Korea’s manufacturing powerhouse on the East Sea is responsible for more than 15% of the country’s industrial output.
At an unfathomably large industrial complex by Ulsan’s port is the third largest oil refinery in the world and the world’s largest shipyard and the largest car assembly plant, owned by Hyundai Heavy Industries and the Hyundai Motor Company respectively.
It might be hard to imagine, but Ulsan does have a gentler side, at a bamboo grove on the Taehwa River, a pine-decked promontory park on the East Sea and a sandy beach resort.
On the horizon to the west rise the Yeongnam Alps, where there are nine peaks over 1,000 metres, hiding Buddhist temples and waterfalls and with a mantle of reed fields and pine woodland.
1. Daewangam Park
Pushing into the East Sea at Ilsan-dong is a scenic headland covered in woodland and culminating with a lighthouse above powerful rocky outcrops.
One, Daewangam Island, looks like a dragon rearing up from the water.
According to a legend this is the wife of King Munmu of Silla, lost at sea after his death in 681 and returning as a dragon to protect the East Sea.
The island is joined to the mainland by a metal bridge and is capped with an observation platform where you can look back at Ulsan and the coast.
Leading from the entrance to the park to the lighthouse there’s a 600-metre path through century-old pines, apricot trees, magnolias, cherry trees, camellias and forsythia.
2. Ulsan Grand Park
You can leave the city behind for a few hours at this ecological park founded in 2006 on the west side of Nam-gu.
Planning had begun ten years before on the orders of Chey Tae-won, billionaire chairman of the SK Corporation, who started a fund as a way of giving back something to Ulsan.
In 369 hectares, Ulsan Grand Park has a small water park, a swimming pool, four ponds, a petting zoo, outdoor stage, flowerbeds and picnic areas.
One of the children’s playgrounds is an action-packed trampoline park, while there’s a nine-hole pitch and putt golf course and a cleverly designed acupressure walk for aching feet.
You can rent a bike from all the main entrances, and rental is free if you return it within an hour.
The park’s event calendar is busy in summer, and the standout is the Rose Festival in May, which puts on a light show in the evenings.
3. Taehwagang River Grand Park
This corridor of greenery lines the Taehwa upriver from Ulsan’s heavy industry and is sprinkled with cafes, exercise areas, pavilions and playgrounds.
Due to historic flooding, the banks at the Taehwagang River Grand Park have been left free of development, and you can pause to contemplate the water and the low mountains that trace the river basin.
On a beautiful stretch between the Samho and Taehwa bridges grows Taehwagang Simnidaebat, a lush bamboo grove planted in the first decades of the 20th century to protect the banks from flooding.
You can rent a bike from the Jung-Gu Bicycle Cultural Center near the main entrance, and from spring to autumn there’s a series of flower festivals for spring blooms, roses and chrysanthemums.
4. Ilsan Beach
Ulsan’s industry will seem a world away at this clam-shaped bay on the seaward side of Ilsan-dong and protected to the south by Daewangam Park’s headland.
There’s 600 metres of soft golden sand on Ilsan beach, and the smooth slope means you have to wade out for quite a long way before the clear water gets above waste height.
A new beachside amusement park has recently opened, to go with the restaurant and cafes on the waterfront road behind.
At the end of July the Ilsan Beach summer festival puts on a volleyball tournament, live music, a raft-building contest and a fireworks display.
5. Ulsan Hyundai Motors Plant
Book in advance via the company’s website and you can you can be shown round the largest motor plant in the world.
Served by a dock that can handle three 76,000-ton container ships simultaneously, the size of the operation here is difficult to conceive.
At five factories, the plant employs some 32,000 people and produces an average of 5,800 vehicles a day.
Something you might not expect is the forest that blankets the site after Hyundai planted around 600,000 trees.
The plant also has a testing station the size of 100 football fields, laid with more than 20 kilometres of road.
The tour begins at a visitor centre, outlining the history of Hyundai and giving an overview of the factories’ advanced production processes.
6. Jangsaengpo Whale Culture Village
From the 1890s until the ban on commercial whaling in 1986, Jangsaengpo was the Korean Peninsula’s top whaling port.
By the 1970s there were was a fleet of 20 whaling ships here, supporting a population of 10,000. That history is recorded at the Jangsaengpo Whale Culture Village, which was established in 2015. You can take a look at the historic village, follow a Whale Story Trail and check out the Prehistoric Whale Experience Garden, which has details on the Bangudae Petroglyphs a 7,000-year-old rock art site depicting cetaceans, not far from Ulsan.
The Jangsaengpo Whale Museum is the only attraction of its kind in South Korea, collecting (now rare) artefacts from the whaling industry, including harpoons, whale products, models of whales and skeletons.
There’s a 5D theatre here, and docked close by is a whaling ship that you can tour.
7. Whale-Watching Cruise
Between April and October you can book a whale-watching cruise at the Jangsaengpo Whale Culture Village, departing from the port.
If you want to see minke or gray whales the best time to take one of these three-hour trips is earlier in the season, from April to June, when boats depart every day except Monday and there are two cruises on weekends.
These trips go as far as 20 kilometres out into the East Sea, and while minke whales can be hard to spot, you’re sure to see lots of common dolphins as soon as you leave the harbour as they swim in large pods.
For a shorter cruise you could take a 90-minute trip along the coast to get a feel for the staggering scale of the Ulsan Industrial Complex.
8. Ulsan Museum
This free museum opened beside Ulsan Grand Park in 2011, in a striking modern building hemmed by reflecting pools.
Using creative displays and lots of artefacts, the main exhibition is a compelling chronology of Ulsan.
Naturally there’s masses of information about whaling, shipbuilding and cars, but you’ll also find out more about the Bangudae Petroglyphs and the Buddhist temples that cropped up around Ulsan during the time of the Silla Kingdom.
In display cases are prehistoric handaxes, temple bells, maps, ceramics, ritual implements, weapons and armour.
Heading into modern times you’ll find out about the multitude of products manufactured in at the Ulsan Industrial Complex, like a 1975 Hyundai Pony, South Korea’s first mass produced car.
In the last few years there have been some top-notch temporary exhibitions, for Ancient Egyptian artefacts and the inventions of Thomas Edison.
A road trip south of Ulsan, Ganjeolgot is a cape famous in Korea for being the first place touched by the sun on the eastern coast.
The rocky promontory, marshalled by a lighthouse, is a popular gathering point at dawn on New Year’s Day to watch the first sunrise of the year.
All year people head to Gangeolgot to write their wishes on postcards, which they can then put in the second-largest post box on the planet.
There’s a boardwalk atop the promontory, and you can see a cluster of sculptures and monuments at the foot of the lighthouse.
Along with a sweet replica windmill you’ll find the Drama House, which was built as a set for the Korean TV show Flames of Desire in 2010 and has been converted into a cafe and gallery.
10. Oegosan Onggi village
Onggi, a type of earthenware made in a long tube-like kiln, has a history in Korea going back 5,000 years.
In many shapes and sizes, Onggi pottery has a multitude of traditional uses, as jugs for serving alcohol, containers to carry water from wells, to cook rice and to ferment kimchi, gochujang and soy sauce.
In 1975 the master potter, Heo Deok-man, set up shop at Oegosan, not far south of Ulsan, to keep the onggi tradition alive.
He was soon followed by potters and artisans from across South Korea as the Onggi industry experienced a boom that subsided a little with mass-production.
It is thought that more than half of Korea’s traditional earthenware is produced in this one location.
At the Ulsan Onggi Museum here you can marvel at many expertly craftedpieces, including the world’s largest onggi pot, as certified by Guinness.
The four-day Onggi Festival takes place in October when you can watch live demonstrations, make your own onggi and take advantage of discounts on pottery of up to 50%.
On a trip into the Yeongnam Alps don’t forget to stop at Sangbuk-myeon where there’s an organic winery making makgeolli, Korean rice wine.
Like champagne, makgeolli picks up a fizz from its fermentation process, but also has a cloudy appearance caused by a chalky sediment.
Boksoondoga makes its makgeolli with locally harvested rice, using traditional Korean yeasts and handmade onggi.
The flavour is rich and mild and, unlike other kinds of makgeolli, you won’t have to mix the sediment before you pour.
At the winery there’s a showroom with models explaining how the wine is made, and you can take a tour of the fermentation chamber and see the paddy where the rice is grown.
And as far as souvenirs or gifts go, a bottle of makgeolli from Boksoondoga is about as authentic as it gets.
Heading out of Ulsan on National Route 24 you’ll eventually come to Seoknamsa temple at the bottom of the eastern slopes of Mount Gaji (Gajisan). Seoknamsa dates from the reign of Heondeok of Silla in the 9th century and was rebuilt in the 17th century following the Japanese Invasions of Korea (1592-1598), before being razed once more in the Korean War.
There are a few surviving monuments going back many centuries, like the 9th-century three-storey pagoda in front of the main hall.
Seoknamsa is a handy trailhead for a couple of well-marked paths if you want to conquer the 1,241-metre peak.
On the walk you’ll pass a makgeolli vendor, here from spring to autumn, for a restorative cup of rice wine.
The trail leads you through evergreen woodland, which thins out as you approach the craggy, wind-swept limestone peak for a four-hour round-trip.
If you set off early and want to keep walking, a trail leads you west onto the next peak, Unmunsan, via the Araetjae Pass.
Along with Gajisan, Sinbulsan is the other essential walking destination in the Yeongnam Alps.
The peak is at 1,209 metres but the main ascent is more gradual, and takes you along the spine of a ridge, on a path known as the Ganwoljae Flame Grass Road.
After emerging from woodland you’ll find yourself in a sea of swaying flame grass.
The tops are almost luminous when they catch the sun in late-summer and autumn and the reeds make a beautiful rustle in the breeze.
To protect these fields the path is raised on boardwalks and wooden stairways, which makes the climb to the top of Sinbulsan a little lighter.
14. Paraeso Falls
On Sinbulsan’s western slopes, and together with many of the places on this list, Paraeso Falls isone of Ulsan tourist board’s “12 Scenic Sights of Ulsan”. You can get to this 15-metre waterfall within 40 minutes of Ulsan, and there’s a car park where you pay a ₩1000 entrance fee per person.
From here you’ll walk a 1.5-kilometre riverside trail rich with birdlife and small mammals (look out for the chipmunks), and with little pools that you can wade in.
The waterfall itself is at the top of three wooden stairways and plunges over jagged limestone into a broad pool where swimming is prohibited.
15. Ulsan Bridge Observatory
The best panoramas in the immense Ulsan Industrial Complex can be had from Ilsan-dong on Muryongsan, a mountain that rises on the east side of the harbour.
Walking the trails you’ll arrive at several wooden lookouts on the south-west side of this 452-metre peak, but the most convenient is the modern Ulsan Bridge Observatory.
This looks across the Ulsan Harbor Bridge (2015), an impressive suspension bridge crossing the mouth of the Taehwa River.
There’s an outdoor platform on the fourth floor of the observatory tower, above a glazed space with screens and information boards pointing out the landmarks and covering Ulsan’s history.
The best time to be here is after sunset when there’s a seemingly endless forest of lights spreading out in front of you.