North Korea or the Democratic Peoples Republic Korea (DPRK) is one of the most isolated and least visited countries in the world. I have visited twice and this North Korea itinerary for first time visitors is an itinerary you probably will follow if you visit a first time.
Many say North Korea is secretive and lost in time, but I do not completely agree with that! It is secretive up to a certain extend as you simply cannot travel free but for sure it’s not lost in time. I would say it simply kept everything it acquired over time as you’ll see modern mixed with the old. The old is still “new” though! After my two visits to North Korea I can only say to everyone adventurous and interested in different cultures to go. I hope the below North Korea itinerary helps you decide!
Planning a North Korea trip
Planning a North Korea trip is VERY easy! You cannot do it yourself so nothing you have to do! Anyone who wants to visit North Korea needs to arrange this through an appointed travel agency. I used Your Planet Travel (in Dutch but you can write them in English as well), based in the Netherlands, for both my trips. They are flexible and have standard building blocks to build your trip plus they have no problem adjusting and adding more (on a day) as standard trips. For example, I had a request to see several UNESCO World Heritage Site tombs and this was possible without problem. I also wanted to do more on one day as regular tours, this was also no problem. To do this you have to go on a private tour of course.
Getting to Pyongyang
Tours start normally in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea and to get there you have just a few options. Most people fly in from Beijing or Shanghai in China, but you could fly in from Vladivostok in Russia as well. You can also take the train from Beijing to Pyongyang, but this does mean you need a Chinese visa as well because you cannot use the layover visa in Beijing. A North Korea trip is easily combined with a trip in China. Read my Yunnan itinerary to get some inspiration!
How much does a North Korea trip cost?
The cost? A private tour of course isn’t cheap but also not so expensive. My 8 days solo private trip was about 2150 EURO including flights from Beijing and including the best hotels, food, tours, and everything else. It also includes the visa costs which was VERY easy to get. This is just over 250 EUR a day which I easily spend everywhere else as well. A join-in tour is cheaper but not even that much. I highly recommend booking a private trip! Now let’s have a look at a typical North Korea itinerary for first timers.
Day 1: North Korea itinerary: Arrival in Pyongyang
My North Korea itinerary included flights to and from Pyongyang on Air Koryo which is North Korea’s national airline. As an aviation enthusiast I was looking forward flying their Tupolev Tu-204 which is a Russian plane and perfectly safe to fly! At check-in there was a small line of people but on the right the business class line was completely empty. I though, lets see what an upgrade to business class costs (read my 3 luxury things to do in North Korea) and after paying I was in row 2 seat A. Isn’t that cool? Other people in business class where mainly North Korean officials! The fight to Pyongyang was just over an hour and very smooth.
Once in Pyongyang it was already afternoon, but security was fast and efficient. Officials do check everything carefully and I recommend following the rules the tour agency provides. Even European airports can learn from this for intra-European flights. Once through security I met with my tour guides and driver who helped me buy a local North Korean sim card so that I could stay in touch with my family. We made a quick stop at the Arc de Triumph and visited Mansu Hill Grand Monument before heading to the hotel for dinner and craft beer!
Day 2 – 4: Exploring Pyongyang
Most trips to North Korea include 2 or 3 days in and around Pyongyang to see all the highlights. In this North Korea itinerary, I just list them in no particular order but grouped by monuments, activities, and cultural highlights. Some are always included others are optional and pending your interest. You might like to go horse riding while someone else would prefer ice-skating. One thing is sure that most monuments will be visited on your trip to North Korea.
Read all about these monuments in my detailed North Korea day trip reports:
NORTH KOREA – A photo journal of a child growing up in Pyongyang & the Pyongyang metro
NORTH KOREA – 5 fun activities in the capital Pyongyang
NORTH KOREA – 3 Luxury things to do in North Korea
NORTH KOREA – To bow or not to bow; Pyongyang explored [part 1]
NORTH KOREA – 5 great North Korea monuments; Pyongyang explored [part 2]
NORTH KOREA – Art, music, circus & dance entertainment; Pyongyang explored [part 3]
Monuments in Pyongyang
The following monuments are normally always visited if you’re a first time visitor to North Korea. They are so important that the local tour agency will add them to your North Korea itinerary.
