Jeonju (www.jeonju.go.kr), the provincial capital, is famous for being the birthplace of both the Joseon dynasty and bibimbap (rice, meat, egg and vegetables with a hot sauce). Centrally located, the city is the perfect base from which to explore Jeollabuk-do as it’s the hub for all the bus services.
Gwangju may look like any other city with its shop-filled central area, an attractive riverside, busy restaurants, pubs and bars – all encircled by apartment blocks – but within this everyday exterior resides the heart of an artist and the soul of a revolutionary.
Known as ‘the museum without walls’, Gyeongju holds more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, Buddhist statuary and the ruins of palaces, pleasure gardens and castles than any other place in South Korea. Tumuli (grass-covered burial mounds) are only the most conspicuous and accessible of the sights.
Amid the tangerine groves on the lower slopes of Hallasan sits touristy Seogwipo, Jejudo’s second-largest town. It’s much smaller and more laid-back than Jeju-si, and scuba diving and ballooning are available. The town centre (up a steep slope from the harbour) is chock-full of motels and hotels.
Daegu’s fascinating traditional-medicine market is its biggest tourist draw. Come here to see strange roots the size of human thighs, jars of honey-coloured liquids, baskets of flowers, dried leaves and medicinal herbs.
East of Jeju-si and 2.5 km off the coast, Majanggul in eastern Jejudo is worth visiting, if only to see the world's largest system of lava tube caves. On the eastern tip of Jejudo, Seongsan Ilchulbong includes Seongsan-ri, or Fortress Mountain Village, at the foot of now extinct volcano Ilchubong.
The sprawling port city of Mokpo is the end of the line for train and expressway traffic, and a starting point for sea voyages to Jejudo and the western islands of Dadohae Haesang National Park. Korea’s National Maritime Museum is appropriately located here, and the craggy peaks of Yudal Park rear up in the city centre and offer splendid sea, city and sunset views.
Daejeon is Korea’s science and technology capital, a transport hub and the gateway to the ginseng centre of Geumsan and to hiking trails in nearby Gyeryongsan National Park and Daedunsan Provincial Park in Jeollabuk-do. The new KTX bullet-train service has made Daejeon, 160km south of Seoul, into a suburb of the capital, since the journey there now takes less than an hour.
Jungmun Resort & Vicinity
A 25-minute bus ride west of Seogwipo is the tourist town, luxury resorts and surprisingly unspoilt beach at Jungmun, surrounded by tourist attractions and activities.
Famous for its ‘stamina producing’ ginseng, Ganghwado is still a rural island that seems oddly distant from the bustle and craziness of Seoul, despite the fact that it is less than a two-hour bus ride away. Egrets stalk through verdant rice fields, gulls chase french fries from the ferries and the pace of life is slow – boring even, but boring in the best of ways.
Come to Ulleungdo to get away from it all in the true sense – not the way the spa-resort brochures mean. The scenery is spectacular, offering vistas of spun-cotton clouds lazing over volcanic cliffsides, seabirds and fishing boats, quiet harbours dotted with piles of nets or buoys, and jagged coastline that could easily be from the set of Lord of the Rings.
The ‘City of Lakes’, proud birthplace of the scrumptious yet mouth-scalding dakgalbi (chicken, rice cakes and veggies cooked with spicy chilli paste), still retains the charm and quiet of a small town, despite its size. Four pretty artificial lakes surround the city (the provincial capital), making for beauty, nice bike rides and (in season) mosquitoes.
Gangneung is the largest city on the northeast coast of Korea and hosts an annual Dano Festival, held for the past 400 years. It is the gateway to Jeongdongjin beach, Odaesan National Park and Korea’s top ski resort, YongPyong. It’s also pretty in itself, with a lagoon, beach, ‘tofu town’ and more. The main tourist information centre (640 4414; www.gntour.go.
The port city of Yeosu is about halfway along Korea’s steep, island-pocked and deeply indented southern coast. By the time you reach Yeosu you will have seen comparable city centres, but its shoreline, peppered with cliffs, islands and peninsulas, is spectacular.
Heyri & Paju Book City
The whole area surrounding Andong, roughly in the middle of Gyeongsangbuk-do, is peaceful, rural and notable for having preserved much of its traditional character. Famous for its mackerel, its strong soju and its wooden masks, Andong makes a good base for exploring the numerous sights outside the city.