It seems every city in Korea has a ‘thing’—Pyongchang has skiing, Danyang has caves, Chongdo has bullfighting. City tourism officials tend to take these ‘things’ and clutch onto them with a vice grip; one sees billboards for the tea fields as soon as one enters Boseong, for example, or can’t help but be struck by the number of whale statues around Ulsan. Gwangju’s ‘thing’ is democracy—probably a nobler ‘thing’ than whales or tea—and no matter where you are in the city, they don’t let you forget it.
There are photographs and timelines situated on streets and on subway station walls, not to mention the whole whack of memorials dedicated to various uprisings that Gwangju citizens have been a big part of—the most popular being the Gwangju Uprising on May 18, 1980, wherein thousands of university students started what would later become a city-wide protest against then-military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who in response called the army to siege all of Gwangju for over a week. Before that, under Japanese occupation in 1929, a fistfight on a train between a Korean and Japanese high school student resulted in the city becoming the launching grounds for anti-Japanese protesters. Both uprisings have earned memorial parks, one being the massive May 18 National Cemetery (pictured left), which offers headshot photographs of not only all 144 protesters who died during the week of fighting, but also the 4,000-some who had any involvement at all, many of whom have empty plots waiting for them. It’s all kind of creepy but definitely worth a look.
So if Seoul is the overbearing mom and Busan the cool dad, and Daegu the forgotten lame child, Gwangju would be that hip young cousin who moved out at a young age who nobody thought would succeed but eventually returned home as a famous artist. Gwangju is notoriously liberal, forward-thinking and progressive, a fact its citizens price themselves in contrast to a traditionally conservative country.
Maybe the best proof is the city’s love of art. Gwangju’s famous Art Street is located minutes from its downtown core, and though it was mostly dried up when I visited on an early Saturday afternoon, it hosts dozens of art shops and galleries as well as a weekend market. Every other fall—including this year—it also hosts Korea’s largest art festival, the Gwangju Biennale, which will bring in dozens of international artists from September 7 until November 11.
And then there are the trees. My god, the trees! Gwangju’s streets are lined with them. There’s even a really gorgeous river running horizontally through basically the whole city, and it’s kind of like Busan’s Oncheonjang River, except that it’s much wider, not hideously brown and met on the sides with wide swaths of stone, grass, plants and a comfortable biking/running path. Add this to the number of parks the city has (answer: way more than Busan) and you’ve got a city that feels much more aesthetically modern than Home Sweet Haeundae’s Home.
As for unique food stops, check out the west side’s Ddeokgalbi Street in Songjeong, where you can find around a half-dozen restaurants that serve up some of the most delicious ribs in Korea. (Personally recommended: the big black one that’s been around for 1978, possibly called simply “Songjeong Ddeokgalbi”, at which I had literally one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Korea, plus free self-serve ice cream at the end.) Deeper in the central part of the town lies Yangdong’s Yu-dong Duck Soup Street, which offers reasonably sized but quite expensive bowls of simmering duck soup for around 25,000-50,000 won.
I’ll note briefly that there are a few popular museums in the northern area, such as the National Museum, Folk Museum and Art Museum, but I didn’t go to them, so I can’t say whether they’re lame or not.
It is, however, worthwhile to check out Damyang, just 30 minutes north by city bus. Damyang is a tiny, flat thing on the outskirts of Gwangju but offers Korea’s biggest bamboo forest, including a bamboo museum-sort of thing and gift shop with bamboo wine (a harsh liquor that smells unfortunately of rubbing alcohol) and trinkets that are actually kinda cool. Added bonus: the river outside is lined with vendors willing to rent you small pedal-cars or tandem bikes for 10,000 won per 30 minutes. A bit of a gouge but really, really awesome.
Gwangju is three or four hours away by bus—you can theoretically take the KTX up to Dajeon and then back down to Gwangju but that’s not very economical. An express bus takes just around three hours and costs around 21,000 won one-way (be warned that it just makes one 10-minute stop, so pee beforehand), whereas for closer to 17,000 won you can add an hour to your trip as you stop in cities like Jinju or Suncheon for a few minutes. The last bus back to Busan’s Sasang terminal leaves around 10 p.m. Damyang is accessible from Gwangju by catching a number of city busses; go to the bus terminal and hop on one there, or find bus 311 (there are probably others, but this is the one I took) and pay a few thousand won to go the whole way.