P'yŏngyang (평양 Pyeongyang), with about 2,750,000 inhabitants, is the capital city of North Korea. It is on the Taedong River in the southwest of the country.
Pyongyang is the capital city of North Korea, as well as its "showcase city" where people have a markedly higher standard of living than elsewhere in the country. Many of the nation's tourist attractions can be found here and will likely form part of most travel itineraries to North Korea.
Nearly all visitors arrive either by plane or train from Beijing. You will need a visa before you travel and the authorities will need a minimum of 2 weeks to process it.
Although DPRK airspace is some of the most tightly controlled in all the world, Sunan did not use to have working instrument landing systems so flights would often be delayed or cancelled in the frequent smog and fog, drifting rain and snow that often occurs in winter. It handles a relatively small number of passengers for a capital airport.
Air China operates a round trip to Beijing on Mondays and Fridays, with an additional scheduled flight on Wednesdays in the summer. These flights can be purchased on-line in advance.
Air Koryo operates flights Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Both operators leave Pyongyang at 09:00, and returns to Pyongyang from Beijing at 13:00 (Oct 2013).
If you are in a position to buy tickets within the country, tickets to Beijing are much cheaper when bought in Pyongyang. They are on sale in the Youth Hotel, in the Air China office, which is situated about 10km north-east of the city. They also provide a free 30kg baggage allowance with this method.
For trains arriving at Pyongyang's main central train station, foreigners will have to exit via the side door at the far end of the station from the gates. Don't join the scrum with the Koreans, as you won't be allowed to leave via the same door. If you have transported anything via freight on the train, you'll have to go back the next day to pick it up. The (not very busy) customs office is around the back of the building, and is shut between 12:00 and 14:00. There are no charges for collecting customs-cleared goods, and the bureaucracy is fairly simple, especially compared to the the chaos of the Beijing railway station.
Visitors to North Korea will need to be accompanied by an accredited guide or guides, who will arrange where you can visit and how you will get there.
This is true of package tours (the only way tourists can get in). However, personal visitors of foreign residents in Pyongyang are free to go around by themselves, unless explicitly told not to by Korean authorities. This can happen, but is not always the case.
Residents are usually free to wander around. However, they cannot use buses. The metro system has two routes. However, if on a package tour, your short trip on the metro will be organised in advance. Only visitors of foreign residents may use the entire metro. Despite being old, the trains run quite efficiently, and are phenomenally cheap (5 won a journey, any distance). The biggest drawback to this form of transport is that the metro is only on the west side of the river, while Munsu dong, where all foreign residents live, is on the east side.
Taxis can be taken, but drivers are wary of accepting foreigners. One exception might be the Koryo Hotel, near the railway station. Expect the driver to check with the hotel that he is allowed to take you first. Around €5 will cover a medium distance one way ride. (The foreign rate is USD1/km before 18:30 and USD2/km in the evening).
- Arch of Triumph. The arch was designed to commemorate Korean resistance to Japan between 1925 and 1945 and eventual liberation from Japanese rule. The arch is modeled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At 60 m high and 50 m wide it is the biggest victory arch in the world.
- Arirang Mass Games (Arirang Festival). A mass gymnastics and artistic performance. The performance runs through parts of August and September. With over 100,000 performers this is, by the numbers, the greatest show on earth.
- Children's Palace. Nearly every city has its own Children's Palace, with Pyongyang having the largest. After classes in the morning, selected (gifted) students spend the afternoon at the palatial Children's Palace to practice their art or other special skills. Children choose their area of specialization in cooperation with teachers once they're old enough to attend (around 11) and continue with that skill every day until they graduate or they complete the area of study. Areas include: ballet, rhythmic dance, gymnastics, computer programming, singing, musical instruments, chess, volleyball, basketball, embroidery, and calligraphy.
- Chollima Statue. At the top of Mansu Hill is a statue of a man riding Chollima, a winged horse, representing the economic development of Korea.
- Grand Monument. This is a huge bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, who is still officially president of the DPRK, despite having been dead for nearly 19 years.
- Juche Tower. A 170m tall monument is dedicated to the Juche philosophy of Kim Il Sung. Don't miss the trip to the top, which costs €5 and offers a great view of the city (though, if you're staying at the Yanggakdo, the view from a top floor is similar and free).
