Pyongyang city guide
Pyongyang city guide

City guide: Pyongyang

The association that most people have with Pyongyang is probably an image of endless colons of tanks, mobile rocket installations and soldiers parading for the great leader on a big square, cheered on by thousands of ecstatic people. This image actually gives a good idea about this city, it feels more like a stage for mass rally’s and military parades then an actual living city! Comtourist visited Pyongyang in 2004 and we made a three page city guide showing the highlights of the North Korean capital.

In Pyongyang you will find clean empty streets with hardly any cars and only a few people walking around doing their thing. There are countless intimidating government buildings, communist monuments, sports facilities and giant hotels that should prove the superiority of the communist state and it’s leader. Sate propaganda can be seen everywhere on the streets of Pyongyang, often glorifying Kim Il Sung the eternal leader or his son Kim Jung Il, North Korea’s current dictator. Being in Pyongyang is a very weird experience however, many moments it feels like a place on and other planet. Tourists can only visit Pyongyang with an organized tour under constant supervision of their North Korean guides. Making photo’s of the most normal subjects is often not allowed, and speaking with people on the street is most of the time not possible. Visiting Pyongyang implies that you let the North Korean government showcase what they wan’ t you to see of North Korea. Knowing that millions of people have died by hunger, torture or executions and that thousands are held in slave camps makes this experience even a sinister lie! It is however a trip you will never forget, everybody must just for himself if travelling to North Korea is the right thing to do!

Military parade in on Kim Il Sung Square during a national holiday

Military parade in Pyongyang

Thing’s to see and do in Pyongyang

View on Pyongyang

Pyongyang is basically an open air museum displaying what a city in a closed totalitarian communist regime looks like. All the main aspects of Stalinism like person cult, ever present propaganda, street presence of police, army and secret service, giant monuments and monumental architecture are shown here. There is no free movement for tourist in Pyongyang so it is up to the guides what can be seen of the city. Tourists are usually driven around in minis busses and don’t get the change to walk trough the city on many occasions. The main buildings, monuments and museums are usually part of a tour trough Pyongyang so visitors don’t need to be afraid they’ll miss out on this. Tourists are only shows what the governments want the world to believe that North Korea looks like. So places whit signs of poverty or evidence for failure of the system are avoided. As a result tourist will not be able to mingle between the locals and get a feel what living in North Korea is like. On this page you will find the best museums of Pyongyang, it’s restaurants and night life. Go to Pyongyang monuments to read about it’s many great monuments like the Juche Tower, the Arc of Triumph, the Reunification monument and much more. On the Pyongyang architecture page you will find images, film and information about Kim Il Sung square, the many public buildings and the sports facilities of Pyongyang. Read about the Comtourist visit to Pyongyang on day 1, day 3 and day 5 of our 2004 journey through North Korea. See all the photo’s we Comtourist shot in Pyongyang in the North Korea photo gallery or watch them in a slide show.

Map of the Pyongyang City Centre with tourist attractions

Tourist map of Pyongyang

Places to stay: Pyongyang hotels

The unfinished giant Ryugyong Hotel towering over Pyongyang

The unfinished Ryugyong hotel

Hotels have always been important tools for communist regimes to showcase the glory and strength of the state. North Korea is no exception and there is no shortage of hotels in Pyongyang. Occupation is very low as only 1000 tourists plus a view business men visit the city per year. There are two main tourist hotels in Pyongyang, the Yanggakdo Hotel and the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel. Both bare luxurious 40+ story buildings equipped with many facilities. Usually tourists do not get a choice what hotel to stay in as the hotel is part of the total package. It seems business has to be divided over the two tourist hotel so there is a 50/50 change in what hotel tourist end up. There is one hotel however that should have dwarfed any other hotel in Pyongyang and even the world. The pyramid shaped Ryugyong Hotel should have been the larges hotel in the world with 103 floors towering 330 meters over Pyongyang. Construction started in 1987 but was halted in 1992. Money had run out by then and there were doubts if the structure was safe. Construction has already cost $750 million and $300 million more would be needed to finish the hotel. This project has now turned into an embarrassment for the North Korean government rather then the show piece it was supposed to be. The hotel can not be found on nay official map and guides do not mention it , although it can be seen everywhere in the city. Look at a satellite view of the Ryugyong hotel.

Places to stay: Koryo hotel

Comtourist recommendation: The Yanggakdo hotel

The 45 story Koryo hotel (1984) on Changgwang Street in the centre of Pyongyang is probably North Korea’s most luxurious hotel. The hotel’s entry consists of a 9 met re dragon’s mouth that leads into the lobby with a giant mosaic of North Korean cultural symbols. The hotel has are a gift shop, gym, and a cinema.

