A taste of the past in Jeonju, South Korea

The district of old hanok houses in Jeonju offers an atmospheric taste of South Korea’s past in this most modern of countries

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The district of old hanok houses in Jeonju offers an atmospheric taste of South Korea’s past in this most modern of countries

Time-warp in Jeonju

Hanok houses in South Korea

The sun kissed the woman’s cheeks. She turned to me with a sigh and indicated the splendid spectacle. “It’s a Mediterranean light, right?” She was being polite of course. It was as if to say, “Welcome to Korea! It’s not so different, is it?”

I nodded appreciatively, but we both knew that it – that lingering, sensual sunset – was pure, undiluted Korean. The kind of light that the peninsula enjoys from the hustle of capital Seoul in the north all the way down (nearly 500km) to the volcanic beaches on subtropical Jeju Island off the south-west coast.

I was midway between them, in Jeonju, gazing at a neighbourhood of traditional hanok dwellings that was spread around us, splashed with the evening glow. The light spilled across the low-slung swallowtail roofline, and streamed along alleyways and into courtyards. It was as sweet and smooth as the cup of makgeolli fermented rice wine in front of me.

From the fourth-floor roof terrace of the Lahan Hotel (one of the tallest structures in the ‘village’, and fortunately tucked away on its eastern fringe), the lamplight of Jeonju’s new town could just be made out. Located a kilometre or two west, between us and the dusky sun, the contemporary city has many attractions – tourists decamp after dark to Daga-dong district for hipster cafes and some distinctly retro eateries. But the focus of every visit to Jeonju is this quarter of 700 or more century-old hanok.

Hanok are traditional cottage-like dwellings, single storeyed mostly, sometimes with a courtyard, built in several styles depending on the status of the original occupants. Those farmers and merchants have moved on, and today many of Jeonju’s hanok are the domain of homestays and cafes, craft stores and some good restaurants.

Hakindang’s attic offers views across the village

Hakindang’s attic offers views across the village

Hakindang’s attic offers views across the village

There’s been a settlement in this sheltered valley in the country’s west for more than two millennia. It was the seat of power for one of the kingdoms that shared the Korean peninsula in the tenth century, and later was the birthplace of the Joseon Dynasty, all-ruling for 500 years until 1910 when Japanese colonialists took hold.

Inside a hanok house

Hakindang is a traditional hanok house that now offers Korean-style homestay

Hakindang is a traditional hanok house that now offers Korean-style homestay

Reaching from the Lahan Hotel in the east, today’s one square kilometre maeul (as such villages are known) is centred on Gyeonggijeon shrine, which protects a ‘national treasure’, the 14th-century portrait of Yi Seong-gye, founder of that powerful dynasty. The helmet-domed towers of Jeondong Cathedral (built in 1914) mark its western boundary, adjacent to Nambu bazaar.

“Today many of Jeonju’s hanok houses are homestays and cafes, craft stores and good restaurants”

And that is where my day had started, at a makeshift market on the banks of the Jeonju Stream, which slips around the southern edge of the village. Sellers turned up with garden-grown chillies, fistfuls of herbs and plastic bowls slopping with freshwater winkles and loach (of which they were clearly proud). A woman loaded a box of tangerines onto her ageing husband’s back. “So he’s good for something!” They all laughed except the bearer, who watched his step on the narrow slab bridge connecting the contemporary city with old village behind.

South Korea enjoys total interconnectedness: physically, via leading-edge technology and superfast trains (Seoul folk can cover the 200km south to Jeonju in as little as 92 minutes) and abstractly, with its precious traditions and cuisine. Korean daytrippers value time spent mixing their 21st-century pleasures (such as streetfood and e-scooters) with a hearty serving of cultural inheritance. A visit to Jeonju’s hanok village, for example, seems to inspire visitors of all ages to parade in hired traditional hanbok dress for at least part of the day.

