Jeju Island, South Korea. At this point you’ve undoubtedly heard of, if not seen, the hit Netflix show Squid Game (don’t worry, no spoilers). When asked what she would hypothetically do with the prize money, Kang Sae-byeok talks about her dream of one day going to a place called Jeju Island (Episode 1.6). Having never heard of this island from Squid Game, I decided to do a quick search to learn more about it– and I’m amazed at what I found.
Jeju island is a true paradise on earth; Azalea covered hiking trails, crystal blue waters and a sisterhood of local divers (I’ll explain). All surrounded by over 300 satellite volcanoes. The largest island off the peninsula of South Korea. It’s a popular spot for Japanese and local tourists– and for good reason. Waterfalls, white sand beaches, caves to explore, parks, markets, and museums, Jeju seems to have something for everyone. No wonder it’s such a popular tourist attraction for families, honeymooners, and solo travelers.
A UNESCO Biosphere reserve, a natural heritage site, and a geological park. This enchanting island is home to diverse plants, wildlife and snaking lava tubes. The main focal point of the island, Hallasan, is the highest mountain in South Korea at about 6500 ft. You can even hike it and experience the majestic views for yourself if you start early enough in the day.
Something to note: There are little to no English speakers on the island, so make sure you practice some basic Korean to get around.
This blew me away: Mermaids are real, and they live off the coast of South Korea. They’re called haenyeo (pronounced hen-yo) and they’re a local, highly respected group of women. Some in their 80s, that dive without gear or breathing apparatuses into the cold waters, holding their breath for up to 2 minutes at a time in order to harvest conch, abalone and other shellfish for the local fisheries. This practice, passed down through generations, can be seen at certain times of day on the island. The women put on a “show” though don’t expect a scripted song and dance! Though you can purchase shells and seaweed snacks from them in the later afternoon.
Commercial fishing is one of the biggest parts of the local economy. Unsurprisingly, the selection of fresh seafood is enough to make a pescatarian out of anyone.
Things to Do
Dongmun Market is the largest and oldest on the island. An experience in and of itself, you can wander the stalls and find fresh caught seafood, local snacks, souvenirs, and street food.
Yeomiji is the biggest botanical garden in Asia…and one of the most extraordinary. Presently, one of the largest greenhouses in the world, it contains more than 2,000 plants, sea plants and cacti. Also, showcasing a classic Italian garden with ponds and water lilies as well as a Japanese garden with traditional red bridges and unique trees. Naturally, you’re sure to find sensory tranquility here.
Horse breeding farms, and the history of horseback riding are popular with tourists. Surprisingly, these horses were originally left behind by the Mongols during their invasions! Talk about pedigree.
Fans of green tea rejoice! With the perfect climate for growing and harvesting tea leaves, the island is home to several tea plantations, many of which are open to the public.
There are boat tours that can take you to the smaller, neighboring islands as well. Book a tour around the island’s hotspots.
The Geomun Oreum lava cave system is hailed as one of the best in the world. There’s over 5 miles here of former magma channels. This created the magnificent Manjanggul Cave. Multicolored carbonate roofs and floors, and dark colored lava walls make you feel like you’re stepping into another world. You can easily visit these caves as part of a day trip with a local, knowledgeable guide. Reserve a spot on a tour today or book a private, customizable adventure.
Jusang Jeollidae is a site to behold and one of the island’s must-sees. This breathtaking site features over one mile of rare rock formations off the southern coast. Specifically, creating a stunning group of pillars created by the rapid cooling and shrinking of lava.
Jeonbang waterfall is on the southern coast, reaching 23 meters high, and flows directly into the sea. Though beautiful, the terrain is rocky and dangerous. Don’t expect to get too close! As always, make sure you have travel insurance.
Cheonjiyeon waterfall is found on the southern coast, which plunges into a pool and winds through a canyon and into the sea. There is a must-see area here to walk around and take all the pictures you’d need to make your social networks jealous.
There’s a beautiful Folklore & Natural History Museum, which displays clothing of first settlers and the boats that brought them to the island.
Another great spot, a newly complete historical and cultural space called the Stone Park and Museum featuring carved lava stones. A short bus ride just south of Jeju City, admission is about 5,000 won (around $5 USD).
Samyang Dong museum is an open air museum that features the early inhabitants’ first ways of life. Showcases round huts made of reed and stone. By and large, the Indigenous population were once farmers and hunters until tourism arrived and changed their way of life.
Jeju Island has its own major airport where a flight in from Seoul takes just over an hour, and a flight from the more southern Busan takes just under an hour. Conversely, there is also an option to take a ferry from some of the smaller southern ports, which takes 2-4 hours depending.
With all this to do and more, you could easily make an entire trip out of your time on Jeju, and its popularity is for good reason. All this natural wonder, history, and tons of activities, and you don’t need 40 billion won to do it. Who says TV can’t teach you anything?