The 47 story Yanggakdo hotel is situated on Yanggakdo Island together with North Korea’s national football stadium and the International cinema. Construction of the hotel started in 1980 and it was opened in 1992. There are a nine hole Golf course, a driving range and a casino around the hotel. There is a revolving restaurant on the 47th floor, it’s actually just the floor that revolves and not the restaurant itself. Other facilities in the hotel are a Bowling, a Swimming Pool, a Billiard saloon, Karaoke hall, and multiple shops and bars. Many of the bars and restaurants are often closed however to safe energy. The view from the top floors is spectacular

The luxurious Koryo Hotel for foreign tourists in Pyongyang

The Koryo Hotel

Restaurant page of a tourist Leaflet of the Yanggakdo Hotel

Leaflet from the Yanggakdo

Yanggakdo Hotel seen from the river near Kim Il Sung Square

Yanggakdo in the distance

City transportation: The Pyongyang Metro

Puhung station filmed

The Pyongyang Metro was opened in 1973, there are 16 stations and two lines, the Chollima line running from north to south and the Hyoksin line running from east to east to west. It is believed that there are secret lines for military use and transport of high ranking government officials. The total length of the public lines is around 24 km. Tourists usually make a trip from Puhung Station to Yonggwang Station, the two most beautiful decorated stations. The Pyongyang Metro stations are very similar to the Moscow’s constructed with marble, nature stone, enormous mosaics and chandeliers. Each station has a different architectural style that matches the name of the station. Yonggwang (Glory), Puhung (Rehabilitation), Sungri (Victory), Hwanggumbol (Golden Fields), Kwangbok (Liberation) etc. The mosaics depict familiar Socialist Realist scenes with workers, farmer, the military and the great leaders. The website offers pictures and background information on Pyongyang’s metro system and more public transport in North Korea. Go to the our North Korea image galley to see a scanned tourist guide, or Read about our visit of the Pyongyang metro on day 3 of our journey trough North Korea.

An interactive map with lights of the Pyongyang metro system

Interactive metro map

Puhung Metro Station with two trains ready for departure

Puhung station

A socialist realist mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung in Punung station

Mosaic in Puhung station

Golden Kim Il Sung monument in a Pyongyang Metro Station

Kim Il Sung statue

City transportation: Pyongyang trolley busses

City transportation: Pyongyang trams

Pyongyang has trolleybus system that opened on 30 April 1962 and runs along many of the city’s main streets. It uses mostly hand-built North Korean models. A bus network, consisting of mostly Hungarian models, along with Chinese and 1950s Skoda vehicles, is also important, but is often hit by fuel shortages, here the trolley buses have an advantage, as they are powered by domestic electricity.

Most Trams are Czech made and look very familiar to anybody who has been in Prague or other Eastern European Cities. The first Tram line opened for Kim Il Sung’s 79th birthday in 1991 further Lines opened in 1996. The first trams to be delivered to Pyongyang in 1990 were 45 double-articulated CKD/Tatra KT8D5K units, numbered 1001-1045, ordered new from Czechoslovakia.

DPRK manufactured Trolley Bus in the streets of Pyongyang

DPRK build Trolley Bus

A Czech build Tatra tram near the Pyongyang train station

A Czech build CKD/Tatra tram (service nr 1046)

Brief history: Pyongyang

Trams in Pyongyang before it was destroyed during the Korean war

Pyongyang before the Korean war

Pyongyang is built on the Taedong River about 48 km inland from the Korea Bay of the Yellow Sea. It is reputed to be the oldest city in Korea. The ancient capital of the legendary Tangun dynasty (2333 BC) was located on the site where, according to legend, the modern city of Pyongyang was founded in 1122 BC. In 427 Pyongyang became the capital of the Koguryo kingdom, but in 668 it was captured by Chinese invaders. Later, the kings of the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) made Pyongyang their secondary capital. The city fell to the Japanese in 1592 and was devastated by the Manchus in the early 17th century. During the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), much of Pyongyang was destroyed. Plague followed war, and in 1895 Pyongyang was left a virtually deserted and ruined city. During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-45), Pyongyang was built up as an industrial centre. During the Korean War (1950-53) numerous air raids devastated Pyongyang. It was captured by United Nations forces in 1950 but subsequently was lost when Chinese communist forces entered the war. After 1953 the city was rebuilt with Soviet and Chinese assistance as a showcase for the communist revolution, with wide avenues, imposing monuments, and monolithic buildings.