All eyes are on Pyeongchang, South Korea, as the nations of the world come together for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. What many people haven’t realized, though, is that Pyeongchang is a stunning destination year-round — and that was the case long before it became a designated Olympic host.
- Area: 565 sq mi (1,464 sq km)
- Population: 44,000
- Official language: Korean
- Currency: South Korean won
- Time zone: Korea Standard Time (GMT +9)
- Drive on the: Right
Where in the World
Located about 110 miles (177 km) east of Seoul, Pyeongchang is a South Korean county nestled in the Taebaek Mountains. With a low population density, it’s a quiet place where nature comes first. Many people call Pyeongchang the “Alps of Korea”; during your visit you’re likely to see lots of references to “Happy700,” a humble brag that the county’s average altitude is 700 meters (2,297 feet) above sea level.
Pyeongchang is home to a national park and — it goes without saying — several Olympic sites. This year, the Winter Olympic Games will be spread out across two clusters. In the Pyeongchang Mountain Cluster, you’ll find the Olympic Plaza (the location for all medals ceremonies), the Olympic Stadium (the venue for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies), and the centers where most sporting events will take place. Meanwhile, the venues in the Gangneung Coastal Cluster are located just outside of Pyeongchang County, near the Sea of Japan. Those venues will play host to cultural and sporting events like ice hockey, speed skating, figure skating, and curling.
What to Do
Olympic enthusiasts can certainly find plenty to do in Pyeongchang, but the county’s most impressive sights aren’t at all limited to sporting arenas.
At least up until the Olympics began, the Woljeongsa Temple was probably the best-known tourist attraction in Pyeongchang. Located inside Odaesan National Park, this important Buddhist site dates to 643 A.D. and is surrounded by towering fir trees. The temple’s highlights include a nine-story octagonal pagoda and an abundance of Buddhist artifacts that are displayed in the on-site museum. If a quick visit doesn’t sate your curiosity, you can spend a weekend in the temple for 50,000 to 160,000 won (roughly $47 to $150), depending on the overnight package you select.
Of course, the temple isn’t the only site you’ll want to visit in Odaesan. The mountainous park features the largest wooded area in all of South Korea, and its highest peak caps at 5,128 feet (1,563 meters). What’s more, Odaesan’s bountiful foliage includes royal azalea, the bright pink flower that doubles as a regional symbol in Pyeongchang. You can hike to your heart’s content on the park’s many trails, although you’ll want to keep in mind that the reserve doesn’t allow hiking after sundown. While you can spend the night at the park’s campground, you might want to find other accommodations during the chilly winter months.
Pyeongchang’s sparkling rivers also make the county exceptionally beautiful. Several groups offer river rafting tours throughout Pyeongchang, and many adventure travelers agree that the unspoiled Donggang River is the best option. And even if you’ve never tried your hand at river rafting, you don’t need to worry — the Donggang has plenty of calm stretches where you can relax and take in the scenery.
Phoenix Snow Park is another must-visit. The official Olympic venue for snowboarding and freestyle skiing events, this massive ski resort includes 21 runs, a ski school, a sledding hill, a hotel, and a youth hostel. A paradise for skiers and snowboarders alike, the grounds feature plenty of snowpack during the winter, and the views from the gondola are breathtaking. Just make sure that you bundle up — temperatures often drop well below 0°F (-18°C).
How to Get There
There are many ways to reach Pyeongchang from Seoul and Incheon, but the best options are high-speed train, bus, or car.
South Korea’s high-speed railway service, KTX, provides an easy way to travel throughout the country. With 18 cars, the trains are extremely long, and there’s usually a dining car and an on-board trolley service for hungry passengers. Pyeongchang-bound travelers should alight at either Pyeongchang station or Jinbu station; tickets are available for purchase through KORAIL.
If you’d prefer a cheaper fare, there are buses available from Seoul’s Dong Terminal or Nambu Terminal. Keep your eyes peeled for Pyeongchang Terminal, Hoenggye Terminal or Jinbu Terminal, the major bus stations in Pyeongchang county. For the two-hour bus ride from Dong Terminal to Hoenggye Terminal, an adult fare costs 12,900 won (roughly $12).
Finally, if you’d like to make the drive yourself, plan to spend two and a half hours traveling from Seoul, or three hours from Incheon. You’ll need to pay tolls, so make sure you’ve got some money on you, and double-check that you’ll have reliable navigation on your phone or built into the car.
With so much to do and see, Pyeongchang County is a beautiful place for both nature lovers and Olympics fans. We’ll see you there in 2018!
Cover photo by Lars van den Brink