South Korea knows how to let loose and get wonderfully bonkers. Of course, the country’s wealth of captivating temples and museums are well worth visiting.
But beyond the zen of temples and earnestness of history museums, a visit to some of Korea’s lesser-known sights offers fascinating insight into the quirkier side of its culture and history: think North Korea, K-pop music videos and vintage knickknacks from days gone by.
If you’re feeling a bit templed-out, opt in for a few of these fun spots, which rank among our favourite offbeat (and just plain weird) sights in South Korea. Most are in Seoul or a quick bus ride away to a wilder side of this wacky peninsula.
Mr Toilet House
One big toilet museum in Gyeonggi-do
A contender for the strangest sight in Korea (and possibly the world) is this toilet-shaped house-museum. Shaped like a giant porcelain god, Mr Toilet House is dedicated to loos and potties of all kinds. Housed in the former home of a mayor known for sprucing up the city’s public toilets, the house contains hilarious cartoonish sculptures of poo alongside a rather more serious section on public health and issues affecting toilet sanitation around the world.
The abandoned amusement park of K-pop videos in Seoul
On the edge of Seoul, almost nudged from memory, is an abandoned amusement park that is both eerie and wondrous. Unbolt the gate, walk in and expect goosebumps when you see the rides laid out before you like a toy town, ready to be explored. There are no queues, the place is yours; Yongma Land (69-1 Mangubon-dong, Jungnang-gu) is deathly quiet and smells of wild grass. Sit on a creaky carousel horse, look up at the tarpaulin riddled with holes and sunlight leaking in, and you might feel like you are in a post-apocalyptic world. No wonder K-pop music videos have been filmed here. The other big hits are the octopus arms, flying elephants, roof-garden dodge’em cars, and pirate ship that might still be filled with rain from the last shower.
Yongma Land is set amongst trees and wild vines on a hill with distant views of central Seoul, making it an alternative, captivating green space. It’s an oasis but you might bump into auteurs-to-be, young lovesick couples speaking in hushed voices, or a bride and groom with an entourage of photographers.
The custodians of Yongma Land watch from a small building above the park and will approach you for the ₩5,000 entrance fee if you head in via the gate to the left of the main castle entrance. In the evenings, they’ll sometimes throw on the lights, adding more enchantment, but you can’t fire up any of the rides so plan ahead: bring somebody strong to push you in that space shuttle. Getting there is fairly simple: take the Seoul metro to Mangu Station; it’s about a 10-minute walk east from Exit 1.
North Korean spy submarine
A piece of North Korea in South Korea at Unification Park, Gangneung, Gangwon-do
In 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground while spying on South Korea – at the very spot where the sub now sits high and dry. Today you can explore the cramped confines that the North Korean soldiers lived in underwater as they spied on a nearby military facility. Duck your head to enter the 35m-long sub and the claustrophobia hits you immediately. It’s cramped, dark, damp and full of wonderfully chunky old technology with dials to crank.
The ‘Penis Park’ in Sinnam, outside of Samcheok, Gangwon-do
There’s no softer way to say it, this is a park filled with penises. Haesindang Park’s not for titillation though, think totem poles, not Las Vegas. There are phallic carvings at every turn, with plenty of humour and over-the-top wishful thinking.
Styles are endless – playful, spiritual, intertwined, and as shapes in a face, rocket ship, fence post, stool, canon or windchimes. And even more bizarre. In the higher section there is even a Stonehenge-like ring of twelve statues to represent the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac…nestled in penises. There is no explanation.
This landscaped park clings to the coast, peering out across the sea to a statue of a drowned girl – the reason for the phalluses. Legend has it that after a young fisherman’s bride-to-be died, she cursed the fishing village of Sinnam so they couldn’t catch any fish. Then one day, a fisherman peed into the ocean and the fishing nets became magically full again. From that day on, the locals carved phalluses from wood to appease the virgin’s spirit and to assure a continued fish bounty.
Goseong Unification Observatory
Peek into North Korea from South Korea near Sokcho, Gangwon-do
If a submarine wasn’t enough North Korea, you can go to the most northerly point of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), Goseong Unification Obseratory, and peer into North Korea through binoculars from a viewing deck. At the kiosks you can stock up on actual liquor, postage stamps and other souvenirs from North Korea.
Cats with coffee in Seoul and across South Korea
Putting pets in a café is just made to make people smile. Many Koreans can’t afford the time or space for a pet in their tiny apartments, but still want to meet some adorable furry friends. Cue the dogs, cats or sheep (depending on the season) that roam free in Korean animal cafes. Most of these places have a no petting rule. Just sit down, order a smoothie or coffee and enjoy watching the animal antics. Cats often are given high ledges to escape to when they’re done with the humans.
Chamsori Gramophone & Edison Museum
Old-school Korea in Gangneung, Gangwon-do
Replete with old-school charm, the Chamsori Gramophone & Edison Museum maintains a vast collection of antique gramophones, music boxes and Thomas Edison’s inventions. The fascinating booty is spread through cabinets across multiple levels and includes retro TVs, toasters, Mickey Mouse clocks and ‘I had one of those!’ collectables. The childhood nostalgia makes it popular with kids, children-at-heart and design- or history boffins. The free tour may be in Korean only, but everybody is left wordless when a decades-old gramophone is hand-cranked to life and a cylindrical record sings to the room from yesteryear.