The capital of the Gyeonggi Province lies towards the south of the gigantic Seoul Metropolitan Area, and its oldest neighbourhoods are enclosed by the walls of Hwaseong Fortress.
This colossal defence was raised at the end of the 18th century by Jeongjo of Joseon (1752-1800) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are five kilometres of walls still standing, and reinforced with sentry posts and magnificent gates, all mingling with a modern city.
The research and development centre and headquarters for Samsung Electronics are based at a sprawling campus in the east of Suwon, where there’s a worthwhile museum about the past and future of the company.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Suwon:
1. Hwaseong Fortress
The 27-year-old Crown Prince Sado came to a rather grim end in 1762 when he was trapped in a rice box on the orders of his father and left there to starve to death.
In 1789 Sado’s son, King Jeonjo relocated his remains to what is now Suwon and over the next decade surrounded the tomb with more than five kilometres of walls to a height of between four and six metres.
Hwaseong Fortress was a monumental display of filial piety, and the plan was for it to become a new capital for Korea.
The fortress was constructed with a scientific precision for the 18th century, and even the tiniest details were recorded in the Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe document of 1801, which has provided the perfect reference for restorations.
The fortress is over an immense area, but there’s a tourist trolley that will carry you to the main gates, the royal palace inside and the museum.
If you’re based in Seoul you can book a four-hour excursion to Hwaseong Fortress with GetYourGuide.com, including pick-up and drop-off.
2. Haenggung Palace
For a place to stay when he visited his father’s tomb, King Jeongjo ordered himself a palace, which was completed in 1789 and then expanded when the fortress was being built around it.
After that upgrade the palace was a vast ensemble of more than 20 buildings beneath the eastern slopes of the Paldalsan hill.
When King Jeongjo was away the palace would be a base of power for his delegated official.
In 1795 the palace was the setting for the lavish 60th birthday celebrations of Jeongjo’s mother, Lady Hyegyeong, and also hosted special feasts for elderly citizens and stately award ceremonies.
A lot of the palace was demolished during the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century, but restoration work started in 1996 and the palace opened its doors again in 2003. Try to be here at 14:00 on a Saturday between April and October for the Jangyongyeong guarding ceremony, recreating the exact ritual from the 18th century.
3. Hwahongmun Gate (Buksumun)
One of the most photogenic bits of the fortress is the north gate, which was built over the Suwon River, flowing underneath through seven arches.
Keeping watch over the river is an elegant wooden pavilion, which was armed with cannons and could be fortified in case of sieges.
Adding to the gate’s charm is the flight of weirs on the river on the gate’s south side.
4. Paldalmun Gate
The great southern gate of the fortress stands alone on a busy roundabout in the centre of Suwon, in easy reach of markets and restaurants.
This imposing landmark is independent of the fortress wall, which has made way for today’s streets.
Paldalmun’s external south side is ringed with a semi-circular wall (ongseong) and rising high above is a beautiful pavilion, raised on the second floor.
Although you can’t see inside, this contains a bell for Buddhist ceremonies, first cast in 1080 and then refounded in 1687. Take a while to poke around the markets, where along with medicinal herbs, fresh fish, meat and produce there’s a legion of carts and stalls for treats like sundae (blood sausage), bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), chapssal (rice doughnuts with red bean paste filling) and jjinppang-mandu (fluffy steamed buns).
5. Suwon Hwaseong Museum
This museum tells you all you need to know about Hwaseong Fortress, including the background of Jeongjo of Joseon’s eventually unsuccessful push to make this the seat of power in Korea.
On display are models, maps, original architectural plans and contemporary letters to explain how this massive stronghold was constructed, as well as how it was managed and the daily rituals that would take place within these walls.
You’ll learn how meticulous the plans were, and how even the smallest details survive in the Hwaseong Seongyeok Uigwe document (1801), right down to personal details about its construction workers.
Models demonstrate some of the techniques that were borrowed from other strongholds around the world, like earth-covered ramparts and bastions of European artillery forts, and the curved walls, thicker at the bottom, as at Himeji Castle in Japan.
6. Yeonmudae (Dongjandae)
On high ground up three tiers of steps between the east gate (Changryongmun ) and Hwahongmun is an observation post that was set up in 1795. When the king was in residence, four soldiers and two generals would stand guard at all times under this pavilion with upturned eaves.
Once the rest of the stronghold was completed, Yeonmudae had a secondary role as a training area for soldiers, where for the next two centuries they would become proficient in handling bows, swords and spears.
That tradition persists to this day, and for a small fee you can dress up in traditional military clothing and take a brief course at the archery range.
7. Samsung Innovation Museum
Samsung Electronics was founded in Suwon in 1969 where it continues to have its headquarters.
Here, at Samsung Digital City in the eastern Gyeonggi-do the brand has a stylish museum on the history of electronics.
Apart from Saturdays when you don’t need to book, access can be limited as you have to reserve a place on a tour.
This will show the evolution of South Korea’s electronics industry, via home appliances, radio, screens and mobile communications.
You’ll learn the past and exciting future of semiconductors and get a sense of how Samsung came together and what the brand has in store for the future.
After the tour you’ll be able to revisit the exhibits by yourself in case there was something you wanted to see in more detail.
8. Korean Folk Village
For a blast of traditional Korean culture and to find out what daily life was like in the past, plan a day trip to this open -air museum east of Suwon in Yongin (there’s a shuttle bus from Suwon Station). Many of the 260+ hanoks and other historic buildings at the Korean Folk Village are original, and were relocated here in the early 1970s.
You can browse a traditional street market, watch woodwork and metalwork demonstrations, and catch well-produced shows for horseback riding, dance and all kinds of other seasonal events.
English leaflets are provided so you’ll always have a handle on what’s going on.
The Korean Folk Village is also somewhere to try time-honoured Korean specialities like bukeo-gui (grilled dried pollock), jeungpyeon (steamed and fermented rice cake) and pajeon (scallion pancake). You can keep children on board as there’s a handful of rides here and if you want to go all-in you can rent a hanbok (traditional Korean dress) while you walk.
9. Buksuwon Spa Flex
Moments on foot from Sungkyunkwan University station is arguably the best jjimjilbang in Suwon.
These typical Korean bathhouses/spas are something you simply have to experience if you’re a first-timer.
Like all jjimjilibangs, Buksuwon Spa Flex has bathing areas segregated by sex where the convention is to bathe or soak in a steamroom in the nude.
There’s a surprising range of temperatures here, from a frigid 15° to a toasty 45°C, all with water drawn from genuine hot springs.
Outside the baths, the communal area has a wealth of facilities and perks, like free Wi-Fi, a range of saunas, a gym, computer room, movie room with a massive screen, a space for spa treatments, comic book rental and a soft play areas for kids.
Jjimjilbangs have sleeping areas (private or communal) and this one in particular comes recommended for its food.
Suwon is a big gui city, which is food cooked at a traditional restaurant on a grill at the centre of the table.
One dish to taste is Samgyeopsal, unseasoned pork belly, usually wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in ssamjang, a spicy paste.
But Suwon’s most representative gui preparation has to be galbi, which is barbecued beef short rib, often marinated for up to 24 hours in a blend including soy sauce, sugar, garlic and onions.
After the meal, you’ll normally be served a refreshing broth cooked from the same ribs.
You can get great galbi all over Suwon, but by consensus there are three restaurants that do it best: Bonsuwon Galbi (Uman-dong), Gabojeong Galbi (Ingye-dong) and Shilla Galbi (Woncheon-dong).
11. Manseok Park
Around a large reservoir, Manseok Park is an urban park bordered to the south by the Suwon Arts Centre.
That reservoir has an interesting story as it was excavated to supply water to paddy fields in the 18th century under Jeongjo of Joseon.
There’s a 1.2-kilometre path beside the water, edged by lawns and cherry trees.
The outdoor stage on the east side of the park hosts a line-up of events in summer, and there’s a variety of sports facilities for football, basketball, tennis and skating (including Korea’s highest half-pipe). In spring the cherry blossom is a spectacle, followed in summer by the lotus flowers on the reservoir.
12. Toilet Museum (Haeujae)
The former mayor of Suwon, Sim Jae-duck (1939-2009), got the nickname “Mr Toilet” after leading a campaign to improve toilet sanitation in the city, and later became the first president of the Korea Toilet Association.
In 2007 he even pulled down the house that he had lived in for 30 years and rebuilt it like a giant toilet to celebrate the foundation of the World Toilet Association, later bequeathing this curious structure to the city.
Haeujae, as the building is known, means a “house to relieve one’s concerns”, which is the delicate name that temples use for restrooms.
Smaller children will get the most out of the amusing exhibits at the free toilet museum inside, while grown-ups will get a kick out of how bizarre the whole place is, and can learn about the evolution of toilet technology and customs down the centuries.
Outside is a sculpture park with oddities like characters relieving themselves and a giant coiled bronze poop that you can climb and pose on.
13. Suwon World Cup Stadium
The four-time K League champions, Suwon Samsung Bluewings have been around since 1995 and in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup were given a snazzy 44,000-seater stadium, nicknamed “Big Bird” for its large, wing-like roof.
Four World Cup fixtures were played here, as well as the semi-final of the Confederations Cup between France and Brazil the year before.
The Suwon World Cup Stadium is best experienced on a match-day, and the Bluewings play 19 home games in the league from March to December (FC Seoul is a derby and the big fixture in the calendar). On days with heavy rain the wing-shaped roof causes water to cascade, in a phenomenon known as Big Bird Falls, which is believed to indicate good luck by the Bluewings’ more superstitious fans.
The stadium is surrounded by a World Cup sculpture park, as well as a pool and driving range.
There’s also a museum inside, open daily and charting the history of Korean football and the World Cup.
14. Yungneung and Geolleung
On the royal theme there’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site a little way out of Suwon to the south.
Wrapped in oak parkland Yungneung and Geolleung are a pair of Joeseon dynasty tombs, dating to 1816 and 1821 respectively.
Yungneung is for King Jangjo (1735-1762) and Queen Heongyeong (1735-1815), and is made up of a grassy mound ringed with retaining stones topped with carvings of lotuses.
Flanking the mound there’s a pair of steles (Mangjuseok), while in front is a rectangular carving (Honyuseok). On the way down the hill there are more carvings charged with symbolism, depicting a civil officer (Muninseok), a military officer (Muinseok) and a horse (Seokma). At the bottom of the slope, reached via a paved “worship road” is the shrine, accompanied by a royal kitchen and shelter for two memorial steles.
The Geolleung tomb is for King Jeongjo (1752-1800) and Queen Hyoui (1753-1821), and has an almost identical layout, only with one stele instead of two.
The largest theme park in South Korea is little more than 20 kilometres east of downtown Suwon and a complete change of pace from the city’s history and culture.
Everland is run by a Samsung subsidiary and for thrill seekers has some outrageous rides, like the epic T Express, the steepest, longest, highest and fastest rollercoaster in South Korea, and also made of wood.
European Adventure is an entire zone with architecture and cuisines from Europe, and Zootopia is a zoological park with a recently opened safari tour on an amphibious bus.
The marquee attraction at Zootopia is Panda World, which keeps a pair of giant pandas presented by Xi Jinping.
To get to Everland, it’s worth avoiding public transport and just catching a taxi, which will take just under half an hour and cost roughly ₩32,000 (around $40).