While South Korea may be best known for K-Pop, kimchi, and Taekwondo, this East Asian country of over 51 million people still remains relatively off-the-beaten tourist track.
That may soon change when the eyes of the world descend on PyeongChang for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, propelling the Land of the Morning Calm into the limelight. The country’s cosmopolitan cities, palaces, and temples make for great destinations, but Korea also offers a plethora of other activities both weird and wonderful, and well worth checking out. Here, we offer the top 12 quirky things you can do in Korea.
Explore the Haewoojae Museum (Mr. Toilet House)
In Suwon, just south of Seoul lies the loo-themed Haewoojae Museum, set in a giant toilet-shaped house. Built as the home of Sim Jaedeock, a sanitation-minded mayor who worked to change public health standards in the city, he named his new home haewoojae, meaning, “a house to relieve one’s concerns,” a term commonly used in temples when referring to the restroom. Upon his death in 2009, his family donated the unusual house to the city, and it was turned into a museum. In addition to exhibits outlining toilet history in Suwon and worldwide, there’s a sculpture garden filled with all manner of commodes from times past.
Picnic at Penis Park
A collection of phallic statues stands erect at Samcheok Haesindang Park on the country’s eastern coast. Legend has it that a maiden drowned in a cove near the small fishing village before she was able to consummate her marriage, and her anger at being cheated out of love caused the fish to disappear. In a desperate attempt to appease the young woman, the villagers erected penis-shaped statues in the hopes of lifting the curse, and the fish eventually came back. In addition to the quirky twice-yearly folk festival held here, it’s a great picnic spot with views of the East Sea.
Sample Korea’s Favorite Food at Museum Kimchikan
Fans of the fermented cabbage dish will want to visit Museum Kimchikan in Seoul. Set amid the traditional buildings and souvenir shops in Insa-dong, this tasty museum features exhibits about the history and making of kimchi, one of Korea’s most beloved foods. Tours are offered in English, and visitors can taste myriad kimchi varieties from different regions of the country.
Wonder at Tumuli Park
Gyeongju is the ancient capital of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, which ruled from the 14th through 19th centuries, and is often described as an open-air museum. In addition to historical remnants such as the 8th-century Bulguksa Temple and the Seokguram Grotto, a stone-carved Buddha, and UNESCO Heritage site, the city is home to the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, also known as Tumuli Park. The stark landscape features otherworldly rolling hills, which are actually giant burial mounds housing ancient royalty.
Take a Selfie at Busan Gamcheon Culture Village
Known as Korea’s Santorini, the southern port city of Busan is home to Gamcheon Culture Village, a bright, street art-filled neighborhood that’s been compared to Machu Picchu because of the steep climb visitors must take to reach it. Artistic residents of this hillside enclave have decorated the walls and alleys with colorful, picturesque murals, making it one of Busan’s most instagrammed locations.
Go Rail Biking in Jeongseon
Just south of PyeongChang in the mountainous region of Jeongseon, a disused stretch of railway tracks has been repurposed into a rail bike track. The pedal-powered contraptions follow the tracks on a four-and-a-half mile circuit through the mountains. Quirky cafes have popped up along the route to replenish tired bikers, the most notable of which are shaped like fish and grasshoppers.
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Eat and Drink at Ddo-ong Cafe
In Korea, poo symbolizes prosperity and good fortune, and dropping-shaped dolls and cartoon characters are considered the epitome of cuteness. In coffee-crazed Seoul, there’s even a feces-themed café. Despite the initial ew-factor, the whimsical (if offbeat) ambiance–decorated with toilets, miniature plungers, and smiling cartoon droppings–this quirky coffee shop also serves up crap-shaped scones and lattes in toilet-shaped mugs.
Stay at the Sun Cruise Resort
Overlooking the East Sea in an area known for spectacular sunrises, the Sun Cruise Resort is an upscale hotel set in a 540-foot long, 211-room structure that resembles a cruise ship run aground. Complete with restaurants, a revolving bar, a nightclub, and a saltwater pool, this cliff-top vessel turns heads and creates a peculiar coastal landscape.
Ponder the Sculptures at Love Land
The southern island of Jeju is known as Korea’s version of Hawaii, and is home to Love Land—a very unconventional, sex-inspired theme park. It’s not surprising that visitors must be at least 20 years of age to enter, as the park’s various sculptures, exhibits, and artwork feature erotic themes and poses, and the gift shop houses all manner of trinkets that would make Walt Disney blush.
Wear a Hanbok at Gyeongbokgung Palace
There’s nothing quirky about a visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace, unless you’re wandering the tranquil grounds dressed in a colorful hanbok, the traditional Korean-style clothing comprised of billowing skirts or pants. Hanbok rental stands have popped up around the palace providing clothing by the hour, and are all the rage to help visitors get in the spirit of the Joseon dynasty, during which Gyeongbokgung was built in the 14th century.
Bondaegi—dried silkworm carcasses—are a typical Korean bar snack popularly accompanying soju, Korean rice whiskey. For a local treat, head to any of Seoul’s ubiquitous convenience stores, such as Family Mart or Buy the Way, to grab a can of the grubby treats, or get them freshly stewed from one of the city’s countless street food vendors.
Ride the DMZ Train
Since the Korean War ended in 1953, the DMZ separating North Korea and South Korea is the world’s most heavily militarized border. History buffs and curious onlookers eager to catch a glimpse of life in the North can take one of two daily DMZ Trains from Seoul Station to the eerily empty Dorosan Station—the last stop on the line. Upon arrival, head to the Dorosan lookout and snag some binoculars to glimpse the unnervingly vacant Kijong-dong, aka Propaganda Village, a faux town created by the North in an unsuccessful attempt to entice disgruntled southerners over the border.