Time moves at a much slower clip here on Jeju-do. Blessed with tangerine groves, swaying palm trees, white sand beaches, and a verdant landscape, Korea's southernmost volcanic island has long been a favored holiday and honeymoon retreat for natives and neighbors. Still relatively unknown to Western travelers, Jeju's recent title as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature is bound to bring Jeju up on quite a few radars.
Given that Jeju-do is surrounded by water, it's no surprise that the region is known for its seafood dishes. The popular restaurants in town offer delicious varieties of local favorites but don't hesitate to venture out into the lesser-known parts of the island for an excellent sampling of the regional island fare.
Built of logs and stone and set on 5.95 hectares of land, this rustic establishment is also an herbal farm. The décor is inspired by The Little Prince and it definitely feels like dining in a fairy tale. Sit inside under a ceiling painted like the night sky and watch the chef at work in the open kitchen, or sit at a picnic table outside next to the stream. Owner and chef Han serves up classics such as bibimbap, sujaebi, and bbq pork cutlet with fresh mint and rosemary grown on the farm.
Owner Kamal B.K. serves up delicious traditional Indian cuisine in this second story restaurant located on a busy shopping street in Yeon-dong district. It's a dimly lit, cozy space, decorated with Indian tapestries on the walls and very popular with visitors looking for a break from Korean food. The family-size specials are a great deal and come with a green salad, dessert, and a scrumptious sweet curry. This mouth-watering menu is large, so choosing between the varieties of chicken, lamb and vegetarian dishes can be challenging. If it all gets too hot, the Indian cinnamon-milk tea helps temper the spice.
This vegetarian temple food restaurant serves dishes made with organic and seasonal ingredients, many of which, like seaweed porridge, a selection of spicy kimchi dishes, and rice wrapped in lotus leaves, are vegan-friendly. The rustic dining room is decorated with traditional Korean art and pottery. Diners can sit at one of the long, low wooden tables on colorful cushions or at a regular table if you prefer to stretch your legs. The restaurant is located in owner and Chef Kim Ae Ja's home, where she also grows many of the herbs that you'll find in your meal. Start off with a glass of shindari, a fermented rice drink and the perfect aperitif.
If you're hankering for a taste of home, head over to the very popular La Vie for what's rumored to be the best burger on the island. The friendly folks here also serve a nice selection of reasonably-priced sandwiches, like roast beef, spicy chicken, and avocado and cheddar. This cozy, laid-back, tiki-themed bar and cafe is where locals and expats go for a cold beer and good conversation. Occasional trivia contests and live music on Wednesday make La Vie a great place to spend an entertaining evening.
Sam Gwa Dul (Mountain and Fields)
This favorite hole-in-the wall offers some of the freshest, cheapest bimbimbab on the island. Order it cold or sizzling hot and served in the traditional stone kettle bowl; it comes with a choice of meat, including Jeju's renowned black pork, and fresh vegetables, rice, and a fried egg. Don't worry that the owner doesn't speak English, the giant menu has pictures. The dining room is set up like many typical Korean restaurants lining the streets of Jeju: low tables, simple furnishings, and a TV playing soap operas in the corner. The meal comes with the usual banchan (side dishes) and ends with soo cheong ga, a refreshing, ice-cold ginger and cinnamon drink.
This Western-style restaurant stands out on the strip of traditional Korean restaurants—look for the English signage and wooden patio (which stays open year-round). The menu runs the gamut from pastas and burgers to Thai food. The fresh, organic salads are especially delicious. The Plate also serves up a popular brunch from 10 to 2 on weekends. The breakfast burrito is excellent.
Located in Jeju Gonaechon, a quick 25 minute drive from Jeju Airport, Soopsori is nestled within a gorgeous pine grove and close to walking trails. Owner Ham Oak-keum serves up a full spectrum of traditional Korean delicacies but we recommend his outstanding samgyetang (chicken stuffed with rice and ginseng) and agujjim (spicy steamed monkfish). Order hanjeongsik (a tasting menu) and get a full meal and lots of small, savory side dishes.
