The life of a new K-drama addict can be overwhelming. Where do you even begin watching with a constant stream of new shows competing against older classics? When you start talking K-dramas with longtime viewers, how can you keep up with the conversation if you only know a handful of dramas from recent years? What if you want to beef up on your drama knowledge, but aren't sure where to start? Well, we're here to help with a beginner's course in some of the most famous classic K-dramas you'll want to check out to give you some background on how the Hallyu wave came to be.

Note: For this list, we're defining "classic" as anything at least 10 years old, premiering in or before 2005. We're looking at the ones from the early 2000s and before that really launched today's K-drama trends. This list is in chronological order.

1. Sandglass (1995)

Synopsis:

Starring Choi Min Soo and Park Sang Won

Often considered the first modern Korean drama, it charts a politically tumultuous period in Korean history from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Sandglass tells the tale of Tae Soo and Woo Suk, best friends despite their wildly different paths in life. After Tae Soo's father's past is revealed, he is rejected from military school and ends up fiercely loyal to the mob, while Woo Suk follows the righteous path and commits his life to social justice. Despite many odds, the two keep their friendship intact, until Woo Suk falls in love with Hye Rin, who falls for Tae Soo instead. While the trio struggles with their complicated situation, all three are affected by political upheaval, as rebellion shakes their world. Delving into a divisive and taboo period in Korean history, Sandglass gives voice to many Koreans who had suffered through the events of the 80s and early 90s, and opened the door for other projects to address these issues, such as "The Petal" and "Peppermint Candy." Romantic, historically relevant, and sophisticated, Sandglass is a masterful work of storytelling that sets the standard today's dramas still aspire to reach.

Why it's a classic:

It's difficult to overstate the cultural significance of this drama. Sandglass achieved some of the highest ratings of any Korean drama, ever, during its run, and it proved that shorter "trendy dramas" could be popular. This show had such a massive cultural impact that even now, if you watch a series with a flashback to the '90s, you often see the characters either watching or discussing Sandglass

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2. Autumn in My Heart (2000)

Synopsis:

Starring Song Seung Hun and Song Hye Gyo

Eun Soo (Song Hye Kyo) and Yoon Joon-Seo (Song Seung Hun) grow up the children of a wealthy professor and have an affectionate brother-sister relationship. When Eun Soo is hit by a truck one day and gets a blood transfusion, a terrible truth is revealed: she is not in fact related to Joon-Seo or his parents. Due to a mix-up by a nurse, she was switched at birth with the Yoon's real daughter, who has been raised in poverty by a single mother.

When the Yoon's real daughter discovers the truth, she insists that the two be switched back. Eun Soo and and Joon-Seo lose track of each other, and Eun Soo becomes a hotel receptionist while Joon-Seo becomes a successful artist. When next they meet, Joon-Seo's good friend Tae-Seok (Won Bin) is pursuing Eun Soo, and Joon-Seo has become engaged to Shin Yu Mi (Ha Na Na). Eun Soo and Joon-Seo have never forgotten each other however, and the powerful connection they forged in childhood continues to draw them together. They still see each other as siblings, however: can they overcome their own confusion, class differences, and the interference of loved ones to discover what they might have together?

Why it's a classic:

Autumn in My Heart was the first of Yoon Suk Ho's Four Seasons series, which sparked a new trend in Korean melodrama. All four of the seasonal love stories are classics, but what makes Autumn in My Heart particularly special (aside from being the first) is that it features early acting from some of Korea's biggest stars, including one of Won Bin's only drama roles before he moved over to film. It was also the highest-rated of the four dramas domestically, reaching over 46% ratings in Korea during its run.

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3. Winter Sonata (2002)

Synopsis:

Starring Bae Yong Jun and Choi Ji Woo

Winter Sonata is a deeply moving story that became one of the most popular Korean television series of all time. Bae Yong Joon stars as Joon Sang, the brilliant but introverted son of a famous musician who moves to rural Korea to start a new life with his troubled mother. Painfully withdrawn, Joon Sang gradually makes friends with Sang Hyuk and Yu Jin. Just as Yu Jin and Joon Sang begin to connect, an abrupt twist of fate cuts Joon Sang off from everything he loves, seemingly forever.

Why it's a classic:

Winter Sonata was a driving force in bringing the Hallyu wave abroad, starting with Japan. This series was so popular overseas that it aired twice in one year in Japan due to popular demand. Thirteen years later, Japanese fans still love Bae Yong Jun so much that hundreds of fans flew to Korea this year in hopes of catching a glimpse of him on his wedding day!

