There is quite simply nowhere on Earth like North Korea. Now on its third hereditary ruler, this nominally communist state has defied all expectations and survived the collapse of the Soviet Union to become a nuclear power. A visit to North Korea offers a glimpse of the world's most isolated nation, where the internet and much of the 21st century remain relatively unknown, and millions live their lives in the shadow of an all-encompassing personality cult.
The compromises required to travel here are significant. You’ll be accompanied by two state-employed guides at all times and hear a one-sided account of history while being bussed from sight to sight. Those who can’t accept this might be better off staying away – but those who can will undertake a fascinating journey into another, unsettling world.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout North Korea.
MonumentTower of the Juche Idea
This tower honours the North Korean philosophy of Juche and was unveiled to mark President Kim Il-sung's 70th birthday in 1982. Indeed, the tower is made up of 25,550 granite blocks – one for every day of Kim’s life until his 70th birthday. The tower stands at 170m and a trip to the top by lift (€5) is well worth it, providing a great view over the capital on a clear day.
MonumentMonument to the Foundation of the Workers' Party
This startlingly bombastic monument has starred on the cover of more books about North Korea than almost any other. The three hands portrayed represent the worker (holding a hammer), the peasant (holding a scythe) and the intellectual (holding a writing brush). It's an enjoyable visit, not least because you're in the middle of the city and curious locals often pass by.
MonumentMansudae Grand Monument
Every itinerary includes an homage to these vast bronze statues of the smiling Great Leader and Dear Leader, the latter in his trademark parka. The first statue was unveiled in 1972 to celebrate Kim Il-sung's 60th birthday, while the second one was added in 2012. The original statue was initially covered in gold leaf, but this was removed at the objection of the Chinese, who were effectively funding the North Korean economy, and today's scrubbed bronze prevailed.
SquareKim Il-sung Square
Pyongyang’s central square is where North Korea’s massive military parades normally take place. The plaza is ringed by austere-looking buildings: most impressive of these is the Grand People’s Study House, the country’s largest library. Other buildings on the square include the Korean National Art Gallery and the Korean Central History Museum. There’s a great view from the riverbank across the Taedong to the Tower of the Juche Idea.
Visiting the impressive Pyongyang metro is definitely a highlight of the capital. The network, which is made up of two lines, has a simultaneous function as a nuclear bunker in the event of a long-anticipated American invasion. Stations are deep below ground and you can even see blast doors that will close if Pyongyang ever comes under nuclear bombardment.
MuseumVictorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Perhaps the most interesting museum in Pyongyang, this mouthful of an institution opened its current home in 2013 to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. Outside you'll see war-damaged tanks, weapons and aircraft used by both sides in the conflict, while inside there are dozens of exhibits and a 360-degree diorama of the Battle of Daejon. In the foyer look out for the statue of a young Kim Il-sung, where he looks exactly like his grandson.
Your guides will tell you proudly that the Triumphal Arch is 6m higher than its cousin in Paris, making it the largest of its kind in the world. The arch marks the site where Kim Il-sung first addressed the liberated Koreans after the end of Japanese occupation in 1945. The translation you hear will omit the fact that the Soviets liberated Pyongyang, not the partisans, who themselves gave full credit to the Soviets at the time.
Tours here usually take in this fascinating, modern market, the only one in the country tourists are allowed to visit and shop at. Sadly, however, photography is not allowed here at all, and this rule is strictly enforced. It's a shame, as the market is well stocked and interesting to walk around.
This impressive statue portrays Chollima, the Korean Pegasus. It’s an interesting example of how the North Korean state has incorporated traditional Korean myths into its cult. According to legend, Chollima could cover hundreds of kilometres a day and was untameable. Kim Il-sung appropriated the myth in the period of reconstruction following the Korean War – so that the zeal of the North Korean workers to rebuild their shattered nation and construct monuments to the leadership became known as ‘Chollima Speed’.
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in North Korea.