Too often dismissed as Seoul ’s shabbier, less interesting cousin, the neighboring port city of Incheon (population approx. 2.7 million) is actually a worthwhile destination in its own right.
Having long served as one of Korea’s main gateways to the outside world—a legacy that was revived in 2001 with the opening of Incheon International Airport—it was home to some of the country’s first immigrant communities, and was also the venue of a decisive Korean War battle that turned the tide of the conflict in favor of the South Koreans and their allies. Its history has bequeathed it several sites that merit a visit.
Just outside Incheon subway station in the city center, the city’s small Chinatown dates back to 1884, when it was designated an overseas settlement by China’s Qing dynasty. At its peak in the early 20th century, some 100,000 overseas Chinese lived here, but tighter restrictions on immigrants imposed by post-Korean War governments encouraged many to seek their fortune elsewhere, and now only 500 or so remain.
The area’s pedigree is visible in an ornate gate that greets visitors, its turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese school and church, as well as the houses lining the streets, which blend Korean and Chinese architectural styles. Many of these buildings double as shops selling Chinese clothing, tea, and souvenirs. The neighborhood is also known for its concentration of Chinese restaurants.
Chinatown’s main street leads uphill to Jayu Park, which was Korea’s first Western-style park when it was established in 1888. With its sweeping views over the harbor, it was once a popular place for moneyed expatriates to build villas, but the only current occupant is a statue of U.S. general Douglas MacArthur. A brave (some would say reckless) decision by the general to engineer an amphibious troop landing in Incheon in 1950 when the city was well behind enemy lines allowed U.S. forces to retake the city from the North Koreans and marked a major turning point in the Korean War.
Directly below the park is the old Chemulpo Club (11-1 Songhak-dong 1-ga, Jung-gu, tel. 032/765-0261, Tues.-Sun. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.), a former watering hole for diplomats and foreign businesspeople that’s been turned into a small museum detailing the activities of Incheon’s early foreign residents.
East of Chinatown, a staircase decorated with stone lanterns marks its border with the former Japanese Concession. Much of the area has been redeveloped, but several colonial-style structures remain, including the city’s central post office and three old Japanese bank buildings, which date back to the 1890s.
Connected to the Incheon waterfront by a one-kilometer causeway, Wolmido is the city’s answer to Coney Island, a popular place for city-dwellers to let their hair down on the weekends. It’s crammed with seafood restaurants and cafés and even has a small amusement park. Visitors can also sign up for sightseeing cruises of the harbor. The island is around 10 minutes by bus (number 15) or 20 minutes on foot from Incheon Station.
Bali it’s not, but Yeongjongdo, the island where Incheon International Airport is located, is one of the easier beach getaways to reach from Seoul. Crescent-shaped Eulwangni Beach is the island’s largest and is known for its soft sand and sea views. Buses run regularly between Eulwangni and the airport.
Incheon is practically synonymous with Chinese food—or, to be more accurate, a Korean take on Chinese food—and indeed claims to be the hometown of jajangmyeon, or noodles in black bean sauce, probably the most popular Chinese-influenced dish in the country.
Hyangmanseong (10-2 Bukseongdong 2-ga, Jung-gu, tel. 032/766-2916, daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m., under ₩10,000) and Donghwawon (11-14 Bukseongdong 2-ga, Jung-gu, tel. 032/764-3838, daily 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., under ₩10,000) are two of the better-known places to sample this specialty as well as other delicacies, such as fried dumplings and tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork).
The many restaurants on Wolmido are good places to sample fresh seafood, particularly raw fish and grilled shellfish, though portions are designed for sharing and many will not cater to solo diners.
With Seoul only around an hour away by train most people prefer to stay in the capital itself, but Incheon’s got a few accommodation options to suit those looking to spend the night, particularly anyone who needs to be close to the airport. The Hyatt Regency Incheon (2850-1 Wonseo-dong, Jung-gu, tel. 032/735-1234, http://incheon.regency.hyatt.com , ₩240,000) is probably the best high-end choice, with elegant, contemporary-style rooms, restaurants, a deli, a fitness center, a swimming pool, and complimentary shuttle services to Incheon International.
Incheon Airport Guesthouse (2850-3 Wonseo-dong, Jung-gu, tel. 032/743-3060, www.ghincheon.com , ₩50,000) is far from fancy but also offers quick access to the airport, and its small rooms are bright, well-maintained and nicely furnished.
The city government maintains a visitor information center near Chinatown (3-1 Bukseong-dong 1-ga, Jung-gu, tel. 032-1330, http://visitincheon.org , daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.) with English-speaking staff and information on local sights.
Central Incheon is connected to Seoul  via subway line 1. The trip from City Hall or Seoul Station to Incheon Station, the final stop on the line, takes around an hour. Express trains run regularly and shave a few minutes off the trip by skipping a few minor stations en route. Once you’re in Incheon proper most major sites can be reached on foot and it’s also easy to hail cabs if needed. To get to the airport, take the AREX line from Seoul Station or an airport express bus from one of the many stops around the city.