The Essential Guide to Incheon

Once upon a time, Incheon was a quiet seaside village, pretty typical for Korea. The men went fishing, the women made kimchi. There were maybe a couple thousand people altogether in the region.

And then it got caught in the middle of a war. Incheon is where, late in 1950, the U.S. Marines landed, marking the beginning of the end of the Korean War, a war that ultimately claimed more than 40,000 American soldiers’ lives and an undetermined number of Koreans.

After the fighting, when Incheon had a chance to dig itself out from the mud and shrapnel, it became part of the Korean economic miracle, the country’s first official free-enterprise zone. With its perfect natural port, flat landscape and 3 million residents, it’s become as much a part of the Seoul megalopolis now as it is a place of its own.

Visit Incheon with a Korean War vet, and they likely won’t recognize a thing, except maybe a small area around Freedom Park. Where once there were rice ponds, there are now high-rise apartment buildings. Even the beach the Marines landed on has been filled and reshaped to make more room for the Korean economic miracle. But there’s an entire generation haunted by this place, and it’s well worth looking around.

Wolmimunhwa-ro, Gaho-dong, Jung-gu, Incheon, South Korea
Wolmido Island is about a kilometer (a half-mile or so) from Incheon and, once upon a time, was actually an island; now it’s joined to the mainland by both road and monorail. During the war, it was used to block access to Incheon and was occupied by North Korean soldiers. The island was one of the first places attacked when South Korea and the U.S. headed for Seoul. Today, it’s a big playground with an amusement park with lots of walking paths and restaurants. The islet also is the site of the Traditional Garden, which replicates some famous scenic spots around the country. It makes for an easy city break—and it’s free.

25 Jayugongwonnam-ro, Bukseong-dong 3(sam)-ga, Jung-gu, Incheon, South Korea
Incheon’s Freedom Park (also called Jayu Park) celebrates the end of the war. In a prominent place you’ll find a statue of General Douglas MacArthur, who remains a hero in South Korea for leading the amphibious attack that liberated Incheon. This area has always been a park—during the Japanese occupation, it also held a shrine—so there’s a tinge of age that this part of the country frequently lacks. Locals come here as a quick getaway from the city’s concrete. The park has a tiny zoo, a lot of statues and an odd sculpture commemorating an 1882 treaty with the United States. But the real draw is the view. The higher uphill you go, the better it gets: Step by step, the city and the harbor are revealed.

43 China town-ro, Bukseong-dong 3(sam)-ga, Jung-gu, Incheon, South Korea
Jajangmyeon Museum, at the edge of Incheon’s Freedom Park, shows that the city has something going for it besides war history. This is a museum about noodles: not just any noodles, but the Korean specialty of black soybean noodles. Here you can learn about the history of the noodle and its manufacture—and even “the influence and value it effected on Korea.” Sometimes tiny, highly specialized museums are the best way to learn about a culture; they capture the details of life the culture wants to make sure are never forgotten.

35 Yeonnam-ro, Guwol-dong, Nam-gu, Incheon, South Korea
Shinsegae Department Store in Incheon (there are also a few in Seoul and several others scattered around the country) is South Korea’s answer to Macy’s or the Bay. Seven floors of exactly what you’d expect to find in department stores, but with local twists. Few people of European descent will be able to find clothes that fit, even those that are well under six feet tall. But it’s great fun to browse the housewares and the odds and ends. Note: One good Korean knife could replace every sharp edge you currently have in the kitchen drawer.

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