- Kumsusan Palace of the Sun: This is the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea and eternal president and Kim Jong-Il his son and Eternal Chairman. A visit is formal. You will first show respect to both after which you can see all their awards and learn about their lives.
- Kim Il-sung square & Foreign Book Shop: Large square just next to the Taedong River. The Foreign Book Shop is just around the corner where you can buy North Korean literature and other memorabilia.
- Juche-tower: Opposite of the square at the other side of the Taedong River is the Juche-tower. Named after the ideology. Make sure that you pay to go to the top as it offers magnificent views over Pyongyang.
- Mansudae Grand Monument: The Mansudae Grand Monument is probably the most famous monument in Pyongyang. It consist of 2 very large bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il. Here you’ll give flowers and bow to the statues.
- Korean Victorious War Museum & USS Pueblo: The USS Pueblo is a US ship that was conducting espionage but captures by North Korea. You can visit it! The museum educates you about the Korean wars.
- Birthplace of Kim Il-Sung: Just out of Pyongyang is the birthplace of Kim Il-Sung. You will visit his house and you can drink water from the well. A visit doesn’t take long but it’s a nice area to walk around.
- Monument of the founding of the party: The monument of the founding of the party shows not only the hammer & sickle but also a pencil. This is part of the Juche ideology which makes North Korea different as other similar ideologies.
Culture & daily life
If you want to see the daily life the following places are must visits. If they aren’t included on your North Korea itinerary you can always ask to visit. Even on the spot many things are possible and you get to see how a child would grow up in Pyongyang.
- Mansudae Art Studio: Here you can see famous North Korean artists at work. Painters, embroidery, sculptures and more. There is also a shop where you can buy the art. Don’t worry they ship overseas, and you can at this place pay by credit card.
- School Children’s Palace: Children that want to do extracurricular activities go here. You must be outstanding to attend though. Various arts are learned and the performance at the end of a visit is well worth it!
- Grand People’s Study House: This is the central library in Pyongyang and built in traditional Korean style. You will be shown various lecture halls and probably can teach a bit of English to students. There are also many computers which people can use to access the North Korean “internet”.
- Moranbong Park: A famous park in downtown Pyongyang where people go to relax and picknick. A walk through the park gives you an impression of the daily life of North Koreans.
Activities & entertainment in Pyongyang
If you want to see the daily life the following places are must visits. If they aren’t included on your North Korea itinerary you can always ask to visit. Even on the spot many things are possible.
- Ride the metro: Pyongyang’s metro is said to be the deepest in the world. A ride takes you to several stations and gives a good impression of the daily life. It reminded me a bit of the Moscow metro which has also such beautiful stations.
- Walking through the city: There are several streets you can walk through and get to know more about the daily life.
- Roller-skating & ice-skating park: If you’re interested in roller-skating or ice-skating these are optional activities. I went to just see the locals enjoying the parks.
- Horse riding at Mirin: I don’t ride horse but a visit here was very interesting and riding a horse was a fun thing to do. I even had tea with a famous North Korean champion!
- Kaeson Fun Fair: Must visit! Rides cost between 1 and 2 euro and are well worth it. What about bumper cars against some North Korean military…? There are fun things to do in Pyongyang!
- Pyongyang Circus: The Pyongyang Circus has won many awards worldwide. I really enjoyed seeing them perform all kinds of acrobatics.
Day 5-6: North Korea tour: Kaesong 2-day trip
A visit to the Korean DMZ and Kaesong is a must add-on for any North Korea itinerary. After a long drive over an almost completely empty highway I arrived in Kaesong where we directly drove further to the DMZ area. I visited several places but most important is of course the Joint Security Area (JSA). The area is where you can go to South Korea for a minute. Both sides have a big building within the middle the “famous” blue barracks. In those you can go from North to South and the other way around. I changed country 10 times in a minute! After the DMZ we drove to the concrete wall. Here you can watch the southern border with binoculars.
