If you are looking for a weekend getaway from Seoul, look no further! Ganghwado is a perfect little secluded gem that is both rural and also has plenty to see and do. You will need more than just an afternoon to fully explore this place, so go prepared to find a hotel and stay for a couple of days at least!
Located at the estuary of the Han River and the Yellow Sea, the island has provided strategic outpost for defense against many invaders throughout history. The French, Americans, and Japanese armies have all attacked this island, and all but the Japanese were turned away. To this day, the fortresses still stand across Ganghwado. There is a lot of history on this island and so much to do, so we have created this guide to highlight just a few of them!
This tiny fishing village is located right next to the ferry terminal on the west side of the island and is where we chose to spend our night after exploring the area. It is one of the just a handful of places on the island with hotels and restaurants. The area surrounding the bus terminal also has plenty of hotels, but it is not really close to anything we were planning to see. The southern beach, Dongmak also has a lot of pensions and hotels, but during high season, you will need to book them in advance.
On the far east side of the island, you can take a ferry to the small island Seokmodo. It takes about 15 minutes to get there and then you must take a bus to the temple. Founded in 635 CE and located on top of Mt. Nakgasan, this place is well worth the hike! When we finally made it to the top, fog started rolling in over the mountain making everything look very dramatic. This was by far one of the most beautiful temples we have ever been to. One of the most interesting features of this place was seeing over 300 sculptures of seated monks, all with different facial expressions. If you choose to hike the 600 stairs to the top, you can see a 10m high carving of Buddha into the side of the mountain. Since we had to catch the last bus of the day, we did not have time to go to the top. Afterwards, we caught the ferry back to Ganghwado.
In 2017, there will be a bridge to this island completed so ferries will no longer be necessary to get here. Soon there will be a bus route connecting Ganghwado to Seokmodo!
Jeondeungsa is said to be Korea’s oldest Buddhist temple. The temple dates back to 381 CE and it is yet another of the many beautiful historic temples on the island. It is said to have been built by the three sons of Dangun Wanggeom, the founder of the Korean nation.
As you head up Jeongjok mountain, you can see a temple that is completely surrounded by a fortress. It is called the Samnang fortress and to get to the temple, you have to pass through its gate. The Goryeo Royal Family, during the invasion of the Mongols, fled the former capital of Korea (Kaeseong, now in North Korea) and constructed a temporary palace within the temple grounds.
While here, we saw a group of foreigners who were doing a templestay program as well! If you are interested in getting away from the city and checking out the island, check out the templestay website here to make a reservation!
The various dolmens on Ganghwado act a headstones for royalty. These are thought to be some of the oldest burial markers in Korea. These stones can weigh several tons and required impressive mechanics to put the top stone in place. There are many of these dolmens spread throughout the island, but the biggest of them all is just north of the famous Goryeosan Mountain. Next to this particular dolmen site are two museums: the Ganghwado History Museum and the Natural Science Museum. You could easily hike Goryeosan Mountain down to this site and then catch the next bus back to town!
We did a quick hike up one of the cliffs next to the shore in the Oepo village and accidentally stumbled upon the Saman Dondae. A dondae is a small defensive fort made of stone is strategically located on the borderline or coastline area to observe foreign activities and prevent invasion. In 1697, a number of dondae were installed around Ganghwado to form a defensive system. This one is in the small town, Oepo, by the ferry terminal! There are many more around the island that are more maintained like the Odu Dondae on the east coast of the island. Below is a map to that site!
The west coast of Korea is covered in mudflats. As beautiful as sandy beaches can be, the mudflats in Korea have their own charm too. Many people in Korea love going out in the mud digging for lunch – clams and crabs. We did not go digging for such things, but we did get in the mud! We initially just wanted to get a little mud between our toes, but after the first few steps we sank down pretty deep! Quite a few times, we had to help each other out of a sink hole or two. Most of the beaches on the island have mudflats at low tide. This one we found was pretty secluded in the small town Oepo by the ferry terminal. There is another huge beach, Dongmak Beach, on the southern tip of the island that is also worth checking out!
In April, the best thing to do on Ganhwado is to check the azalea festival on Goryeosan Mountain. The entire mountainside is simply covered with these beautiful purple blossoms and you can spend an entire afternoon hiking through the flowers. Ganghwado is the perfect hiking destination since it is pretty rural and the air quality is much better than in the big city.
Since the island is so big and historic, it takes more than just one afternoon to see it all. We spent three days on Ganghwado and still wish to return to see more of this beautiful place. Getting there takes around an hour and a half bus ride from Seoul.
You can take the 3000 bus 200 meters outside of Sinchon Station. Take exit #4 and walk west up the street (30 minute intervals). Or you can Go to Yeongdeungpo Station and take Bus 1 (15 minute intervals). Ganghwado bus terminal is the last stop on these buses.
ENGLISH TOURIST MAP AND INFO
Once at the bus terminal, go to the tour information booth (inside the terminal near the bathrooms). The man there is SUPER nice and helpful and will take you inside his office and print off a lot of different photos and directions and information for you!