Think of South Korea and your mind immediately leaps to Seoul. It’s hard to overlook the massive metropolis that dominates the Korean economy and political scene. It’s the centre of Korean culture and the place the rock bands breeze through on their way to more lucrative touring in Japan.

This photo was just too good not to use at some point. Photo by Tony Bush.

I’ll doubtless touch on Seoul some more in future, but today I’m taking some time to turn the focus onto the often overlooked city of Gwangju in the country’s south-west. The sixth largest city in the country and largely seen as a bit of a rural backwater – Gwangju is not without substantial charms for tourists.

Getting There

One of the best things about a Korean vacation is how accessible the whole country is. While you’ll touch down in Seoul – it’s a simple task to get down to Gwangju. The KTX leaving from Yongsan Station in Seoul takes a shade over three hours to make the trip – while buses from Seoul or Incheon International Airport complete the trip in around three and a half hours.

The bus has the benefit of a halfway stop at one of the countless roadside ‘malls’ that dominate Korea. A wide variety of restaurants, shops, and street vendors mean your half hour stop isn’t one of thumb twiddling and navel gazing.

It’s also possible to fly down to Gwangju, which is serviced by its own international airport.

The Five Things You Must Do in Gwangju

Enough about logistics. You’re here to figure out what you should do with your time in Gwangju. On with the show.

#5 – Visit the Boseong Tea Fields

A view out over the tea fields. Photo by Tracey Long.

Located a short bus ride outside of Gwangju, the Boseong Tea Fields offer up a great day trip that not only lets you learn more about Korean culture – but also provides plenty of photographic opportunities.

Local buses from Gwangju can get you out to Boseong in ninety minutes for a affordable sum of 7,300 won (approximately $7). Buses leave every thirty minutes from the Gwangju Bus Terminal. I have to thank grrrltraveler for that information.

Another view of the fields. This one was taken in winter. Photo by Fallon Fehringer.

The rolling hills are home to one of South Korea’s most famous green tea plantations. That might not sound particularly impressive, but take a look at a few of the photos below and you’ll perhaps appreciate how beautiful the location is.

Located on the coast (you can get to nearby Yulpo Beach with a ten minute bus ride), the natural beauty of this place has made it a must see sight for pretty much everybody I ever knew in Gwangju. I’m ashamed to say I never made the trip myself.

It’s not just walking around and looking at tea, although that’s a big part of it. There’s also the opportunity to sample nokcha (Korean for green tea) and purchase a variety of green tea derived products.

The aforementioned Yulpo Beach also offers the opportunity for a green tea and saltwater bath for 5000 won.

Tours of farms and plantations might not sound up your alley, but it’s the beauty of Boseong that sets it apart from the others of its kind. A more serene time will be hard to find in Korea.

#4 – Be moved by the May 18 Memorial and Cemetery

One of many statues at the May 18 Memorial Park

The infamous May 18 Massacre in Gwangju is widely considered to have been the birth of the nation’s democracy. Gwangju residents took up arms in protest against the military dictatorship that controlled Korea at the time. Over 150 people were killed in the ensuing riots and police reprisal, but the aftermath saw other uprisings usher in a new dawn of Korean democracy.

In testament the day, Gwangju has a number of sites dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives. There’s the very moving May 18 National Cemetery and the picturesque May 18 Memorial Park.

The cemetery is a really heart-wrenching experience. Located in at the foot of Meudeungsan and accessible by catching the 518 bus from the bus terminal, the May 18 National Ceremony is open year round. A series of monuments and archways make for some beautiful pomp and circumstance, but it’s the Memorial Tower that captures just what a tragic but vital event the May 18 movement was. Photographs and messages to those who died will conjure up a tear or two from all but the hardest hearted of travelers.

A view up at the stormy skies over the May 18 Memorial Park

The May 18 Memorial Park isn’t quite as moving, but is a beautiful locale in its own right. Located more centrally in the urbanized Seo Gu – the park can be reached by taking a variety of city buses or by taking exit #3 at Uncheon Station and walking for about ten minutes.

The park is a wonderful tribute to what May 18 represented. Not so much because of the monuments (although they are quite interesting) but because the site plays host to children playing, families picnicing, and a gorgeous temple by the name of Muguksa. Surrounded on all sides by high rises and shopping centres, the May 18 Memorial Park is an island of tranquility in the ever swelling sea of urbanized Korea.

A view down the steps from the temple that overlooks the May 18 Memorial Park

Being so far apart, it probably isn’t possible to hit both sites in a day – but both are well worth a look.

#3 – Embrace the serenity of Daewonsa

My quiet place. I spent half an hour sitting in the pagoda and listening to the water running underneath me. Bliss.

