In the days of the Joseon Dynasty, Daegu, at the confluence of the Nakdong and Geumho Rivers, was the seat of the powerful governor of the now defunct Gyeongsang province.
You can see his historic home and office at the Gyeongsang-gamyeong Park, which stages a changing of the guard ceremony on Saturdays in summer.
The city’s location at the junction of two important rivers gave rise to Seomun Market, which is famed for its fabrics, and is a street food mecca after nightfall.
Daegu’s cityscape is walled by mountains, which demand to be climbed not just for their views, but also Buddhist monuments like the fabulous Donghwasa temple and the 1,100-year-old Gatbawi Buddha, carved from granite on the same mountain.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Daegu:
1. Seomun Market
To give you a sense of its great age, Seomun Market was one of Korea’s three prime markets towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
An interesting detail is that, even though the market has grown to many times its original size, the names of the alleys, like Dakjeon and Hongdukkaejeon date back centuries.
Seomun Market, with more than 4,000 stores across several large buildings, is renowned for fabrics and textiles, be it clothing, linen, cotton, silk and satin, as well as haberdashery, handicrafts and silverware.
For out-of-towners charm lies in the street food at night, and there’s a mix of crowd-pleasers and more challenging delicacies.
True food explorers can try makchang-gui, grilled beef abomasum (fourth stomach of a cow), which is better than it sounds and is paired with a sauce made from soybean paste, peppers and scallions.
Mandu (fried dumplings) also come with a delicious sauce, while sujaebe is hand-torn noodle soup, dotori-muk is a seasoned acorn jelly and mu tteokbokki is the Daegu variation of Korea’s much-loved rice cakes.
2. Daegu National Museum
You can take a crash course in the culture and history of Daegu and North Gyeongsan Province at this absorbing museum in Suseong-gu.
There are three main indoor halls: The Archaeology Gallery is a chronology of Daegu, displaying artefacts from prehistory and up to the Three Kingdoms Period in the 7th century CE.
In the Art History Gallery you can pore over celadon and buncheong ceramics and find out about the region’s Buddhist culture through a variety of sculptures.
The Traditional Folk Life Gallery has examples of traditional Korean houses and curates pieces from the Seonbi culture and the history Yeongnam Area, making up today’s provinces of North and South Gyeongsang.
In the museum grounds, check out the five-storey stone pagoda, which was relocated here from the Jeongdosa Temple in North Gyeongsan and dates back to 1031. There’s also a collection of architectural fragments, dolmens, a Bronze Age house and a kiln from the Three Kingdoms Period.
Palgong Mountain, on the border between Daegu and the North Gyeongsan Province is a favourite hiking destination, sprinkled with temples and shrines, and no shortage of places downwind to stop for food to recover from your exertions.
Most people beat a path to Donghwasa, a Jogye Order temple on the southern slope, and with a history that can be tracked back to the end of the 5th century.
The current complex dates to 1732 after damage was inflicted during the Japanese invasions at the end of the 16th century.
The Daeungjeon (Main Hall) is reached by stairs with railings in the form of a dragon, and has beautiful columns and carvings beneath its eaves.
Inside are statues for Seokgamonibul (Gautama Buddha), Amitabul (Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Life), and Yaksayeoraebul (Medicine Buddha). See also the elevated Bell Pavilion, and the Bongseoru Hall (named for a phoenix), which leads down to a road that will deliver you to the 17-metre Seokjoyaksa Yeoraebul (Medicine Buddha). This remarkable statue was erected in the 20th-century as a prayer for Korean reunification.
Something to combine with your day-trip to Donghwasa, this amazing Buddha statue is also on Palgong Mountain and can be reached on a testing but rewarding climb from Gwanamsa Temple.
Gatbawi is a Korean National Treasure dating from Unified Silla in the 9th century CE.
Carved in situ from the granite on the east flank of the mountain, this seated Buddha is four metres tall, and on his head is a slab, 15 cm thick.
Some details to look for are the enlarged ears, the sturdy, slightly raised shoulders, the three wrinkles on the neck, and the left hand, thought to be holding a medicine jar (making him a Medicine Buddha).
