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.
Gwangju City Guide: A Brief History Of Gwangju, South Korea
Gwangju, located in the southwestern region of South Korea, has an incredibly exciting and diverse history that spans over two thousand years! The area was once the capital of the Baekje Kingdom and later renamed Gwangju during the Joseon Dynasty.
However, what truly sets Gwangju apart is its role in some of the most significant events in Korean history. The city played a pivotal role in the March 1st Movement, a protest against Japanese colonial rule in 1919. And in 1980, Gwangju was the site of the Gwangju Uprising, where the people of the city stood up against the government’s dictatorship and demanded democracy and freedom.
Despite the tragic events that took place, Gwangju has emerged as a vibrant and modern city, known for its artistic and cultural scene. It is a hub for the film, music, and literature industries, with several universities calling it home, including the prestigious Chonnam National University. The city is also filled with historical landmarks, such as the Gwangju Folk Museum and the Gwangju National Museum.
Gwangju’s rich history is a testament to the resilience and spirit of its people, and the city’s cultural scene is a testament to their creativity and passion. It’s no wonder that Gwangju is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in Korean history and culture. So come and explore this incredible city and experience the energy and enthusiasm of its people firsthand!
Gwangju Top Attractions and Best Places to Visit in 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.
Other Cultural Attractions: Trip to Gwangju, Korea
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.
source: Cherie Moore on YouTube
Top 10 Things To Do in Gwangju, Korea For Visitors
Here are the top 10 things to do in Gwangju:
- Visit the May 18th National Cemetery: This cemetery commemorates the victims of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, a pivotal moment in Korean democracy. It’s a somber but essential destination that provides insight into modern Korean history.
- Explore the Gwangju Biennale: This contemporary art exhibition is held every two years and features works from local and international artists. It’s a great opportunity to see some of the latest and most innovative works in the art world.
- Hike in Mudeungsan National Park: The national park is home to some of the most scenic hiking trails in South Korea. The park boasts a variety of trails with different levels of difficulty, and it’s an ideal way to spend a day outside.
- Discover Gwangju Folk Museum: This museum is a great place to learn about the local history and culture of Gwangju. It houses a vast collection of traditional artifacts, including pottery, costumes, and tools.
- Visit the Asia Culture Center: The center is a hub for contemporary art and culture from all across Asia. It hosts exhibitions, performances, and events that showcase the diversity of Asian cultures.
- Enjoy local street food: Gwangju is known for its vibrant street food scene. From tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) to mandu (dumplings), there are plenty of tasty treats to sample as you explore the city.
- See the Gwangju World Cup Stadium: This massive stadium was built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup and can hold up to 44,118 spectators. It’s an impressive sight to see, even if you’re not a soccer fan.
- Take a day trip to Damyang: Damyang is a nearby town that’s famous for its bamboo forests and traditional tea houses. It’s a serene and beautiful place that’s worth the trip.
- Experience Gwangju Nightlife: Gwangju has a lively nightlife scene, with plenty of bars, clubs, and music venues to explore. It’s a great way to experience the city’s vibrant culture after dark.
- Shop at the Gwangju Traditional Market: This bustling market is a great place to shop for traditional Korean goods, including clothes, food, and souvenirs. It’s a must-visit for anyone looking for an authentic Korean shopping experience.
What To Eat and Drink at Restaurants in Gwangju, South Korea
Here are some of the must-try foods and drinks in Gwangju:
- Bibimbap: This traditional Korean dish is a must-try in Gwangju. It’s a bowl of rice topped with sautéed vegetables, egg, meat, and chili paste.
- Makgeolli: This traditional Korean rice wine is a popular drink in Gwangju. It’s a slightly sweet and tangy drink with a low alcohol content, making it perfect for sipping with friends.
- Tteokgalbi: This is a local specialty in Gwangju, made from ground beef or pork mixed with sweet potato noodles, garlic, and other seasonings, then grilled to perfection.
- Pajeon: A popular Korean pancake made with scallions and seafood or pork. It’s crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and it’s perfect for sharing with friends over drinks.
- Gimbap: This is a Korean version of sushi. It’s made with rice, vegetables, and meat or fish rolled up in seaweed, and it’s a popular snack or light meal in Gwangju.
- Soju: This is a clear, distilled alcohol that’s a staple drink in Korea. It’s often compared to vodka, but it has a slightly sweeter taste and a lower alcohol content.
- Hotteok: This is a popular street food in Gwangju. It’s a sweet pancake filled with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts, and it’s perfect for satisfying your sweet tooth.
- Fried Chicken: Korean fried chicken is a must-try in Gwangju. It’s crispy, juicy, and comes in a variety of flavors, from classic to spicy.
- Omija Tea: This is a traditional Korean tea made from dried magnolia berries. It’s slightly tart and sweet, and it’s often served cold with ice.
- Patbingsu: This is a popular Korean dessert made with shaved ice, sweet red beans, and a variety of toppings like fruit, nuts, and ice cream. It’s perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day.
