Discover the rugged splendour of Gangwon, South Korea's natural gem

With craggy mountains, ancient temples and an unspoilt coast, the wild northeast province of Gangwon has blossomed into one of the country’s most exciting destinations. From hotels and homestays to hiking and history, here’s how to plan your trip.

By Chris Tharp
Published 11 Mar 2021, 09:46 GMT
Gangwon: where North meets South
From a military patrolled border to spectacular national parks, a visit to the northern province of Gangwon showcases South Korea at its most mysterious.

Dominated by the rocky rise of the Taebaek Mountains, Gangwon is South Korea’s largest and most remote province. This sparsely populated region is subject to harsh winters and has traditionally been a tough place to scratch out a living. The people, however, are known for their resilience and generosity, and the region they call home features some of the peninsula’s most pristine natural wonders. 

Gangwon has recently seen tourism blossom. This is largely due to the construction of speedy transportation links for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. The once-lengthy trip from Seoul can now be done in under two hours, making it easy for visitors to soak up the region’s myriad charms.

Whether it’s outdoor thrills, hot springs, buzzing street markets, beachside cafes or the serenity of its many Buddhist temples, read on for more on Gangwon's smorgasbord of experiences, including a glimpse at the DMZ, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. 

1. Learn about the most fortified border on earth 

From 1950 to 1953, North and South Korea fought a devastating war that ended in a stalemate. No peace treaty was ever signed, and the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, stands as a stark reminder of that bloody conflict. This patch of no-man’s land bisects the whole of the Korean peninsula, acting as a buffer between the two nations. Its eastern terminus abuts the sea north of Sokcho and can be viewed from the Goseong Unification Observatory, a viewing platform overlooking a lonely expanse of beach stretching all the way to the fortified border. On a clear day, you can make out the fence line in the distance, as well as the mountains of North Korea beyond. Equally illuminating is the accompanying DMZ Museum, which provides a vivid and detailed history of this sad expanse of floodlights, watchtowers and razor wire. No trip to Gangwon is complete without a visit to this outpost of living history, reminding us that peace in Korea can’t be taken for granted.

Gangneung is known for its fantastic local markets, selling everything from fresh fish to handicrafts.

Gangneung is known for its fantastic local markets, selling everything from fresh fish to handicrafts.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Hit the slopes in Pyeongchang

From the capital Seoul, head to the town of Pyeongchang, where you can check out the Olympic Village and then ski the local slopes like a downhill champion. Snow or no snow, the surrounding Odaesan National Park begs exploration, so strap on your boots, climb its namesake mountain (5,128ft) and then bask in the tranquil environs of Woljeongsa Temple, the headquarters of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. After that, it’s time to head off the coast, where the town of Gangneung awaits. Graze at the food stalls of its traditional market before walking it off with a stroll around Hwajinpo Lake. There you can take in the former villas of the first leaders of both North and South Korea: Kim Il-sung’s castle at Hwajinpo and Syngman Rhee’s vacation cottage, which is now a little museum called Hwajinpo Memorial Hall. Later, wind down on the expansive sands of Gyeongpo Beach — one of Korea’s surfing hotspots — where you can paddle out on a board to catch a wave, take a cleansing dip or just watch the tide roll in from your table at one of the funky little cafes.

Seoraksan National Park is crisscrossed by a web of hiking paths, and is home to Silla-era temples Sinheungsa and Baekdamsa, ...

Seoraksan National Park is crisscrossed by a web of hiking paths, and is home to Silla-era temples Sinheungsa and Baekdamsa, as well as the famous bronze Jwabul Buddha statue.

Photograph by Getty Images

3. Head out into nature in Seoraksan

Accessible from the seaside town of Sokcho, Seoraksan is South Korea’s third-highest mountain and arguably its most scenic. A spider’s web of hiking paths crisscrosses the national park it calls home, featuring the Silla-era temples Sinheungsa and Baekdamsa, Geumganggul Cave, Biryong and Yukdam waterfalls, Daecheongbong Peak (5,603ft), as well as the iconic Ulsanbawi, a gargantuan rise of granite slabs also known as ‘dinosaur ridge’. There are treks for hikers of all levels, ranging from a short jaunt of a couple of hours right up to a couple of days. Those who prefer leaving the trekking poles at home can instead ride a cable-car up to Gwongeumseong, a medieval fortress that affords a spectacular view of the stony surroundings. And if your time on the mountain has got you feeling sore and creaky, make sure to relax with a soak at Osaek Carbonated Hot Springs, one of two inside the park.

In Gangwon buckwheat is king, used for countless dishes including soups, dumplings and pancakes.

In Gangwon buckwheat is king, used for countless dishes including soups, dumplings and pancakes.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Savour a cuisine of fresh fish and noodles

Given the harsh climate and mountainous terrain, Gangwon isn’t particularly well suited for rice cultivation. Buckwheat, instead, is king. This hearty grain is used as a staple throughout the region and finds its way into countless dishes, including both hot and cold buckwheat noodles (memil guksu/naengmyeon), buckwheat dumplings (memil mandu) and buckwheat pancakes (memil jeon). Gangwon also stretches down much of the east coast of South Korea, however, and here it’s seafood that reigns supreme. Sashimi joints line the harbours of every town, along with restaurants specialising in grilled shellfish, crab and braised assorted seafood (haemul jjim) containing the freshest local ingredients. Older, traditional dishes also enjoy widespread popularity, including potato dumpling soup (gamja ongshimi) and Chodang sundubu, a local tofu made with seawater that’s renowned for its creamy texture and rich, savoury flavour.

Gangwon has space and nature in abundance, and there are a multitude of camping options available, as ...

Gangwon has space and nature in abundance, and there are a multitude of camping options available, as well as some more upscale glamping sites.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Bed down in varied accommodation, from hotels to homestays

Gangwon has space in abundance, meaning escaping the crowds has never been easier. For those wishing to get close to the province’s splendid nature, there are a multitude of camping options available, as well as some more upscale glamping sites, a trend that’s really caught on in recent years. Visitors to can also choose from a wide array of accommodation options, there’s everything from boutique and luxury hotels and resorts in Pyeongchang, Gangneum and Sokcho to countryside pensions in more rural areas. These traditional Korean guesthouses have character in abundance, and are great places to stay in order to really get under the skin of Gangwon, as well as to meet other travellers. Plus, you can be certain that every pension will come complete with a barbecue grill, a South Korean must-have. Elsewhere, the colourful, brightly-lit motels found throughout the province are also a good option, and are surprisingly affordable.

Did you know?

Gangwon holds the Pyeongchang Peace Forum, promoting reconciliation between North and South Korea. This poignant event is held at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, where, in the Winter Olympic 2018 opening ceremony, the two countries marched under one flag — a historic gesture of unity. In fact, the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics will also be held here to further bolster peace efforts.

Plan your trip

Getting there
From Seoul’s Incheon Airport, take a high-speed train to Pyeongchang, but to travel around the region, it’s best to hire a car.

When to go
Autumn is peak season in Gangwon, with spectacular fall foliage. For a quieter experience, consider visiting in spring, when the weather is good but the crowds are smaller. Winter brings snow, making for great skiing.

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