Woman in hanbok costume in South Korea

A woman’s hanbok costume comprises a jeogori (blouse or jacket) and a chima (wrap-around skirt)

A woman’s hanbok costume comprises a jeogori (blouse or jacket) and a chima (wrap-around skirt)

Woman in Hanbok costume

Women dressed in hanbok costume

Women dressed in hanbok costume

Hanok house in South Korea

Traditional hanok houses are made from all natural materials including wood, stone and paper

Traditional hanok houses are made from all natural materials including wood, stone and paper

Person eating Bibimbap

The carefully placed ingredients of a good bibimbap should be well mixed together before eating

The carefully placed ingredients of a good bibimbap should be well mixed together before eating

Man pouring tea in South Korea

Gi Jung Hwang is the master of Gyodong Dawon teahouse, and serves tea made using leaves grown in his plantation in a nearby valley

Gi Jung Hwang is the master of Gyodong Dawon teahouse, and serves tea made using leaves grown in his plantation in a nearby valley

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Woman in Hanbok costume

Women dressed in hanbok costume

Women dressed in hanbok costume

Hanok house in South Korea

Traditional hanok houses are made from all natural materials including wood, stone and paper

Traditional hanok houses are made from all natural materials including wood, stone and paper

Person eating Bibimbap

The carefully placed ingredients of a good bibimbap should be well mixed together before eating

The carefully placed ingredients of a good bibimbap should be well mixed together before eating

Man pouring tea in South Korea

Gi Jung Hwang is the master of Gyodong Dawon teahouse, and serves tea made using leaves grown in his plantation in a nearby valley

Gi Jung Hwang is the master of Gyodong Dawon teahouse, and serves tea made using leaves grown in his plantation in a nearby valley

To most Koreans, though, Jeonju is best known as a culinary capital. As the spiritual home of bibimbap – that iconic dish of rice, meat and fermented veggies – visitors come for a taste of old-school and new-wave versions. I joined the crowd and wandered the lanes munching on a crispy deep-fried croquette stuffed with steamy bibimbap. It probably tasted even better for those dressed to the nines in 19th-century costume.

It’s this casual meeting of tradition, playfulness and good food that has made Jeonju the fourth most popular domestic destination for Korean tourists – more than ten million make their way here each year.

Gyodong Croquette’s streetfood comes in various guises, including a Jeonju bibimbap-stuffed baguette

Gyodong Croquette’s streetfood comes in various guises, including a Jeonju bibimbap-stuffed baguette

Yet despite this ongoing fascination with their history, the taste for (quick) coffee has pushed traditional tea to the sidelines. In these time-poor days, visitors’ itineraries don’t have the space for a contemplative cup of cha. In the 1980s dozens of teahouses huddled around these lanes, now just a handful remain.

At Gyodong Dawon, his courtyard teahouse, Master Gi Jung Hwang carefully showed me the leaves grown in a valley just 20 minutes out of town. His hwangcha yellow tea is lightly fermented, it blooms into a deep but delicately floral drink with a remarkable golden lustre – the same colour as the setting sun.

As I sat on the floor at the low wooden table, Master Hwang poured my tea carefully. In his hushed teahouse the clock stopped ticking. For a moment.

Busy street foot counters in South Korea
Corner of building in South Korea

The stone-and-wood Pungnam Gate is all that’s left of Jeonju’s old fortress walls

The stone-and-wood Pungnam Gate is all that’s left of Jeonju’s old fortress walls

PLACES TO GO IN JEONJU

For bibimbap

Hanguk-jip Restaurant (119 Eojin-gil) has been making a definitive version of bibimbap since 1952. The local style is to serve beef-broth-boiled rice with namul toppings (uniquely including a mung bean jelly called hwang pomuk) in a brass bowl. This elegantly presented offering must all be thoroughly combined (along with a good dollop of gochujang chilli paste) until it’s a big, messy mishmash – bibimbap means ‘mixed rice’.
At the other end of the spectrum, streetfood counter Gyodong Croquette (126 Gyeonggijeon-gil) stuffs deep-fried buns (and fresh baguettes) with bibimbap and other iconic Korean flavours including galbi (grilled rib).

For tea

Tucked down an alley and set in a tranquil courtyard, Gyodong Dawon teahouse (65-5 Eunhaeng-ro) is a calming space for the reflective enjoyment of a superior cup of tea.

The restorative brews of Daho teahouse (12-3 Taejo-ro, Pungnam-dong) use liquorice, chestnut, jujube red date and ginger; the accompanying plates of dagwa sweet potato and burdock snacks are equally satisfying.

