Incheon’s main claim to fame is being the location of South Korea’s busiest airport but what most people don’t realize is that Incheon is also a busy seaport and the nation’s third-largest city, making it a dynamic destination of its own.
Though it’s been inhabited for thousands of years, Incheon really began its rise in the 19th century when it became an international seaport in 1883. Since then, and with the opening of Incheon International Airport in 2001, the city has grown to a population of nearly 3 million people. Known for sprawling parks, wide swaths of beach, and ancient, colorful temples, Incheon is more than just an airport layover, it’s a well-deserving candidate for a prime spot on your South Korean itinerary.
Explore Incheon International Airport
Most people who visit Incheon do so as transit passengers through Incheon International Airport. But even if the airport is your only experience of this vibrant city, you can still get a taste of the local culture (with a smattering of Duty Free shopping on the side).
Within the airport itself you’ll find a Korean culture museum, Korean restaurants set in replica hanok (traditional Korean houses), and various performances that include traditional music, dance, and costumes. If you have a long layover, check out the free transit tour service offered by the airport. Tours of various Incheon attractions range from one to four hours and include destinations such as the 4th-century Jeondeungsa Temple, and the world-renowned art gallery at Paradise City, a casino, spa, and entertainment complex.
Visit Korea's Only Official Chinatown
Chinese immigrants began flocking to Incheon after the territory was leased to China’s Qing Dynasty in the 1880s. The area is Korea’s only official Chinatown and home to a modest Chinese community, plus scores of scrumptious eateries proffering Chinese-Korean fare like jjamppong (spicy seafood stew) and jajangmyeon, an iconic dish made from black bean noodles that originated in Incheon Chinatown in the early 1900s.
Exit at Incheon Subway Station (Line 1 on the Seoul Metropolitan Subway) and walk under an ornate 36-foot-tall Chinese-style gateway to find the quintessentially red-hued buildings, colorful historical artwork on Samgukji Mural Street, and the Jajangmyeon Museum, dedicated to the popular noodle dish of the same name.
Get Lost in Incheon Grand Park
For a bucolic countryside experience without leaving the Seoul Capital Area, a visit to the 727-acre Incheon Grand Park is in order. Less than an hour’s drive from Incheon International Airport, the sprawling green space is a natural oasis set between Gwanmosan and Sangasan mountains. Countless diversions are available in the park, including walking trails, sledding hills, an outdoor theater, botanical garden, skating rink, and bike rentals.
Give Thanks at Yonggungsa Temple
One of the stops on the Incheon Airport free transit tour itinerary is Yonggungsa Temple. Although it was originally founded in the 8th century, this quaint temple was reconstructed by the 19th-century politician Heungseon Daewongun, who used the temple as a sanctuary where he prayed for his son to become king. After 10 years, his prayers were heard, his son became King Gojong, and the temple was rebuilt as an offering of thanks.
Go Back in Time at Songdo Hanok Village
A hanok is a traditional Korean wooden house, featuring a gently sloping roof, tile accents, and generally a few large brown kimchi pots dotted nearby for good measure.
Set within the seaside Songdo Central Park is Songdo Hanok Village, a graceful cluster of hanok houses erected to provide a glimpse into life in a historic Korean village. In addition to featuring prime examples of Joseon-era architecture, there are also free bi-monthly cultural performances, and a variety of Korean restaurants to give your visit a local flavor.
Marvel at Jeondeungsa Temple
Set in Samrangseong Fortress, Jeondeungsa Temple is presumed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Korea, having been built in the 4th century when Buddhism was first introduced to the Korean peninsula by monks traveling from China.
The temple is famed for its eye-catching architecture, including the impressive Daeungbojeon Hall (the main worship hall) which houses an ornately carved wood canopy as a backdrop for a serene gold Buddha statue. In addition to the hall, which is Korea National Treasure No. 178, other national treasures on-site include the Yangheonsu Victory Monument and the 11th-century Beomjong Bell.
Shop Until You Drop at Sinpo International Market
What originally began as a few vendors selling vegetables to the Japanese, Chinese, and Western settlers who flocked to the area after Incheon Port opened in the late 19th century is now the sizable Sinpo International Market home to over 140 stores.
The extensive market features a variety of wares such as shoes, clothing, and fish, but is mainly known for stalls purveying savory dishes such as dakgangjeong (fried chicken coated in sweet and spicy sauce), mandu (dumplings), and egg tart.
Get Luxurious in Paradise City
Channel your inner 007 with a jaunt to Paradise City, an extravagant hotel, casino, spa, dining, and entertainment complex worthy of a James Bond flick. The massive resort-style complex is billed as the first in Northeast Asia, and highlights include Imperial Treasure (a Michelin-starred restaurant serving Cantonese cuisine), an indoor theme park, and the extensive, ultra-chic Cimer Spa offering indoor and outdoor pools, 11 tranquil rest areas, and a variety of traditional Korean saunas.
A guided tour of Paradise Art Space, the complex’s sleek art gallery, is one of the stops on the free transit tour service offered by the airport.
Ride a Ferris Wheel on Wolmido Island
Set half a mile off the coast of Incheon and connected by a bridge, Wolmido Island makes for a popular weekend destination during warmer months due to its festive carnival atmosphere. Stroll down The Culture Street through various squares that feature imaginative sculptures and regular live performances, pause for a coffee at one of the many sea-view cafes lining the boardwalk, or ride the pirate ship or the 377-foot-tall Ferris wheel in the fanciful Wolmi Theme Park.
Stroll Through Songdo Central Park
The natural centerpiece of Incheon is Songdo Central Park, a pastoral delight juxtaposed against towering skyscrapers. The park was modeled after Manhattan’s Central Park, and in addition to walking trails and picnic areas, it features meadows full of deer, the aforementioned hanok village, and a man-made lake offering paddle boats and water taxis.
Birdwatch at Sorae Ecology Park
Once the Sorae Salt Field that produced the largest amount of sun-dried sea salt in Korea until 1996, the Sorae Ecology Park has swapped the popular seasoning with an array of walking trails and natural beauty.
The park’s history is well-preserved in the form of a Salt Field Learning Center, which allows you a peek at the old salt warehouse, and a chance to experience the art of salt harvesting for yourself. The marshy park is also a prime spot for birdwatching, and is known for the handful of cute wooden windmills dotting its landscape.
Be Enchanted by Songwol-dong Fairy Tale Village
What was once a rundown area of Incheon has been transformed into the beloved Songwol-dong Fairy Tale Village, a bright, whimsical tourist attraction decorated with scenes from famous fairy tales. Particularly prized among the Instagram crowd, the still-inhabited neighborhood is bedecked with rainbows and castles, and features paintings or statues of classic characters such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Snow White.
Relax on the Beach
Incheon Airport is set on an artificially created patch of land between Yeongjong and Yongyu islands. This means that's it's only a quick taxi ride away from the broad white-sand Eurwangni Beach.
While the beach is only open for swimming in the summer season, strolls on the sand can be taken year round. It also boasts dozens of seafood restaurants and affordable hotels lining the seafront.
Take a Day Trip to Baengnyeong Island
Although it’s actually a four-hour ferry ride away from Incheon, Baengnyeong Island and its unique landscape are must-sees for those interested in seeing the area’s wild side.
Looking at a map, it appears as though Baengnyeong Island would be across the border in North Korea, but it’s actually one of South Korea’s five northwestern border islands. The remote, windswept island is renowned for its literary history and mysterious rock formations, and the wide, empty Sagot Beach which was used as a military airport during the Korean War.