I love about this show is how it really humanizes healthcare workers with insights into their personal life and interactions at work. Bonus: If you love discovering new music, there’s no better K-drama for it!
7Sky Castle (2018 – 19)
Cast – Yum Jung-ah, Lee Tae-ran, Yoon Se-ah, Oh Na-ra and Kim Seo-hyung
Plot: This is a satirical series about how South Korea’s elite pursue success relentlessly, even at the cost of destroying their own families.
Living in a residential area called “SKY Castle,” the irony is how the families try to portray their lives as an elusive shiny castle despite their actual relationships being frail and dysfunctional.
Since a big focus of the show is on Korea’s competitive education system, SKY is also a play on the acronym used for the country’s three most prestigious (and hard to get into universities): Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.
8Mr Queen (2020)
Cast – Shin Hye-sun and Kim Jung-hyun.
Plot: I have to begin by saying this is one of the best gender swaps done. Jang Bong-hwan is a chef who works in the current-day Blue House. Suddenly, his spirit is transported back in time into the body of Queen Cheorin.
There, he starts figuring out that well-liked and easy-going King Cheoljong is not all who he seems to be.
I cannot tell you how fun it was to see a Joseon queen who’s meant to be conducting herself with grace and propriety, behave with the airs of a 21st century man!
9Itaewon Class (2020)
Cast – Park Seo-joon, Kim Da-mi, Yoo Jae-myung and Kwon Nara
Plot: Sae-ro-yi is put into jail for assaulting Jang Geun-won, the son of Jangga (Food) Group, who killed his father.
He later also discoveres that Jangga was using his father’s recipe for their successful products without giving him any credit or compensation.
After Sae-ro-yi gets out of jail, he chalks out a “revenge” plan that is very reflective of his values and noble demeanor — Getting Jangga Group out of business by having the most successful restaurant in Itaewon. My, what an empowering story this turns out to be!
10True Beauty (2020)
Cast – Moon Ga-young, Cha Eun-woo, Hwang In-yeop and Park Yoo-na.
Plot: Im Ju-kyung is bullied for her appearances because of which she has to transfer schools. Before enrolling into her new school, she starts learning how to use make-up to cover up her “ugly” features.
This proves to be monumental since her new looks quite literally make her the “goddess” of her new school. Now she had to juggle between friends, romances and personal insecurities, lest she is once against outed as the ugly duckling.
You may or may not know this, but quite a few K-dramas are based on webtoons, which are popularly consumed in Korea.
While the show doesn’t follow the webtoon dedicatedly, (which is a good thing because the webtoon goes places you don’t want to go) it is one of the best adaptions I’ve seen so far.
Look how uncanny the resemblance between the animated and live-version poster is!
11Hometown Cha Cha Cha (2021)
Cast – Kim Seon-ho, Shin Min-a and Lee Sang-yi.
Plot: Yoon Hye-jin decides to quit Seoul life due to the stressful work environment and opens up her own dental practice in the picturesque town of Gongjin. What she doesn’t foresee is that she may not get along with Gongjin’s residents.
She also clashes with Chief Hong Du-sik, an overskilled handyman with a secretive past. But whatever differences they have among themselves, love and healing is right around the corner to patch them up!
12Mr Sunshine (2018)
Cast – Lee Byung-hun, Kim Tae-ri, Yoo Yeon-seok, Kim Min-jung and Byun Yo-han.
Plot: Eugene Choi (Korean name Yoo-jin) was born into slavery in Joseon (modern-day Korea) and escapes in 1971 via the Korean expedition to the United States.
After training as a US Marine Corps officer, he is stationed back in Joseon. Here he falls in love with Go Ae-shin who is part of the Righteous Army fighting for Joseon’s freedom against the approaching Japanese annexation.
A charged love story in the middle of absolute political turmoil, Mr Sunshine is the sixth highest-rated K-drama of all time.
13The Lady in Dignity (2017)
Cast – Kim Hee-sun, Kim Sun-a, Jung Sang-hoon, Lee Tae-im and Lee Ki-woo.
Plot: This story is about the elegant Woo Ah-jin, who lives in Cheongdam-dong, one of Seoul’s most affluent neighborhoods. Thank to her marriage with a “chaebol,” her life is minted with luxury.