JEONJU ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION

Getting there

Up to five KTX high-speed (Jeolla Line) trains connect Seoul Station and Jeonju. With journey times averaging 1hr 40mins, and the first train leaving at 7.05am, a day trip is a reasonable option. Some 12 services daily operate from Seoul’s Yongsan Station and take between 92mins and 2hr 15mins, starting as early at 5.10am. The final train of the day returns to Seoul’s Yongsan at 11.13pm (arriving at 12.40am). Fares cost around 35,000 won (£22) one way. The maeul is a five-minute taxi ride from Jeonju station (ask for Gyeonggijeon, the ancient shrine, which is pronounced ‘Kee-ung-gee-john’); the fare should cost around 6,000–8,000 won (£4–5).

Getting around

The maeul must be walked, but Segways, e-scooters and fat-tyre electric bikes can be hired at various shops, starting at 8,000 won (£5) for half a day. Old-school pushbikes are available for free for guests of some hotels.

When to go

Jeonju’s hanok village is interesting to explore throughout the seasons. July and August can be oppressively hot (with downpours). Winters are sometimes sub-zero if frequently bright and clear. Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November) are reliable, with the red leaves and blue skies of October perhaps the ideal time to visit.

Left wanting more? Plan your trip to South Korea with Wanderlust

Your full travel guide to Taiwan

View the story

Your full travel guide to Taiwan

When Portuguese explorers first set eyes on Taiwan in 1544, they named it ‘Ilha Formosa’ – or ‘Beautiful Island’. Many centuries have passed, but the name has stuck: and when you set eyes on its snow-capped mountains, steaming hot springs and canyon-strewn national parks, you’ll soon see why. Taiwan is a small nation, but its variety of landscapes, cities and sights is extraordinary: start planning your adventure with this expert guide.

Which side of Taiwan will you discover?

Northern Taiwan

Chances are, you’ll begin your trip in Taipei City: the star of the north. Delve into its compelling mix of futuristic architecture, ancient temples and creative hotspots – including vintage markets, indie breweries and more – before venturing further afield to the region’s six other cities and counties: New Taipei City, Keelung City, Yilan County, Taoyuan City, Hsinchu County and Hsinchu City. Each has its own charms, and they are easy to reach by public transport.

Central Taiwan

From the breathtaking beauty of Sun Moon Lake, to the ornate temples and delicate handicrafts of the coastal regions, there is much to admire in Central Taiwan. And it has plentiful opportunities to get involved too: whether you’re taking a pottery class in Miaoli, watching a puppet show in Yunlin, or revelling in Taichung’s hot springs and food markets.

Southern Taiwan

Kenting National Park lies at the far south of Taiwan, where beach-hopping, swimming and snorkelling are top of the day’s agenda. The weather is warm year-round, and Eluanbi – on the very southernmost tip – overlooks the Pacific Ocean on its left and the Taiwan Strait on its right. Come for the photos, but stay for the incredible outdoor adventures.

Eastern Taiwan

Looking for adventure? Whether you’re white-water canoeing on the Xiuguluan River, hiking through mighty gorges in Taroko National Park, or dipping into Taitung’s hot springs, Taiwan’s eastern edge demands to be explored. It encompasses two counties, Hualien and Taitung, whose coastal-hugging highway is ideal for road tripping – while to the west, the Central Mountain Ridge promises crowd-free climbing, camping and canyoning.

Offshore Islands

While mainland Taiwan is far from the ‘beaten track’, its islands offer an even more intrepid experience. On some, winsome sands are framed by beach bars and palm trees (yes, really!); on others, old military forts and traditional architecture hint at the nation’s past. These are the ones you won’t want to miss…

Northern Taiwan

Best for city exploring

Chances are, you’ll begin your trip in Taipei City: the star of the north. Delve into its compelling mix of futuristic architecture, ancient temples and creative hotspots – including vintage markets, indie breweries and more – before venturing further afield to the region’s six other cities and counties: New Taipei City, Keelung City, Yilan County, Taoyuan City, Hsinchu County and Hsinchu City. Each has its own charms, and they are easy to reach by public transport.

Taipei

The beating heart of Taiwan, the capital city is best-known for its glittering skyscrapers – the star of which is Taipei 101, reaching 508 metres (1,667 feet) or 101 storeys. The view from its observation deck reveals how the bustling streets soon yield to forested peaks and lush tea plantations: there is nowhere better to orientate yourself before exploring the city.

For the best views of the tower itself, and to enjoy sorbet sunsets over the city rooftops, climb up Elephant Mountain: a half-hour (but steep!) hike from Xiangshan metro station. The scene is particularly eye-popping on New Year’s Eve, when Taipei 101 lights up the night sky with a constellation of fireworks.