- Kaeson Funfair (Near the Arch of Triumph). This small amusement park has a handful of new rides. You and your guides can't just wander around as you'll need a guide from the park to take you to each ride, but you will be put at the front of the queue for each one. The guide will keep track of the rides you go on and then you pay according to how many rides you went on at the end of your visit.
- Kimilsungia-Kimjungilia Flower Exhibition Centre. This centre houses two floors worth of flowers named after Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
- Korean War Museum (Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum). The War Museum moved to a new building (next to the previous museum) in 2013. Large statues and captured US planes, tanks, and other weapons are in front of the main building. The museum contains a dioramas and historical artefacts from the war, paintings of the leaders, and serves as a memorial to national war heroes. Expect to spend 2-3 hours to visit the museum.
- Mansudae. 20 m high bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. During the centennial celebration of Kim Il-Sung's birthday, a statue of Kim Jong-Il was added. This colossal display will most likely be the first thing you visit. Be aware that the locals expect visitors to this place to show respect to the monument. Your tour group will most likely lay flowers on the statue pedestal which are also available on-site for €3-10. Formal dress is expected, though not strictly required.
- Munsu Water Park, East Pyongyang. Opened in October 2013, this is a large water park complex with lots of water slides. This will apparently be soon available to foreign tourists as well. €10.
- North Korean Film Studio. Where North Korean films are made, and see film sets based on Japan, Russia, China, and South Korea.
- Pyongyang Circus. Closer to an acrobatics show, the circus provides a variety of illusion and gymnastics acts. At one points trained bears were featured, but they appear to be absent from recent incarnations of the show. A live orchestra is present, and the majority of the audience is local. ¥80.
- Pyongyang Metro. This is the deepest metro system in the world at over 110 m. There are large socialist realist murals in the platforms of the stations, with each station designed to embody a different ideal. Tourists have previously been restricted to the Puhung and Yonggwang stations on the Chollima Line, which was relaxed in 2013 to allow travel to the Arch of Triumph station.
- Ryugyong Hotel. This 105-storey building dominates the Pyongyang skyline with its 330 m height. Construction started in 1987, but came to a halt in 1992 during the country's economic crisis in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. Construction by Egypt's Orascom Group resumed again in April 2008. It was scheduled for a partial opening in the summer of 2013, although recent information from a local guide was that it will open in "three to five years".
- Stamp Shop (Next to the Koryo Hotel on Changwang St). Sells a huge variety of DPRK postage stamps, with designs ranging from Olympic sports to Korean food to DPRK history. You can also buy postcards and postcard stamps, although mailing fees are cheaper on the second floor of the Koryo Hotel.
- USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo is an American navel vessel captured by North Korea in 1968. Although her crew was eventually released, the ship has been kept as a museum in Pyongyang. It is still officially commissioned by the United States Navy and is the only existing vessel still listed as captured. The Pueblo is now part of the Korean War Museum, and is next to the main museum building.
Normally, tourists in Pyongyang are restricted to guided tours. Personal visitors to foreign residents are usually free to wander around, though they may also be placed under the care of a guide.
It is important to be very careful about photography. Monuments and palaces are fine, but do not take photographs of residents without permission.
Some travellers have experienced difficulty in photographing North Korean markets and others have had no problem. As always, be sure to ask your guide for permission.
There are many places to go shooting, usually with air guns. In addition to standard targets, some locations offer live chickens as targets for a small extra price; if you kill the chicken you get to keep it.
Foreigners are allowed to use the main public swimming pool on Saturday mornings, and also the ice skating rink in winter. Be safe and avoid accidents; medical aid may take a long time to arrive.
Shopping options are limited. A few department stores exist but have very few things of interest to a visitor. Locals only shop from speciality stores selling groceries and other basic items. Arts and crafts and souvenirs can be purchased in places such as tourist sites and hotels. Some extremely sought-after North Korean souvenirs are metal lapel badges depicting the faces of one or both of the three Kims. They can be difficult for foreigners to acquire; it is often easier to buy them at home on eBay or similar auction sites. There have been reported cases of these badges being seized by customs at departure.
