Posted by: Matt Kelley | 12 January 2009

Incheon: Gateway to Northeast Asia

incheon_wolmidoOne of the wonderfully funky buildings that line the beachfront on Incheon’s Wolmi Island.

How about we escape the sub-zero temperatures of Seoul for a reminder of a warmer time several months back? This time around we hop on Seoul Metro and go west to the port city of Incheon: the city that’s striving to be the gateway to Northeast Asia.

As one of the world’s largest cities, it can’t be easy being in Seoul’s shadow. But Korea’s port city of Incheon, just 36 kilometers west of Seoul, is making a name for itself with an ambitious plan to become a regional business and logistics hub.

incheon_corndogMmmm… the french fry-encrusted corn dog is the epitome of healthy Korean street food.

The idea makes sense. One-third of the world’s population lives within a 3-hour flight of Incheon. And the city’s striking new international airport was rated the world’s best in 2005, 06 and 07. This seaside city of 2.5 million people also boasts Korea’s second largest port, and all of this figures into an exciting plan to make Incheon a financial and corporate hub to rival Hong Kong and Singapore.

This ambitious plan is best exemplified by New Songdo City. Imagine Venice’s canals, New York’s Central Park and Paris’ tree-lined boulevards in a place that’s completely integrated with next generation information technology… if you do that, you’ll see the marketing vision behind Songdo.

incheon_songdoAn attractive centerpiece of the New Songdo City skyline.

Built on reclaimed land in Incheon Harbor, Songdo is being built from scratch with a reported $40-billion dollar price tag, making it the largest private development project undertaken at any time, anywhere. In addition to many cultural, educational and leisure venues, a 610-meter high tower expects to be the world’s third tallest upon completion in 2012.

incheonThe graceful Incheon Bridge (under construction) will connect Songdo with Yeongjong Island and Incheon International Airport.

There’s also the striking $17.5 billion, 12.3 kilometer long Incheon Bridge under construction. The entire Songdo project has a 2015 completion date, but thousands already call the new island home, and phase 1 will officially open in August. It sounds to me like a good stop on an urban planning enthusiast’s itinerary.

But as Incheon looks forward to realizing its ambitious plans, it also retains reminders of an interesting past. Although formally founded in 1883 under the name Jaemulpo (제물포), the city’s historical record goes all the way back to the year 475, under the Goguryeo king, Jangsu.

incheon_chinatownKorea’s oldest Chinatown is in Incheon, just outside Incheon Station.

Korea’s oldest Chinatown is also here. Beyond the three traditional gates donated by its Chinese sister city Weihai, this Chinatown is probably best known as the birthplace of the popular noodle dish, jjajangmyeon (짜자면). Koreans love these wheat noodles covered in a salty black soybean paste so much that two men gained notoriety for eating nothing else for several years. There’s even an unofficial holiday honoring the delicious black noodles. Every April 14th, singles mourn their solitary existence on what’s dramatically called “Black Day.”

incheon_poppiesJayu or Freedom Park offers gardens, a statue of General MacArthur and scenic views of Incheon Harbor.

When I visited Incheon’s Chinatown, it wasn’t April, but I ate jjajangmyeon anyway. And when I finished, I burnt it off with a walk up to Jayu (자유), or Freedom Park. The hilltop park celebrates General MacArthur’s dramatic victory at the Battle of Incheon during the Korean War and features a statue of the General, gardens, and a towering sculpture celebrating 100 years of Korea and U.S. relations. There’s also a panoramic view of the container ships and cranes that power Korea’s booming trade industry.

incheon_clownsKorean amusement park clowns are scary, too.

But my favorite part of Incheon is Wolmi Island (월미도). Despite the name, it’s a small peninsula known for its waterfront boardwalk, amusement park and a row of cute and colorful hwae (생선회) or raw fish, restaurants. Raw fish is great but I also had to try the French fry-encrusted corn dog, which was equally delicious! And next time, I’ll order two of them before boarding a ferry to explore some of Incheon Harbor’s many scenic islands.

incheon_ferryOne of a constant stream of spectacular ferries that shuttle people between Incheon and the islands that dot Korea’s western coastline.

map_incheonSo if Seoul’s sheer size has you overlooking its western neighbor, why not hop on the subway for the cheap 70-minute ride to Incheon. But don’t delay, this city on the West Sea is sure to gain popularity when it hosts the first Global Fair and Expo later this year.

Getting There:
→ Take subway line 1 to Incheon Station (exit #1). Cross the street to visit Chinatown. Go up the hill to Jayu Park and panoramic views of the working harbor. From the station you can also take a short bus ride to Wolmi Island. The 70 minute subway ride costs less than 2,000 won.

NEW: Visit the full Incheon photo gallery here.

(A version of this text aired on KBS World Radio on July 5, 2008.)



  1. Hi, I really enjoy your blogs and they are very informative :) I actually just did a similar tour to this for a day trip on Saturday from Seoul. We went to Jayu Park, China Town, Wolmido, then we took the ferry to Yeongjongdo Island…then we took a beach to Eulwagni Beach. I really wanted to take a trip to Muuido island – do you suggest taking the ferry from the same port at Wolmido island? It would also give me a chance to go to Wolmi island again, but I wasn’t sure if they had ferries going to Muuido. Thanks!

  2. Hi Anna,

    Thanks a lot for your nice comment. I’m glad to hear you did a nice “northwest” tour. Aside from the airport, I haven’t visited Yeongjongdo… how was it? It’s definitely on my to-go list.

    As you suggest, Muui Island (무의도) has two nice beaches. It looks like you have two options to get there- either from Wolmido (as you mentioned) or via a very short car ferry ride from Yeongjongdo. I guess there’s also a third option: swimming the narrow channel. Joking.

    Anyway, if you go, I’d love to hear from you about it. Thanks again!

    Best, Matt

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