Gone are the days when Jeju was a vague land of ponies and tangerines, a second-choice destination for school trips and family vacations. Jeju-do, or Jeju Island, located off the southern coast of Korea, is now a hot spot for urban regeneration, with an influx of young activists and entrepreneurs giving a sharp modern edge to the beautiful natural landscape and unique historical and cultural roots of the island. A trip to Jeju Island now holds so much more potential than a ride on a submarine or tangerine-picking at a random farm.
From charming little streets to bustling tourist spots, my recent trip to Jeju Island followed recommendations from a local acquaintance instead of relying on the internet, which totally transformed my experience of the island. So here is a list of some of the places I visited— whether you’re a culture lover, a mindless wanderer, an Instagram addict, or simply a foodie, there’s bound to be a niche spot just for you.
1. Gu-Dosim (Old City Center) 구도심
Relatively close to Jeju International Airport on the northern end of the island, this captivating town has a lot to offer in its dinky, understated way. With the occasional street art and small, independent cafes, restaurants, and shops at every corner, be sure to bring a charged camera. The shops here close for days without warning sometimes, so if you’re looking forward to a particular spot, call beforehand to check if they’re open.
2. Suragan 수라간
There’s no hiding it— the famous Jeju black pork is probably overrated and not even from Jeju-do (black pigs are considered natural monuments here and cannot be raised for food). But if you happen to be in Seogwipo and craving some k-bbq style pork, Suragan, well-known and loved among the locals, is a good bet.
3. Memorial House of Chusa 추사관
Chusa, also known as Kim Jeong-hui, was a renowned calligrapher, artist, and scholar of the Joseon Dynasty. He was exiled to Jeju Island following a court intrigue and spent his time in solitude, ironically paving the way for his artistic flourishing. This memorial house contains some of his work and leads outside to his residency while in exile. It offers a shift from the modernity now springing up around the island, reminding visitors of its historical and cultural implications.
4. Moseulpo Harbor 모슬포항
Most people visit Moseulpo Harbor for a view of the ocean and some fresh sashimi. I only have one place to recommend: a restaurant that looks completely out of touch with its surroundings, Gla-Gla Hawaii— a tropical-themed fish-and-chips restaurant that functions with the cafe next door, which serves homemade apple pie (a la mode!) and fresh juices. This was about the last thing I expected to see here, but the themed decorations were a joy to the eyes and the crisp of the food was bliss for the tongue.
5. Sagye-Maeul 사계마을
An old corporate building come back to life as a cafe, Sagye-Saenghwal stands as the center of another Seoguipo town. Actually, “cafe” doesn’t exactly cover it— this cultural space also sells selected local foods and crafts, as well as providing illustrated maps of the town so visitors can find their way to the hidden gems of the area. Try one of their beautiful green-tea lattes and rest your legs.
I especially recommend visiting Otteon-Baram (어떤 바람, literally translates to “some wish” or “some wind”), an independent bookstore also holding local crafts. The space is small but the interior colorful, and the reads well-selected and intriguing. I’m not exactly sure why independent bookstores are taking over Jeju with such a storm, but in no world would that be a bad thing.
6. Osulloc Tea Museum & Innisfree Jeju House 오설록 티뮤지엄 & 이니스프리 제주하우스
This is definitely one of the not-so-hidden spots on the list, but Osulloc, a famous Korean tea chain, is not just a cafe here. It’s a tea museum showcasing the variety and history of tea, with products specially produced and exclusively available at the Jeju Osulloc Tea Museum. You can even reserve a spot at the Tea Stone for a traditional tea-brewing and pouring lesson, but be sure to do it in advance on a crowded day, because this is a popular spot. There is, of course, a cafe, which is a must-go for matcha dessert fanatics. They serve green tea cake, green tea lattes, and green tea soft serve. You can head outside for a walk among the tea leaves to burn it off and take some great pictures along the way.
Right next door is the Innisfree Jeju House, a great stop for fans of Korean beauty products. Innisfree, an affordable beauty and skincare brand, markets their products for using organic ingredients from Jeju-do. Here, all their products are available for purchase (including those that can only be bought at the Jeju House) and you can even make your own soaps and bath bombs.
7. Tschang-yeul Kim Gallery 김창열미술관
This gallery is an extensive display of the work of Tschang-yeul Kim, a Korean artist globally famous for his realistic depictions of water drops on canvases. While many well-known galleries hold a couple of his paintings, having a space entirely devoted to showcasing his artwork makes a difference, as it shows how the individual pieces subtly differ. The gallery attempts to explain the philosophy behind these droplets, but it was a bit too lofty and abstract for me to fully grasp.
But it was easy enough to appreciate the gallery, complete with the sleek aesthetic of the architecture. I wondered what it’s like to devote an entire artistic career to the form and expression of a single object.
8. Piccola Cucina 피콜라쿠치나
This Italian restaurant was the highlight of my day when I went for dinner. Serving around four tables a night on a reservation-only basis and forbidding guests to take pictures of the beautifully decorated interior, Piccola Cucina offers a slightly mysterious and exclusive vibe that makes you feel like a part of something special; a beautiful secret in the middle of the island.
Fortunately, pictures of the food are allowed. The whole operation is run by a married couple that cooks and serves the food together. The mostly local ingredients, many of them home-grown, makes the food depart from traditional Italian cuisine to something with a rustic Korean twist. Order a glass of wine and dig in, humming to the retro French music playing in the background.
For example, dessert was tiramisu— but made with Jeju tangerines!
9. Handam Beach 한담해변
It would be silly to tour the island and not take a walk along the beach. Handam Beach is a nice spot, complete with rough waves on a windy day threatening to splash your feet. Enjoy the breeze, attempt to capture the timeless beauty of the ocean with a lowly phone camera— and fail, if you’re anything like me.
10. Saebil Cafe 새빌카페
It may look like an old, run-down resort from the outside, but do not drive by. At the doorway, the smell of freshly baked pastry begins to pull you in, and once you step inside, the high ceiling and polished interior of this cafe is sure to surprise you in the best way possible.
Their selection of pastries may leave you pacing for a while, unable to decide. Multiple menu items, however, are likely to be sold out at any point in time, narrowing your options and helping you make a choice.
The huge windows, almost like glass walls, offer a stunning view of Saebyul Oreum, a small nearby mountain. Watch tourists struggle up the hill as you sit back and sip a cappuccino.
11. Bonte Museum 본태박물관
This large private collection— another not-so-hidden spot— offers a variety of sights, but is definitely pricier than other galleries. Get a discount by purchasing tickets through Naver Reservation, but be sure to do this at least an hour in advance.
The architecture alone is pretty, but the exhibitions are full of content. Browse through a collection of traditional Buddhist art, western contemporary art, precious Korean craft items, and even a recent addition of Yayoi Kusama’s works.
Jeju Island has definitely changed. It’s still got the oldies, and if it’s your first trip, go ahead and take a submarine tour, climb Mt. Halla, pick tangerines, and ride ponies. But it also has the cultural complexity and modern development to keep you coming for more, offering something for every kind of traveler. Besides, if you’re a Seoul dweller, at least it’s above freezing temperature in the winter!