Text and images by Liza Ilarde
[widgetkit id=”1630″ name=”Off the beaten track”]
Are you a K-drama fan who has visited South Korea several times, chasing after the photogenic locations where your favorite series are shot? Or are you a K-beauty addict obsessed with their innovative skin care and makeup? Then the next time you travel to Seoul, drive a couple hours further from the airport to places that are not overrun with tourists and are more frequented by the locals. A recent trip I took to Korea revealed that there is more to this country than what is currently trending on social media.
Korea has a rich culture and history, starting with dynasties ruled by emperors in the time before Jesus Christ. Modern history points to the Japanese occupation in the late 19th-early 20th century, the separation of North and South Korea in the 1940s, the war between the two states in the 1950s, and, most recently, that historic moment when Kim Jong Un became the first North Korean leader to cross the border, welcomed by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, and which many declared as the end of the conflict and a new era of peace.
I got to visit a few places in South Korea that are a bit off the beaten track and which displayed the country’s reverence for its history, culture, and tradition, as well as its openness to what’s new, high tech, and just plain fun.
Just a little over two hours away from Incheon International Airport by car, Gunsan is a coastal city in the North Jeolla Province (or Jeollabuk-do) that started out as a small fishing village and eventually became an important international trade port due to its strategic location.
History buffs should head straight for the complex they call the “modern history area,” where you’ll find a mix of contemporary architecture and old colonial-style buildings turned into museums. Your first stop should be the three-level Modern History Museum, which traces Gunsan’s beginnings as an old town up to the time the Japanese took over and developed it, mostly to export the high-quality rice grown by local farmers to Japan. This museum was recently chosen as one of the top five museums in Korea.
Other sites to visit are the former Customs Main Building, which displays some of the common items that have been smuggled in (as well as the bizarre ways they were smuggled in, like exotic birds inside plastic water bottles or gold nuggets swallowed and, err, passed); the Modern Architecture Exhibition Hall (formerly a bank), a gallery with architectural models, bank-related materials, and art; and the Railway Station, which is no longer operational and has been turned into a village with small shops selling souvenirs, local treats, and arts & crafts.
Imsil is a county in North Jeolla, where local cheese was first produced. The cheese is called, of course, Imsil cheese.
Korea is not known as a cheese-eating country and cheese was introduced only as recently as the late 1950s by a Belgian Catholic priest who came to and settled in Imsil. With just two goats, he started by making goat cheese, then later introduced the locals to camembert, gouda, and cheddar. The industry grew and today there is the 32-acre Imsil Cheese Theme Park, where you can learn all about—and eat—cheese. Kids will enjoy the pizza-making workshop in the experience center!
Jeonju, the capital of North Jeolla, was dubbed a Creative City of Gastronomy as part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network—it is, after all, the birthplace of bibimbap (in fact, the city hosts an annual Bibimbap Festival). Though part urban and part rural, we chose to tour the famous old city center, also known as Hanok Village, the largest in Korea, and a popular location for K-dramas and films.
A hanok is a traditional Korean home that was first designed and built in the 14th century during the Joseon Dynasty, which was founded in Jeonju. While locals still reside in the village, many of the hanok were converted into souvenir stores, street-food stalls, and shops that rent out hanbok, the traditional Korean dress. What a delight it was to see so many people (hardly any foreigners), walking around in their hanbok, taking selfies, and posing by the temples, gardens, and wooden houses.
Other interesting places to see in the area (all within walking distance) are the Jeondong Catholic Church, which was built on the spot where the first Catholic martyrs were executed in the 18th and 19th centuries; the Gyeonggijeon Shrine, where the only existing portrait of King Taejo (founder of the Joseon Dynasty) hangs; Nambu Market, where you can buy local goods and which turns into a night market every Friday and Saturday (don’t forget to visit the “youth mall” on the second floor, which features lots of arts & crafts by millennials); and the Jaman Mural Village, where residents painted their walls and fences with cute and colorful murals (total Instagram bait!).
Did you know that 70-80 percent of Korea is mountainous? Tourists are more familiar with the popular Mount Seorak, so not too many visit Mount Daedunsan, which may seem a little out of the way. It is really more frequented by locals, evident by the couples, families, and senior citizens we climbed with that day. And by climb, I don’t mean hiking to the top (its highest peak is 927 meters)!
If you aren’t that physically fit, not to worry—you first get on a cable car that travels for about six minutes. Once you get off, you go up countless steep steps to reach one peak and—surprise!—a 50-meter-long suspension bridge to cross to another peak! If you have a fear of heights, I won’t judge you for not crossing—I saw several people stop and hesitate to get on, and some who even turned back after a few steps! Well, the drop is 300 meters below, but the views are simply breathtaking! I can imagine what the surrounding forests look like in the fall with golden leaves, or in the winter covered in snow.
Before leaving the country, spend a couple of days in the capital if only to visit its newest tourist attraction: Seoul Sky, which is part of Lotte World Tower, Korea’s tallest and the world’s fifth tallest building. Located in the skyscraper’s 117th-123rd floors, the observatory (the world’s third highest) offers a panoramic view of the entire city and the surrounding mountain ranges. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and raining the day we visited, so the vista was limited and we were unable to step out to the open-air terrace on the 120th floor.
Don’t miss the transparent glass floor on the 118th floor, the souvenir shop on the 121st floor, and the lounge on the 123rd floor, where you can have a glass of wine or champagne while taking in the 500-meter-high view.
On your way back to Incheon International Airport, make a pitstop at Hyundai Premium Outlets, fashioned after those strip-mall fashion outlets in the US. I was impressed with its lineup of luxury labels like Gucci, Burberry, Lanvin, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Mulberry, as well as more mid-price brands like Brooks Brothers, Coach, Tommy Hilfiger, Club Monaco, and Zadig & Voltaire. Tip: Make sure you leave some room in your luggage for your shopping haul and don’t forget to collect your receipts to get your tax refund at the airport (it’s automated, so no need to show your purchases).