Image: Roman Harak
Image: Roman Harak
North Korea may seem like an unlikely must-go vacation destination. After all, Kim Jong-un’s socialist state has more of a reputation as a place where people build missiles, not sand castles. Moreover, as only 1,500 or so Westerners travel to the country every year, there aren’t a lot of outsiders who can spread the word about its good parts. And believe it or not, there are many good parts. The world’s most enigmatic state has plenty of hidden treasures: a ski resort, a waterpark, museums and festivals to rival those of any global getaway, and all within a landscape of extraordinary natural beauty. So here are 20 reasons to boldly go where very few tourists have gone before.
20. There’s plenty of watery fun to be had.
The vibrant Munsu Water Park opened in east Pyongyang in 2013. Indoor and outdoor pools and slides combine with rock climbing and – unusually – hairdressing facilities at the sprawling site. Huge glass Louvre-style pyramids, meanwhile, form part of the surreal surroundings.
Image: Jacek Karczmarczyk
19. Indulge in booze with added bite.
In North Korea it’s possible to uncork a nice bottle of snake wine with dinner. “Bem Ju” is made by coiling a serpent into a bottle of spirit and is believed to aid male virility. In fact, Kim Jong-un himself has reportedly guzzled it by the gallon in a bid to improve matters in the bedroom.
18. You can go the extra mile at the Pyongyang Marathon.
Foreign nationals can now enter the annual race, which takes place in April and affords runners incredible views of many of Pyongyang’s landmarks, including the Arch of Triumph and Rungra Bridge. Furthermore, those worrying about the terrain may breathe a little easier on knowing that “Pyongyang” translates to “Flat Land.”
17. You don’t have to battle with others to hit the slopes.
Not even 1 percent of North Korea’s population ski, but that didn’t stop Kim Jong-un building a multi-million-dollar ski complex outside the city of Wŏnsan in 2014. The Masikryong Ski Resort offers luxurious accommodation and dining, but perhaps the best thing about it is that there’s not much of a queue at the ski lift.
Image: Stuart Spivack
16. Find out if noodles are a dish best served cold.
North Korea is sometimes reported to be on the precipice of famine, but Pyongyang’s tourists are nevertheless well catered for on the culinary front. For example, important visitors have their bowls filled up with a tasty trout soup; meanwhile “naengmyeon” – cold noodles in broth – is arguably the capital’s signature dish and provides ample sustenance for the curious eater.
Image: John Pavelka
15. There’s an even grander, granite version of the Washington Monument.
At 560 feet tall, Juche Tower is the loftiest granite monument in the world. Situated on the River Taedong, the towering feature was inaugurated in 1982 to celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday and is comprised of 25,550 individual stones – one for every day that the former leader had lived at the time.
14. It’s possible to order a pint from a British brewery.
The Ushers brewery had led a quintessentially English life brewing real ales in Trowbridge until the turn of the millennium, when it packed up and moved to North Korea. The brewery was actually sold to Kim Jong-iI for more than $2.3 million and transported to Pyongyang, where today it produces the nation’s favorite pint, Taedonggang.
13. Catch “the greatest show on Earth.”
When it comes to national pride, North Korea likes to make a song and dance about it. The Arirang Mass Games celebrate Korean history on a record-breaking scale, with legions of dancers, martial artists and acrobats taking to the stage and over 30,000 schoolkids turning themselves into a human mosaic.
12. Take a communist history lesson like no other.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum is every bit as impartial as it sounds. Inside is perhaps the largest 360-degree panoramic display on the planet, as well as hordes of military gear and even planes that originally belonged to the U.S. Perhaps the most impressive exhibit of all, however, can be found docked outside in the shape of the captured USS Pueblo spy ship.
11. A little-known shipwreck is just begging to be explored – if you can get near it.
An unidentified shipwreck can be found close to Lake Sijung on North Korea’s eastern coast. The abandoned vessel is washed up on one of the country’s many beaches and appears to be guarded by KPA soldiers, further adding to the mystery surrounding the vessel’s original purpose.
Image: Mark Fahey
10. Guess who would give the gift of a warthog?
Ever wondered what gift to get the North Korean dictator who has everything? Well, the International Friendship Museum in Mount Myohyang has some helpful suggestions. Among the 100,000 global presents on display are a warthog from President Mugabe, Björk’s album Volta and a limousine made to withstand bullets that was originally gifted by Joseph Stalin.
9. You may find treasure in Mount Chilbo.
The “Chilbo” part of Mount Chilbo’s name means “seven treasures,” as legend has it that there are riches secreted inside. Even if you don’t manage to find the fabled loot, though, the 70 species of wildlife, numerous natural wonders and 1,000-year-old Kaesim Temple make the area well worth a visit regardless.
8. There’s – literally – underground art in Pyongyang.
The approximately 700,000 North Koreans who ride Pyongyang’s metro daily may see some pretty interesting things during their commutes. This is because the system’s 16 stations are elaborately decorated with ideological art: opulent sculptures, light installations and paintings designed to reflect the splendor of the North Korean regime.
7. The kids can experience a summer camp with a difference.
The port city of Wŏnsan offers something ideal for the smaller traveler – that is, the Songdowon International Children’s Camp. Here, campers from all over the world can enjoy traditional outdoor activities North Korean-style as well as the opportunity to splash about on their own private beach.
6. Eat, shoot and leave at the Meari Shooting Gallery.
Perhaps not in that order, though. Pheasant and chicken targets run live in Pyongyang’s huge sporting facility, which also includes several shooting ranges and an archery area. The fowl are all available to shoot, and if you hit the feathery bull’s-eye, you can take your prize home and have it for dinner.
Image:J.A. de Roo
5. See what the Supreme Leader wears on casual days.
The 72-foot-tall replica of Kim Jong-il standing atop Mansu Hill is part of North Korea’s grand tradition of covering its land with icons of its Supreme Leaders. Mere months after its introduction, however, the bronze version of Kim underwent a slight costume change when its formal-looking jacket was replaced by a more weather-resistant-seeming overcoat.
4. Find out what North Korean kids do for – state-sanctioned – fun.
North Korean schoolkids can take part in a range of extra-curricular activities in the 650 rooms at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. The huge facility can daily accommodate 10,000 children, many of whom perform nationalist songs for visiting tourists.
Image:Kok Leng Yeo
3. Visit a centuries-old World Heritage-listed site.
Just 13 miles or so from Pyongyang’s downtown area are 30 ancient tombs dating as far back as 427 A.D. The intriguing Complex of Goguryeo is believed to have been a burial ground for ancient Korean royalty, and the site itself boasts some incredible murals painted many centuries ago.
2. See one country bloom in two colors.
They attract hundreds of thousands more visitors than the Philadelphia International Flower Show, but at North Korea’s Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia festivals only two types of flora are ever in bloom. Indeed, crowds see the aptly dubbed Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Exhibition Hall filled with nationalist displays of just the pink Kimilsungia, named after Kim Il-sung, and red Kimjongilia, named for Kim Jong-il. Even so, the displays are truly spectacular.
1. Travel to one of the tallest unfinished hotels in the world.
If you think that North Korea might just be worth a visit after all, then go to Pyongyang’s Ryungong Hotel – but don’t check in. After all, the 105-story, 1,080-foot behemoth has been in development for close to 30 years but is still to be opened. Definitely worth a look all the same, though.