I’ve made mention of beautiful Daewonsa on several occasions, but never dedicated any real print to it. I’m a bit hard hearted when it comes to Asian architecture, but my visit to Daewonsa in the summer of 2009 changed my mind.

Dedicated to the Tibetan school of Buddhism and weaving traditional temple design in with the beautiful natural surrounds, Daewonsa is a picture of tranquility.

The archway that acts as the entrance to the temple grounds.

Upon arriving at the temple you step through an intricately carved wooden arch and are presented immediately with a pond. Maybe I’m particularly affected by bodies of water, but I was immediately soothed by the cool coming off the water and the bright colors that surrounded it.

Exploring the temple takes you down wooded paths, over a bubbling stream, and eventually down a thickly forested mountain trail. I took a moment to relax in a shady place by the stream while those I was with snapped photos and just soaked in the sheer beauty of the place.

My favorite part of Daewonsa. I loved the contrast of vibrant orange and serene green.

I could have sat for hours by this pond. So quiet.

There’s also a museum to Tibetan Buddhism on site which includes some very graphic photographs of the atrocities that the residents of Tibet have endured over time. After the temple the museum feels like a bit of a let down, but it is still worth taking a brief detour. The museum charges a small 2000 won fee for entry, while the temple is free.

Daewsona is a 35 minute taxi ride from Boseong Bus Terminal or can be reached directly via the 217 bus from Gwangju.

#2 – Go hiking in Meudeungsan Provincial Park

My sole experience with Meudeungsan came in the form of attending a wedding in mid 2008, but I was taken by the natural beauty of the mountain that overlooks Gwangju city.

Riddled with hiking trails and also the site of several temples (Donghwasa, Jeongsimsa, and Wonhyosa) – Meudeungsan is Gwangju’s playground. Most of my students and there families tended to spend their weekends there picnicking, hiking, or paying tribute at the temple.

You could spend a few days exploring the trails and temples of Meudeungsan and not see it all. Yongchu Waterfall and the Wonhyo Valley offer particularly enchanting stops along your travels.

You can reach Meudeungsan via Jeongsimsa or Wonhyosa Temple. Both are serviced by a number of buses from the Gwangju Bus Terminal.

#1 – Get in touch with the foreigner community

Out exploring Gwangju with my friends Mike and Liz during my first weekend in Korea. 2007.

While it’s true you didn’t travel all the way to South Korea to hang out with foreigners, I couldn’t write about my home away from home without paying testament to the foreigner community in the city. It was the many friends I made in Gwangju that made Korea feel like home to me – and a lot of them have put more than just money in the bars.

Take, for example, the First Alleyway and its sister store – the Underground Grocer. The Grocer was originally started by long term Gwangju resident Michael Simning to act as a place ex-pats could track down cheese, soda, and other foods from back home.

More recently, the First Alleyway has sprung up as a foreigner friendly restaurant and bar offering up some fantastic Western food. I might be a bit biased since I’m good friends with a lot of the people involved, but there aren’t many better ways to kick off a night out than dinner at the Alleyway. And their breakfast menu is riddled with hangover treatments.

The Speakeasy, Gwangju's oldest foreigner bar, often boasts great live music from ex-pats and Korean nationals alike

Not feeling peckish? Gwangju is also home to a number of great bars. The German Bar offers up some Korean brewed beer in the German style, the ever popular Speakeasy is more reminiscent of clubs back home, Bubble Bar is a hot and sweaty night spot, Soul Train offers up a place to chill and play some pool, and Tequilaz brings a taste of Mexico to Korea – complete with Mexican food and imported tequilas.

Tequilaz is a newer player on the Gwangju bar scene

There’s also a monthly foreigner dinner run by a mixture of foreigners and Koreans looking to network and bridge the gap between the two cultures. It’s a great way to have a sober, social time and make a few new Korean friends as well.

NB: I’ve been informed that the foreigner dinner is in a bit of a state of flux at the moment with a change of organizer. The best bet is to contact Say Kimchi Recruiting.

Go to Gwangju!

So often people go to Korea in vacation and they barely make it out of Seoul. They might hit the DMZ tour, do a little shopping in tourist friendly Insadong, and maybe take the KTX down to Busan to check out the Korean beaches – but too many trips fail to take in the full depth of what Korea has to offer.

Gwangju is, moreso than most other Korean cities, the real Korea. While it’s rapidly catching up to the rest of the country when it comes to adopting Western values – there’s still a lot of the old, pastoral Korea on display here. From the annual kimchi festival to the minor celebrity status that foreigners still enjoy, Gwangju gives you the benefit of seeing authentic Korea without having to give up your creature comforts.