I do a lot of travel research for my blog and writing and I’m constantly finding new amazing places that I want to visit, but sometimes the reasons I end up travelling to a particular place are surprisingly mundane – here’s a story about how a short trip to Seoul ended up with me spending 2 nights and looking for things to do in Gwangju of all places.
Why visit Gwangju?
I’ve visited South Korea multiple times (including my first ever solo trip) but most of my time was spent in the capital city Seoul. When I headed back to Korea on my career break this time around, I was eager to see more of the country. With 3 days to spare, my Gangnam hostel owner Big John recommended his home town Gwangju 광주 in the South Jeolla province. And that is how I ended up on a 3-hour bus ride heading south to Gwangju in the middle of winter with nothing but some internet research to guide me on what to do.
It really is as simple as that – I had 3 days to spare and wanted to see someplace other than Seoul.
I was lucky to have a very local experience in Gwangju, thanks to the great people I met at the wonderful hostel that I stayed in called Pedro’s House. I got to hang out with some locals who had their Christmas party at the hostel, and these Gwangju folk taught us a little about why they are proud to live in what’s known as the nation’s most democratic province – the lovely A even took us to my first ever protest rally!
I did manage to squeeze in a little sightseeing as well – while I missed out on Gwangju Biennale, I managed to check out some of the arts and culture, and even made a day trip to nearby Damyang – a much less well-known bamboo forest compared to Japan’s Arashiyama but no less beautiful.
Democracy in Gwangju
The Gwangju Uprising 5.18
One reference you will see all around Gwangju is 5.18 which refers to 18 May 1980, the day that the Gwangju Uprising or Democratic Movement against the South Korean Government led by then-leader Chun Doo Hwan. It is unfortunately known as the Gwangju Massacre because many of the students and citizens who were a part of this demonstration were fired upon, beaten and killed by the army.
May 18 Memorial Memorial Park
Within walking distance of the hostel was the 5.18 Memorial Park park. It was late afternoon by the time I set off for the park, and we managed to catch a marvellous sunset at this observatory that we found.
Not far from the lookout point is The 5.18 Memorial Culture Centre which is also an art space with an auditorium. It was closed at that time but it has a huge outdoor sculpture area which we decided to explore a little more of.
Protests in Gwangju
Our local friend A told me that since the uprising, Gwangju citizens are fiercely protective about their democratic rights and ready to speak up and stand up for what they believe in, which is why Gwangju is known as the most democratic place in South Korea. She took me and two other hostel mates to check out the then-weekly Saturday protests happening in downtown Gwangju against then-President Park who was in the midst of being impeached.
It was a truly eye-opening experience for me – read about my first-ever protest experience for more. It was also the most well organised large scale gathering I’d witnessed.
The current President Moon Jae In is looking into 5.18 and other past events as South Korea reflects on its past and possibly uncovers the truth behind the chaos of these events – it’ll be interesting to see what happens from here.
Arts and Culture in Gwangju
I love checking out art biennales and festivals, so I was kinda bummed to find out that we just missed out on the Gwangju Biennale. I only had a morning left for exploring, so out of all the museums in that area, I picked the free one to check out.
Gwangju Folk Museum
Free entry and lots of interesting little exhibits about Korean culture and traditions, the Folk museum is worth a quick stroll just to learn a little bit about Korean heritage. Read more about the Folk Museum in English.
Gwangju Art Street and Daein Market
In the evening, we headed over to Daein Market, which is usually open only during the day but every alternate Saturday, they hold a flea market in the evening which basically consists of lots of little stalls of food, knick-knacks and games.
Opposite the market complex is Art Street, which I think is probably more exciting during the day. It’s a tad quiet at night, but you can see it has lots of sculptures and murals, so I definitely have to come back in future and maybe during summer to see for myself.
Must-eat in Gwangju: Tteokgalbi
One of the local dishes to eat in Gwangju is Tteokgalbi, a grilled short-rib patty with minced pork and beef so famous it has an entire street dedicated to it in Gwangju. I’ve had galbitang before in Itaewon, but I was eager to try Tteokgalbi, so me and my friend K headed to Songjeong to find the Tteokgalbi Alley.
There are plenty of restaurants serving Tteokgalbi in Songjeong, we just randomly picked one to go in and it was pretty good. There is apparently a particular restaurant called Songjeong Tteokgalbi that’s famous though.
Daytrip from Gwangju: Damyang 담양
One of the highlights was the day trip out to nearby Damyang with some hostel mates. Damyang is famous for its greenery, in particular for its bamboo forest known as Juknokwon.
Juknokwon Bamboo Forest 죽녹원
I was pretty excited to visit Juknokwon Bamboo Forest and it definitely didn’t disappoint – it’s a beautiful park to wander around, and there’s even a little art museum near the start which is nice to poke around in. The beauty is of course just wandering the little paths in the compound.
I wish I had time to check out the nearby Metasequoia Road which is a beautiful straight stretch of road lined with some statuesque beautiful Metasequoia trees!
Korea Bamboo Museum
Besides the bamboo forest, we also checked out the Bamboo museum. I wouldn’t spend too much time here but it’s interesting seeing the history of bamboo and the bamboo by products you can create. We really wanted to try the bamboo ice cream which was unfortunately sold out.
Getting to Damyang from Gwangju
Take the purple bus 311 from Gwangju Bus Terminal at U Square. It’ll take about 50 minutes to get to Damyang.
How to get from Seoul to Gwangju
Gwangju is a 3-hour bus ride from Seoul – I took the subway (you can take line 3, 7 and 9) to the Express Bus Terminal and bought a general ticket from the bus station that cost me 17,600 KRW (about S$22) 1 way.
The KTX trains are much faster at under 2 hours to get from Yongsan station in Seoul to Gwangju, but also cost about 3 times as much with tickets going at around 47,000 KRW (S$60). There are cheaper trains priced at around 20,000-30,000 KRW, but with a 4-hour journey you are probably better off taking the bus which is faster and cheaper.
Accommodation: Stay at Pedro’s House
My stay in Gwangju was hosted by Pedro’s House, which is a lovely little hostel in Ssangchon-dong – I had a nice private room at Pedro’s House II, located a short distance away from the original Pedro’s House building and above the fairly new Voyagers Cafe which also belongs to Pedro, and an absolutely lovely place to hang out in when you want to hide out from the winter chill.
Pedro is always very dapperly dressed and an avid traveller himself with a great eye for design, evident in the warm welcoming decor of the cafe which is filled with knick-knacks that he brought home from all over the world.
Have you been to Gwangju? Tell me what I missed out on. Read about my visits to Seoul and other provinces for more inspiration on visiting South Korea.