Now you’ve got your bearings, you’re in for an action-packed few days: don’t miss the National Palace Museum’s vast art collection, the incense-cloaked serenity of Lungshan Temple, and the humbling grandeur of the Martyrs’ Shrine – to name but a few. 

 Night markets

You’ll be raving about Taiwan’s street food for years to come, and its busy night markets are the ideal places to get stuck in. From plump pork dumplings and crispy oyster omelettes, to mountains of syrup-soaked shaved ice (it’s like ice cream): the dishes are cheap, fresh and totally authentic.

You’ll find the markets all over the nation, but Taipei has a particularly fine selection: check out the stalls on Raohe Street, Shilin, Huaxi and Linjiang, which are popular with both locals and tourists alike. Though some are open in the early afternoon, after-dark is the best time to visit.

The old streets

Just a short metro ride or drive from Taipei City, you’ll find several smaller towns and districts which preserve Taiwan’s traditional customs – such as the 800+ ceramic workshops of Yingge (on the Dahan River), and the ancient temples and street hawkers of Tamsui (to the north of the city).

With its intricate stone-carved facades and red-brick archways, the architecture of Sanxia Old Street – a half-hour drive from Taipei City – dates back to the early 1900s, a charming spot for craft shopping and people-watching. Meanwhile, in the mountains east of Taipei, Jioufen’s lantern-strewn streets are full of traditional teahouses, pottery shops and ramshackle food stalls.

Central Taiwan

Best for culture seekers

From the breathtaking beauty of Sun Moon Lake, to the ornate temples and delicate handicrafts of the coastal regions, there is much to admire in Central Taiwan. And it has plentiful opportunities to get involved too: whether you’re taking a pottery class in Miaoli, watching a puppet show in Yunlin, or revelling in Taichung’s hot springs and food markets.

Aboriginal culture

Equally revered as its natural beauty, Central Taiwan’s indigenous cultures are a source of huge pride and interest throughout the region, with widespread efforts to preserve their customs and heritage. There are 16 officially recognised tribes throughout the nation, and those unique to its centre include the Atayal, Bunun, Puyuma peoples – all with their own unique culture, dress and festivals. The Atayal, for example, are known for their intricate textile weaving, while the Paiwan are synonymous with ornate wood-carved figurines.

 This craft-based culture has inspired generations of Taiwanese creators, sparking an artisan tradition which remains strong today. From the precious pottery of the ​​Miaoli Ceramics Museum to the expressive characters of the Yunlin Hand Puppet Museum, its heritage treasures are manifold.

National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts

In the city of Taichung, this vast cultural institution showcases the work of Taiwanese painters, sculptors, photographers and more, presenting the country’s largest collection of artworks. It has 24 galleries, hosting a roster of both permanent and touring exhibitions – all of which are free to explore.

While local talents take centre stage, the museum also forges international connections via festivals and events, such as the Asian Art Biennial. In recent years, its collection has expanded to encompass modern and digital art, and its surrounding gardens are emblazoned with colourful graffiti-style pieces.

Sun Moon Lake

Amid the mountains and forests of Central Taiwan, this alpine lake sparkles like a beacon for day trippers and holidaymakers. With its boat cruises, bike rides, circular hikes and water-view hotels, this is one of the nation’s favourite places for a breath of fresh air, with thrilling aerial views from the ‘Ropeway’ cable car: be warned, some of its cabins are glass-bottomed!

The area is also an indigenous tribal heartland, home to the Thao and Bunun peoples – whose culture, food, music and dance are celebrated in the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village. In spring, look out for the annual Sun Moon Lake Cherry Blossom Festival – the largest celebration of its kind in Taiwan, with around 5,000 pink-petalled cherry trees. Picnics, tea parties and live entertainment take place beneath the blushing boughs, while cycle tours guide visitors to the prettiest viewpoints.

Southern
Taiwan

Best for adventure

Kenting National Park lies in the far south of Taiwan, where beach-hopping, swimming and snorkelling are top of the day’s agenda. The weather is warm year-round, and Eluanbi – on the very southernmost tip – overlooks the Pacific Ocean on its left and the Taiwan Strait on its right. Come for the photos, but stay for the incredible outdoor adventures.