5. Daegu Art Museum (DAM)
For first-rate exhibitions mostly in modern and contemporary art, Suseong-gu’s enormous DAM was completed in 2011. The museum has a solid collection of its own, but the temporary shows really stand out and change every couple of months so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what’s on.
When we wrote this list in 2019 there had just been a solo exhibition for the prolific Alex Katz and a retrospective for Jeon Seon Taek, Daegu’s most important 20th-century artist.
DAM also has a reputation for shows touching on social themes, and 2018’s Renegades in Resistance and Change looked at how avant-garde art from the 1960s-80s and how it challenged authority and customs in South Korea.
The museum’s third floor has a library and a panoramic lounge where you can appreciate the city and its mountains.
6. Kim Kwang-seok Street
Daegu is the birthplace of the singer-songwriter Kim Kwang-seok (1964-1996) whose folk protest songs struck a chord with South Koreans in the 80s and 90s.
In 2010 a group of more than 20 artists, sculptors and designers got together to create a mural alley in his honour, beside the Bancheon Market in downtown Daegu.
Kim Kwang-seok lived in a house on this alley until the age of five.
There’s a little wooden platform with a statue of the singer with guitar at the north end, and on your walk you’ll see beautifully rendered portraits and murals, many with trompe-l’œil effect and inspired by his music.
A nice touch is a phone box that encourages you to make a call to a loved one and there are cafes and art shops to pique your interest.
7. 83 Tower (Woobang Tower)
The tower that catches your eye in all parts of Daegu opened in 1992 after eight years of construction.
83 Tower is just over 200 metres tall and is a date night go-to.
The elevator fires you up to the observation deck and the Grill by Ashley revolving restaurant in a matter of seconds where you’ll be met by the ultimate view of Daegu.
Tickets to the observatory are ₩10,000 for adults and ₩5,000 for kids, but there’s free entry if you book a table at the revolving restaurant.
At the base of the tower there’s a skating rink on the 2nd floor, and a Sky Garden on the 4th where you can pause for a coffee or cocktail.
8. Gyeongsang-gamyeong Park
The residence and office of the governor of the old Gyeongsang province in the days of the Joseon Dynasty has been turned into a park so it can be enjoyed by the public.
The oldest buildings at this Korean National Historic Site were built at the beginning of the 17th century.
You can view the Seonhwa-dang building where the governor worked, valued as one of the few surviving government buildings from the period in Korea, as well as the governor’s residence Jungcheong-gak.
These buildings are ensconced in lush forest with flowerbeds, a grass plaza and water features, all streaked with walking paths.
If you come on Saturday afternoons (13:30-16:00) between May and October (not including July) you can watch the time-honoured changing of the guard ceremony.
9. Apsan Park
The steep granite mountains that soar over the south side of Daegu are a walker’s dream.
Apsan Park encompasses the 600-metre mountain of the same name, while its valley is at the foot of two more peaks, Sanseong Mountain and Daedeok Mountain.
Something you have to do is catch the cable car up to the Apsan Observatory to see Daegu laid out far below.
At the lower station there’s a swimming pool, driving range and facilities for horseback riding and archery.
The Nakdong River Battle Museum is in the park and details the Korean War, with aircraft and tanks from the conflict on show outside.
Hikers can strike out on the park’s tangle of trails, to climb the two neighbouring mountains and seek out hidden Buddhist temples.
10. The ARC
On a green peninsula at the confluence of the Nakdong and Geumho Rivers is what looks like a giant upturned shell.
This is The ARC, in a cinematic natural setting with dark, wooded mountains on the horizon to the east, north and west.
The pavilion, clad with silver pillows and designed to evoke a skipping stone or Korean rice bowl was designed by New York’s Asymptote studio as part of the World Expo 2012. Inside there’s an exhibition on the Four River Restoration Project, safeguarding the ecology of the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeong San, and documenting the culture of Korea’s rivers.
The ARC is On the roof is an observation deck, which like the cafe is open all year round.