There are several government-run markets, selling a wide range of foods, as well as consumer goods such as shoes and DIY materials. The prices are extremely low by western standards, and the sellers are generally honest - although prices are negotiable. These markets are identifiable by their blue, hemispherical roofs. However, apart from Tonghil market, foreigners are treated with, at best, mild suspicion. Indeed, do not be surprised if you are gently, but firmly, escorted from the building. There is no harm in this, providing you comply.
Tonghil market is perhaps the most interesting, as there are many relatively wealthy Koreans shopping there for items many other North Koreans are unable to afford. You need won to shop at these markets, which can be exchanged for hard currencies on the second floor. Photography is prohibited. In Tonghil, be aware that some theft does occur, although it is minimal.
Local residents generally eat at home, and as such the Pyongyang restaurant scene is lacking. You will normally eat dinner at your hotel. There are a number of small diners in the city, but they are mostly aimed at local workers and have rather Spartan fare—boiled corn, kimchi, some fish or squid, white rice. The legal situation surrounding these semi-private establishments is complicated, and foreigners are not advised to eat at them.
There are, however, several restaurants well-suited for tourists.
- Chongryu. On the bank of the Pothong River, is a restaurant designed in the shape of a river cruise boat. A good choice for those fond of traditional Korean food, as over 120 Korean dishes are available.
- Dangogi Gukjib (Tongil St). The most famous place for those who have decided to try the Korean speciality of eating dog. €30 is all it takes.
- Haedanghwa (해당화관), 대동강구역 옥류1동, ☎ 678 3333. Teppanyaki-style restaurant with €30, €50, and €70 set meals. Considered one of the top restaurants in the country, the chefs have been trained in China. €30-70.
- National Restaurant. A variety of Korean dishes and often also has live shows.
- No. 1 Boat Restaurant (Kim Il Sung Square). The only boat restaurant in Pyongyang accessible to tourists. You eat on the outdoor deck.
- Okryu. On the bank of the Taedong River, Okryu was founded in 1960 and is one of the oldest restaurants in the country and one of the few with branches abroad. It is famous for its Pyongyang-style cold noodles. €3.00-6.00.
- Pyolmuri (Rio Rico Cafe), Changkwang St. North Korea's first Italian restaurant, offering pasta and pizza. Also offers imported Italian wine for USD6/bottle. €1.50-2.50.
- Pyongyang Duck Barbecue. a good choice if you like, as the name suggests, barbecued duck.
- Pyongyang Ostrich Farm. Specializes in ostrich meat.
- Ryugyong Restaurant (An Sang Taek St). Specializes in beef dishes. Recommended for meat-lovers.
There are very few bars and clubs, though North Korean beer is available at hotels. Some may also offer Chinese and other foreign beers, such as Heineken. The local draught beer is excellent, costing from €0.50 to €1.40, but the bottled beer can give bad hangovers.
There are three main places, apart from restaurants and hotels, where foreign residents go to socialise; the old Diplomatic club, near the Juche tower by the river, the Friendship, inside the Munsu dong foreigners' compound, and the Random Access Club (RAC), run by the UN, also inside the foreigners' compound.
Provided that transport (difficult) and permission (less difficult) is obtainable, all of these can be visited. The RAC Friday nights are legendary (not in an "Ibiza" way, though), although what passed for nightlife has dwindled as foreign aid organisations have left the country during 2009.
- Taedonggang Brewery Restaurant. 7 types of Taedonggang beer are on tap (although only types 1, 2, 5 and 6 are generally available). The restaurant has a large projector typically showing Russian concerts, and brick walls that look out of place in the city. Fairly expensive for dinner, but recommended for drinks. The fries are recommended as a bar snack, although the locals prefer dried fish.
This will be arranged by your tour company.
- Heabangsan Hotel (Sungri St, Central District), ☎ . A five-storey building which is the cheapest option in Pyongyang. It has 83 rooms, but you cannot be certain that you as a foreigner will be allowed to stay here.
- Morangbong Hotel (Morangbong Hill). 12 rooms and is Pyongyang's smallest hotel. It is the only hotel in Pyongyang with al fresco dining.
- Pyongyang Hotel (Sungri St, Central District, near Pyongyang Grand Theatre), ☎ . Class 2 hotel with 170 rooms. Open since 1961.
- Taedonggang Hotel (Sungri St, Central District, beside the Taedonggang River), ☎ . 2nd class hotel that has been around since 1956.