Alishan Forest

A landscape of every conceivable shade of green, this National Scenic Area features ancient cedar and cypress woodlands, dotted with waterfalls, tea plantations and mountain villages. It also has a rich tribal history, and is home to the aboriginal Tsou people. Today, the peaks are catnip for hikers and rock climbers, and their highest elevations (at around 2,600 metres/8,530 feet) are often cloaked in snow during winter, while the forests are often beautifully mist-shrouded.

The Alishan Forest Railway travels sedately through this mighty eyrie, zig-zagging up and down the peaks: a journey it has taken since 1899. Other highlights include sipping locally-grown oolong tea, spotting cherry blossoms in late spring, and watching sunrise over a ‘sea of clouds’ from the Ogasawara Mountain Observation Deck.

 Tainan Confucian Temple

Dating back to 1665, this elegant red temple is a living embodiment of Taiwan’s distant past, a monument that has witnessed extraordinary change throughout the islands. It is the nation’s oldest Confucian temple and has served as a higher-education school as well as a spiritual sanctuary; today, it regularly hosts traditional Confucian ceremonies, featuring music and rituals that are centuries old. It is located in the city of Tainan – the nation’s oldest metropolis, which was the capital from 1683 to 1887.

Diving and snorkelling

Taiwan is one of diving’s best-kept secrets, with rich marine habitats around the very north and south of the nation. The sea around Kenting National Park, in the far south, offers both shore and boat dives, with good visibility and regular sightings of turtles, sharks and clownfish amid its coral and shipwrecks.

There are several dive schools and hostels in Kenting, offering tours and tuition for divers and snorkellers alike. For snorkelling, head to Banana Bay, Sail Rock and ​​Wanlitong – though arrive early for the quietest conditions, especially on weekends. In recent years, freediving has become popular too: both here, and on Green Island (Lyudao) and Orchid Island (Lanyu).

 Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer passes right through Taiwan, the meeting point of the world’s tropical and temperate climates – at 23.5 degrees north. There are several latitude markers throughout Taiwan, including the white spaceship-style Tropic of Cancer Monument at Shuishang in Chiayi County. It opened in 1995 (though its predecessor dated back to 1908), and is free to visit.

Eastern
Taiwan

Best for nature lovers

Looking for adventure? Whether you’re white-water canoeing on the Xiuguluan River, hiking through mighty gorges in Taroko National Park, or dipping into Taitung’s hot springs, Taiwan’s eastern edge demands to be explored. It encompasses two counties, Hualien and Taitung, whose coastal-hugging highway is ideal for road tripping – while to the west, the Central Mountain Ridge promises crowd-free climbing, camping and canyoning.

Taroko National Park

With its plunging chasms and thundering waterfalls, this bombastic landscape has to be seen to be believed. Totalling 360 sq miles (920 sq km), Taroko has an abundance of hiking trails: some lead to small Truku tribal hamlets up in the hills, surrounded by lichen-draped forest – while others, such as the Zhuilu Old Trail, promise edge-of-the-world views of the Liwa River, which roils beneath gorge-spanning bridges.

It is best to explore in the company of a guide, to discover the park’s little-known trails and tribal homestays, and for the ease of organising any necessary permits. Hualien City is around a 40-minute drive, scooter trip or bus ride from the park’s visitor centre.

Taitung Duoliang Station

Is this the world’s most beautiful train station? Though passenger trains no longer call at Duoliang, its coastal location still attracts many admirers. The platform is sandwiched between the beach (literally just a few steps away) and woodland-covered hills, with front-row views of the Pacific Ocean beyond.

If you time it right, you might catch a glimpse of a passing locomotive, trundling along this picturesque stretch and through the adjoining tunnel. The station roof is now an impromptu observation deck, attracting local and international rail enthusiasts.

Lyudao

Also known as Green Island, Lyudao is a 15-minute flight or 50-minute boat ride from Taitung – and is well worth a few days’ sojourn. It is home to one of the world’s three seawater hot springs (the other two are in Japan and Italy), where you can relax in steaming ocean-view brine pools: a brilliant place to watch the sunrise, or kick back under the stars.

The island’s landscape certainly lives up to its name, and there are two main hiking trails weaving through its coast and forest – and if you’re lucky, you might even spot wild Formosan muntjac and sika deer along the way. Dive centres and adventure tour companies operate on the island, too.

Offshore islands

Best for making a splash