Sights in North Korea-Arch of Triumph

Bigger, taller, more: 5 unusual sights in North Korea

by Larissa

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.



Sights in North Korea scream “look at me,” much like a regime that consistently tries to make news in shocking fashion. Although the country is small—the size of Pennsylvania, with an economy comparable to Kalamazoo, MI—they sport some whoppers: the tallest, biggest, deepest and more.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK) really loves things that are the most-est; they are a country that will go to extremes to get noticed. Here are five unusual sights in North Korea that could be monuments, or just oddities, depending on your viewpoint:

1. World’s tallest Arch of Triumph

At 197 feet, this arch is 30 feet taller than its more well known rival in Paris. It was built to commemorate Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945. Despite its height, however, it will never top Parisian traffic. There are so few cars in Pyongyang that at any given time you can stand in the middle of the road passing through it.

2. Deepest subway on the planet

Pyongyang Subway: extreme sights in North Korea-MilneBurrowing over 330 feet underground, the 2-line Pyongyang Metro was built for protection from enemy attack as well as transportation. Traveling on this system is like taking a sort of Cold War carnival ride: the stations are eerily reminiscent of Stalinist metro stops in Russia, while the subway cars are literally leftovers from 1960s Berlin.

3. The (almost) tallest hotel in the world

Ryugyong Hotel Pyongyang: extreme sights North Korea-MilneThat huge Flash Gordon-era structure looming over the Pyongyang skyline? That’s the Ryuogyong Hotel. When it broke ground in 1987 the 105-story hotel was going to be the tallest in the world. Construction stopped in 1992 due to funding problems and, despite a series of fits and starts, it remains unfinished. Time has passed the Ryuogyong by; in 2013 two hotels opened in Dubai that are taller. But it may still be the tallest unfinished hotel in the world.

4. Largest sports stadium anywhere

Rungrado Stadium over skyline: extreme sights Pyongyang-MilneThe Rungrado May Day Stadium is a giant circular arena that can seat a whopping 150,000 people. Throw some temporary bleachers on the playing field and you can cram in another 40,000 or so, as was done for a wrestling match in 1995. The white, multi-arched structure has been compared to an inverted magnolia blossom; to me it looked like a giant white tarantula ready to gobble up downtown Pyongyang. Of course you need a stadium this big when you have the . . .

5. Biggest show on earth

Extreme sights: North Korea Mass Games-MilneThe Arirang Mass Games are a song and dance extravaganza using over 100,000 performers, many of them school-age children. Dubbed as a gymnastics and artistic festival, it runs for about six weeks every August & September. In 2007 Guinness World Records named it the largest show of its kind. Part Super Bowl half-time show, part rhythm gymnastics revue, and all DPRK propaganda, this 90-minute performance is truly a sight to behold. Photos alone cannot do it justice, watch the video for the full effect.

The architecture is designed to dazzle, hoping that visitors will see only the glitz of these unusual sights in North Korea. And that they won’t ask: What lurks beneath the shiny surface of this totalitiarian country?

Note: This article originally appeared on Travel + Escape

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Renuka January 20, 2014 at 2:35 am

The train looks so quaint and charming. North Korea has no dearth of treasures!

Lisa January 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm

It’s amazing that you guys went to North Korea. You and Dennis Rodman 😉 The retro train cars are cool.

Michael January 20, 2014 at 11:00 pm

There are actually some beautiful ancient sights in North Korea that get overlooked with all the current propaganda sights.

Michael January 21, 2014 at 2:12 am

It’s not often that we’re in the same sentence with Dennis Rodman.

Corinne January 21, 2014 at 11:48 am

The only thing I’ve seen in North Korea I’ve done from the DMZ tour (awesome). I love the superlatives….

Victoria January 23, 2014 at 12:27 am

Wow! My goodness. Pretty amazing.

I didn’t know that people were allowed to go to N. Korea as in: isn’t closed to Westeners type of thing? All the same.


Dave Briggs January 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm

I didn’t know about any of these!! Thanks for a genuinely informative piece.

The Runaway Guide January 29, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Haha, that’s so cool. I can’t wait to check out NK for myself. It’s remarkably pathetic the length the regime goes to. Do you think the Koreas will ever unite? The implications would be massive on SK’s economy. I have great uncles and aunts in NK, it’s sad I’ll never meet them.

Michael January 29, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Yes it is a sad situation. China probably doesn’t want a reunified Korea so there’s that hurdle to overcome.

Jason February 3, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Is there a certain tour company you suggest if someone wants to visit?

Michael February 3, 2014 at 9:21 pm

We went with Koryo Tours. they do the bulk of the tour business to North Korea and are well respected.

Mark C February 7, 2014 at 10:55 am

Just saw this post. Good stuff. Very cool that you made the trip. I have a friend who keeps pitching the idea of a visit. Were there any restrictions as to when you could and couldn’t photograph certain things?

Kevin February 21, 2014 at 8:16 pm

I actually have a lot of curiosity and desire to see North Korea for myself. But for all the things I might see there that would boggle my mind, there are far more things I wouldn’t be allowed to see that would horrify us all.

I believe strongly in the fact that we as tourists vote with our pocketbook every time we visit a place and spend money. By spending money on a trip to the DPRK, you are making a statement that what they are doing is ok and that you want to see it firsthand.

Visiting North Korea is like visiting Evil Disneyland, except all the fake, touristy junk is only interesting from the ironic, “how can people live like this?” sense. There are enough fascinating documentaries about the place (and the HBO Vice series episode featuring Dennis Rodman is terrific) that I don’t think anyone else needs to spend their money there. If it were possible to visit the place and engage with the people and build something, I wouldn’t feel this way. But I write this to try to add something to the dialogue other than, “Wow, that’s cool… North Korea.” Because we all know that it isn’t a good place, and it’s probably the one place on earth where I believe traveling there doesn’t help.

I apologize for writing this, because you guys have a wonderful site, but this is something I feel strongly about. Feel free to email me and we can discuss more.

Michael February 21, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Hi Kevin,

We addressed this topic before in a post called “is it morally right to visit North Korea”:

Obviously we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

Van February 25, 2014 at 6:34 pm

I agree with Kevin [until recently, Aug San Suu Kyi recommended boycotting Burma…], but I carefully read the “Is It Morally Right” post and was impressed with Michael’s well-thought-out arguments. If everyone expressed disagreement as respectfully and rationally as Michael, the world would be a far better place!

Michael February 27, 2014 at 10:59 am

Hi Van,

Thanks, it’s certainly a complicated issue with compelling arguments all around.

Phil April 14, 2014 at 3:22 am

Nice write up! I am going to the DPRK in June with Young Pioneers. Did you get treated any different as a USA passport holder? I have to fly in, most of my group gets to train in. The group is doing an overnight village stay and the Americans have to go back to the hotel. Any other weirdness that I may encounter as a USA Citizen?

Michael April 14, 2014 at 11:22 am

Hi Phil,

Basically the whole country is an unusual experience but the people are very friendly. As an American you can’t take the train out from Pyongyang but must fly instead. That’s about it.

Good luck.

Escape Hunter April 26, 2014 at 9:57 am

It looks interesting, I’d definitely like to visit Pyongyang.
Very very few people get the chance to see it. In fact, I only met a single person during my lifetime who had the rare opportunity to visit North Korea a single time.
What I notice about it is that it’s extremely clean.

Michael April 26, 2014 at 1:07 pm

People worry about visiting there, but for tourists it’s very safe.

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