The entrance of this friendly local BBQ joint is guarded by two hulking stone statues of heuk dwaeji (black pigs). Not surprisingly, black pig is also the star dish on the menu. Owner Park Sung Hun has been in business for 17 years and acquired quite a reputation for his impressive 6-foot-long skewers packed with locally sourced pork (from Park's sister's nearby farm), potatoes, peppers, squash, and onions. If you're not a big meat eater, don't fret—there are plenty of vegetarian side dishes, like broccoli topped with red chili peppers and sesame oil, to fill you up.
Olive9 Buffet Restaurant
This lively, family friendly restaurant has traditional Korean BBQ grills at every table plus a large buffet with a variety of marinated meats, spring rolls, salads, and desserts. At the sushi station in the back, chefs whip up a variety of hand rolls and sashimi. The large dining room is bright, colorful, and the big waitstaff is always at your service. There's also a children's play room equipped with video cameras that broadcast onto TV screens around the restaurant so parents can enjoy their meal and easily keep an eye on their kids at the same time.
The best Mexican food on the island with a delicious Asian twist: tacos, burritos, and enchiladas are made from flour tortillas, fresh Jeju veggies, and spicy Asian sauces. Every item on the menu is delicious and filling and classic Mexican ingredients, like pico de gallo, avocado, and jalapenos, lend authenticity. The dark-wooden floors, Mexican revolution-era posters, and a chalkboard covering one wall give Zapata's a laid-back, Mexican taco shop feel. The good selection of Mexican beers and tequilas can't be found anywhere else on the island. The service is usually slow, so plan for a leisurely meal.
Lodging on Jeju Island runs the gamut, from humble guesthouses to world-class luxury resorts with spas and private beaches.
Jeju Culture and Arts Center
Built in 1988, the Center has a massive 902-seat theater for major performances and two smaller theaters. There's also an exhibition hall that hosts a number of international events. Come to watch free movies, brass or wind ensembles, choir performances or pop in the check out a photography or amateur painting exhibit. Prices and show times vary so check the local listings.
Jeju NANTA Theater
The internationally acclaimed, non-verbal, musical performance of NANTA is the most famous show to come from Korea. Actors play cooks preparing a wedding banquet and use their kitchen utensils as musical instruments. The traditional Korean beats mixed with international music makes for a lively and entertaining performance. Stage actors mingle and get the audience involved as well.
Ideal weather and an exotic locale only add to Jeju Island's already hopping nightlife. Choose from a little bit of everything—concert hall performances, DJ dance fests, annual festivals, and clubs. There's plenty to keep you entertained.
Located in the Si-cheong district, this trendy, bohemian hangout is where locals and expats go to listen to live acoustic music. Kick off the evening with one of their excellent whiskey coffees.
Ile de Vin
This cozy wine bar offers over 130 reasonably priced vintages from Chile, France, the US, Spain, Italy, Argentina, and New Zealand. There's also a small menu with pastas, salads, and cheese plates.
Some tricks and treats that the whole family will enjoy—this 2000 seat performance space hosts a live Chinese acrobatic circus featuring colorfully costumed acrobats, motorcycle stunt men, and kangaroo boxing. The most impressive acts are the aerial acrobatics and bicycle tricks; 12 people on one bicycle seems like an impossible feat but these acrobats make it look easy. The venue is a 10 minute cab ride from the airport.
Walking into Gecko's is like going home for a few hours: the dark wood furniture, pool table, and dart board are just a few elements that make it an authentic American-style bar. The local expats rave about the delicious Western food which is unlike anything else on the island. The bar offers a variety of beers on tap and an extensive list of shots, shooters, and cocktails. Come for a tasty lunch during the day or a cocktail and lively conversation at night. American top 40s play around the clock. Gecko's even offers free van service on Fridays and Saturdays to City Hall and Shin Jeju in Jeju City and Seogwipo.
Jeju Aroma Superdome
This flashy, four-story establishment hosts DJ spinning pop music and club hits from a raised platform at the center of a stage. Dance music intermissions feature K-pop lip-syncing and dancers. The nightly opening of the dome to reveal the night sky, synced with a laser show and confetti, is the highlight of the evening.
The energy picks up in this little bar around 11 when the tables get pushed aside and the entire space becomes a groovy dance floor. Local expats and visitors come to hear their favorite top 40s and drink Western-style cocktails and draft beers.
