‘Dine for a day in Jeonju, be spoilt for a lifetime’ is an age-old local maxim that still has currency. Two hours from Seoul, Jeonju is a popular day trip for the capital’s foodie crowd – and a worthwhile minibreak from the hustle of the big city.
Jeonju can transport you to another time.
In its old town quarter – known as ‘Hanok Village’, or Maeul – hundreds of traditional town houses rub shoulders, their gardens and courtyards shadowdraped, the air filled with the tinkle of wind chimes and whispers of the past. It’s a beguiling place when the sun is setting.
If you really want to immerse yourself in Jeonju’s yesteryear, follow the local ‘Generation Z’ lead and hire a traditional hanbok costume for two hours (KRW12,000–24,000). Women flounce around town in chima (billowy chiffon dresses that are often finely decorated), while men opt for baji leggings and dapper headgear including the gat (like a top hat but made of mesh).
Incongruous scenarios play across Jeonju as day-trippers – dressed as the well-to-do from another century – enjoy 21st century pleasures against a golden-oldie backdrop. These anachronistic moments epitomise Korea’s melding of past and future, of technologies and traditions. Sightseers in hanbok take selfies while munching on-trend street food before cruising around historic streets on electric mopeds.
There’s even the option to ride a ‘rail bike’ along a section of railway track 2km east of the Maeul, on the edge of town (420 Dongbu-daero, Deokjin-gu; jeonju-railbike.kr Korean only). The tracks used by these contraptions are 1.7km long and, fortunately, are not used by trains, so there’s little chance of a KTX high-speed express coming up behind and shunting you the 191km back to Seoul!
I don’t recall ever seeing a train passenger wearing hanbok – there’s definitely a time and a place for such fun – but I certainly have seen hungry about-towners queuing at food stalls and cafés in the unmissable costume.
And they’ve good reason to be hungry – everyone must arrive in Jeonju that way. After all, Koreans come here for the cooking, especially for bibimbap.
The local style (and remember, this is where bibimbap originated) is to serve beef-broth-boiled rice, crowned with namul toppings (such as raw egg and a mung bean jelly called hwang pomuk), in a brass bowl. This carefully prepared offering must all be thoroughly combined (along with a good dollop of gochujang chilli pepper paste) until it’s a messy mishmash! That’s what bibimbap means, apparently, ‘mixed rice’.
(119 Eojin-gil, Wansan-gu) has been making a definitive (and, yes, supremely memorable) version since 1952. At the other end of the spectrum, Gyodong Croquette (126 Gyeonggijeon-gil) stuffs its crisp buns with bibimbap and other iconic Korean tastes, including galbi. Classic dishes made into trendy street food!
Another runaway social media success – ‘hashtag’ Korean ice cream! – is on offer at Sobok (81-5 Gyo-dong, Wansan-gu). Located on the Maeul’s main drag (so it’s a good people-watching spot, too), this bijou dessert parlour makes some superior icy concoctions. The injeolmi iceballs (with mochi inside) will melt your foodie heart. It’s a good way to round off the day.
At breakfast time there’s an appealing open-air market on the banks of Jeonju stream that skirts the southern edge of Hanok Village. Pause for a moment on the stepping-stones and look upstream – there might be cranes wading through the crystalline waters.
The stepping-stones lead to Namba Market, which is in many ways a bridge between the old town and the modern city beyond. It is a city that should not be overlooked: swing by Dagadong and Jungandong neighbourhoods (just a 20-minute walk from the Maeul) for their hipster cafés and old-school PNB Bakery (180 Paldal-ro, Pungnam-dong; pnb1951.com Korean only). Its Chocopie is another hashtag moment!
PNB Bakery dates back to 1951, and, surprisingly, the classic teahouse culture in the old town is a decade or two younger! Sadly, the number of traditional teahouses is dwindling…you can count the remaining establishments on the fingers of one hand.
At his elegant teahouse Gyodong Dawon (64-7 Gyo-dong, Wansan-gu), Master Gi Jung Hwang brews some delicious teas, made with leaves he grows in his own plantation in a valley some 20 minutes’ drive out of town. The hwangcha ‘yellow tea’ is lightly fermented, affording it a delicate, full flavour, and lovely golden hue.
Master Hwang won’t rush you. The Hanok Village beyond his little courtyard’s walls may be abuzz with hanbok-attired day-trippers, electric bikes, and lively cafés, but in his hushed teahouse time stands still. For a moment.