May 01, 2018

Top 10 Things to do in Pyongyang

Pyongyang may not be your typical 'weekend away' destination, but should you find yourself in the North Korean capital there are plenty of attractions and experiences to keep you busy. Since you are not free to travel around independently you will need to plan a schedule in advance for yourself, your guides and driver.

Here are our top 10 things to do in Pyongyang.

1. Head deep underground into a nuclear shelter
The Pyongyang Metro is the deepest in the world, with the track built at an average of 100 metres beneath the surface. Because of its depth, its stations also act as bomb shelters, and the blast doors can be spotted prior to entry to the platform.

The stations are all of different designs, some extremely ornate with chandeliers, and some with patriotic murals. The trains are from last-century Berlin, a mixture of East German and West German U-Bahn rolling stock built in the 1960's and 1970's.

2. See an alternate view of history at the War Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
An incredible museum that would take at least a day to see every exhibit. American tanks and planes from the Korean War feature prominently, alongside slightly disturbing images of dead American soldiers and airmen.

The USS Pueblo is a highlight. The only US Navy vessel held by a foreign government and captured in 1968. You can wander freely looking at bullet holes in the doors, alongside rooms full of equipment marked 'Top Secret".

3. Get up close to the embalmed former leaders of the country
Only open to foreigners on a Thursday morning the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun is the last resting place for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Smart clothes and ties for men are required before you will be admitted to what was once the leader's official residence.

Unlike other embalmed leaders, think Mao and Lenin, the North Koreans are incredibly well preserved. The build-up to entering the mausoleum adds to the experience.  Fifteen-minute journeys on slow-moving travellators accompanied by sombre music, then more queuing, metal detectors and machines designed to blow the dust off your hair and clothes, before entering the darkened rooms.

The awards given to the leaders are often unintentionally hilarious. Kudos to Derby City Council in the UK for freedom of the city for Kim Jong-il. 

4. Visit a bar and drink a pint of the tasty local beer
The local brewery, Taedonggang, has a history straight out of a spy film. The bankrupt Ushers brewery in Trowbridge in England was purchased through a German middleman and moved lock, stock and barrel to Pyongyang to sate Kim Jong-il's thirst for a decent local beer.

And the beer is very refreshing. The Economist magazine lauded it as being considerably better tasting than the South’s “boring beer”, commenting that “brewing remains just about the only useful activity at which North Korea beats the South.” Ask for Taedonggang Beer #1 or #2, as these have the most hops and are a tasty way to relax after walking your feet off around the city. 

There are four Taedonggang Brewery bars dotted around Pyongyang, make sure you ask your guide to take you to one.

5. Get a bird's-eye view of the city from the Tower of Juche
Juche is the philosophy which guides North Korean politics and daily life. Without going into huge details it focusses on self-reliance and independence from all foreign nations. You don't have to subscribe to its theories to take the incredibly slow elevator to the top.

But once at the top, the views are tremendous. As well as the hills surrounding the city, you can see the rows and rows of multicoloured apartment blocks that dominate Pyongyang, as well as a great view down to Kim Il-sung square.

6. Witness a military parade or just admire the size of Kim Il-sung Square
The setting for countless military parades and displays of mass-dancing, you might strike it lucky while you are here. If not, it is fun to wander around and see the large government buildings and supersize portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that have featured in many news reports from here.

Look closely at the ground and you will see the numbers for where individuals have to stand in the mass dances or parades held here.

7. Grab a ball and go bowling with the locals
The Pyongyang Golden Lane is a huge bowling alley, with a bar attached. If you are suffering from withdrawal symptoms from bowling this is the place for you. It could be anywhere in the world and is always packed with locals.

It is a rare opportunity to mingle with North Koreans, but unless you are proficient in Korean you will be unlikely to get that far. Plus, the locals seem to take their bowling very seriously and even the unusual appearance of foreigners does not interrupt their game.

8. Walk underneath an ICBM at the Science Museum
Opened in 2015 and still not most tourists itineraries the Science Museum is a must-see. Not least because you get the opportunity to walk under one of North Korea's famed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which takes pride of place in an atrium.

Unfortunately, many rooms are barred to foreigners, particularly those concerned with the military, but the basement games room is entertaining. Watch children operate a tank simulator and blow up the (US) enemy, or clamber into a replica MiG jet. Alternatively take part in more normal science experiments showing off how gravity works, or to simulate what happens in an earthquake.

9. Watch the talented artists and sculptors work at the Mansudae Art Studio
A rather unusual complex of buildings which more resembles a movie lot than an Art studio. Here massive statues are created - usually for dodgy African regimes - as well as some beautiful intricate artworks.

You get to see sculptors and artists at work and can buy the extremely cheap work (by Western standards) in a three-storey  gallery. No propaganda work is exhibited here, despite the fact it is made here. Check out the art gallery by the 'Arch of Triumph' or the small shop at the DMZ for great examples of these.

10. Join the crowds and climb up to the giant bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
On top of Mansu Hill are the huge statues of North Korea's previous post-war leaders. There is always a queue of people waiting to pay their respects, and you need to follow the required etiquette of bowing low when facing them.

The flower sellers on the way up, although camera-shy, have huge collections of bouquets for sale for placing at the feet of the statues. Maybe the best part of the experience is the people-watching as newly-weds mingle with Army regiments as they solemnly get their pictures taken.

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