Known as the “Hawaii of Korea,” Jeju Island was formed when a volcano erupted nearly 2 million years ago. The main volcano, Mount Hallasan, is surrounded by some 368 smaller volcanoes.
Although virtually unknown to Americans, Jeju is a popular Korean honeymoon and vacation destination. The fairly large island offers a plethora of spectacular and interesting places to explore, spanning a diverse volcanic landscape, focusing on its spectacular sea and nature, and three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Jeju’s history is one of the rare semi-matriarchate societies. Because rice doesn’t grow on the windy island, haeneyo (female free divers) had of the main jobs in the island, diving for sea produce (octopus, abalone, clams, squid and seaweed) since around the 18th century for two reasons:
- Purportedly because women have a naturally higher fat proportion, they have better resistance to cold water;
- Due to accidents and wars, there were not enough men.
Nowadays it isn’t a very popular occupation; most of the haenyeo are older than 65 and the job is just too dangerous.
When to Visit Jeju Island
We rented a car and spent a romantic weekend in Jeju during the month of September, one of the best times because it’s still warm enough to enjoy the beaches but not too hot or rainy for hiking and sightseeing. It’s also shoulder season, so everything is less expensive than during the high summer season. If you have even more flexibility, going during the middle of the week would be even cheaper.
It’s also worth noting that like the rest of Korea (perhaps even more since it’s an island with nowhere to escape), Jeju has a very low crime rate and we felt safe everywhere, anytime.
We took a flight to/from Seoul, easy peasy, even though I’ve been told it’s the busiest passenger air route in the world.
Below is a Jeju itinerary with the best Jeju attractions for your tour of this amazing Korean island.
1. Hike Mount Hallasan
Mount Hallasan is the highest mountain (6,400 ft. high) in Korea, but don’t let that scare you. There are five hikes of differing levels (from one hour RT to five hours RT) within Hallasan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hallasan is classified as a still active volcano (having erupted within the last 5,000 years), but currently spews no lava or smoke.
We took one of the shorter hikes (about two hours RT) because we had a lot of things to pack in and didn’t want to spend the entire day climbing. Although short, it was certainly challenging in spots due to the steep incline. The trail began with an earthen footpath, turned into a boardwalk-type path, then a seemingly endless series of steps (with handrails!) before we reached the summit.
Weather conditions can change fairly quickly in the mountains, and as luck would have it, by the time we got to the top, it was a bit chilly and all we could see was thick fog, with low visibility. It was still fun, though, enveloping us in a kind of mystic, enchanting ambiance.
2. Chill at Hyeopjae & Gwakji Beach
These two tropical beaches alone lend support to the moniker “Hawaii of Korea.”
Iridescent turquoise water juxtaposed against the soft, white crushed-seashell beach was also strewn with black volcanic rocks jutting up from the sea, creating a magnificent view.
Gwakji Beach was nearly empty, which suited us well. We had a great time frolicking in the water and on the rocks. And of course, took advantage of those Instagram moments.
Hyeopjae Beach is considered the most beautiful on the island. Sitting on the beach, you can see Biyangdo Island off on the horizon. If you happen to be here at sunset, all the better.
This was my favorite time in Jeju Island, because of my quest to find the most beautiful beaches in the world. Hyeopjae will certainly make the top list.
3. Sunrise at Seongsan Ilchulbong
Seongsan Ilchulbong is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s easier and shorter to climb than Hallasan and is famous as the place to catch the best sunrise views on Jeju Island. Seongsan’s fairytale landscape has been compared to the highlands of Ireland (see photo at top of page). Depending on how long you linger at the peak, you may be able to observe the famous women divers of Jeju off the coast.
4. Take a Coastal Road Trip
Renting a car on Jeju Island was one of our best decisions. Getting around Jeju was easy, as roads are in good conditions, well-posted, and traffic was not bad. Koreans drive on the right-hand side of the road, just as they do in America. Renting a car was inexpensive and gave us a lot of freedom to see the things we wanted during our short time.
Important note: if you’re planning to rent a car, in addition to your normal driver’s license you must also present an International Driving Permit from your home country. This is common for most foreign countries, and it’s very easy to obtain one before you leave for Korea. No IDP = no car rental.
If you don’t have an IDP, you can hire a private car or use the public buses. I don’t recommend either, as one costs a lot of money and the other wastes a lot of time. You could book a tour, but then your Jeju itinerary is not your own.
We spent the better part of a day driving around the north and west of the island, hugging the coast, stopping at whatever looked interesting, be it a small village, a marina, or coffee shop.
Iho Tewoo Beach, which isn’t very far from the center of the island’s capital, Jeju City, beckoned us to explore more. I’d spotted the quirky horse-shaped lighthouses as we’d flown into Jeju, and wanted to see where they were stationed. Iho Tweoo Beach is not as beautiful as the aforementioned Hyeopjae and Gwakji Beaches (which we visited later on this route), but it had clear blue water, a playground, and a few places to eat.
