Date of trip: 26/Jan/2019 – 17/Feb/2019
It’s the birthplace of bibimbap, a dish that needs no introduction. It’s home to Korea’s largest hanok village, with over 800 structures preserving this traditional architecture. Its food culture so significant it’s recognised by UNESCO as a City of Gastronomy – one of only a few cities with the honour. Its name literally suggests excellence: ‘perfect place’.
This is Jeonju. Or, my favourite city in Korea.
Not that Busan is a slouch either. Its world-class beaches, mouthwatering seafood and Instagram-famous Gamcheon Culture Village more than justify its moniker as Korea’s tourism capital.
This post contains affiliate links. Purchases made by clicking on an affiliate link may earn a small commission for me, but never at extra cost for you. Please go here for more information.
All currency conversions were carried out during drafting (June 2019) and should not be relied upon other than as approximations.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Jeju to Jeonju / Love Tree Guesthouse / Hangukgwan / Sobok / PNB Bakery
Jeju to Jeonju
Getting to Jeonju from Jeju requires a bit of work: a one hour flight to Gunsan (just another random Korean city into which I’ve done no research), and then a 45min bus ride to Jeonju. There was plenty of waiting involved, which cost us the better half of a day just getting there.
As Jeonju came into view, we time travelled. It was like a set straight out of a Korean period drama: brilliant orange/yellow autumnal foliage (whereas Seoul and Jeju were pretty much lifeless), traditional hanoks as far as the eye can see, and people dressed in hanbok outnumbering those that weren’t. Ah, a beautiful town Jeonju is, that has seemingly managed to hold on to that little bit of soul that has been stripped from much of the rest of Korea. The town centre is indeed a tad touristy, but this comes with the territory – Jeonju is popular, and as I quickly learned, rightfully so.
Love Tree Guesthouse – 사랑나무
Jeonju’s historic setting and its hanok village make it the perfect city to stay in a traditional guesthouse, albeit with modern – and absolutely necessary in winter – amenities such as floor heating. Sure, you could stay at guesthouses all over Korea, but I definitely noticed a far higher concentration in Jeonju: if you want to stay in the hanok village – i.e. the heart of the action – a guesthouse stay is pretty much your only option. Why wouldn’t you?
Much like staying in a washitsu-style room at say, a Japanese ryokan, the biggest difference between a hanok stay vs a hotel is that you sleep on the floor. Unless you pile up enough blankets (which basically ends up being a bed again), be prepared for a somewhat stiff back after your first night (yes, even at the ripe young age of 27, yours truly also felt like a bit of a tentpole afterwards). Okay, I guess that’s one reason why you might not want a traditional stay.
Our guesthouse – Love Tree – (AKA Sarangnamoo) was on the edge of Jeonju’s hanok village, with a how-do-they-even-make-money $50 per person, per night tariff. The rate even includes DIY breakfast in the common kitchen!
I would be more than happy to stay here again next time I visit.
Hangukgwan Bibimbap – 한국관
If you queried me on the origins of bibimbap, ‘Korea’ was as good of an answer as you were going to get. But that’s the old, ignorant me. To think that this diminutive city of 700,000 people developed what, to me, is the original ‘rice bowl’ dish and one of the representative dishes of Korean cuisine was an enlightening – and very tasty – experience. To reiterate what most of you probably know, bibimbap means ‘mixed rice’, and while there are of course variations, all bibimbap will feature steamed rice (the ‘bap’), topped with seasoned/fried vegetables/kimchi, a sauce (usually gochujang or doenjang), meat and usually egg. Everything is stirred (the ‘bibim’) together in spirited fashion before consuming. It’s bloody delicious.
I’m confident you could walk into any bibimbap restaurant in Jeonju and you’ll have a bowl
ball of a time, and so it was with our completely randomised selection of Hangukgwan (Korean Pavillion) Bibimbap, which as per the name, specialises in the stuff.
Speaking of specialisation, another learning point in the bibimbap syllabus: not all are made at the same temperature. There is the classic and highly recognisable dolsot bibimbap, served in a thick stone bowl, at a temperature of 150C. Invented in 1968, this is also the youngest bibimbap – in case it comes up at your next trivia night. Then there’s the classic Jeonju bibimbap, which is served in a brass bowl and contains raw beef (called yukhoe – a Korean version of beef tartare), which is topped with an egg yolk and served at a much more moderate 65C. There’s also ginseng bibimbap (serving temp: 25C) on the menu, but we didn’t end up ordering it. Save some mystery for next time, I suppose.
