Coastal Culture: The Best of South Korea’s Islands & Beach Towns

The small nation of South Korea is often characterized by its heavily militarized northern border and high-tech, neon-charged cities. However we can’t forget this east Asian peninsula also has about 2,400 kilometers of coastline and 3,000 islands within its territory. This makes for unique mixed landscape of sandy beaches, lush forests, mountainous peaks, and volcanic rocks. Whether you’re wanting to try out a new water-sport, eat freshly caught seafood, go to a festival, or just bond with nature – these five locations have vibrant cultures with something to offer every traveler.

1. South Chungcheong-do, Anmyeondo / ????, ???

Located on the west coast of Korea south of Incheon, Anmyeondo is the sixth largest island in Korea characterized by rocky coastlines and several busy beaches. The island is also home to Anmyeondo NationalForest which during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 B.C.) was managed by the royal family. Now visitors mostly come to stroll through the forest and see the beautiful vegetation and fauna. Two must see beaches on the island are Kkotji Beach and Anmyeon Beach, both of which offer clean sand, clear water, as well as views of the stunning rock formations that dot the horizon. During peak swim season, you can also rent innertubes, water toys, tents, and umbrellas. Camping is available for those who want to barbeque on the beach and wake up to the sound of the sea. Generally you can find a seaside hotel during the off season for around 50,000 KRW, though there are many great resorts and pensions to choose from.

2. Jeollanam-do, Mokpo & Jindo / ????, ?? & ??

In the southwest corner of Korea you’ll find Jeollanamdo, a province that contains a large portion of the 3,300 islands in Korea. Here you can find Mokpo, a small port city of about 250,000 people. When the Japanese occupied this territory, it served as an important location for commercial trade and public transportation. Nowadays, tourists flock here for the unique seafood and indigenous products found in the vibrant fish markets. If you’re looking for something romantic, try taking a sunset sailboat ride near the marina. You can hire a private captain for an hour tour for around 25,000 KRW per person. A short drive out of the city is Jindo, the third largest island and the southwestern most tip of the Korean peninsula. Jindo is most famous for its annual sea parting festival where the extremely low tides allow visitors to walk to the neighboring island of Modo. The Korean Jindo is a breed of hunting dog that originated on this island and their national cultural legacy live on today in the many dog sculptures you will see around the area.

3. Gangwon-do, Gangneung, Yang-Yang, and Sokcho / ???, ??, ??, & ??

Gangneung may be small in population but it is rich in spectacular mountain views and tranquil nature. Located on the east coast of Korea, this town is also known as a literature and arts hub. The sm all coastal village is a thriving hub for tourism, due in large part to the clean sea and wide coastlines. If you go slightly to the north, you’ll hit the county of Yang-Yang. What was previously mostly just a fishing and farming area, has now become a hotspot for surfers all around Korea. If you’re wanting to try it out, head over to Jukdo Beach where you can rent boards or take lessons from one of the many surf shops that dot the shore. Keep traveling north and you’ll reach Sokcho — best known for Seoraksan, Korea’s third tallest mountain. Seoraksan National Park offers visitors amazing views whether hiking up or taking the cable car.

4. South Gyeongsan-do, Busan / ????, ??

The southeastern port city of Busan is the second largest city in Korea, making it a lively hub of culture witdings on the other. If you’re in Haeundae, there is a huge assortment of restaurants and bars just across the street from the sea in the pedestrian walking area stretching from Haeundae Station to the ocean. You can find traditional Korean food street, Indian, Italian, Vietnamese, and local breweries. Be on the lookout for performers and vendors along your stroll as well as plenty of food stalls along the beach selling soju, beer, and things-on-sticks. You can generally find small fireworks being sold outside or in some convenience stores; you are allowed (and dare I say, encouraged) to light them on the beach. Busan is also famous for its fresh seafood, much of which can be found in Jagalchi Market. Considered the biggest fish market in all of South Korea, the market is bustling all day, a huge maze of smells, colors, and vendors proudly selling their catch.

 5. Jeju-do, Jeju Island / ???

We can’t leave out Jeju Island, one of Korea’s hottest vacation spots known for its beach resorts and volcanic landscapes. Jeju is home to Halla Mountain, a dormant volcano and the highest mountain in South Korea. Hallasan National Park was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2002 and a World Heritage Site in 2007. Hyeopjae Beach, located on Jeju’s northwest coast, is packed full with restaurants, camping sites, and even a small village built completely out of refurbished, brightly painted shipping containers. Seogwipo-si is the second largest city on the island where you can find quirky museums and sweeping volcanic coast lines. Jeju offers many other beaches, some more secluded if you’re looking to slow down the pace and soak up the views. A short distance to the west of Seogwipo-si is Sanbangsan Bonmunsa, a Buddhist temple with vibrant colors spilling over into the sea.

So the next time you find yourself in South Korea, remember there is probably a beach within a few hours of wherever you are. From the famous rocky coastlines of the west, to the wide sandy beaches of the east, to the thousands of islands dotting the south – this majestic Asian nation is bound to thrill you with its topographic diversity. When Seoul’s concrete streets just won’t cut it, take a bus, drive a car, hitch a ride and check out all the coastline culture that South Korea has to offer.

Ashley S.

I am an educator and traveler currently based in Bogota, Colombia.