Korean's love board game cafés and the people of Jeju are no exception. Fun Café has stacks of board games from all over the world; there are classics like Scrabble and Monopoly, and more obscure games like It's a Dog's Life. The room is large, well-lit, and has big, comfy, albeit a tad drab, chairs and sofas. There's no sign in English outside so look for the Mr. Pizza building across from City Hall and go up to the fifth floor.
This no frills, dimly-lit basement bar is frequented by expats who come to play bar games, listen to classic rock, and chat with the friendly staff. Bar food is served alongside Western-style cocktails and beers on tap.
The exclusive shopping districts in Jeju City and Seogwipo are full of popular, brand name shops and funky boutiques. Souvenir stores and the traditional, outdoor markets are also integral parts of the Jeju shopping experience. Be aware that shopping on the Island is an expensive activity.
Shilla Duty Free Shop
Duty free shops are popular and located all over the island. The sprawling Shilla Duty Free Shop in the Yeon-dong district is the largest on the island and carries designer brand names like Louis Vuiton, Prada and a good selection of perfumes, cosmetics, handbags, and sunglasses.
Jeju Folk Arts Complex
This huge complex is basically a sprawling, open shop with all types of arts and crafts, as well as local products like honey, teas, hallabong chocolates, and citrus wine.
Conveniently located at the heart of downtown Jeju, Tap-dong is the largest shopping district on the island. Most shops stay open till 4am, so it's a great place to spend an evening. There are also a lot of restaurants, bars and theaters, as well as local vendors selling handicrafts on the street.
Jungang Underground Shopping Center
An underground labyrinth of boutiques, name-brand shops, skin-care stands, small restaurants, and ice cream stalls. Try to hit the sales as prices here are sometimes even more expensive than the above-ground shopping districts.
Yeon-Dong Shopping District
This pedestrian-only street is jam packed with funky boutiques, exclusive brand name shops, restaurants and Karaoke bars. It's decorated with sculptures and flowerpots, and is a happening spot on Saturday nights when stores stay open late. Locals also call this area Jewon.
Jeju City Five Day Market
The largest open-air market in Jeju has around 1,000 stalls, with everything from pet hedgehogs to shark fins. The five-day market is a staple for locals and a must-see cultural experience for visitors. The market is only open one out of every 5 days, on the 2nd, 7th, 12th, 17th, 22nd, and 27th of every month.
Seogwipo Olle Market
This large, indoor market holds 208 stalls filled with fresh agricultural products and home goods. A little more spacious and less crowded than the bigger markets in the north, the Olle Market is a relaxing shopping (and cultural) experience. The Market is located on olle walking trail #6, a nice place to stroll afterwards.
Dongmun Market Place
Open since 1945, Dongmun is the best place to go for a taste of the local foodstuffs, like black pork, tangerines, hairtail fish, and abalone. Located at the crossroads of several olle walking trails and next to the lively Tap-dong district, it's a great place to explore.
Packed with high school kids and lunchtime shoppers, Si-cheong is by far the liveliest shopping district on the island. Small shops and boutiques sell women's clothing at more affordable prices than the up-scale shopping centers of Tap-dong and Yeon-dong. Si-cheong is also known for its foreign restaurants: think Mexican, Italian, and Japanese. When shops close around 9, the area bars fill up.
A trusted brand in Korea, this seven-floor, discount department store houses a movie theater, a two-story supermarket, and a Korean and Western buffet, in addition to row upon row of clothing, sporting goods, toys, and housewares. These types of one-stop-shopping establishments are becoming the new norm in Korea and replacing traditional, open-air markets.
Seongsang Ilchubong (Sunrise Peak)
Formed from a volcano eruption, the 600 ft. high Sunrise Peak was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 and is the perfect place to enjoy breathtaking sunrises. The jagged rocks lining the outer rim of the crater are said to resemble a king's crown. Be aware that the climb to the top is steep and challenging.
This tiny island off the east coast is a 15 minute ferry ride away. Circle the island in only 30 minutes on a rented scooter, ATV, or golf cart and take in the scenic views and white sand beaches. Udo Island makes for a relaxing day trip but is also a great place to spend the night in a beachfront pension. Try to avoid visiting on national holidays and catch a ferry early in the morning to beat the crowds on weekends. The most convenient port to catch the ferry is Seongsan Port near Sunrise Peak. Check weather conditions as the ferry closes for rough sea.
