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, and 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.
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Largely destroyed during the Korean War in 1952, it was rebuilt to be a model city to boost morale in North Korea. The Russian-style architecture features wide boulevards and lots of green space and decoration. The streets are laid out in an orderly grid, and the city is divided into self-sufficient urban neighborhoods all with similar amenities nearby. As movement is restricted in the city, it stands out among large Asian cities for being spacious, uncrowded, and quiet.
Pyongyang has been an important city in the region for millenia. In the 300s and 400s, it was the capital first of Nanglang and then of the Goguryeo kingdom. Historically an important commercial center, in the 16th through 19th centuries it became the center of Christian missionary work in Asia.
When Korea was split after the end of World War II, the Soviet Army entered Pyongyang, and it became the temporary capital, which was later made official with the founding of North Korea. During the Korean War, it was largely destroyed as a result of the largest aerial raid of the entire war. With help from the Soviet Union, it was quickly rebuilt.
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.
- 1 Sunan International Airport (FNJ IATA) (is 24 km north of Pyongyang). It handles a relatively small number of passengers for a capital airport, and as of 2020 had scheduled services to Beijing, Macau, Shenyang, and Vladivostok.
International flights use a new terminal opened in summer of 2015, featuring more seating, an expanded duty-free store, and additional amenities. The new terminal imposes a USD1 parking fee when exiting the lot.
Air China operates a round-trip to Beijing on Mondays and Fridays, with an additional scheduled flight on Wednesdays in the summer. These flights leave Beijing at 13:00, and return from Pyongyang at 17:20.
Air Koryo operates flights to Beijing on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. These leave Pyongyang at 09:00 and return to Pyongyang from Beijing at 13:00.
The cheapest flights in and out of Pyongyang are to Shenyang for USD180 one way on Air Koryo, with service Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
If you are in a position to buy tickets within the country, they are on sale in the Youth Hotel's Air China office, which is about 10 km north-east of the city. They provide a free 30 kg baggage allowance. Tickets may also be purchased online through travel agents who typically interact with either the Beijing or Berlin Air Koryo offices. Expect to pay USD300-320 for a one-way ticket to Beijing.
There are two international train services to Pyongyang, from Beijing (via Dandong and Sinuiju) and Moscow (via Zabaikalsk, Dandong and Sinuiju). Western foreigners will usually be denied entry to North Korea by train (except for those specially chartered by tour companies).
For trains arriving at 2 Pyongyang station (평양역), foreigners must exit via the side door at the far end of the station from the gates. Don't join the scrum with the North 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 chaos of the Beijing railway station.
Tourists 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. 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. Foreign residents 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 at 5 won per journey irrespective of 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. Generally around €5 will cover a medium distance one way journey, although the rate for foreigners is USD1/km before 18:30 and USD2/km in the evening.
- 1 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.
- 2 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 number of participants, the greatest show on earth.
- 3 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 specialisation 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.
- 4 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.
- 5 Juche Tower. A 170 m 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).
- 6 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.
- 7 Kimilsungia-Kimjungilia Flower Exhibition Centre. This centre houses two floors worth of flowers named after Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. Kimilsungia flower shows are held every year in Pyongyang. Traditionally, embassies of foreign countries in North Korea each present their own bouquet of the flower to the annual exhibition.
- 8 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 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.
- 9 Mansudae Grand Monument. 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.
- 10 Munsu Water Park, East Pyongyang. Opened in October 2013, this is a large water park complex with lots of water slides. Open to foreigners on Saturdays. €7 indoors only, €10 indoors and outdoors.
- 11 North Korean Film Studio. Where North Korean films are made, and see film sets based on Japan, Russia, China and South Korea.
- 12 Pyongyang Circus (State Circus). Closer to an acrobatics show, the circus provides a variety of illusion and gymnastics acts. Live animals are no longer used. There is a live orchestra. 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. A standard tourist visit for €2 will ride from the origin Puhung station to the Arch of Triumph (6 stops) on the Chollima Line. It is possible to travel the full extent of the metro for €20, although disembarking at a couple stations remains restricted and the full tour takes several hours. €2-20.