As is customary of any Korean feast, we got a whole bunch of banchan and ordered extra pajeon because the eyes always overestimate the stomach. Well, if you’re going hungry while touring Korea, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Sobok – 소복
A dessert shop with a focus on ice cream made from brown rice and grains, Sobok is the perfect chaser after a full-on bibimbap dinner. In additional to ‘snowflakes‘ (sold out, but are just bingsoo – shaved ice), and their standard ice cream (which unsurprisingly exhibited the roasted notes of Japanese genmaicha – brown rice), a must-order are the ‘ice balls’, which are scoops of ice cream with a mochi filling. We got green tea and injeolmi, which is the Korean term for soybean powder. If memory serves, you get more than 10 balls per serve, which is a lot – and great value for money.
Sobok also sell an ice cream with a sweet potato cone. We all know sweet potato is one of the ‘healthier’ carbs, so uh, dessert is now justified!
PNB Bakery – 풍년제과
Aussies grew up on Arnott’s and Cadbury; Asians, haw flakes and choco pies. Originally invented in America, Lotte Confectionery (fun fact: 3rd largest chewing gum producer in the world) took notice, and significantly tweaked the recipe to create the now-famous Lotte-branded versions found in every Asian grocery, and pantry. If protein wasn’t essential to life, a choco pie could be considered a complete meal in and of itself.
Jeonju-based PNB Bakery has its own take – or rather, many takes – on choco pie, baking the nutty chocolate cakes, sandwiched with jam, buttercream and chocolate sauce fresh since 1951. While these do end up being packaged, their freshly-baked provenance and lack of preservatives mean that there’s only a limited window for optimal consumption.
Nevertheless, they are great for gifting (which is exactly what I did), and of course – a sneaky bite or two for yourself. Don’t forget to try some of their peanut biscuits, which was what they produced when the bakery first started operating.
Day 2 – Veteran Noodles / Hanbok Dress-up / Gyodong Tteokgalbi / Jaman Mural Village / Nambu Market / Sulbing / Dalgo Dakgalbi
Veteran Noodles – 베테랑분식
When the typical day during winter averages 0-5C, few things are as comforting as a bowl of noodle soup. And, to go one step further, there was no noodle soup as comforting – or as delicious – as the kalguksu from the aptly-named Veteran Noodles. The ‘kal’ refers to knife, in that these are knife-cut noodles (Chinese readers will relate when I say 刀削面), as opposed to the ones I had from, say, Noodle Street.
Like any noodle soup in Korea, Kalguksu is a dime a dozen, as common as fried chicken. However, Jeonju-style kalguksu is, well, unique to Jeonju. Featuring copious amounts of perilla (AKA shiso) seed powder, fine (not very hot) chilli flakes and seaweed, this is a nutty, umami-laden bowl you won’t find anywhere else. The addition of egg naturally thickens the broth, bringing next-level slurpiness to the noodles. I have zero doubt that it was the best noodle dish I had on the entire trip.
Their mandu are also worth a look. At only 7000KRW ($8.5AUD) for the kalguksu and 5000KRW ($6AUD) for the mandu, Veteran Noodles delivered maximum happiness for minimum cost. This is the Korea I love.
Hanbok Dress-up – 한복
Have you ever wanted to dress up as a member of the Korean royal family? No? Me neither. But it doesn’t matter: your period drama-obsessed partner will almost definitely force you to do a lil bit of harmless cosplay. That’s cool: when dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean garb), you’ll actually be one of the ‘normal’ people. Why not have a bit of fun with it? Mainly coz you know, you probably don’t have a choice.
For a frictionless experience, we booked our hanbok experience with Klook, which has various packages depending on what you want. If you’re a female reading this right now, I would highly recommend the hairstyling service, as the attendants will do exactly that – style your hair for maximum aesthetics. Hey, if you’re going to dress up, do it right. Note that some costumes (such as that of royals) may cost more.
