Gwangju Travel Guide
Gwangju is a city defined by not just by culture and nature, but by tragedy as well. While it is home to temples and surrounded by beautiful mountains, its people bled for democracy in the 1980s. In 1980, thousands were said to have perished as the army quashed the rebellion.
Ultimately, this heavy-handed response spelt doom for the military government, as free elections followed just years later. If you want to understand how South Korea became a prosperous democracy, visiting Gwangju is a must.
Come check out our Gwangju travel guide for 1st time visitors as we cover the best things to do in Gwangju, South Korea.
While South Korea is now one of the world’s leading democracies, it wasn’t always so free. Before its democratization, the country was under the control of authoritarian leader President Park Chung-hee for 18 years. After his assassination in 1979, the military seized power.
Pro-democracy activists began agitating for elections, a free press, and a minimum wage shortly after that. The opposition was most vigorous in South Jeolla province, whom Park Chung-hee neglected during his reign.
As demonstrations raged against the military junta in May 1980, the strongest happened in Gwangju. Students gathered at the gates of Chonnam National University in defiance of its closure. After a confrontation with soldiers, protests grew to 2,000 people later that day. Civilian protesters overcame the core of Gwangju – this led soldiers to escalate to lethal force.
A 29-year-old deaf man was the first victim, as soldiers beat him to death with clubs. The next day, soldiers bayoneted and opened fire on protesters. This provocation only made things worse – a local TV station was set ablaze, and militants raided armouries. Soon after, hastily-formed civilian militias managed to push the military out of the core.
A few days later, though, reinforcements arrived, which included helicopter gunships. It was a slaughter – while the official death toll was under 200, other estimates put it between 1,000-2,000 souls.
The remains of these freedom fighters were laid to rest within the May 18th National Cemetery. It consists of several highlights – the graves, the memorial hall, and the May 18th Memorial Monument. The graves are simply kept mounds with headstones, the memorial hall contains photos of many victims of the Gwangju Uprising, and the May 18th Memorial Monument consists of a pair of pillars that stand 130 feet tall. It is a sombre place, so dress respectfully and mind your behaviour – many victim’s relatives are still alive.
Those wanting to include a Buddhist hall of worship in their Gwangju sightseeing will want to check out Jeungsimsa Temple. Located on the slopes of Mount Mudeungsan, be sure to visit this peaceful place during the fall. The reds, oranges, and yellows of its surrounding foliage make for excellent photos during this season.
As for the temple itself, it is an active retreat for monks. As you admire its wood carvings, Buddha statues, and other highlights, make time for a chat.
Get a feel for how life once was by stopping by the Gwangju Folk Museum. Over two floors, this institution showcases things like food, clothing, handicrafts, and various customs from the past. Dioramas chronicle daily scenes from life centuries ago, while video presentations show off nine relics of South Jeolla’s culture.
While in Gwangju, learn more about Asian culture by visiting the Asia Culture Center. In this modern hall, you’ll find visual displays and video presentations on cultures spanning the entirety of Asia. However, try to take in a stage show, as they do a great job representing this continent’s diverse cultures.
Nature lovers will want to spend at least one day exploring Mudeungsan National Park. It protects Mount Mudeungsan, the peak from which it takes its name. Despite rising 1,100 metres above the surrounding landscape, it is a relatively easy mountain to climb. Try to scale it during the week, as everybody and their dog comes here from Gwangju on weekends.
Even so, those who choose not to scale this peak will still have plenty to do. The Gwangju National Museum is one such attraction, as it contains artifacts from surrounding provinces.
As South Korea developed over the past generation, older-style neighbourhoods have emptied. In Gwangju, authorities have redeveloped one of them into an attraction known as Yangnim-dong Penguin Village.
Everywhere you look its buildings have been decked out in a variety of penguin murals. With Instagram moments aplenty, you’ll be in heaven if you love snapping selfies.
Get a taste of local life by strolling through the stalls of 1913 Songjeong Station Market. Built in 1913, it retains much of its old charm while mixing in modern elements. Come here for the food – from hoddeok to fish cakes, you’ll find the best meals of Gwangju here.
After a long day spent explore Gwangju, spend time relaxing at Pungam Reservoir. Initially built for agricultural purposes, officials redeveloped it into a park in 1999. Surrounded by trees, pavilions, and parkland, it is the perfect place to exercise or watch the world go by.