Tours For Visitors To Gwangju, South Korea
Here are some of the top tours for visitors to Gwangju:
- Gwangju City Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s top attractions, including the May 18th National Cemetery, the Gwangju Folk Museum, and the Gwangju Art Museum. It’s a great way to get an overview of the city’s history and culture.
- Gwangju Food Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the best local restaurants and markets, where they can try a variety of Korean dishes and street food. It’s a great way to experience the city’s food scene and learn about Korean cuisine.
- Gwangju Night Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s top nightlife spots, including bars, clubs, and restaurants. It’s a great way to experience the city after dark and meet locals.
- Gwangju Bike Tour: This tour takes visitors on a cycling tour of the city, exploring parks, temples, and other attractions. It’s a great way to see the city from a different perspective and get some exercise at the same time.
- Gwangju Art Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s top art galleries and museums, including the Gwangju Biennale and the Asian Culture Complex. It’s a great way to learn more about Korean contemporary art and culture.
- Gwangju Temple Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s top Buddhist temples, including the Mudeungsan Provincial Park and the Jeungsimsa Temple. It’s a great way to experience the city’s spiritual side and learn about Korean Buddhism.
- Gwangju Shopping Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s top shopping districts, including the Gwangju Shinsegae Department Store and the Yangdong Traditional Market. It’s a great way to shop for souvenirs and experience Korean retail culture.
- Gwangju History Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s historical landmarks, including the Gwangju National Museum and the Independence Hall of Korea. It’s a great way to learn about the city’s history and its role in Korean independence.
- Gwangju Nature Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s top natural attractions, including the Mudeungsan Provincial Park and the Soswaewon Garden. It’s a great way to experience the city’s natural beauty and get some fresh air.
- Gwangju Photography Tour: This tour takes visitors to some of the city’s top photography spots, including the Yangnim-dong Murals and the Mudeungsan Provincial Park. It’s a great way to capture the city’s beauty and learn some photography tips from a professional.
Gwangju Accommodations Guide: Hotels, Guesthouses and Hostels
Here’s a guide to some of the best places to stay in Gwangju:
- The First Boutique Hotel: This is a luxury hotel located in the heart of Gwangju, offering spacious and modern rooms with city views. It also features an on-site restaurant and a fitness center.
- Ramada Plaza Gwangju: This is a stylish hotel that offers spacious rooms with contemporary decor, as well as a fitness center, a restaurant, and a bar.
- Holiday Inn Gwangju: This is a modern hotel located near the city’s major attractions, offering comfortable rooms with amenities such as a pool, a fitness center, and an on-site restaurant.
- Hotel Prado: This is a mid-range hotel located in the city center, offering clean and comfortable rooms with modern amenities such as a restaurant and a coffee shop.
- Kim Dae Jung Convention Center Hotel: This is a conference hotel located near the Gwangju World Cup Stadium, offering spacious and comfortable rooms as well as a business center and meeting facilities.
- Guesthouse Ring: This is a cozy guesthouse located in the city center, offering clean and affordable rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities.
- Gwangju Hanok Guesthouse: This is a traditional Korean guesthouse located in a quiet neighborhood, offering comfortable rooms in a peaceful atmosphere.
- Guesthouse 345: This is a budget-friendly guesthouse located near the city’s major attractions, offering clean and comfortable rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities.
- Hanam Hotel Gwangju: This is a mid-range hotel located near the city center, offering comfortable rooms with amenities such as a restaurant, a fitness center, and a business center.
- Gwangju Yaju Guesthouse: This is a family-run guesthouse located near the city center, offering comfortable rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities in a homey atmosphere.
No matter what your budget or travel style, Gwangju has a variety of accommodations to choose from that will suit your needs and preferences.
Day Trips From Gwangju, South Korea
Here are some top day trips from Gwangju:
- Boseong Tea Plantation: This is a scenic area about an hour and a half from Gwangju that is known for its green tea fields. Visitors can take a tour of the plantation and sample some of the local teas.
- Damyang Bamboo Forest: This is a beautiful forested area about an hour from Gwangju that is home to a variety of bamboo species. Visitors can take a leisurely stroll through the forest and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.
- Suncheon Bay Wetland Reserve: This is a vast wetland area that is home to a variety of bird species and other wildlife. Visitors can take a boat tour of the wetlands and explore the nature trails.
- Jeonju Hanok Village: This is a traditional Korean village about two hours from Gwangju that is known for its historic hanok houses, which are traditional Korean homes made of wood and stone. Visitors can explore the village and sample some of the local cuisine.
- Jirisan National Park: This is a scenic national park about two hours from Gwangju that is home to some of Korea’s highest peaks. Visitors can hike the trails and enjoy the stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
- Naju Pear Orchard: This is a popular destination for fruit picking, especially during the summer months. Visitors can pick their own pears and enjoy the scenic surroundings.
- Yeosu: This is a coastal city about two hours from Gwangju that is known for its scenic harbor and beaches. Visitors can explore the harbor area, take a boat tour, and enjoy the fresh seafood.
- Gyeongju: This is a historic city about three hours from Gwangju that was the capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom. Visitors can explore the historic sites, including temples and tombs, and learn about Korean history and culture.