- 13 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, but it remains unopened as of Mar 2020.
- 14 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 postage costs are lower on the second floor of the Koryo Hotel.
- 15 USS Pueblo. The USS Pueblo is an American naval 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 commissioned by the United States Navy and is its only vessel still listed as captured. The Pueblo is now part of the Korean War Museum, and is next to the main museum building.
- 16 Workers Party Monument. This monument is about the Workers Party of Korea. The hammer, sickle and brush are standing for the workers, farmers and the intellectuals. The ring around these the symbols represents their unification. Free.
- 17 Kim Il-sung Square. Pyongyang's main square is directly opposite the Juche Tower on west bank of the Taedong River and is a common gathering place for military parades, dances and rallies. Attractions surrounding the square include the Grand People's Study House.
- 18 Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Contains the bodies of President Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, who have been designated as eternal leaders of the country.
- 19 Korean Revolution Museum. Opened in 1948, this museum showcases exhibits of items related to Kim Il-sung and the Korean Revolutionary movement.
- 20 Arch of Reunification. The Arch of Reunification is a 62-m concrete arch which consists of two women in traditional dress, together holding the map of the reunified Korean Peninsula. It was opened in 2001 as a monument to symbolize possible future reunification of the two Koreas.
- 21 Rungrado 1st of May Stadium. The largest stadium in the world, with a total capacity of 114,000. The site occupies an area of 20.7 hectares (51 acres).
- 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 metro. 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.
- Some of the tombs of the UNESCO World Heritage listing Complex of Goguryeo Tombs are located in the Taedong river basin outside Pyongyang.
- 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.
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.
- Pyongyang Marathon, May Day Stadium. The Pyongyang Marathon is a yearly event in April open to Americans and most other nationalities since 2014. There are 10 km, half- and full marathon races. Although anyone can sign up, it has to be through an official tour operator, including UriTours, KoryoGroup, and Young Pioneer Tours. Roughly 1,000 foreigners were scheduled to run in 2016. USD50-100.
- Swimming. Foreigners are allowed to use the main public swimming pool on Saturday mornings, and also the ice skating rink in winter. Medical aid may take a long time to arrive.
- 1 Bowling. Bowling is available at Golden Lanes for minimal cost.
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 more 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 competing prepaid cards available around town, which reduce the hassle of carrying money and change. The ubiquitous and oldest is from the Trade Bank (무역은행), and is available at the Pyongyang Shop in the Embassy district. Its balance is recorded at the hard-currency exchange rate. More recently, Guangbok and some stores dealing in local currency have begun to offer a card from the Central Bank (중앙은행) with a balance of local won. The Ryugyong commercial bank also offers a card accepted by the Ryugyong shop.
There are several government-run markets, selling a wide range of foods, as well as consumer goods such as shoes and DIY materials. The majority of these products are imported, but some local goods can be found as well. The prices for local products 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 generally treated with caution. 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.
The list of stores known to be open to foreigners consists of:
- 1 Pyongyang Store. The Pyongyang diplomatic store complex has fresh milk, a duty free section and tailor services.
- 2 Haemaji. The Haemaji complex features a grocery store, bakery, coffee shop and steak house.
- 3 CanGuang. The CanGuang complex near the Koryo hotel has a grocery store, cafe and hotel.
- 4 Potonggang. The Potonggang complex is a 3-storey department store selling food, home good and small appliances. Local currency is used, and a currency exchange point is located across the street.
- 5 GwangBok. Gwangbok is a 3-storey shopping complex joint venture with a Chinese company. The top floor has a food court, and the second floor has locally-produced clothing. Local currency is used and can be exchanged on the first floor.
- 6 Ryugyong. The Ryugyong shopping complex has a grocery store, furniture store, and kitchen supplies. There's also a cafe in the complex, a hardware store next door, and an electronics store across the street.
- 7 Tongil Market. A bustling market with imported and local goods. One of the few places to buy fresh meat and produce, and with a bit of everything else. Prices on imported goods will not be significantly cheaper than at other stores, but one of the few places to shop alongside locals. Note: Tongil is not typically a permitted destination for short-term visitors.
