Just south of Seoul, the city of Suwon is the only remaining walled city in the country. A trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas is a sobering reminder that the country remains on a war footing, but also gives visitors a sense of the depth of hopes for the eventual reunification of the peninsula.
Other places are noted for culture and natural beauty. Chuncheon is a lovely resort town in the mountainous Gangwon province that boasts fantastic food and scenery and is newly connected to the Seoul metropolitan rail network.
Ganghwa-do (Ganghwa Island), off the west coast, was where many of the country’s early encounters with foreign powers took place, a legacy that lives on in its fortresses and memorial sites.
The town of Icheon, southeast of Seoul, is the current center of Korea’s storied ceramics tradition, full of artists who continue to apply ancient techniques to their exquisite creations.
Those looking for sheer entertainment or traveling with children may enjoy an excursion to the suburb of Yongin, which is very much a typical Korean new town but is also where Everland, South Korea’s largest theme park, and the Korean Folk Village are located.
Whatever destinations you choose, leaving Seoul will give you a better look at rural Korea—which with its gently arcing mountains, forested valleys, and lush rice fields can be surprisingly scenic, even a short distance from the big city. It will also confirm that (despite what many locals might think) there is life, leisure opportunities, and good food to be had outside the capital.
Planning Your Time
If you only have a single day to spare, visit the DMZ—a journey to what is essentially the front line of a still-active conflict can seem a tad morbid, but it’s one of the last remaining Cold War flashpoints and a destination that’s truly like no other on Earth. It’s also anyone’s guess how much longer it will be around.
If you’re faced with a tight schedule you could also feasibly cram a visit to Suwon’s fortress and Yongin’s major attractions—the Everland amusement park and Korean Folk Village—into a single day, though you wouldn’t be able to linger long at any one destination.
Incheon is also an easy day trip but should probably be the first choice only of those with an interest in colonial-era or Korean War history—or, in the summertime, those who are desperately searching for the nearest decent beach.
For those with more time, it’s a toss-up between Ganghwa-do and Chuncheon—both boast lovely scenery, tempting culinary specialties, and mountains, temples and monuments to explore. They’re also both close enough to Seoul that an early morning start would allow you to take in a few major sites at either and return to the capital the same night, though an overnight stay is highly recommended and indeed necessary to see the best of what either has to offer.
Art buffs may want to forgo all these destinations and make a beeline for Icheon, which may also merit a stay of over a day if you hope to see a several artists at work or make some considered ceramics purchases.
Incheon, Yongin, Suwon, and Chuncheon are connected to the Seoul metropolitan rail network and thus a breeze to get to and from regardless of road conditions. Ganghwa-do and Icheon are accessible only by express buses, which are usually prompt and comfortable but can be held up by weekend or rush-hour traffic.
If possible try to avoid visiting any of these destinations on the weekends or public holidays, when they’re packed with escapees from the city and heavy traffic congestion on the roads leading to and from Seoul is all too common.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Seoul.