You love Seoul. Of course you do! With its mountain hikes, huge shopping complexes, and amazing cafes, it really is the city that has it all. And yet, sometimes we just need a break. One of the best places for this is Namhae, which translates to the Southern Sea, and is home to a plethora of villages, cities and islands with a more rural feel. It’s a great place to embrace Korea’s ancient traditions, try unique food not found in the capital, and check out some amazing scenery. We could talk for days on end about where you should go, but for now, we’ll start with 6 of our top options.
1. Geoje Island / Windy Hill
Geoje is a beautiful spot on the very far coast of South Korea in South Gyeongsang Province. The whole region consists of a number of islands, but Geoje is the largest. It’s not too far from Busan, so it’s a great day trip if you’re spending time in Korea’s second-largest city. Mostly known for its ship-building industry (and large Norwegian ex-pat community), Geoje is a unique international hub with gorgeous sea views and scenic photo stops.
I took the opportunity during my time in Geoje to visit Windy Hill, a cozy little windmill located next to a fishing village. It’s not too far off from the main island, but taking a car is the easiest option if you can. Like all tourist destinations in the summer, it was flooded with people. But that didn’t distract me as I made my little trek up the hill. The windmill itself is nothing special, particularly by European standards, but the surrounding islands are truly gorgeous. Head all the way to the end of the pathway – far past the windmill – for the best views!
If you make your way back to the pier, you can purchase a boat ticket for Oedo Island. This is a hot spot for K-drama lovers, particularly Chinese travelers, due to its famous filming locations. If you’ve seen Winter Sonata or Hospital Ship, some of the gardens may look familiar. I fully intended to visit, but due to the strong winds (notice my hair in the above photo), all boat trips were canceled. If you’re dead-set on heading out that way, make sure that you check the weather beforehand and avoid any rain or wind.
The nearby village has a few small gift shops where you can buy local, handmade crafts. If you’ve got one of those bathrooms where your overall theme is ‘beach’, then it’s they’re a definite must-see. Like all good Korean towns, there are several coffee shops to stop at before or after your walk. And of course, if you’re a seafood lover, what better place to grab lunch than an island?
2. Hwaeomsa Temple
For the first temple on this list, we have to travel to the little countryside town of Gurye. Gurye isn’t known for much, but people from all over the country travel to the nearby Hwaeomsa Temple to pay their respects and practice their faith.
The compound is home to multiple shrines, walking paths, and a residency for Templestay programs. It’s also home to a collection of mountain cats lingering behind pillars and lounging in the courtyards. You’ll even see some of them taking their afternoon nap inside the buildings.
One particularly nice aspect of Hwaeomsa is that it’s home to 6 National Treasures (the actual government-related organization, no relation to my boi Nick Cage), 8 Treasures, and 2 Tangible Cultural Assets. For us historians, it’s practically an amusement park. Visit in the spring to see the stunning 300-year Pin Cherry Tree, which is said to be the first of its kind to blossom in Korea.
If you’d like to make your time a little more special, you can pay 10,000 won to write your wish on a roof tile. They’ll use it for any new buildings or any repairs they need to make. When not being used, they keep them out for decoration in the garden.
3. Suncheonman Bay Gardens
A surprising stop on my trip was none other than Suncheonman Bay Gardens. I suppose it was unexpected because we rolled into a parking lot near a few apartment buildings, and suddenly we were transported into a sprawling park, animal center, and world garden.
Suncheonman is a haven for plant lovers, boasting over 500 different types of trees and over 100 species of flowers. The most stunning view was probably the tulips in the Holland section of the World Garden. Although I visited in the late summer, the guide suggested that we come back in the spring, when the yellow canola flowers are in full bloom.
Aside from the various plants, you can also see a few animals here. I took a photo of this chubby bubby meerkat, but there wasn’t much information as to why or how any of the critters came to Korea. My fear is that they were purchased purely for entertainment’s sake, so it’s something I’ll be looking into further.* Unfortunately, I didn’t know they were here before going into the garden, and I admit that I should’ve done more research. If this is something you also care about, try contacting the garden beforehand for more information.
My favorite part of the park was probably the Bridge of Dreams, created by my favorite Korean artist, Kang Ik-Joong. I wrote about Kang Ik-Joong for my Master’s dissertation, so you can imagine how pleased I was to see one of his most charming installations. Made by over 140,000 children from 16 different countries, the Bridge of Dreams displays hope and encouragement for the future. Sometimes, we could all probably do to think more like a kid.
*What’s Han Your Mind? aims to avoid animal exploitation or abuse when visiting tourist sites or popular destinations such as animal cafes. We aim to do all the research we can before offering these places our money.
4. Suncheon Bay Ecological Park
One of my favorite stops on the trip was the Suncheon Bay Ecological Park. The park is actually a vast stretch of land that’s home to a wide variety of native plants and creatures. As you walk around, you’re accompanied by the light sound of your shoes against the wooden boardwalk and the background noise of grass rustling in the breeze.
Follow the boardwalk all around, and be sure to look over the edge into the mud. Here you’ll find fiddler crabs. These little guys have one giant claw to impress the ladies and to attack other males. I thought they were so cute that I practically spent my entire visit just watching them dig their way through the dirt.
The gift shop near the parking lot is really a treat, even if you’re not a fan of souvenirs. They sell local artwork and goods from creatives living in the Suncheon area. I picked up a gorgeous wooden frame with a handwritten, Korean poem inside. It’s still one of my favorite purchases in Korea which I keep on my wall at work.
Hyangilam is a kind of region more than just a temple – it includes a small cafe and restaurant street and traditional artist studios, most of which specialize in Buddhist paintings. Despite it originally being a hermitage, the site is flocked by Korean tourists who come out for the ocean views. Sadly, the temple was the target of an arsonist and was burnt down in 2009. The complex has since been rebuilt, but the buildings are now replicas.
Despite having to hike up 291 steps to the top of the hill, it’s all worth it. Many people believe that this place is magical – literally – and that coming here in the New Year will make your wishes come true. Even though I was about 6 months off, I could definitely feel the magic of this place.
Before heading up the hill, check out Impo Village, where you can find famous shops selling mustard kimchi and local makgeolli flavors. I lounged in a cafe with a wide balcony, where everyone seemed to favor the silence. I also had a nice chat with many of the local artists, fellow Buddhists, who were eager to share their faith and stories with me.
6. Boriam Temple
And to save the best for last, Boriam is a Buddhist temple smack-dab in the middle of Hallyeohaesang National Park.
The temple, like others around the peninsula, has a fascinating backstory. Its three-storied pagoda is said to have been built by stones brought by Queen Heo, an Indian princess who would later initiate the Gaya Kingdom’s foundation through her marriage to King Suro. This is really more of a fantasy since archaeologists have dated the rocks much more recently in the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392).
There are several ways to reach the temple. You can take the shuttle bus, drive up to the mountain parking lot, or you can hike the entire length of the mountain for about an hour. If you’re taking a car, be sure to get here early because parking spaces are limited.
Due the absolutely stunning architecture, the crowds flood in at all times of the day. Just relax, take your time, learn to bow, soak in the chants, and take a hike to the lower levels for differing mountain perspectives.
Namhae is a gorgeous part of Korea with hundreds of cities, hikes, beaches, temples, forests, and more. You can visit staple destinations from your Korean guide book, or just drive and end up in a hermitage somewhere. Whatever it is that you like to do when you’re out exploring, the southern coast is sure to have it all. Consider this a quick reference for some stops that will inspire you, and let us know if you discover something amazing that we may have missed.
Until your Namhae trip, keep exploring!