The second day I explored Kaesong city where I had some special requests. Historic Monuments and Sites in Kaesong date to the Koryo dynasty time and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace is often included on a tour, but the other places were all special requests. They include five sections of the city walls, Manwoldae Palace and Chomsongdae, Namdae Gate, Koryo Songgyungwan, Sungyang Sowon, Sonjuk Bridge and Phyochung Monuments, Mausoleum of King Wang Kon with associated Seven Tombs Cluster and Myongrung Tombs Cluster, Mausoleum of King Kongmin. I continued directly to Nampo for a day trip where I visited the Nampo Dam before going to the SPA hotel.
Read my Kaesong day trip report to learn more about this North Korea itinerary day:
NORTH KOREA – Kaesong day trip: Spying at the Southern neighbours & old Koryo dynasty
Day 6-7: North Korea itinerary: Nampo day trip
I visited the Nampo Dam (or West Sea Barrage at Nampo) in the afternoon. Nampo is now a large industrial city focused on shipbuilding but in the past, it was a small farmers village. In Nampo the Taedong River flows into the Korean Bay. The dam was built to prevent the sea flow into the river. It was built in just 5 years! After a visit I went to the nearby SPA hotel to enjoy some hot spring water.
The next day I enjoyed a bit more of the hot springs before heading back to Pyongyang. Just before Pyongyang a visit to the Chongsan-ri cooperative farm was on the North Korea itinerary. I visit to a farm is highly recommended as you will learn how the farms work. You also see a bit more of rural North Korea which is interesting to see. Back in Pyongyang I visited a supermarket and had bibimbap for dinner with of course again some North Korean craft beer.
Read my Nampo day trip report to learn more about this North Korea itinerary day:
NORTH KOREA – Nampo day trip: SPA, hotsprings and other waterworks
Day 7: Mt. Myohyang is a must do on a North Korea itinerary
A Mount Myohyang day trip should not be missed on your North Korea itinerary. Mount Myohyang or Myohyangsan translates to Mysterious Fragrant Mountain. The area is now a national park and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. For the Koreans it’s a sacred place as their ancestor King Tangun supposed to live there. The mountain is home to the Pohyon temple (a Buddhist temple), which is great, but the International Friendship Exhibition is why you should go. It houses all the gifts the great leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il and the current leader Kim Jong-un got from other leaders, important businessmen and other important persons. You’ll only see a fraction as there are over 200.000 gifts covering almost 200 rooms. I was shown stuffed tiger heads, ivory pieces as large I had never seen, tanks, limousines, paintings, gemstones, and a baseball signed by Michael Jordan. This was simply amazing, and I don’t have words to describe. Go see yourself I would say!
Read my Mt. Myohyang day trip report to learn more about this North Korea itinerary day:
NORTH KOREA – A day trip from Pyongyang to Mt. Myohyang, Pohyonsa Temple & International Friendship Exhibition
Day 8: Plan your North Korea itinerary to add a national day
If you can plan your North Korea itinerary during a time that there is a national holiday I highly recommend doing so. You will see mass dances for sure and see people relax and have time for themselves. If you’re lucky you can watch a military parade but those aren’t announced so much.
Best days include Victory Day (27th July), Liberation Day (15th August), Day of the Foundation of the Republic (9th September) and Party Foundation Day (10th October). Those are probably the most important and best to choose from if you want to see something happening.
If Mass Games are going on (mostly from 27th July to 10th October so they include all the national days) then DO GO! I did this the 2nd time I visited North Korea as they didn’t perform for several years. It’s huge with over 100.000 people participating. Do go VIP class and you’ll sit in a separate area where also officials are sitting. More on the Mass Games later including a video!
Day 9: The end of this North Korea itinerary
Every trip ends and so did my trip to North Korea. The flight back to Beijing was early morning but as they have just a flight or two a day there was no hurry. I left the hotel 90 minutes before the flight and check-in was quick and smooth. Oh, I did upgrade again to business class!
As I already mentioned I visited North Korea twice and the above North Korea itinerary was of my first trip. These are, in my opinion, the most important places to visit and get a good understanding of the country. More about my second visit to the eastern parts of the country in another North Korea itinerary I’ll write soon.
If North Korea isn’t your thing that read my 2-week Indonesia itinerary, 2-week Thailand itinerary, 2-week Vietnam itinerary or 2-week Japan itinerary. All great other suggestions for an Asia trip.
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Did you visit North Korea too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!
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