No matter what your interests are, there are plenty of day trips from Gwangju that offer something for everyone.
Gwangju Transportation Guide
Here’s a guide to the different transportation options in Gwangju:
- Bus: Gwangju has a well-developed bus system with routes that cover the entire city. The buses are clean, safe, and affordable, and the bus stops are easy to locate. The bus fare is typically 1,300 won per ride, and there are also discounted rates for students and senior citizens.
- Subway: Gwangju has a small subway system that covers some of the major areas of the city. The subway is fast and efficient, and it is a good option for those traveling longer distances within the city. The fare for the subway ranges from 1,200 to 1,800 won depending on the distance traveled.
- Taxi: Taxis are plentiful in Gwangju and are an easy way to get around the city. Taxis are metered, and the fare starts at 3,800 won for the first two kilometers and increases by 100 won per additional 144 meters. Taxis can be hailed on the street or found at taxi stands throughout the city.
- Bicycle: Gwangju has a bike-sharing program called “Gwangju Bike” that allows visitors to rent bicycles for a small fee. There are bike rental stations throughout the city, and the first hour of rental is free. This is a great option for those who want to explore the city at a leisurely pace.
- Car rental: Visitors who want more flexibility in their transportation can rent a car from one of the rental car companies in Gwangju. Rental prices vary depending on the type of car and the duration of the rental.
No matter what mode of transportation you choose, Gwangju offers convenient and affordable options to explore the city and its surrounding areas.
Where To Visit After Your Trip To Gwangju?
Here are some recommendations for places to visit and what makes them special:
- Seoul: As the capital of South Korea, Seoul is a must-visit destination that offers plenty of attractions and activities for visitors. The city is home to many historical and cultural sites, including Gyeongbokgung Palace, a stunning royal palace that dates back to the 14th century. Visitors can also take a cable car up to Namsan Tower for panoramic views of the city, and explore the lively Myeong-dong shopping district, which is filled with street vendors and restaurants.
- Busan: This coastal city is known for its beautiful beaches, fresh seafood, and lively atmosphere. Visitors can stroll along the picturesque Haeundae Beach, one of the most popular beaches in South Korea. Another must-visit destination is the Jagalchi Market, which is the largest seafood market in the country and offers a unique look into Korean culinary culture. The Gamcheon Culture Village is another popular attraction, known for its brightly colored houses and narrow alleyways.
- Jeju Island: Located off the southern coast of South Korea, Jeju Island is a popular tourist destination known for its natural beauty. The island is home to numerous attractions such as pristine beaches, waterfalls, and volcanic craters. Visitors can take a scenic hike up Mount Hallasan, the highest peak in South Korea, or visit the Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers breathtaking views of the ocean.
- Gyeongju: This historic city was once the capital of the Silla Dynasty and is a great destination for history lovers. Visitors can explore the many ancient temples, tombs, and artifacts that are scattered throughout the city. The Bulguksa Temple is one of the most famous temples in South Korea and is known for its intricate architecture and stunning statues. The Seokguram Grotto is another popular attraction, known for its remarkable Buddha statue and stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
- Andong: This traditional city is known for its historic homes, traditional cuisine, and cultural festivals. The Hahoe Folk Village is a popular attraction, known for its well-preserved traditional homes and cultural demonstrations. Visitors can also try the local specialty dish, Andong Jjimdak, which is a hearty stew made with chicken, vegetables, and a spicy soy sauce.
These are just a few of the many destinations to visit after your trip to Gwangju. Each of these destinations offers something unique, whether it’s natural beauty, cultural heritage, or culinary delights.
Gwangju Travel Guide: Final Thoughts
As we conclude this Gwangju travel guide, we hope that it has provided you with useful information and insights to help you plan your trip to this amazing city in South Korea. Gwangju has a rich history and culture, with numerous attractions and activities to offer visitors. From exploring its many museums and temples to sampling its delicious cuisine and enjoying its vibrant nightlife, there’s something for everyone in Gwangju.
In addition, Gwangju is a great base for exploring other parts of South Korea, such as the bustling capital city of Seoul or the stunning natural beauty of Jeju Island. The country’s efficient transportation system makes it easy to get around and explore all that South Korea has to offer.
We hope that you have a wonderful time in Gwangju and that this travel guide has helped you make the most of your trip. Safe travels!
Gwangju, a city of culture and art, Where history and modernity entwine, A place where beauty and tradition start, And nature’s wonders always shine.
From the temples and museums in the city, To the lush green mountains and sparkling lakes, There’s something for everyone, it’s easy to see, And every step you take, a new adventure awaits.
The food and drink are simply divine, From street vendors to fine dining cuisine, You’ll taste the flavors of Gwangju’s rhyme, And savor each moment like a dream.
As day turns to night, the city comes alive, With music, dance, and art on every street, The nightlife here will keep you revived, And your soul with inspiration replete.
Gwangju, a city that captures the heart, Where memories are made that will forever last, So come and explore, let your journey start, And discover the magic of Gwangju at last.