Rest stops are an essential part of a highway system, offering drivers chances to gas up, use the restroom or just stretch their legs on long trips.
But increasingly in South Korea, these roadside establishments offer something a little extra, becoming tourist attractions in their own right.
South Korea’s 4,000-kilometer highway system boasts 189 rest areas, which last year generated a combined 1.3 trillion won ($1.1 billion) in revenue, up 13 percent from 2014.
From local delicacies, traditional art galleries to a variety of sport activities, here are some of the most incredible rest areas.
The Maljuk Street sogogi gukbap is one of the most beloved traditional eateries one can find on expressway food plazas. The restaurant’s name is its main dish -- beef soup served with rice.
Maljuk Street sogogi gukbap (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
Just a few kilometers southeast of Yangjae-dong, Seoul, along the country’s second-oldest Gyeongbu Expressway in the direction to Busan, the Seoul Underground Rendezvous rest stop is always busy with travelers lining up just for a taste of the soup, says Lee Sang-jeon, deputy director of the rest stop.
The meal ends with thinly sliced beef soup with rice in a hot, spicy broth made with chili peppers.
The expressway restaurant was already packed with guests at 8 a.m., many of whom wanted to check out the famous eatery they had found on social media.
“Commuters to Seoul often visit here early in the morning to have a nice bowl of soup that gives them vigor and energy. Now, a lot of travelers come visit here on weekends too. Besides, it’s the closest rest stop to Seoul,” Lee said.
Another popular destination for eateries on highways includes Insam Land Service Area on Tongyeong-Daejeon Expressway bound for Tongyeong in Geumsan, South Chungcheong Province.
Insam (ginseng) Land Service Area on the Tongyeong-Daejeon Expressway, South Chungcheong Province, serves Insam Galbitang. (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
Geumsan has served as a production and trading center for Korean ginseng over a history of 1,500 years, according to the province, and has hosted over 30 ginseng festivals and international expos since 2006.
On the entrance floor, there were display cases filled with all sorts of healthy-sounding snacks and food made with ginseng, including the rest stop’s signature insam galbitang -- insam being the Korean word for ginseng.
Fried ginseng snacks and ginseng milk served at Insam Land Service Area (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
“It tastes so good and is also so healthy that the ginseng short rib soup has been selected as the top culinary menu among the country’s 189 service areas,” says Kim In-soo, vice deputy of Insam Land rest stop.
Korea Expressway Corp. conducts an annual survey on consumers, culinary professors and hotel chefs to select Top 10 EX-Food, and Insam Land’s ginseng galbitang received the highest rating last year.
“We have a bus stop near the service area, which makes it more accessible to visit from other parts of towns. We used to have a lot of foreign visitors as well, especially from China where ginseng is valued for health benefits, but Chinese tourists are on a sharp decline in number due to the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense issue,” Kim added.
The Osu rest stop on the Suncheon-Wanju Expressway makes the most of its proximity to the birthplace of Korean cheese with its Imsil cheese cheolpan bibimbap -- Imsil cheese pan-fried bibimbap. The dish gives bibimbap a cheesy twist by adding melted cheese from nearby Imsil, the first place to make cheese in Korea.
Besides food and snacks, some rest stops attract drivers with hands-on entertainment.
“We run this stop like an art gallery,” says Kim Ki-chul, owner of Yeoju Rest Area toward the direction of Gangneung. “There are things here that you cannot experience at other rest stops.”
I'm Pil-soon, who works at Yeoju Service Area's Ceramic Experience Center, demonstrates how to make pottery. (photo: Yeoju Service Area)
Yeoju in Gyeonggi Province has been a major player in the country’s ceramic culture for the last centuries, thanks to the area’s high-quality white clay.
“Here’s the heart of the country’s centurieslong ceramic art, and we are proud to provide its gateway,” Kim said.
Next to the exhibition where artists’ ceramic pieces were displayed was a Ceramic Experience Center for tourists making their own artwork.
Ceramic art work exhibited at the gallery in Yeoju rest stop (photo: Yeoju Service Area)
Oh Sang-hyuk, 47, a visitor to the ceramic center who was with his family, said they often spend weekends here making tea pots, bowls and mugs.
“I thought it would be a good educational opportunity for my children. We do the crafts together, and most importantly, discuss and learn together throughout the art process,” Oh said.
An instructor here and ceramic artist Im Pil-soon said his ceramic program was completely customized, meaning that people can make arrangements whenever it is convenient for them to learn how to make pottery.
“Pottery sales have risen steadily in the gallery as well, after we launched the ceramic course for tourists,” Im said.
In addition to the city of ceramic art, Geumgang Service Area, a rest stop near North Chungcheong Province, provides more familiar water sports experiences from water skiing to kayaking.
Geumgang Service Area, a rest stop near North Chungcheong Province, offers water sports including water skiing and kayaking. (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
Tourists can also fish in Lake Geumgang, said one of the tourists.
“I live in Seoul but often come here to fish. You don’t get to enjoy such beautiful scenery in a city, and at the same time, to fish in such a place. It’s got many big fish, and sitting here is just incredibly relaxing,” he said.
Geumgang Service Area (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)
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