Jeju might be tiny, but it’s packed with things to do. Art museums, sculpture parks, spectacular waterfalls, hiking trails; even a submarine ride and a theme park dedicated to erotic love. Your biggest constraint is likely to be time. So what are the activities you absolutely can’t miss? Here are 10 things every visitor should do – and even better, most of them are free.
Jeju Island is crowned by Mount Hallasan, a dormant shield volcano and South Korea’s tallest mountain. At the top lies a crater lake named Baengnokdam – which translates to “White Deer Lake”, referencing an old legend wherein gods descended from heaven to ride white deer along its shore (in South Korean culture, white animals are considered sacred).
Two hiking trails lead to the summit: Seongpanak is the most popular trail, with easy inclines. Gwaneumsa has steeper paths and slightly more difficult terrain, but it’s also the most impressive in terms of views. During winter months, Hallasan is often capped with snow, and in spring its slopes are a riot of flowers. From the top, you can see all the way around the island and out to sea.
The best things in life are simple, and there’s no simpler joy than taking a bicycle ride with the sun on your face and the sea breeze in your hair. If you’re up for an adventure, you can circumnavigate the whole island (a journey of around 234 km, or 3-4 days’ cycle). If you’d prefer a shorter cycle, there are interesting routes all around the island. It’s best to book your bike in advance, as you can often get better deals – some bike shops will even deliver bicycles directly to your hotel or to the airport for you.
Black pork is one of Jeju’s most famous delicacies and best eaten sizzling hot from a barbecue grill. You’ll find black pork restaurants all over the island, but for some of the best, head to Donsadon in downtown Jeju City. While it’s a little pricier than other options (expect to pay around 20-30,000 won per person), it counts celebrities like Big Bang’s G-Dragon among its fans. Another bonus: whereas many other barbecue restaurants tend to leave diners in charge of their own barbecue, servers at Donsadon will help you grill the meat to perfection.
Hyeopjae Beach’s aesthetic credentials are well-established: its white sand shores have been used as a filming location for music videos (Big Bang’s “We Like to Party”; Soyou’s “The Blue Night of Jeju”) and TV dramas (Daejanggeum, or “Jewel in the Palace”). As one of Jeju’s prettiest beaches, it’s one of the island’s must-visit locations. Add to this Hyeopjae’s famously clear waters, and you have a perfect spot for paddling. Don’t forget to take a photo!
All of Seopjikoji is worth visiting. In spring and summer, this little spit of land is carpeted with golden canola flowers, and its dramatic lava rock cliffs are a spectacular sight year-round. Two elegant pieces of contemporary architecture float over the landscape – the Glass House, perched on the cliff itself, and the Yumin Art Museum, a gallery building with huge reflective panels which mirror the natural world around. But perhaps the most iconic structure here is Seopjikoji Lighthouse – a little white tower, perched on top of a steep hill. From the lighthouse, visitors also have fantastic views of the rest of Seopjikoji, as well as Seongsan Sunrise Peak.
You can’t visit South Korea without trying traditional street foods like tteokbokki (rice cakes in a spicy sauce), twigim (Korean tempura) and gimbap (rice and fillings rolled up with dried seaweed). Dongmun Market has all these, plus unique-to-Jeju treats like hallabong chocolates, black pork skewers and bingddeok (a thin buckwheat pancake filled with red beans or chopped radish). Dongmum opened in 1945, making it the oldest market still in operation today.
Looking for unique souvenirs? Look no further than Lee Jung Seop Art Street in Seogwipo. It’s named after Lee Jung Seob, a famous artist who fled to Jeju during the Korean War and painted many works here; the cottage where he lived with his family has been preserved, and is located just off Lee Jung Seop Street (look out for the garden towards the bottom of the hill). Today, many of Lee Jung Seop’s designs have been used to decorate the street, and it’s become a hub for arts and culture. At the weekends, you’ll find craftsmen selling their wares at temporary stalls, and the street is lined with creative businesses and independent shops all week round.
Every night, as dusk falls, hundreds of boats sail out from Jeju’s ports. Hung from bow to stern with rows of huge, powerful light bulbs, they settle far out to sea where they can attract squid. Scattered on the horizon, they’re one of Jeju’s most magical sights – like stars fallen from the sky.
One of the best places to see squid fishing boats is Tapdong Promenade, a long, mosaic-patterned walkway which runs through the heart of downtown Jeju City. Most of the boats leave from the harbour tucked away behind the row of restaurants; get there early enough, and you can see the lights in all their glory.
For a whistlestop tour of Jeju café culture, head to Aewol. Cafés clustered here run the gamut from cosy and traditional (Café Bomnal) to sleek and industrial (Café Monsant) – but they all share finely-honed design sensibilities, and westerly sea views perfect for sunset. Many of Aewol’s cafés are located within less than five minutes’ walk away from each other, but you can also head further afield to Factory Story – a hip hangout surrounded by street art – or explore souvenir shops along Aewollo 1-gil.
The best sunset view in Jeju isn’t on its west coast, however – it’s in Jeju City! Climb scenic Sarabong Oreum (a Jeju dialect word denoting the parasitic volcano cones which dot the island) for glorious views out over the harbour, city, and Mount Hallasan. As the sun sets, you’ll see the city light up and squid boats go out to sea. On its lower slopes, Sarabong Park has pretty walking trails and thick pine forest, plus a lighthouse.