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4. All In (2003)

Synopsis:

Starring Lee Byung Hun and Ji Sung

Discover what happens when an ex-convict and an ex-nun fall in love in this dark and brooding tale of hardship and romance based on the true-to-life tale of professional poker player Jimmy Cha. Raised by his uncle, a professional gambler, Kim In Ha grows up learning how to cheat at cards. As a teenager, he falls in love with Min Soo Yeon, whose father owed money to the wrong people and got himself killed. In an attempt at revenge, In Ha sets fire to the gangsters' warehouse and unintentionally kills someone, landing him in jail for arson and manslaughter at the age of eighteen. With nowhere to turn, Soo Yeon is taken in by the church, where she sets her sights on becoming a nun. Seven years later, In Ha is released and manages to get a job at a high-end casino where he runs into none other than Soo Yeon, who has left the church to become a casino dealer. Hopelessly entangled with the mob, the casino underworld, and his own dark history, In Ha will have to go " all in " and risk everything he has to keep the woman he loves at his side.

Why it's a classic:

Another ratings hit, All In won a slew of awards in 2003, including Daesang and Best Actor at the Baeksang Arts Awards. The series was so popular, in fact, that after the original filming location on Jeju was destroyed in a hurricane, it was rebuilt as the "All In House," where tourists can relive their favorite scenes. 

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5. Stairway to Heaven (2003)


Synopsis:

Starring Kwon Sang Woo and Choi Ji Woo

Epic romance and K-drama classic Stairway to Heaven has achieved popularity both at home and abroad. Childhood sweethearts Jung Suh and Song Ju are torn apart by disruptions in their lives and families. When Jung Suh's father remarries, she gains a new family and a bevy of complications. With a new stepmother, an introverted stepbrother who is falling for her, and an envious stepsister poised to ruin her life, Jung Suh has her hands full while Song Ju studies overseas. Years later, tragedy strikes when a car accident causes Jung Suh to lose her memory. She starts a new life without her childhood love to hold her back, but when fate brings Song Ju back into her life, will she be able to remember his love?

Why it's a classic:

If you really want to see what Korean melodramas are all about, this is a great place to start. The plot may seem all kinds of crazy and over-the-top by today's standards, but you have to understand that these kinds of dramas essentially had one purpose: to make you cry your face off. Mission accomplished.

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6. Jewel in the Palace (2003-2004)

Synopsis:

Starring Lee Young Ae and Ji Jin Hee

Jewel In the Palace is arguably the first successful historical feminist drama, retelling Jang Geum's rice-to-riches story during the Chosun Dynasty 500 years ago. Jewel is the real story of Jang Geum, a young girl who is the first woman to become the King's supreme royal physician in a male-dominated society. Behind her child-like eyes lies an ambitious working girl with a 21st century mindset. See how Jang Geum goes from being a virtually abandoned child to becoming the King's doctor. This unforgettable drama of epic proportions tells the touching and tear-jerking story of a true underdog.

Why it's a classic:

Koreans love sageuks (historical dramas), but if you're only going to remember one of them, it should be this one. Not only was it a smash hit in Korea, but it was also extremely popular across Asia, and it is often viewed as the gold standard for historical dramas. If you want to know why Lee Young Ae was able to take a 12-year hiatus from acting and still land one of the highest salaries for her upcoming series Saimdang: The Herstory, this drama is your answer.

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7. What Happened in Bali (2004)


Starring Ha Ji WonSo Ji Sub, and Jo In Sung

Lee Soo Jung is scraping by as a tour guide in Bali, supporting herself and her deadbeat older brother. When she's hired as tour guide to an unusual threesome, her life changes forever. Kang In Wook is poor but ambitious, climbing the ranks of the corporate world. His college girlfriend Choi Young Joo has broken up with him in order to marry a rich man instead. Immediately having doubts about her decision, she decides to have one last hurrah with her ex-boyfriend before getting married, in the form of a trip to Bali. To their surprise, Young Joo's fiance, disaffected heir Jung Jae Min, also shows up to torment the two out of boredom. The four learn more about each other than they bargained for on the course of the tour. When they all return to Seoul for various reasons, they find themselves thrown together again, and confusion surrounding love and money soon fills their lives. Three powerhouse stars come together for this psychologically gripping and complex drama that you won't stop watching.

Why it's a classic:

I don't know that I can recommend that everyone watch this series, but I definitely think it's a drama you should know. What Happened in Bali is easily one of the most controversial K-dramas out there, due in no small part to the drama's shocking ending (which I won't spoil here). The series is extremely polarizing, but whether you hate it or love it, it's a definite conversation-starter for longtime K-drama fans. I don't usually recommend reading spoilers, but if you want to know what all the fuss is about without subjecting yourself to an entire series that might make you furious, I'm willing to look the other way while you head off to Wikipedia...

