There is no shortage of blogs and travel sites that can tell you where to go, where to eat, what to do, and how to navigate Seoul and Busan. They’re the two largest cities in South Korea, and most popular destinations for foreign tourists.
Gwangju took a little more effort. Most of the information I found came from expat blogs and travelers who visited several years ago. And when I arrived in Gwangju it was obvious — this city was not the typical destination for foreign tourists. After spending two days and two nights there, I have to say — go to Gwangju.
With its one train line and many side-streets, it’s hard to believe it’s the sixth largest city in South Korea. I loved my time there, and wish I had stayed longer.
Why you should visit
Gwangju is well-known as the city where democracy was born in South Korea. Known as the 5.18 democratization movement, from May 17-May 24, 1980, hundreds of citizens (mostly students) took up arms against the government. It’s estimated that over 600 people lost their lives at the hands of armed government troops.
Gwangju is a great place for artists and anyone who appreciates art. The city’s Art Street is full of studios, art supplies shops, and galleries. And there are works of art scattered throughout the city.
These follies are part of a project that started in 2011 and continues today.
Gwangju is unique because while many follies are simply architectural pieces that are turned into works of art after they’ve lost their purpose, the ones in Gwangju are meant to contribute to urban regeneration, so they are both decorative and functional.
Easy day trips
Damyang Bamboo Forest, Boseong Tea Fields, Yeosu, Mokpo, Jindo Island, even Daegu…if there isn’t a train you can take for a day trip to these places and more, there is almost certainly a bus.
Because of my short time there, I only made it Damyang, which was just about an hour away by bus.
How to get to the Bamboo forest:
Take the local bus 311 (I picked it up in front of the main bus terminal at U-Square), which will take you straight to Damyang. If you have a T-Money or Cashbee card, you can just use that rather than purchasing a ticket or using coins to pay for the fare.
Stay on the bus and don’t get off until you see a bridge (it’s fairly obvious). Do not get off at Damyang Bus Terminal! I made this mistake, and it cost me over an hour of wandering before I finally just hopped on another 311.
Once you see the bridge, hit the “stop” button to signal the driver to stop. A lot of people get off just before the bus crosses the bridge, so you don’t have to wait until the bus crosses. The bus drivers are also helpful, even if you don’t speak Korean, you can usually get by with showing them where you want to go on a map.
Once you get off and walk across the bridge, you’ll see the entrance to the forest on the left, across the street.
Tickets are 3,000 won and the park is open year around. Depending on when you’re visiting, hours may vary, so check the Korean tourism site before your trip for opening hours.
Daein Night Market
You can probably find a night market in just about any city, but I wouldn’t have known about Daein night market had it not been recommended to me by the assistant manager at my guesthouse.
It’s only open on Saturday nights, and has a plethora of food vendors to choose from. Local musicians also gather near the market for street performances (as it was my last night, I decided to simply eat and head back to the guesthouse).
It’s not Seoul.
There is nothing wrong with Seoul or spending time there. But there’s just so much to see outside of Seoul that it’s a shame more foreign tourists don’t leave to explore the rest of the country.
Where you should stay:
No matter your budget, I highly recommend Pedro’s House!
Before my trip, almost every blog I came across recommended it as the place to stay in Gwangju, and after staying there, I have to agree — it was the best place I stayed in Korea.
The owner and the assistant manager are friendly and happy to help you with any questions you have. On my first day, I asked where I could see the cherry blossoms and the owner, Pedro, gave me directions to a small reservoir within walking distance that was full of locals enjoying the warm weather and taking pictures of the blossoms.
What I loved about Pedro’s House was their enthusiasm for showing visitors Gwangju and promoting tourism in the Jeolla province. They even started a YouTube channel to show all of the things you can do, from the Boseong Tea fields to a day trip to Yeosu.
Pedro also runs a cafe/bar downstairs from the guest house. It’s full of perfectly mismatched furniture, travel guides, books, and souvenirs from all over the world — a place straight out of a traveler’s dream.
You can stay in a dorm-style room with several beds and a shared bathroom or you can book your own room with a private bathroom.
I can’t say this enough: Take some time away from Seoul and Busan, and go to Gwangju.