You’d be surprised at how fast 2.5 hours pass, so I would recommend at least that amount of hire time.
Perhaps it’s time for a new profile photo?
Gyodong Tteokgalbi – 교동떡갈비
Tteokgalbi are beef ribs, sliced, and sizzled up with a Korean soy-garlic sauce in a wok tableside. Though it was my first time having this dish, it’s immediately familiar, comforting, and delicious. I mean, stir-fried beef ribs, who am I kidding?
But that’s not all that Gyodong Tteokgalbi is good for. We also had incredible naengmyeon (cold starch noodles), which to this day redefines how tasty icy cold noodle soups can be, and heck, I even dug the complimentary hot chocolate from a self serve machine.
Come for the tteokgalbi, but feel free to stay for everything else. An incredibly satisfying meal, but vampires need not apply #garlicbreath
Bonus round: hotteoks!
Jaman Mural Village – 자만벽화마을
Busan’s Gamcheon tends to take all the credit when it comes to artfully-decorated towns, but overlooking Jeonju’s own ‘outdoor art gallery’ would be a mistake. What I love about Jaman Mural Village – other than the sheer wow factor induced by all the pastel-coloured houses and intricate murals – is that the artwork updates to keep up with the times, all the while respecting the classics. The Avengers, an instance of the former, while Hayao Miyazaki’s seminal Japanese works prominently exemplify the latter.
For what it’s worth, Jaman Village’s hilly terrain makes for some excellent quad burning. Gotta find exercise where you can!
Nambu Market – 전주의 남부시장
Markets, markets, markets. At this point, I’m no longer really feeling them, but I’ll include Nambu Market – discovered purely coincidentally wandering the streets of Jeonju – for the sake of completeness. Brevity is the soul of wit? Can’t win everything – I’ll be sure to do it properly at night the next time I’m here.
Sulbing – 설빙
I knew it was winter, but goddamn it, I was still going to get meself a piece of Korea’s most recognisable bingsu (shaved ice) franchise, even if it means hating myself later for self-inflicted brain freeze.
Bingsu is Korea’s Kakigori, Ice Kacang, Shaved Ice, or what have you. And Sulbing is its most well-known brand. We had three bingsu, with the injeolmi (sesame powder) and strawberry being particularly nice flavours. The ice is shaved acceptably fine, and layered on with deftness, such that it was truly like eating un-compacted snow.
While I half-froze after setting outdoors after this dessert dalliance, I had no regrets: I had finally scratched the Sulbing itch. I don’t know if I would go again during winter – it’s not good enough to warrant that particular brand of torture.
Dalgo Dakgalbi – 닭터닭갈비
Stir-fried chicken. Gooey cheese. Crunchy cabbage. Tteok rice cakes, and if I’m feeling naughty – a brick or two of Shin, all stirred through with a containerful of spicy gochujang on a plate bigger than some dining tables. These are some of my favourite things, and it’s no wonder then that dakgalbi – the dish that brings them all together – is one of my perennial favourites of Korean cuisine.
As is often the case with well-known examples of Korean food, dakgalbi was created from a time when food needed to be economic, but still tasty. Yes, commoner fare, but need is the seed of innovation. The result? A hot, spicy, texturally juxtaposed and flavourful hodgepodge of carbs, fat and protein. This is one of those very few dishes that I can’t imagine anyone hating. Honestly. Unless you can’t take spice. Then you’re screwed.
While the bae makes a mean dakgalbi of her own, trying it at least once in Korea is non-negotiable. Besides, there’s just something epic about eating off of a 50cm wide pan – and that’s something you can’t do at home! Spanish customers would be forgiven in mistaking it for a paella pan!
I don’t really care where you eat dakgalbi in Korea – whether it’s Jeonju or somewhere else. Just. Get. It. Preferably with soju & beer, and you’ve just made great strides in immersing yourself in Korean culture.
Day 3 – Jeonju to Busan / Haeundae Beach / Suminine
Jeonju to Busan
Seeing as training it to Busan has its risks, we opted to take the bus. A pedestrian, uneventful journey? Certainly. But undead-free, and the extra-wide seats were a bonus! But in all seriousness, they take the same amount of time (3 hours), but the bus is 3x cheaper. It’s a pretty obvious choice. That said, the equation does change if you’re coming from Seoul.
