This island lies in the estuary of the Han River where it empties into the Yellow Sea, about two hours west of Seoul . Ganghwa Island is a pretty, mainly rural place that Seoulites tend to see as a quiet weekend escape.
But it’s also littered with signs of a more eventful, prominent past, including mysterious megalithic tombs, temples, and 19th-century fortifications. This visible heritage and its abundance of excellent country-style cuisine and cozy accommodations make it worth considering an overnight stay.
Ganghwa-do’s most recognizable mascots are its haunting dolmen, or Bronze Age tombs, which can be spotted around the island. Typically consisting of a large, flat rock supported by two or more tall stones, some have been dated to 700 B.C., and in 2000 they were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the larger and more accessible clusters of dolmen is near the village of Bugeun-ri, at the center of the island. The village can be reached by taxi or local buses from the bus terminal in Ganghwa Town.
Jeondeungsa (635 Onsu-ri, Gilsang-myeon, tel. 032/937-0125, daily 8 a.m.-6 p.m., ₩2,000) is the island’s most renowned Buddhist temple, a picturesque compound whose roots stretch all the way back to the year 372. It houses multiple national treasures, including a bell cast in China in the 11th century and a soaring main hall where the roofs are supported by notably ghoulish carvings of naked female figures—the builder’s revenge, local legend has it, on a woman he was spurned by.
Along the island’s east coast, Gwangseongbo (Deokseong-ri, Bureun-myeon, tel. 032/930-3621, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., ₩1,100 adult, ₩700 child) is an impressive network of fortifications, gates, and watchtowers that served as a key military outpost from the 17th century. In 1871 it was the site of heated fighting between Korean defenders and a U.S. fleet bent on opening the then-reclusive country to trade. It’s possible to negotiate much of the fort at your leisure and take in some fine views of the sea and the South Korean mainland from its walls. Gwangseongbo can be reached by cab or bus from the Ganghwa Town terminal.
The island’s tallest peak, Manisan (Hwado-myeon, daily sunrise-sunset, ₩1,500), is not only scenic but a sacred place for many Koreans, who believe it’s where Dangun, the legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom, regularly made sacrifices to the heavens some 4,000 years ago. A stone altar at the top of the mountain is said to have been the site of these offerings and is still used in ceremonies today. Vistors can choose to ascend the 469-meter peak via a steep stairway or a more leisurely path. No buses run regularly to Manisan; take a cab to the mountain entrance from Ganghwa Town.
Located just off Ganghwa-do on the neighboring island of Seokmodo, Bomunsa (629 Maeum-ri, Samsan-myeon, tel. 032/933-8271, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., ₩2,000) is a fairly small but lovely temple said to date back to the 7th century. It’s distinguished mainly by a gigantic, 10-meter Buddha image carved into the face of a cliff behind the temple itself, accessible by a trying climb up 400-odd steps. The temple’s not the easiest place to reach by public transit—from Ganghwa Town, take a city bus bound for Oepo-ri dock, from which ferries leave for Seokmodo regularly. Buses run between the dock and the temple but only once per hour, or every half hour on weekends. There are no taxis on Seokmodo.
Ganghwa Island is famous for a couple of things—the medicinal herb ginseng and raw fish. While ginseng is no meal in itself it can be sampled in the island’s delicious ginseng makgeolli (rice beer), which is available in many of Ganghwa-do’s shops and eateries. For seafood, the cluster of restaurants around Oepo-ri dock known as the “raw fish village” is a good place to start.
Seoul Hoetjip (582-12 Oepo-ri, Nega-myeon, Bukseongdong 2-ga, Jung-gu, tel. 032/766-2916, daily 9 a.m.-10:30 p.m., ₩10,000-25,000) has a solid reputation and charming sea views.
Grilled eel is another island specialty, available at many restaurants, including Byeolmijeong (323-2 Shinjeong-ri, Seonwon-myeon, tel. 032/932-1371, daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m., ₩10,000-25,000).
Pureunjip (364 Gapgot-ri, Ganghwa-eup, tel. 032/933-7766, daily 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m., ₩10,000-25,000) is renowned for its samgyetang or ginseng chicken soup, which uses fresh ginseng from the island.
Most visitors to Ganghwa-do stay in one of the island’s many seaside family-run guesthouses. These range from humble bedsits to luxury cabins and come in styles from traditional to faux-European, so it’s worth driving (or busing) around and seeing what strikes your fancy.
The Hue Pension (283-5 Janghwa-ri, Hwado-myeon, tel. 02/2057-1561, ₩60,000) is a solid choice, with comfortable, well-equipped rooms featuring balconies and sea views in a modern beachfront building.
Hanok Minbak Dongmyeongheon (122 Dongmak-ri, Hwado-myeon, tel. 032/937-3546, ₩40,000) offers seaside accommodation in small but clean and cozy rooms that are part of a hanok (Korean-style house). Avoid the largely characterless and overpriced “tourist hotels” found in Ganghwa Town unless there’s a pressing reason to stay there.
Maps and information on local accommodations and attractions are available from the helpful people at the Ganghwa-do tourist information center (tel. 032/932-5464, www.ganghwa.incheon.kr , daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.), located inside the main bus terminal in Ganghwa Town.
Direct buses leave regularly for Ganghwa Town from Seoul ’s Sinchon Bus Terminal, which can be reached via exit 7 of Sinchon subway station (line 2). The trip takes about 1.5-2 hours, depending on traffic. Buses for destinations throughout the island depart from the Ganghwa bus terminal, but services can be infrequent. Taxis are also available in the town center but harder to find outside of it—plan on hiring a driver for the day (rates will be negotiable but should be in the ₩100,000 range) or getting a driver’s mobile number so you can call for a pickup as needed.
This is one of the few destinations around Seoul where it’s worth considering renting a vehicle and driving yourself around, though due to the island’s limited infrastructure it’s a good idea to secure a car in Seoul or at nearby Incheon International Airport and drive it over.