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). 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.
- 1 Dangogi Gukjib (Tongil St). The most famous place for those who wish to try the Korean speciality of dog. Costs €30.
- 2 Haedanghwa (해당화관), Okryu Taedong River Area 1 East (대동강구역 옥류1동), ☏ . 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. The name might have been changed from Haedanghwa to Ryugyong Service Complex in 2016. €30-70.
- 3 Mujigae Boat Restaurant (Kim Il Sung Square). A 2015 boat completed for the 70th anniversary of the workers party, the Rainbow boat has 8 food options: a buffet, a traditional Korean restaurant, a revolving restaurant on the 3rd floor, an outside snack bar, a coffee shop, a karaoke bar, four booth areas with a continental menu, and a convenience shop. A fee of USD1 or 5,000 won is charged upon boarding in addition to the price of food.
- 4 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. €3-6.
- Ryugyong Restaurant (An Sang Taek St). Specialises in beef dishes. Recommended for meat-lovers.
- 5 Haebangsan. Famous for ox rib soup. USD5-10.
There are few bars and clubs to which foreigners are allowed, although 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, and costs from €0.50 to €1.40.
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.
- 1 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.
- 2 Diplomatic Club. In addition to a pool and restaurant, the upstairs of the diplomatic club has an extensive karaoke area, and a billiards room with a small bar.
This will be arranged by your tour company.
- 1 Heabangsan Hotel (Sungri St, Central District), ☏ . A five-storey building which is the cheapest option in Pyongyang. It has 83 rooms, but rarely available to foreigners.
- 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.
- Potongang Hotel, ☏ . First-class hotel 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.
- 2 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, renovated. Features a pool, bars, Internet, and cable TV.
- 3 Yanggakdo Hotel, ☏ . Opened 1995. 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 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.
- 4 Koryo Hotel (Changkwang St), ☏ . The most luxurious hotel in the city together with Yanggakdo Hotel. Has 45 floors and over 500 rooms. It's in the city centre near the train station, which makes you less isolated than the Yanggakdo. Singles €175, doubles €290.
Pyongyang is a very safe city for foreigners who follow the rules. See the main article for safety information about North Korea.
In addition to the standard emergency numbers (119 from fixed-line phones, 112 from mobile phones), for medical emergencies in Pyongyang, you can also dial ☏.
The country code for North Korea is +850, and the area code for Pyongyang is 2 (and possibly also 195), dialed and written domestically as 02. Phone numbers in Pyongyang beginning with 381 (e.g. +850 2-381-xxxx) can be called internationally, and can only make international calls and calls to other 381 numbers. Businesses with such a phone number will usually have a 381 number for international calls and a 382 for domestic calls.
Foreigners staying in Pyongyang can sign up with Koryolink mobile phone service. The setup fee for a SIM card and voice service will be either $80 or €80. Signing up for 3G data costs an additional €180. Fees for the mobile service are $8/month for voice and $14/month for data. The included data plan provides 50M of data. 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 connection the easiest option is likely to schedule a visit to your embassy.
- Red Cross General Hospital of Korea (East-Pyongyang), ☏ .
- Pyongyang First Aid Hospital, ☏ .
- Pyongyang Foreigners’ Hospital, ☏ .
- Kim Man Yu Hospital (East-Pyongyang), ☏ .
- Pyongyang Maternity Hospital (East-Pyongyang). Showcase, opened in 1980 with 1,500 beds.
Most foreign embassies in Pyongyang, except for the Chinese and Russian embassies, are in the Munsu-dong area. Citizens of European Union (EU) countries not represented in Pyongyang can seek consular assistance from other EU embassies instead, such as the German or Polish embassies. Citizens of the United States, Canada, Nordic Countries and Australia can get limited consular assistance from the Swedish embassy, although usually only in emergencies. These citizens are also recommended to contact their country's embassy in Seoul or Beijing.
* The Swedish Embassy offers limited consular help to citizens of Australia, Canada, the United States and the Nordic countries. They also handle Schengen visa applications for Italy, Spain and the Nordic countries.