Haeundae Beach – 해운대해수욕장
As Korea’s summer capital, visiting a beach is just something you do – even in winter. You’d still hit up Bondi Beach as a visitor to Sydney, no matter the weather, right? Such is the popularity of Busan’s beaches that even during the coldest month, we saw swarms of puffy jackets and coats lining Haeundae Beach’s walkways. It’s busy all year round, and it’s not hard to see why: it’s a very pretty – and at over 1.5km long – absolutely gigantic beach.
If it were summer, I’d actually drop by for longer than 15 minutes!
Suminine – 수민이네
If beaches are Busan’s drawcard, grilled fresh seafood is its edible analogue. A steep drive down a windy road reveals Suminine, a questionable-looking establishment that looks like an abandoned warehouse with dinky, beat-up tables and cheap, plastic chairs, all lovingly imbued with an overly powerful burning charcoal odour. Suffice it to say stepping in, I wasn’t convinced of its popularity and fame – and that’s notwithstanding the celebrity autograph wall.
But none of that mattered once the seafood began arriving. The menu has a singular focus on shellfish – shrimp, abalone, scallops, and various clams, with sides such as shin ramyun soup, that support the main act. holy shit, it was all so good. The juicy, buttery clams, the fat shrimp, the best abalone I had on the trip – grilled live! The spicy, moreish noodle soup. It was all delicious. Well, perhaps go easy on the eel, that’s too much of a good thing right there.
This is paradise. Unless you suffer from a shellfish allergy, in which case, oh dear.
The pictures pretty much speak for themselves, and the entire deal only cost around $25AUD pp. A top 5 of the trip, Suminene attracts a strong recommendation. The cholesterol? Eh, who’s paying attention.
Day 4 – Gamcheon Culture Village / Gukje Market / Nampo Samgyetang
Gamcheon Culture Village – 부산 감천문화마을
So, let’s see…a good beach, a good shellfish restaurant and…Gamcheon Culture Village. Do these three things and you’ve ticked off the ‘Busan essentials’ for a one night stay (I still can’t believe we only stayed for one night…)
Gamcheon, in Busan’s Saha District, used to be a shantytown in the 1950s for some of Korea’s most impoverished and disadvantaged – war refugees. Through the residents’ ingenuity and the Saha District’s support, the town remade itself over the years, liberally splashing on all colours of the rainbow, local artistes leaving their illustrative graphics on almost every building in Gamcheon’s hilly, windy streets. Nowadays, the town has undergone a complete transformation, and its topography has led it to be nicknamed the Machu Pichu of Busan – but much, much more colourful.
It’s a hella fun place to visit, even if the whole town pretty much markets itself as an Instagram geotag. Well, it brings in the tourist dollars, and the locals are doing far better now than they were 50 years ago, so as far as I’m concerned, this is right up there as one heck of a success story.
Gukje Market – 국제시장
Why yes it’s another market. But hey, we actually ate here! And it was gooooooooood. Just watch out for those spicy ribs. Blew my head off, it did.
Nampo Samgyetang – 남포삼계탕
One of the most popular dishes for Koreans is rarely seen outside of Korea: samgyetang, or ginseng chicken soup. A marriage of three things that Koreans hold dear (hint, it’s each of the words in the name!), there are entire restaurants that specialise in just this one dish, whose recipes are closely-guarded secrets. It’s believed to promote health and wellbeing, and while eaten all year-round, it’s particularly popular in summer, and on certain days of the lunar calendar. Auspiciousness, and all that.
To be precise, samgyetang is prepared using a whole young chicken (or poussin), as opposed to a fully-grown one. The chook is filled with garlic, rice, jujubes and ginseng. The result is, well, very heartwarming. It is chicken soup, after all – and there ain’t nothing more comforting than that.
And that’s that. It’s been an exciting, enjoyable, at times challenging, but ultimately rewarding trip. And it only took me six months since I returned to actually finish blogging it! I hope this series has helped you along with your Korea trip planning, or just to relive the highlights of your own. It’s certainly helped me back onto nostalgia lane.
Now, I can only count down the days until I return…someday. 당신을 곧 뵙겠습니다!