18 hours in Jeonju – bibimbap and boats

After our day at Naejangsan, we caught a bus from Jeongeup to 전주 (Jeonju), about an hour away. A fellow traveller who was staying in the city informed us that Jeonju’s bus terminal is a little out of the way, and suggested we get off in the central district. I was under the impression that the guesthouse we were hoping to stay at was near the terminal, so we stayed on the bus until the end. Mistake number one.

We ended up walking for about half an hour to get to where the guesthouse was actually located, not far from the bus stop we had been advised to disembark at. With it being midweek in November, we hadn’t felt the need to make a reservation; mistake number two. When we finally found the guesthouse, there was no-one around to enquire about a room. Jesse eventually called the number from their website and attempted to have a conversation in English; after several long, confusing minutes, we discovered that they were full.

A lot more walking later (after a day of hiking and not one proper meal, need I remind you), we found a reasonably priced motel just next to Jeonju’s famous film street. Both starving, we dumped our bags and went out to eat. Jeonju is renowned for its bibimbap, and given that this is one of the few Korean dishes I can eat as a vegetarian without too much trouble, I was very excited. But we soon discovered mistake number three: trying to eat out in Jeonju at 9.30pm on a Wednesday in November. Everywhere was closed. Even Burger King. We ended up having overpriced, tasteless cake at a cafe we thought served proper food, followed by ramen and microwave spaghetti at a convenience store. At least the cafe was cute.

Desperate for food

To make up for this disappointment, the following day we made bibimbap our priority over seeing some of Jeonju’s sights like the hanok village. I’d definitely like to return to the city in the future and spend a bit longer there. A little googling came up with 고궁 (Gogung) as the most highly recommended restaurant – see below for details. Eat Your Kimchi had, just the week before, posted a video entitled ‘The Best Bibimbap in Korea‘ which they’d filmed there, too. Good enough for us! But, surprise, surprise, it was pretty far away. The weather was beautiful, though, and Jeonju is lovely, so we enjoyed a nice walk.

Jeonju’s famous Film Street
Jeonju’s famous Film Street
Ready for my close-up

After about an hour, we arrived at Gogung. Given our luck, we thought it would be hard to find, located down some winding side street or other, but it’s fairly prominently placed on a main road.  It’s kind of hard to miss:

고궁 Restaurant

Once inside, we were given a number and asked to take a seat for a few minutes. It was busy, occupied by wealthy-looking Koreans and a couple of other foreigners. Our number appeared on the screen and we were taken to our table, where we looked through the surprisingly extensive menu (if bibimbap isn’t your thing, they have a lot of different BBQ options to choose from). Each bibimbap dish comes with meat, but they’re used to foreigners and if you ask, they’re happy to remove this for you. The waitress even complimented my Korean after I explained I was vegetarian, which was nice.

반찬 at 고궁
반찬 at 고궁

You don’t get a lot of 반찬 (banchan, side dishes), especially for a lunch service. However, the huge variety of ingredients used in the bibimbap more than makes up for this. There are a great deal more flavours than in standard Seoul bibimbap, and everything tastes fresher. The gochujang is much richer than usual, too.

비빔밥 at 고궁

The cheapest bibimbap here will set you back around ₩20,000, which is a little steep, especially if you’re used to ₩5000 bibimbap from 김밥천국 – Kimbap Cheonguk – like I am, but it tastes like a completely different dish. So many ingredients are used that no two mouthfuls are the same, in flavour or texture. The staff are kind, too; I had my Korean complimented again when we went to pay, and I chatted about my studies with one of the women.

Finally enjoying a proper meal

Apparently there’s a bibimbap museum upstairs, but finally satisfied, we went to explore the nearby 덕진 (Deokjin) park. The park has a small lake, one half covered in lotus flowers (apparently beautiful in July and August, though somewhat less spectacular in November) and the other with boats to rent – which was serendipitous, because before lunch I’d been saying how nice it would be to do just that. We paid ₩10,000 for one hour, and Jesse was adamant we chose a dragon over the traditional swan. The boats are a little worn out, but they can fit four, so this is a good price. As well as paddle boats, there are cheaper row boats available. You have to wear life jackets.

Because a dragon is way cooler, right?
Making good use of the selca bong
The lake
Contemplations aboard the dragon boat
독진 공원
More beautiful autumn colours

We’d had an exhausting couple of days, and didn’t have the energy to paddle for the whole hour – especially with another long walk to the bus terminal ahead of us. Once there, we bought tickets back to Seoul (₩18,700 each) and settled in for the return journey.

The restaurant’s website isn’t great, especially if you don’t read Hangul. The address is:
전주시 덕진구 송천중앙로 33(덕진동2가 168-9)
(168-9 Deokjin-dong 2-ga) 33 Songcheonjungang-ro, Deokjin-gu, Jeonju-si
Phone: (+82) 063-251-3211~3
If you can’t get down to Jeonju, they have branches in Seoul, too (though I’ve yet to try these) – one in Insadong, and one in Myeongdong.

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