There are a few shops nearby (on the city side) where you can hire an electric bike for a ride next to the river.
11. Daegu Arboretum
In the south-western Dalseo-gu, the Daegu Arboretum is what used to be the city landfill.
Work began in 1998 and the arboretum, a free attraction, opened its doors in 2002. There are more than 1,750 species growing here, at greenhouses and beside rambling outdoor trails, and there’s also a hall for indoor exhibitions.
As you’d hope, spring and summer are a fine time to pay a visit, but the arboretum’s landmark event is the Chrysanthemum Festival across two weeks at the end of October and start of November.
During this event there are vibrant flowerbeds in white, yellow, red and pink, and children will love the dozens of sculptures of popular cartoon characters clad with blooms, all against the autumn colours of the arboretum’s trees.
12. Suseong Lake
Up against the mountains that border the city to the south, Suseong Lake is a body of water traced by parkland and places to eat and grab coffee, and with striking vistas of those wooded slopes.
The shoreline has recently been improved, and there’s a promenade all the way around with footbridges over wetland sites, as well as a small amusement park for children on the west side.
By day you rent a duck boat for a paddle and it’s worth lingering until the evening to catch the musical fountain show (20:00 and 21:00 May, August, September and October, 20:30 and 21:30 June and July).
13. Daegu Yangnyeongsi Museum of Oriental Medicine
Daegu Yangnyeongsi is a sort of wholesale market for medicinal herbs, founded in 1658, and at that time traded twice a year, in spring and autumn.
It was part of a nationwide initiative to make the supply of oriental medicine ingredients more efficient.
Originally Daegu Yangnyeongsi was set at the back of an inn by the north gate of Daegu Castle, but when this was destroyed in the Japanese occupation in 1908 it was moved to its current spot.
The museum above the wholesale market has exhibits in four languages.
The third floor details the history of oriental medicine, recreating a historic streetscape, with merchants’ inns, apothecaries and plant-pickers’ dwellings.
On show are brewing pots, acupuncture needles, tools for harvesting herbs and copies of historical books on oriental medicine.
The floor below has hands-on exhibits explaining the principles of Korean traditional medicine, from the five colours of Yin-Yang to the meridian system.
There’s also a “Practice Zone” with tips on everyday health, calisthenics and a “Make my Own Oriental Medicine” area.
14. Visit a Jjimjilbang
A part of daily life for many people, jjimjilbangs are large bathhouses, a bit like spas, open 24 hours.
They have typical Korean kiln saunas, steam rooms, heated pools and cold pools, jacuzzis, showers and massage tables.
These areas are segregated by sex, and what might take a little getting used to is that they require you to be naked.
Complementing the spa facilities are unisex spaces with exercise areas, clothed saunas, snack bars, large TVs, computer terminals, arcade games and also sleeping areas with ondol (under-floor heating). It is common for people to use these sleeping areas as overnight accommodation, if, for instance, their job is in the city and home is in the country, while tourists use jjimjilbangs as a cost-saving way to visit cities.
When you enter you’ll be given special clothes to wear in the communal areas, as well as a kind of charge card so you won’t have to use cash around the facility.
Two places to look into are Elybaden a 15 minutes on foot from Sangin station, and Seongwon Nexus in Manchon, not far from Dong Daegu station.
15. Biseulsan Recreational Forest
There are gorgeous sweeps of upland nature all around Daegu, but for a short period in spring, Biseulsan Recreational Forest on the city’s southern outskirts is the loveliest.
This is the Biseulsan Chamkkot Munhwa Festival in April/May, when a huge valley, reached after a stiff hike, is bedded with a sea of pink Weyrich azalea blooms.
It’s a sight that photos can’t do justice and will make the climb and the tricky journey before it (metro, bus ride and taxi) totally worth your while.
Head for Biseulsan Recreational Forest at other times for the strange rock formations, cliffs and to visit the Daegyeonsa Buddhist temple, a shooting location for several Korean TV series.
In winter there’s an Ice Garden, with sledding, ice slides, an ice cave and sculptures lit by LEDs.