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8. Full House (2004)


Synopsis:

Starring Rain (Bi) and Song Hye Gyo

Han Ji Eun is a naive script writer who lives alone, until she gets swindled by her best friends into thinking she's won an all-inclusive trip to China. Once she's gone, they sell off her house for their own personal gain. On the plane, she meets Lee Young Jae, a hotshot actor in Korea. Once she realizes she is stuck in China with no friends or money, she is forced to go to Lee Young Jae for help getting a ticket back home, though when she finally gets back to Korea she finds that she has no home to return to. In a bizarre twist of fate, it turns out her old house is now in the hands of the man she met on the plane, and he's on the brink of proposing marriage to his best friend Kang Hye Won, but a media frenzy causes Young Jae to pretend he is with Ji Eun. Now Ji Eun can get her home back—if she promises to marry Young Jae for a year! Their professional relationship starts becoming personal when Young Jae finds himself caring more and more for the charming girl who always stays cheerful despite her many hardships.

Why it's a classic:

Most of this list has been pretty heavy so far, but once we hit the mid-2000s, we see an increasing number of lighter romcoms that really helped set the stage for the types of romcoms we see today. If I'm totally honest, this drama drove me a little batty at times, but it's such a great early example of so many K-drama tropes (fake relationship, forced roommates, etc.) that it's worth a watch. Plus, this was Rain's big drama break, so that's an added bonus.

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9. My Lovely Sam Soon (2005)


Synopsis:

Starring Kim Sun Ah and Hyun Bin

Brisk, endearing, and completely addictive, My Lovely Sam Soon was the runaway mega-hit of 2005. The show's popularity launched Kim Sun Ah to super-stardom and introduced Korean-American actor Daniel Henney. At 29, Kim Sam Soon's career and love life have hit a dead end. She is overweight, unmarried, stuck with an embarrassingly old-fashioned name, and has just lost her job and caught her boyfriend of three years cheating on her. Enter Hyun Jin Heon, the arrogant 27-year-old owner of a restaurant called Bon Appetit, who hires her to put her pastry-chef skills to work as the restaurant's chief baker. With Jin Heon's family breathing down his neck to get married, and Sam Soon desperately in need of money to save her family home, the two strike up a deal despite their volatile relationship. Sam Soon masquerades as Jin Heon's girlfriend and they begin to grow close, but things get complicated when Jin Heon's lost love mysteriously returns with her sights set on getting him back. Will Jin Heon be able to forget about her and learn to love Sam Soon for who she really is?

Why it's a classic:

This series was a runaway hit in 2005, and its popularity still holds strong today. This is an example of romcom done right, proving why Hyun Bin and Kim Sun Ah became such big stars. The series was an absolute beast during the 2005 awards season, rewarding all four main leads and the drama itself at the MBC Drama Awards and taking home the Daesang at the Baeksang Arts Awards as well.

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10. My Girl (2005)


Synopsis:

Starring Lee Dong Wook and Lee Da Hae

Gong Chan is the wealthy, unattached heir to a large company. Having lost both his parents, he is devoted to what remains of his family, particularly his ailing grandfather. After deciding to cut off his only daughter after disapproving of her marriage, the old man is plagued with guilt since the couple was killed soon after he lost touch. By chance, Gong Chan meets a woman who resembles his lost aunt and is inspired to use her to fulfill his grandfather's last wish. The woman, Yoo Rin is the daughter of a compulsive gambler and is constantly on the run, so when Gong Chan offers her this opportunity, she cannot afford to refuse. After Yoo Rin moves in with the family, Gong Chan finds himself drawn to her and a forbidden attraction springs up between them.

Why it's a classic:

If you watch My Girl after watching a lot of recent dramas, it may seem like a cliche-fest. Then you realize that this drama came out 5-10 years before those other shows, and you start to see the lasting impact that romantic comedies like this one had. This series gets my personal thanks for giving me massive Second Lead Syndrome with Lee Joon Ki, even though his 2005 haircut makes my eyes hurt just a litte. This one only barely makes the cut for the list, premiering in December 2005. Happy almost-anniversary, My Girl! 

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Okay, so that's just a little beginner's list to get your feet wet with some older dramas and help you get a sense of K-drama context.

These dramas all had lasting cultural impact, but of course there are many other fantastic older shows out there that are well worth a watch. Seasoned drama fans, what else would you recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments!