This industrial harbour city on the Yellow Sea is in the Seoul Metropolitan Area and shares the same metro network.
After the port was founded in 1884 Incheon became a melting pot, home to the only official Chinatown in Korea and a vibrant international market.
Incheon is the point of departure for a constellation of 168 islands, some joined to the city by infrastructure like the record-breaking Incheon Bridge, and others that are undiscovered holiday escapes as far as four hours away by boat.
The city is evolving at a startling rate, as you’ll discover at the futuristic Songdo International Business District, a new, environmentally friendly cityscape on reclaimed land south of the harbour.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Incheon:
1. Songdo Central Park
Tying together the many green spaces at Songdo International Business District is this 100-acre park, edged by skyscrapers and covering almost a tenth of the district’s total area.
The park is cut in two by a seawater canal that replenishes every 24 hours, and grabbing your attention on the west side is the curving outline of the Tri-Bowl, a cultural centre for exhibitions and live performances.
You can catch a water taxi or hire a pedal boat or canoe for a little voyage on the canal, while there’s a small collection of traditional Korean hanoks (wooden houses) by the water.
Add to all this a deer park, an island for rabbits on the waterway, lots of public art, a variety of gardens and plenty of places where you can just sit and appreciate the greenery and views of the modern skyline.
Some of the music video for Psy’s worldwide 2012 hit, Gangnam Style were filmed at Songdo Park.
The place to get to grips with the sheer size of Songdo International City is Zaha Hadid’s G-Tower (2013), which sits at the north-west end of Central Park, rising to 150 metres and holding offices for international organisations, including the United Nations.
There’s an outdoor observatory at the very top, and a majestic Sky Garden on the 29th floor, with indoor vegetation and a bird’s eye view through the arcing window over Central Park and out to the giant Incheon Bridge.
There are interactive information panels about the Songdo International Business District, coffee stands and machines that take humorous photos and email them to your phone.
G-Tower is free to enter and is arguably the best place in Incheon to watch the sun go down.
3. Incheon Grand Park
In 727 acres in the shadow of two peaks, Incheon Grand Park is a place where you can idle for a whole day in gardens, ecological areas, an arboretum and children’s zoo.
The latter opened its doors in 2001 and keeps more than 200 animals, counting Japanese macaques, Pungsan dogs, sheep and ostriches.
The rose garden is fabulous in summer, and grows around 7,800 bushes from 66 species, and the natural forest is installed with information boards about this environment and its wildlife.
You can rent a bike, tandem or four-wheel group bike to get around, and there’s a multitude of facilities, including a campsite, a small museum dedicated to the environment, an ice rink in winter, an outdoor theatre, picnic areas, a sledding hill and sports pitches.
Come by in late-April, and you’ll be in time for the wonderful Incheon Grand Park Cherry Blossom Festival.
4. Sinpo International Market
The story of this market not far north of the port in Jung-gu begins at the end of the 19th century, when vendors started selling vegetables to the Westerners, Chinese and Japanese who had recently arrived in the area.
The market was officially established in 1970 and has become Incheon’s representative market, especially with the influx of tourists arriving by ferry and cruise boats over the last couple of decades.
There are loads of little stores selling everything from knock-off clothing to cosmetics, bags, fresh produce and cookware, all along a spacious central hallway with a glass roof.
The reason you have to come is to try the delectable street food, like mandu (fried dumplings), jjolmyeon (spicy, chewy noodles) and dakgangjeong, which is fried chicken with a sweet and spicy glaze.
The only official Chinatown in Korea is opposite Incheon Station in Jung-gu, and has been around since 1884. These days most of the residents of Incheon’s Chinatown are 2nd or 3rd generation, but there’s still a sizeable population of Chinese expats in the city, numbering around 50,000. Chinatown has lots of architectural flourishes, the most obvious of which are the three paifangs, or gateways.
There’s a school for Chinese expats here, as well as a cultural centre to promote an exchange between the two nations, and you can go shopping for antique ceramics and traditional Chinese tea.
The food is a sort of Korean-Chinese fusion, and a real string in Chinatown’s bow, whether you want to sit down at a restaurant or pick up something as you wander.
Kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, up jjajangmyun (noodles with black bean sauce), pineapple tarts, candied strawberries and moon cake (with a sweet bean paste) are available at stalls or show up on menus.
6. Songwol-dong Fairy Tale Village
Also by the port and close to Chinatown, this residential area was settled in the late-19th century by newly arrived foreigners.
After a period of decline Songwol-dong had a thinning population, which led to even more young people moving away.
The gloom was lifted with n imaginative regeneration scheme, furnishing the neighbourhood with intricate and brightly coloured sculptures and murals evoking Korean folk stories, international fairytales and beloved children’s characters.
There are endless photo opportunities in Songwol-dong as you stumble upon scenes from the Wizard of Oz, and the likes of Pinocchio, Doraemon, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Bambi, the Chinese Seven Fairies and the Japanese Sea Dragon Palace.
Korea’s fifth largest island, in the Han River estuary is just a simple drive Choji or Grandhwa bridges and is often described as a “roofless museum”. During the Joseon Dynasty Ganghwado was often on the frontline during invasions and is peppered with fortifications and important battlefields.
Three to check out are Gapgot Fortification, involved in the 13th-century Mongol invasions of Korea, Gwangseongbo Fortress, scene of a fierce battle during the United States’ expedition to Korea in 1871, and Chojijin Fortress, where the French fleets were defeated in 1866 but also where the unfavourable Japan-Korea treaty was signed in 1876. At Chojijin, see the Yeonmijeong Pavilion where you can set your gaze across to North Korea’s Gapung County.
Land reclamation and a new highway have turned what used to be an island on the north side of the harbour into a contiguous neighbourhood in Incheon.
There was a U.S. Army base on Wolmido from the 1950s until the 90s, and since then the island has turned into a weekend retreat for Incheon.
Wolmido’s first started attracting visitors as early as 1989 with the Wolmido Cultural Street, a promenade edged on its landward side by cafes and restaurants and buzzing with life on weekends when you can watch outdoor performances and sit for street artists.
The restaurants have a flair for seafood, and you can dine with vistas over the water to Yeongjongdo.
There’s an observatory to survey the coast, a museum on Korean immigration, a small amusement park and a blissful swathe of parkland on the island’s hillier east side, topped with a scenic lookout at the highest point for romantic sunsets.
9. Jeondeungsa Temple
Also on Ganghwado and sheltered in ancient woodland is what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in South Korea, established in the 4th century CE under the rule of Sosurim of Goguryeo.
Jeondeungsa Temple’s location made it useful for defence and in 1866 some 50 Buddhist priests took part in the victorious defence of Korea against the French navy, earning a place for the temple in the nation’s heart.
At the Daeungbojeon (Main Hall), a Korean National Treasure, you can read the names of soldiers on the walls and columns of people who fought against the French and wrote their names here to pray to Buddha for good luck.
The canopy over the statue of Buddha displays supreme craftsmanship, while the Yaksajeon (Medicine Buddha Hall) is marvellous, as is the Beomjong Bell, cast back in the 11th century.
At Jeondeungsa Temple you can take part in a temple stay programme, a kind of retreat, for a better understanding of Korean Buddhism and Korean traditional culture.
Even though the ferry ride to this spectacular island is four hours, there’s no lack of passengers willing to make the journey.
Baengnyeongdo is among the five north western border islands and close to the disputed Northern Limit Line.
The island has a population of just over 4,300, and on clear days you can see North Korea’s Changsan Cape.
What draws the crowds are the strange sedimentary stacks, cliffs and outcrops of Dumujin on the north-east coast, given names like Candlestick Rock and Elephant Rock.
On Baengnyeongdo’s coastline are some beaches to take your breath away, some with rather unusual characteristics.
Sagot Beach has something known as diatomaceous earth, which while soft to the touch, becomes hard under pressure, so is one of the few sandy beaches that you can drive on.
Baengnyeongdo is also the cradle of Korean Christianity, as the first place that the Lutheran missionary Karl Gützlaff arrived in 1832, founding the Junghwadong Church, still standing and a crucial pilgrimage site for Korean Christians.
11. Gyeongin Waterway (Ara Canal)
Linking the West Sea (Yellow Sea) with the Han River, the Gyeongin Waterway is an 18-kilometre shipping canal from Incheon’s Seo-gu district to Gangseo-gu, part of Seoul.
This project was ready in 2012 and is Korea’s first inland waterway, and has a few things to hold your interest.
You can catch a cruise boat from the Incheon terminal at Gyeongin Port, while there’s a bicycle path on its banks, totalling more than 41 kilometres and with a handful of shops along the route where you can rent your own set of wheels.
At the east end, by the Han, is Gimpo’s gigantic Hyndai Premium Outlet mall, for international luxury brands at discounted prices.
And if you’re travelling along the waterway keep an eye out for the impressive, man-made Ara Waterfall and the AraMaru Skywalk, a sort of circular bridge projecting out over the cliffs on the north bank.
12. Jayu Park
Notable for being the first western style park to be plotted in South Korea, Jayu Park is spread over Mount Eungbong, just east of Chinatown.
The name was given to the park in 1957 when a statue of General MacArthur was erected here, and translates to Park of Freedom.
Leader of the United Nations Command, MacCarthur planned the successful amphibious landing at Incheon, in September 1950, involving 75,000 troops and 261 vessels.
You’ll find his statue at the summit of Mount Eungbong where there’s a panorama to savour of the port, the West Sea, downtown Incheon and the encircling mountains.
The park is at its best for a brief spell in April when the cherry blossom is out.
13. Sudoguksan Museum of Housing & Living
The hilly Songhyun Park in Dong-gu has a riveting museum that charts a difficult period in Incheon’s not too distant past.
At the Sudoguksan Museum of Housing & Living you’ll learn all about the daldongne (moon village), referring to government-designated temporary settlements for the poor that cropped up on Incheon’s hilltops in the 1960s and 70s.
They were called “moon villages”, literally because they had a clear view of the night sky.
Galleries here capture the atmosphere of these humble but close-knit communities, with recreated alley scenes and amenities like a barber shop, grocery shop, water supply area, toilet and shop for coal briquettes.
There are hands-on activities for all family members to try, like dice games and dressing up in old-time costume.
14. Incheon Bridge
The longest bridge in Korea, and the tenth-longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, the 21.38-kilometre Incheon Bridge ties Yeongjeong Island and Incheon International Airport to the mainland at Songdo.
Incheon Bridge was completed in 2009 at a total cost of ₩2.45 trillion and cut up to an hour from journey times to the airport, enabling Incheon’s growth as an international business city.
The crossing spans the main shipping route in an out of the port and so has a clearance of 74 metres and an enormous centre span of 800 metres.
At this cable-stayed section, the main tower climbs to more than 230 metres.
15. Memorial Hall for Incheon Landing Operation
The Battle of Incheon (Inchon) is remembered at this war memorial, which cuts a powerful outline at the foot of a mountain in Yeonsu-gu.
The hall was inaugurated in 1984 to mark the centenary of the opening of Incheon Port.
The site is crowned with an 18-metre memorial tower and flies the flags of the 16 nations that represented United Nations Command.
In the hall you can discover the ins and outs of the landing operation, a decisive event in the Korean War, browsing artefacts, information boards and an illustrative scale model that sets out the attack in perfect detail.
Outside is a small collection of tanks, missiles and aircraft (Cessna O-1 and F-86 Sabre) together with commemorative statues.
If you have time, drop by the Incheon Metropolitan City Museum just next door.