- Koryo Hotel (Changkwang St), ☎ . The most luxurious hotel in the city together with Yanggakdo Hotel. Has 45 floors and over 500 rooms. Centrally located in the city centre near the train station, makes you less isolated than the Yanggakdo. Singles €175, doubles €290.
- Potongang Hotel, ☎ . First-class hotel situated next to the Potong River about 4 km from the city centre. It has 216 rooms equipped with air conditioning, refrigerator, telephone, and satellite TV. Facilities include restaurants, bar, souvenir shop and a beauty salon.
- Ryanggang Hotel (Chongchun St, Mangyongdae District, at the junction of the Taedonggang and Potonggang Rivers), ☎ . Opened in 1989, this first-class hotel has 317 rooms and a rotating restaurant on the roof.
- Sosan Hotel (Kwangbok St), ☎ . First-class option, recently renovated. Features a pool, bars, Internet, and cable TV.
- Yanggakdo Hotel, ☎ . Opened 1995. This is where most tourists in Pyongyang end up staying. It is on Yanggakdo Island, in the middle of the Taedong River. It is 47 storeys tall, has several restaurants (including a revolving restaurant on the top), and a kitsch casino in the basement where you can watch Chinese gamblers go wild. Also has a bowling alley, shoe repair shop, and massage service. Prices range from €70 for a third-class room on one of the lower floors, to €420 for a deluxe room high up. Meals are included.
Pyongyang is a very safe city for foreigners who follow the rules. See the main article for safety information about North Korea.
The country code for North Korea is +850.
Foreigners staying in Pyongyang can sign up with Koryolink cellphone service. The setup fee for a SIM card and voice service is €80. Signing up for 3G data costs an additional €180. Fees for the mobile service are €10-20/month. The included data plan provides 50M of data. Note that the phone network available to foreigners does not interconnect with the network used by citizens.
Hotels aimed at foreigners may be able to provide Internet access, although it should be requested in advance. If you do not have Internet access and need connectivity, the easiest option is likely to schedule a visit to your embassy.
- Red Cross General Hospital of Korea. phone: +850 2 28291. East-Pyongyang.
- Pyongyang First Aid Hospital. phone: +850 2 22758.
- Pyongyang Foreigners’ Hospital. phone: +850 2 22160.
- Kim Man Yu Hospital. phone: +850 2 28136. East-Pyongyang.
- Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. East-Pyongyang. (Showcase, opened in 1980 with 1500 beds.)
Most foreign embassies (with the exception of the Chinese and Russian embassies) in Pyongyang are inside the Munsu-dong area. European Union (EU) citizens of countries not yet represented in Pyongyang can seek consular assistance from other EU embassies (Such as the German or British embassies) instead. Citizens of the United States should contact the Swedish embassy for consular assistance. Canadian and Australian citizens should contact the British embassy for consular assistance.
* The British Embassy incorporates a minor Australian and Canadian diplomatic presence; this offers reasonable consular services to Australian and Canadian citizens
** The United States does not currently maintain diplomatic relations with the D.P.R.K; American citizens can receive limited consular help from the Swedish Embassy (usually emergencies only).
- Mangyongdae, the purported birthplace of Kim Il Sung, is 12 km from central Pyongyang and a good day trip. A collection of huts said to be the Leader's first home is the main attraction. The suburb also features a revolutionary museum, a funfair and a revolutionary school for the children of the elite.
- The Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, around 15 km north east of the city, is a good day out. You walk up 300 steps, through gardens with hidden speakers playing mournful music, to fairly identikit bronze busts set on marble plinths. Seriousness, of course, is mandatory. Taking photos is fine, and on a clear day there are magnificent views over the city. At the foot of the hill there is a zoo and a park. One can visit both, at a small charge, although they are sometimes shut. As you approach, the metro terminus is on the right; it takes around 40 minutes to get back into town on the subway. In the zoo itself are a lot of tigers, dogs and chickens. The two Korean breeds of dog (the lighter coloured is the northern, the darker the southern one) are separated from one another by a steel fence and spend most of their lives barking at each other - quite an appropriate metaphor...
- Panmunjom, the surreal truce village on the DMZ and demarcation line of North and South Korea, is an unforgettable historical site easily visited on a day trip from Pyongyang.