Sanbanggul (Sanbang Cave)
This grotto carved into the side of Mt. Sanbang is a significant Buddhist shrine and important site for locals. The steep staircase climb is exhausting but well worth the effort for the panoramic ocean views. Once at the top, visitors can drink from the fresh mountain spring and make a donation to the life-sized Buddha statue. This is one of the most popular cultural sites in Jeju.
Marado Provincial Ocean Park
Eight miles off the coast of Jeju, this is the country's southernmost point. It's a tiny but stunning island, with steep cliffs, fantastical rock formations, lighthouses, and plenty of sea caves. You can comfortably stroll around the entire island in about an hour and a half. Ferries leave every hour on the half hour from Moseulpo Port. The trip takes 30 minutes. Check weather conditions as the ferry closes for rough sea.
Hallasan National Park
A long extinct volcano, Hallasan towers 6,397ft (1,950m) over the island. At its base are forests, fertile fields, tangerine groves, and quaint villages. The hike to the top is challenging but views of the crater lake on a clear day are spectacular. The five most popular hiking trails varying in length and difficulty. The Gwaneumsa course goes all the way to the crater and takes 10 hours. The easiest course, the one-hour Eoseungsaekngak, is a staircase leading to the top of a small oreum (parasitic volcano). Trails open and close at varying times depending on the weather; check local listings for updates. Beware of the strong winds and sudden change in temperature as altitude increases. Hallasan has camping sites, parking, a visitors center, and bathrooms.
Here is a botanical garden, zoo, and cultural experience all wrapped up in one. At this Jeju-themed park, visitors experience the exotic flora of Jeju while winding through a maze of greenhouses, orchards, and reptile enclosures. The walk-in bird sanctuary puts you face to face with peacocks and other exotic fowl. The water garden, traditional folk village, and bonsai and stone statue park represent the island's artistic heritage. There are even two small lava tubes guests can walk through. If your visit is short, Hallim Park is a great way to experience Jeju's many facets in just a few hours.
Jeju Love Land
Described as "a place where love oriented art and eroticism meet" this theme sculpture park provides some intriguing—albeit daring—insights into the art of love making. Given Korea's relative conservatism this venue may come as a surprise for some. Throughout the grounds are 140 large sculptures and monuments. This is strictly an adult activity, keep the kids at home.
Manjanggul Lava Cave
Designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, this cave was created many millennia ago when the island's volcano was still active. Manjanggul is the largest lava cave on the island and one of the longest lava tube systems in the world—it stretches out for 8 miles, though only the first half mile is open to the public. The path into the cave is well lit but it still feels dark and spooky. Manjanggul is part of the larger, 300,000-year-old Geomun Oreum lava tube system and is packed stalactites, stalagmites, and a lava column—it's a photographer's playground.
A popular attraction for tour groups and families during the day and a romantic stop for couples at night, the picturesque, 72-foot-high falls are surrounded by woods but still just a half mile walk down a paved path from the parking lot, so they're easily accessible. The area around the falls is known for its diverse plant life, migratory birds, and the water is home to marbled eel.
Seongeup Folklore Village
Go back in time and experience the traditional Jeju way of life in this preserved agricultural village. The thatched roof and lava rock wall homes have been passed down through the generations and locals still inhabit the 3,000 homes. Visitors gather here to watch villagers perform folk songs and listen to them speak in the Jeju dialect. Stop by the souvenir shop to pick up a harubang, the grandfather statue that has become the image of Jeju.
The seventy-two-feet-high Jeongbang Falls is the only waterfall in Asia that flows directly into the ocean. Though swimming is not recommended, visitors can wade out into the water; when the tide is low it's possible to get quite close to waterfall. On the rocks near the water is an excellent spot for a picnic lunch, or at the top of the cliffs where you can see another nearby waterfall (Sojeonbong) and take in surrounding views at the observatory. Be sure to wear durable, rubber-soled shoes as the rocks can be extremely slippery. Get here early to avoid the crowds.