Chuncheon (population approx. 265,000) is the capital of Gangwon province, a place known for its scenic beauty and, at least relative to the rest of the Korea, pristine mountains and forests. It’s a time-honored destination for city-dwellers looking to commune with the great outdoors, and has become even easier to visit with its recently launched connection to the Seoul metropolitan rail system.
While it would be a stretch to call it bucolic, especially on weekends or holidays, it’s certainly a pretty place, nestled at the base of the Taebaek mountain range and cradled by two rivers, and offers a number of sights and recreation opportunities.
A short drive north of the city core is Chuncheon’s most recognizable landmark, Soyang Lake, a large body of water dominated by its namesake dam. The 120-meter structure was built in the 1970s to generate power and control flooding that planners fretted could damage places downstream, including Seoul.
Surrounded by pine-studded hills, the dam does little to detract from the lake’s beauty. Several ferries and pleasure boats run tours from the lake’s pier, including a service to the Buddhist temple of Cheongpyeongsa (675 Cheongpyeong-ri, Buksan-myeon, tel. 033/244-1095, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., ₩5,000). After a 15-minute ride you’ll disembark at the Cheongpyeongsa pier, and it’s then a pleasant, approximately 30-minute walk up a valley to the temple itself. On the way you’ll pass a mass of food and souvenir stalls as well as the seven-meter Guseong (Nine Sounds) Waterfall, said to create its own harmonies.
One of the first sights to greet visitors to the temple is Heojeonmun (Revolving Gate), an imposing wood structure that dates back to its mid-16th century founding. Cheongpyeongsa’s other notable structures include a three-story stone pagoda known as Gongju (Princess) Pagoda after the legend behind it—it’s said to have been built as a thank-you gesture by a princess after a ceremony at the temple rid her of a snake that was following her constantly, actually the reincarnation of a young man who loved her. It’s also home to Jinrak-gong, a garden originally laid out in the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392).
For many travelers Chuncheon’s chief attraction is Nami Island (Bangha-ri, Namsan-myeon, tel. 031/582-5118, www.namisum.com, daily 7:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., ₩8,000), a crescent-shaped chunk of land about four kilometers in diameter in the Bukhan River. While it’s been a resort area for some time it really shot to prominence when it was made the backdrop in 2002 for the heart-wrenching Korean soap opera Winter Sonata, which won a massive fan base throughout Asia.
The island’s now inundated year-round with Korean drama enthusiasts and has taken a decidedly commercial tilt, billing itself as a “republic” where people can come to live out their dreams and even issuing mock passports. Though some may find the Nami experience a bit too contrived or cutesy there’s still plenty to enjoy about it, from the scenic ferry ride to get there to the island’s abundance of tree-lined paths and total lack of power lines.
Its various amusements include campsites, swimming pools, a small theme park, bike paths, herb and flower gardens, and outdoor stages. There are also art studios and even recycling workshops for those who insist on doing something productive with their time. Overnight accommodation is available on the island, so enthusiasts can reside in this “country” just a bit longer.
Myeongdong Dalkgalbi Street (Joyang-dong)
Eating in Chuncheon is synonymous with dalkgalbi, chicken marinated in a hot pepper sauce and stir-fried with vegetables. Noodles, rice, or rice cakes are frequently added to give it more substance. It’s got a spicy kick but is absolutely delicious, and nowhere is it better than here, the city of its founding.
Downtown Chuncheon has an entire district known as Myeongdong Dalkgalbi Street (Joyang-dong), which is thronged with (what else) dalkgalbi restaurants. As they’re in such close proximity they’re of consistently high quality and prices are nearly identical—pick any one and you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
Myeongdong Ilbonji (“Number One”) Dalkalbi (131-9 Joyang-dong, tel. 033/256-6448, daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m., ₩10,000-25,000) bills itself as the original and best, and while it’s hard to verify those claims, the lineups at the door, jumbo-sized portions, and mouthwatering chicken certainly lend force to the argument. These restaurants also tend to serve another local specialty worth trying: makguksu, a blend of buckwheat noodles in a chilled broth with fresh vegetables and red pepper paste.
If spice isn’t your style the inventive and beautifully presented set menus at Chuncheon institution Hakujol (87-4 Mancheon-ri, Dong-myon, tel. 033/243-7963, daily 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m., ₩10,000-25,000), which emphasize mild flavors from fresh local produce and seafood, may suit.
As a city of reasonable size and popular tourist center Chuncheon has a number of places to stay. The Hotel Bears (300-3 Samcheon-dong, tel. 033/256-2525, ₩80,000) is one of the better mid- to high-end options, with a lovely lakeside location, proximity to major sights and activities, and plain but immaculate rooms that contain most of the standard big-city amenities.
The Naminara Hotel (198 Bangha-ri, Namsan-myeon, tel. 031/580-8000, ₩70,000) is the trend-setter on Nami Island, with comfortable, country-style rooms, some in a main building and others in separate cabins, that exhibit a degree of artistic flair.
The tourist information center in Chuncheon Station (tel. 033/252-3600, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) has an extensive selection of English-language maps and brochures and helpful, multilingual staff.
Getting to Chuncheon
Chuncheon is now connected to the Seoul subway via the new Gyeongchun Line, which makes the journey in around an hour. The Gyeongchun Line is accessible via Sangbong (Line 7, Jungang Line) or Mangu (Jungang Line) stations. Buses for Chuncheon also leave every 15 minutes throughout the day from Seoul’s Dong Seoul Terminal, with the trip taking about 90 minutes depending on traffic conditions. If you’re going to Nami Island alone, it’s preferable to take one of the buses to the nearby town of Gapyeong, which is slightly closer to the island than Chuncheon. These also leave from Dong Seoul Terminal, at 20-minute intervals.
Public transport in Chuncheon is fairly limited, so after arrival count on getting around by taxi. It may be most economical to negotiate a day rate with a driver, and try to always have contact information for a taxi driver or two on hand—you never know when you’ll need to be picked up.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition