Jeonju 전주 is the Ancestral home of King Yi Sŏng-Gye 이성계, known as King Taejo 태조, the founder of the Joseon 대조선국 dynasty. This dynasty united (or conquered) Korea for over 5 centuries from 1392 until 1910, when Japan annexed Korea after years of fighting, including two wars on Korean soil.

Jeonju is sacred to Koreans not only for being the home of one of its greatest dynasties but for housing the last surviving images of Joseon Dynasty royals and being the largest surviving Hanok 한옥 village. Hanoks 한옥 are traditional Korean homes that were owned by the middle and upper class. Jeonju also represents the last time all of Korea was united under Korean rule.

On the surface, Jeonju looks like a tourist trap. The streets are lined with street food, souvenir shops, Instagram spots, and traditional clothing (Hanbok 한복), which made me overwhelmed. I think partly because this was my first experience in a packed place with wall-to-wall people since the pandemic started. The other part is that the main walking streets are an attack on the senses. People are dressed up in glittering Hanboks everywhere you look, walking around trying to find the best spot for epic selfies. There’s food every there from fried squid, choco pies, cream octopus on a stick; all the smells fill the air as you hear the honking of tuck tucks and the endless laughter of its visitors. Jeonju is alive, and its tourist is her heartbeat.

Beneath the chaos, Jeonju is a sacred place where Koreans can partake in their past history in ways that they were oppressed from before. Jeonju is a historical playground for the young and old alike. If you stop and pause, you will see how magical this place really is.

Overwhelmed by the sights and sensations, my friend and I decided to spend our first day wandering, stopping in souvenir shops and coffee shops along the way. We stopped in an Alcohol museum, caught a traditional performing arts show, and stopped at every place we could along the way.

There was something new to see around every corner and alleyway. We walked to Omokdae 오목대와 to catch a view of the village from above. This place was a favorite spot of King Taejo and where he held a party after defeating the Japanese in 1380. At Bibimbap 비빔밥, a traditional rice bowl with fresh or salted veggies cooked or raw meat on top, Jeonju is known for dinner. After dinner, we even wandered across the river to where they were playing Aladdin under the stars walking well over 30km that day. We finished the day off by visiting the Nambu night market, which covid has killed (fingers crossed it’ll come back).

The Nambu Market did make a comeback for us the following day when we ate brunch at Riri 리리 88, a cafe on the rooftop before we made our way towards the old fortress walls up in the hills surrounding Jeonju. Although we did not end up at our final destination being ill-equipped for a hike, we wandered through artist street and along the river, which gave us a peaceful start to the morning before soaking our tired feet at a spa cafe and meeting up with us another friend.

That afternoon we visited Jeonju Gyeonggijon Shrine 경기전 the ancestral home of the Joseon dynasty emperors and the Royal Portrait museum in the Hanok Village, the home to the only surviving portraits of the emperors.

With our 2000 KRW entrance fee being taken, we were free to wander the grounds for as long as we wanted. Walking around, you can see where the upper-class and royalty slipped made decisions and where their food was made, and the helped slept. Parts of the ground are manicured with trees and bamboo.

We soon found our way to the portrait gallery and gazed upon the Korean Emperors’ only surviving portraits, originals, and traditional reproductions. During the Japanese rule around 1905, 1910 the Japanese burned or lost most of the portraits and many other things representing the Korean Empire. This time Korea lost a lot of important relics and artifacts from its history. Luckily, the portraits in the gallery were smuggled from the Palace in Seoul to Jeonju, then to Busan, where they were hidden in a Buddhist temple. When Koreans were back under their own rule after WWII, the portraits were brought out of hiding and paraded through the streets in Jeonju till they reached the Gyeonggijon they were put on display for all to see.

The Royal Portrait Museum and Gyeonggijon shrine are a must-stop if you come to the village. From there, we cafe hopped, ate more Bibimbap, and relaxed as we wandered around for the rest of the evening.

Day three was much of the same. We tried to go to the Confucian School, but it’s only open on weekends, so we made our way to Jaman Mural Village 자만벽화마을. Afterward, we stopped for lunch before hopping on the bus back home.

Although there is not much to do in Jeonju, accept maybe rent a tuk-tuk like I did my second time here, Jeonju is a beautiful place to experience Korean culture, food, and traditional ways of life.

Explore With Me

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