P'yŏngyang (평양 Pyeongyang), with about 2,750,000 inhabitants, is the capital city of North Korea or the capital of the South Korean claimed South Pyeongan Province. It is situated on the Taedong River in the southwest of the country.
Nearly all visitors arrive either by plane or train from Beijing. You'll need a visa before you travel and will need a minimum of 2 weeks to process it.
Sunan International Airport (IATA: FNJ) is 24km north of Pyongyang and, as of 2009, has scheduled services to Beijing, Shenyang, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Vladivostok.
The Air China Beijing flights depart/arrive on Monday and Friday afternoons, with an additional service on Wednesday afternoons in summer (from April 1st). Note that Pyongyang airport does not have Instrument Landing System (ILS), so if the weather is bad, flights are sometimes cancelled, or even turned back. Air Koryo usually never has problems landing in their home base, so if you need to be sure to arrive, better take Air Koryo. However, take into account that Air China is far more modern and safe when compared to Air Koryo (which is banned within the EU due to its planes failing multiple safety checks).
If you are in a position to be able to, the tickets to Beijing are almost half price from Pyongyang. They are on sale in the Youth Hotel, in the Air China office, which is situated about 10km north-east of the city. Furthermore, they give a 30kg baggage allowance for free.
Trains from China arrive at Pyongyang's main central train station. Foreigners can join in with the locals and use the main exit. Your guide(s) will be waiting for you outside of the building (Oct. 2013). If you have transported anything via freight on the train, you'll have to go back the next day to pick it up. The customs office is around the back of the building, and is shut 12:00-14:00. At other times, it's not very busy at all. There are no charges for collecting customs-cleared goods, and the bureaucracy is fairly simple, especially after the chaos at 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 subway system CAN be used, despite rumours to the contrary. There are two routes, and all the stations are open to foreigners. Despite being old, the trains run quite efficiently, and are phenomenally cheap (5 won a ride, any distance- there are roughly 5000 won to a euro on the black market). The biggest drawback to this form of transport is that the subway 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 Koreans usually are very nervous about accepting foreigners. One exception might be the Koryo hotel, situated 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.
- 20-metre high bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il at Mansudae. 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. Surreal as it may seem, be aware that the locals expect visitors to this place to take it all very seriously and show respect to the monument. Your tour group will most likely have to lay flowers on the statue pedestal which are also available on-site for €3-10. Formal dress is expected, though not strictly required.
- Pyongyang Metro. This is the deepest metro system in the world at over 110 metres. There are large socialist realist murals in the platforms of the stations, with each station designed to embody a different ideal. Most tourists only see Puhung and Yonggwang stations on the Chollima Line.
- Juche Tower. A 170-metre 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!).
- 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 one skill every day until they graduate school or they complete the area of study (e.g. driving). Areas include: ballet, rhythmic dance, gymnastics, computer programming, singing, musical instruments, chess, volleyball, basketball, embroidery, and calligraphy.
- Ryugyong Hotel. This 105-story building dominates the Pyongyang skyline with its 330 meters of height. Construction started in 1987, but when the money ran out in 1992 it came to a halt. Construction by Egypt's Orascom Group resumed again in April 2008. An Orascom company official said the goal of the project was to at least give the structure's façade a facelift and make it more attractive. It is thought that the building will be opening for business in 2013, but only 150 hotel rooms on the upper floors will be open, the other floors will eventually be offices and shops, but it is unclear when they will open.
- USS Pueblo, the captured American vessel.
- 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. This is the best place to buy souvenirs, as stamps are easy to transport and it's easy to find a set of stamps for almost anyone. You can also buy postcards and postcard stamps (200 won) here.
- Arirang Mass Games, the Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance. This is performed in the fall of some years. With over 100,000 performers this is, by the numbers, the greatest show on Earth.
- 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. However at 60 m high and 50-m wide it is the biggest victory arch in the world.
- Korean War Museum also known as the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum The basement of the museum has a number of captured U.S. planes, tanks, and weaponry.
- Kaeson Funfair. Located 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 head of the line 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.
- Chollima Statue. This is a statue of a man riding a winged horse, representing the innovations of Korea. It is at the top of Mansu Hill.
- 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 more than 15 years.
- Kimilsungia-Kimjungilia Flower Exhibition Center. This houses two floors worth of rare flowers named after Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.
- North Korean Film Studio. Here you can see where North Korean film is made, and see film sets based on Japan, Russia, China and South Korea.
Guided tours of sites in and around Pyongyang are the only way to do things. You will not be permitted to explore on your own.
One caveat is regarding personal visitors to foreign residents of Pyongyang. They are usually free to wander around, although the Koreans prefer to 'help' in these situations.