One of the more photogenic spots on our Jeju road trip was a tiny fishing village with lines upon lines of drying squid.
5. Explore Manjanggul Cave
Yet another intriguing UNESCO World Heritage Site, Manjanggul Cave is the 12th-longest lava tube in the world. It is considered to be an excellent representation of preservation despite being formed about 300,000 years ago. Exploring the dank, dark, slippery cave, you can see stalactites, stalagmites, and lava columns. Not for the claustrophobic.
6. Visit Uber-Quirky Loveland
Adults only, and definitely not for the prim and proper, Loveland Park is a larger-than-life display of 140 sensual and erotic sculptures. The snacks and souvenirs are likewise themed. Opened in 2004 by a group of art students from Seoul’s prestigious Hongik University, the park has become a must-see while in Korea.
I dare you to tour the kinky park without blushing or giggling!
7. Hike along the Olle Trails
If you’re still looking for what to do in Jeju as far as nature, the Olle Trail is appealing for those who may not want the climbing challenge of the volcano hikes. There are 26 different trails meandering around most of Jeju’s shoreline and through villages, and forests.
The jagged coastal scenery all along the trail is seriously gorgeous.
8. Chase a Waterfall
Interested in more nature and hiking on Jeju? The island has some gorgeous waterfalls that you won’t want to miss, e.g., Jeongbang Waterfall (the only waterfall in Asia to fall directly into the ocean), Cheonjeyeon Falls, Sojeongbang Falls, and Eongtto Falls. Seonimgyo Bridge spans over the Cheonjeyeon Waterfall with seven nymphs carved on the sides of the bridge. The bridge connects Cheonjeyeon Falls with Jungmum Tourist Complex.
9. Try Traditional Korean Food
We really enjoyed the cuisine while in Korea! Breakfast was a bit of a challenge for me because it was essentially the same food as any other meal. Kimchi, samgyeopsal (black pork belly), and BBQ are all delicious, just not first thing in the morning. Try the fresh abalone (sea snails) locally caught by the women divers of Jeju.
Kary wanted to try sannakji (live baby octopus), but we couldn’t find any. The sea creature is slaughtered and then immediately cut up and served. Allegedly, it’s so fresh that the tentacles are still moving when it’s served, and there’s a chocking danger if one sticks to the eater’s throat.
For beverages, there’s a lot of green tea, and of course, soju – Korea’s most popular alcohol. I had it mixed with orange flavor, reminiscent of the creamsicles I enjoyed as a child. There’s also local peanut ice cream to try for dessert.
10. Look for the Grandfather Stones
As we were looking for places to visit on Jeju, we kept seeing whimsical-looking carved stone statues scattered about. They’re cultural icons known as dolharubang or grandfather stones. The first statue was carved from lava rock in 1750, and legend has it that they protect the locals against demons.
11. Find a Local Festival
Quite by accident during our road trip, we saw a festival in the distance, so we stopped the car out of curiosity. We parked in the small city of Dongmum and walked over the bridge to where we’d seen the lineup of white tents. It was called the “handmade” festival, so we were excited at the prospect of finding some locally made souvenirs.
It was not quite what we’d expected! Handmade actually meant, “you make it with your own hands.” So when Kary picked out two small magnets made from beads and went to pay for them, they pulled him over to a chair (didn’t speak English), and proceeded to give him the frame, beads, and tweezers to complete his creation. His surprised expression was hilarious!
Ever the good sport, Kary made his magnets (which were held in place by ironing), and as usual, some new Korean friends along the way. I don’t think they see a lot of tourists at this local festival!
I’d like to add something that really touched me…. When we left, I was a bit distracted by the unexpected experience and left my backpack behind. It was only when we were back on the road, about 10 minutes along, when I realized with a major panic attack that it was missing, with contents including my wallet and Nikon SLR camera.
We immediately drove back to see if I’d left it at that booth, although I was doubtful I’d see it again. As we walked toward the booth, the woman in charge gave me a big toothy smile and pulled the teal backpack up from where she’d placed it under the table for safekeeping. Everything was still there. There are still inherently good people in the world, especially Korea. It was heartwarming.
12. Stay at a Luxury Hotel
We stayed at the Artstay Hotel on Hamdeok Beach, a long white-sand beach with a picturesque view featuring an arched bridge and a lighthouse which we could see from the large windows in our nicely appointed room.
We Kary really enjoyed the large selection at the buffet breakfast (pictured above). The room was surprisingly reasonably-priced for the nice, modern décor and all the amenities.
We loved the time we spent traveling around the best cities in Korea, but our romantic Jeju Island tour was our favorite. There are so many things to do in Jeju! We can’t wait to go back!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. Patti has traveled six continents looking for places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.