If you’ve read much about Jeju Island, you’ve probably seen it described as “the Hawaii of South Korea”. We don’t love the comparison. They’re both volcanic islands, true — and they’re both extremely popular holiday destinations. But if those are your only criteria you might as well call it Korea’s Iceland, or Korea’s Lanzarote.
The fact is, Jeju isn’t much like Hawaii at all. Jeju is only like Jeju — and that’s no bad thing.
Jeju has some lovely beaches, but in all honesty they’re not in the same league as Hawaii’s, and they’re very much not the main attraction of a visit to the island. What Jeju does best is adventure: lava tubes and mountain hikes; tea growing and tangerine picking; art museums and island culture. It’s a totally different pace of life from the mainland, and the scenery is stunning.
There are endless awesome things to do on Jeju — like climb Korea’s highest mountain, or explore Manjanggul Cave — but you can read about those anywhere. Instead, these are five of the coolest Jeju experiences you might not expect to find:
1. Learn about Jeju’s sea women
The ajumma (older ladies) of Jeju are renowned for being tough as old boots, and the toughest of them all are the haenyo.
Haenyeo are female free divers who make their livings harvesting conch, oysters, abalone, sea urchin, seaweed and other sea life from the ocean floor. A haenyeo might start training at the age of eleven, and by adulthood be able to hold her breath for over two minutes while diving to a depth of 20 metres. It’s a tradition that goes back thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that female divers became the norm rather than an exception.
Today, very few opt to continue this gruelling and dangerous profession, and nearly all remaining haenyeo are now old women — some still diving into their eighties. If you’re very lucky, you might glimpse one while exploring the coastal parts of Jeju, either diving or cutting up their catch to eat.
A visit to Jeju’s Haenyeo Museum is a must if you want to understand this unique and vanishing culture, or check out Haenyeo Kitchen to enjoy the seafood and a bit of a show.
2. Tour the island’s art museums
A little like Japan’s Naoshima Island, Jeju has quietly been making a name for itself as an outstanding destination for art lovers.
The Jeju Museum of Art is one of our favourites. Designed to look like it’s floating on a pool of water, it houses both permanent and temporary collections of modern and contemporary art, including some international heavy-hitters. When we last visited in late 2023, it was showing an excellent exhibition on migration from different cultural perspectives.
The Bonte Museum is another small but perfectly formed museum, housed in a building designed by the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Inside, contemporary art by big-name artists (Yayoi Kusama, notably) contrasts with traditional Korean art and artefacts dating back to the Joseon Period.
Finally, for an entirely different art experience, head to Arte Museum — one of an international chain of immersive, digital art museums where you wander through giant rooms filled with mind-bending art projections. If you’ve tried TeamLab in Tokyo, this is even better. Don’t miss the interactive tea bar, where projections light up your drink whenever you place it on the table.
3.Embrace zero waste
Perhaps because of its delicate ecosystems and beautiful landscapes, sustainable living and travel is a big deal on Jeju. The Zero Waste Tour is a fantastic introduction to some of the ways that Jeju residents are working to reduce the environmental strain on their fragile home.
As part of the tour, you’ll visit the Zero Waste Store and Factory where you can buy sustainable, locally made products and take part in classes — making beeswax wraps, for instance, or shampoo bars to use for the the rest of your trip.
Woo Yeong, who runs the Zero Waste Factory, is a wealth of information on sustainable travel and living, and can point you in the direction of vegan restaurants, free water filling stations, beach cleaning activities and recycled glass art classes if you’re interested.
4. Visit the Osulloc tea museum
Jeju boasts the perfect conditions for tea cultivation: gentle sunlight, clear water, volcanic soil and high annual rainfall and humidity. Thanks to this, it’s home to one of South Korea’s most prized tea brands: Osulloc.
You might not think a tea museum sounds like a riot, but hear us out. This isn’t so much a museum as a full-on tea experience, all taking place inside beautiful spaces designed to reflect the natural environment. Though you can visit Osulloc just to buy and drink tea in lovely surroundings, we highly recommend taking part in a class.
When we visited, the class took place in a big, peaceful room with huge windows looking out over the tea fields. Our professional instructor led us through a traditional Korean tea ceremony, then we mixed our own tea cocktail — a teal-blue concoction meant to reflect the colour of Jeju’s seas. It felt really exclusive, peaceful and special — a real cultural experience.
5. Pick your own tangerines
If you’re visiting from October to February, it’s tangerine harvest time on Jeju (most famous is the citrus-hybrid, hallabong). Jeju’s tangerines are prized throughout Korea for their perfect sweetness and thin peels, and you’ll find tangerine-inspired treats all over the island (think tangerine tea, tangerine tiramisu — even tangerine noodles). They’re a Jeju icon, and visiting a farm to pick your own is a proper Jeju experience.
You’ll be given a bucket, some gloves and a hat (optional), then allowed to fill your bucket with tangerines to take home (and eat as many as you like on top of that while you go). Just save some space for the tangerine jam and juice at the shop when you’re done.
Arachnophobes beware: spiders love building their webs in tangerine orchards, and you’re highly likely to get tangled in one in the course of your harvest!
Our three-night Jeju extension is easily added to any of our Korea itineraries. Best of Korea is a great place to start. Just get in touch with one of our Korea travel expert to start planning your trip today.