Above all, be very careful about photography. Monuments and palaces are fine, but Koreans hate having their photographs taken, unless you get permission first. If you come across a street market, it is likely that everyone will run away (including the sellers), as their existence is a tacit admission of the failure of their economic system. This is not, however, always the case. The Koreans will, however, get very nervous, so a lot of smiling is a good idea. You should absolutely NOT take obvious photos in these situations. You are likely to be arrested, and possibly deported. An innocent photo of a market to Westerners is a very serious situation to them at a political level. Not only does it show the shortcomings of the regime, but a picture of abundance in a market will, they worry, lead to the withdrawal of international food aid.
There are many places to go shooting, usually with air guns. The Koreans love to see foreigners try their hand at this, as sometimes (unbeknown to the foreigner) they are shooting at images of Americans.
More cruelly, you can target live chickens instead for a couple of euros; if you kill the chicken you get to keep it.
Foreigners are allowed to use the main public swimming pool on Saturday mornings, as they are the ice skating rink in winter. Be aware, that if you have an accident, the Koreans will not help you, probably through fear of dealing with a foreigner. It has been known for foreigners to break their legs ice skating, and waiting for hours on the ice while other expatriates try to help (if they are even around)!
Shopping options are limited. A few department stores exist but have very few things of interest. Locals only shop from specialty 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 two Kims. North Koreans are required to own these badges; as such they are categorised more as national necessities, and therefore not readily available to westerners, whom the locals often seem to think would never want such a thing. It is easier to find these North Korean items on eBay. There have been reports 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 extremely honest- red-coated officials watch their every move, especially when selling to a foreigner. These markets are identifiable by their blue, semispherical 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. Koreans are issued State provisions, which vary according to their job/status. Anything else they are free to buy- either at official won exchange rates (about 1/30th of the black market price), again, depending on their status, or at the free market price, which usually means they can afford almost nothing. The average wage is around £1.5/€2/$2.5 a month, which results in most people's total dependance upon the State.
You need won to shop at these markets, and do not take photos. In Tonghil, be aware that some theft does occur although it is minimal.
There are hardly any restaurants where the average North Koreans go. Eating out is a pleasure reserved for foreigners and special people. You will normally eat dinner at your hotel. With the current slow but steady erosion of the government control, there actually a lot of various private and semi-private (ostensibly belonging to some state organization or cooperative, but in fact just using them as a front) eateries, but these are mostly just a simple diners aimed squarely at the working-class Koreans and have a rather spartan fare -- boiled corn, kimchi, some fish or squid, and white rice for those who want to splurge (white rice being a rare holiday dish for the most Koreans). Also, while they are tacitly tolerated by the authorities, having a foreigner visiting them would be a colossal embarrassment for the regime and can bring a lot of problems for everyone involved.
Often, when you see Koreans in a group in a restaurant, it is because their work unit, or the Party, has sent them and is paying. These groups are easily identifiable as such: Koreans hardly ever eat meat, so, if they go out on one of these trips, they have a meat-fest and get as drunk as possible on soju, rice alcohol. The smaller groups who regularly go out to restaurants eat and drink in a much more moderate way.
- No.1 Boat Restaurant, Kim Il Sung Square, is the only boat restaurant in Pyongyang accessible to tourists. You eat on the outdoor deck.
- Chongryu, on the bank of the Pothong River, is a restaurant designed in the shape of a river cruise boat. It was renovated in 2007 and is a good choice for those fond of traditional Korean food as over 120 Korean dishes are available.
- Dangogi Gukjib, Tongil St, is the most famous place for those wishing to try the Korean specialty of eating dog, however beware the conditions the animals are kept in and the method of killing them is exceptionally cruel.
- National Restaurant has a variety of Korean dishes and often also has live shows.
- Okryu, on the bank of the Taedong River, was founded in 1960 and is a popular restaurant for those wishing to try Korean cuisine. It is famous for its Pyongyang-style cold noodles.
- Pyolmuri, Changkwang St,. North Korea's first Italian restaurant, offering pasta and pizza. Mains €1.50-2.50.
- Pyongyang Duck Barbecue is a good choice if you like barbecued duck.
- Pyongyang Ostrich Farm specializes in ostrich meat.
- Ryugyong Restaurant, An Sang Taek St, specializes in beef dishes. It is recommended for meat-lovers.
- Samtaesung Hamburger Restaurant, The only hamburger restaurant in Pyongyang, and serves hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks.
- Pyongyang TV Tower Restaurant can be accessed if you are visiting the Pyongyang TV Tower, and is often thought to be among the better restaurants in North Korea.
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.