On the onset of her husband’s betrayal, an unfazed, mysterious Park Bok-ja walks in as a caretaker to Ah-jin’s father-in-law. But Boj-ja’s ulterior motives change Ah-jin life for the worse.
This is highly melodramatic show that depicts the mess created when the wealthy don’t get to do things their way.
14Hotel Del Luna (2019)
Cast – IU and Yeo Jin-goo
Plot: Jang Man-wol is the grumpy and avaricious guardian of Hotel Del Luna, the supernatural abode of souls who are contemplating moving into the afterlife. The duty of the hotel and staff is to ease their client’s journey.
As per tradition, the hotel’s manager should be a human and Gu Chan-sung finds himself appointed for the same. As he enters this strange, unpredictable world, he realizes that his ties with Man-wol run deeper.
No spoilers, but I really love how this show challenges the conventional notion of one true love/eternal love that is seen in most K-dramas.
15Memories of the Alhambra (2018)
Cast – Hyun Bin and Park Shin-hye.
Plot: Yoo Jin-woo is a CEO of an investment company that specializes in optical devices. He travels to Granada, Spain to meet the creator of an AR game, Jung Se-joo. Weirdly, Se-joo has gone missing.
Se-joo’s sister Hee-joo enlists Jin-woo’s help in finding her brother but the deeper they dig, the more lines between the real world and the AR world begin to blur. Memories of the Alhambra is a truly immersive experience you wouldn’t want to miss!
16Strong Woman Do Bong-soon (2017)
Cast – Park Bo-young, Park Hyun-shik and Ji Soo.
Plot: Do Bong-soon is born with superhuman strength that is only passed down in the women in her family. Although she keeps her powers secret, the rich bratty CEO Ahn Min-hyuk hires us as a bodyguard when he discovers it.
Together they train to control her powers and even try to take down an assailant who has been terrorizing the neighborhood. It’s time to meet the world’s cutest superhero, Bong-soon!
17Coffee Prince (2007)
Cast – Gong Yoo, Yoon Eun-hye, Lee Sun-kyun and Chae Jung-an
Plot: In order to avoid his family’s demands of getting married, Choi Han-kyul pretends to be gay. He hires guy-ish looking Go Eun-chan to be his boyfriend, not realizing that she is actually a girl.
Eun-chan has her own reason for staying mum — the quick cash that will provide her family financial security.
But it gets super conflicting when the two fall in love with each other, pushing Eun-chan to question if Han-kyul would still like her if she revealed she was a girl.
This was another K-drama that was ahead of its time when it came to the main character exploring their queerness.
18Law School (2021)
Cast – Kim Myung-min, Kim Bum, Ryu Hye-young and Lee Jung-eun.
Plot: While conducting a mock trial, the students of Hankuk University Law School discover that their professor has been murdered. The biggest suspect is the cold and stern prosecutor-turned-professor, Yang Jong-hoon.
This Whodunnit will really get you scratching your head, as you dive into the students and faculty’s lives and see that they each had a motive to commit murder.
A big shout-out to Kim Myung-min who will make you fall in love Professor Yang, irrespective of whether he is guilty or not.
19It’s Okay to Be Not Okay (2020)
Cast – Kim Soo-hyun, Seo Yea-ji and Oh Jung-se.
Plot: Due to witnessing his mother’s murder as a child, autistic Moon Sang-tae suffers from traumatic outbursts and an irrational fear of butterflies.
He is taken care of by his younger brother Gang-tae, who has to be ever-ready to move and take his brother to a new location when his condition gets bad.
In one such move, Gang-tae he meets children’s book author Ko Moon-young, who suffers from antisocial personality disorder.
Soon the three realize that their pasts overlap and their shared trauma may be the key to solving who killed the Moon brothers’ mother.
Quite a few scenes that broke me in this show were about how poorly the public reacted to Sang-tae’s autism, which is a sad reflection of what happens in real-life too.
20Squid Game (2021)
Cast – Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi and Kim Joo-ryoung.
Plot: Seong Gi-hun is a divorced father and indebted gambler with the worst tendencies. In an attempt to make back all the money he’s lost, he enters a survival contest where he can win big if he passes a series of children’s game. If he fails, he will be punished with death.
The show is ripe with ethical debates, a running commentary on capitalism and it’s crippling effects and character deaths that will feel like you’re losing a friend. No wonder this became Netflix’s most streamed show of all time!