Ulleungdo City Guide
Situated off the East coast of Korea in the area known as the East Sea to Koreans and the Japanese Sea to the Japanese, the island of Ulleungdo is a one of the most impressive and least visited spots that Korea has to offer, as well as being the only realistic access point for Dokdo, a disputed territory. A quiet fishing-focused island with its own twist on Korean culture, it’s the stunning vibe of Ulleungdo and the beautiful cliffsides that push tourists to make the effort.
When you first arrive on Ulleungdo, you’ll creep in through a tiny gap in the cliff face and arrive at the island’s main town front, where local ladies quickly gut the squid as their husbands land them on the dock. The entire island of Ulleungdo has a population of just over 10,000 people, and the laid back rural vibes are accentuated by the sheer beauty of spots like the bamboo groves, the watery cliff-side walks and the clear water swimming spots (wear shoes, as the shallower parts are covered in spiky sea urchin, which can do some serious damage if you’re not careful).
To make the most of Ulleungdo, get involved in the countryside. Walking up the hillsides gives quite incredible views across the island and out to sea. Hanging out around the island’s periphery in the evening allows you to watch the lights of the squid boats drift in and out of the bay, while the swimming is utterly spectacular. Don’t expect too many home comforts, though: even the nicest hotels in the towns would struggle to grab even a single star on an international scale, and you’ll be pretty restricted when it comes to finding food that’s not at the more intense end of native Korean. Internet access is sporadic, boats to the mainland are often cancelled due to bad weather, and some of the pathways are so shaky you feel like you’re about to tumble into the ocean. This is Korea at its least modernized, and you’ll either love it or hate it. There’s an element of the beautifully tropical and country-themed sedateness, though, that might just push you towards the former.
If you want to take your out-there travel experience a touch further, head to Dokdo and explore an island that’s ownership is still disputed by Japan. South Korea have long held the advantage, though, and keep a permanent military presence on the island alongside a single couple, who live there year round. The island is a little more than an oversized rock, but you can only land here a few dozen days of the year, and it has a huge political weight: the local fishing territory is incredible abundant. So much so that even North Korea occasionally throws in a cheeky (and massively unfounded) claim, too. Not that that’s an accolade that sets Dokdo aside from any other part of the South.
With their own quirky draws, genuinely stunning scenery and an outlook that’s very different to the rest of Korea in almost every way, Ulleungdo and the hard-to-make trip to Dokdo might well be the most unique and special experience you have in Korea. If you’ve got the time to spare (allow for boat problems), make the effort.