In a bowl of mountains in the South Jeolla province, Gwangju is an arty and fashion-conscious city where people are known for doing things their own way.
That spirit applies to the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980, a push for democracy that was brutally suppressed by the military and remains intertwined with the city’s culture.
Since 1995 Gwangju has staged a biennale on even years in the autumn, pushing the city into the gaze of the international art world.
Chungjang-ro is a fashion street to rival anything you’d find in Seoul or Busan, and there’s a feast of culture at the Gwangju National Museum, the Gwangju Museum of Art and the Asia Culture Center, which arrived in 2014.
1. Gwangju National Museum
In a suitably magnificent building, the Gwangju National Museum looks like a traditional palace, and sits at the top of a grand stairway.
These galleries are a repository for artefacts from all over the metropolitan area and South Jeolla province.
You can investigate prehistoric finds going back 66,000 years, and enthralling Bronze Age pieces from Gwangju’s famous dolmen sites.
There are separate spaces for Buddhist art, calligraphy + painting and marvellous celadon and buncheong ceramics.
The Sinan Shipwreck Collection Gallery displays finds from the wreck of a 14th-century Chinese Yuan Dynasty ship, yielding pottery, metalwork, musical instruments, games, cooking and agarwood items.
Head out into the grounds where there’s a dolmen park with five prehistoric monuments, as well as a historic celadon kiln brought here from South Jeolla’s Gangjin-gun and five-storey stone pagoda unearthed during paddy cultivation in Jangun-dong in 1982.
2. Gwangju Museum of Art
Close to the Gwangju National Museum, at Jungoe Park, the Gwangju Museum of Art is home to the Biennale Exhibition Hall and moved into a new main building in 2007. The permanent exhibition, labelled with English descriptions, is large and diverse, taking in Korean and international painting, calligraphy, illustration, drawing, photography, decorative art and new media.
Joseph Beuys is among a roll-call of international artists to have featured in temporary shows, while exhibitions by local artists often deal with the Gwangju’s rather traumatic political history.
There’s a children’s museum here too, with galleries for shorter attention spans, and an experience space for hands-on creativity.
3. May 18th National Cemetery
It seems difficult to believe now, but a generation ago democracy was non-existent in South Korea.
There were no national elections for decades up to 1988, after dictator Park Chung-hee, who took over in a coup in 1961, imposed a new constitution in the early 70s.
Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979, sparking a period of turmoil during which time the Gwangju Uprising took place in May 1980, amid calls for democracy.
On 18 May, students from Chonnam University were beaten, shot and raped by an authoritarian government in power following yet another coup.
This event led to ten days of mass violence around Gwangju, quelled by a bloody suppression.
Policemen were even killed by soldiers for releasing protesters, and the death toll is claimed by some to have exceeded 2,000. May 18 became an official memorial day in 1997, and in the same year this national cemetery was laid at the foot of Mount Mudeung.
There’s a monument with two parallel pillars, 40 metres tall, symbolising hope and new life.
You can find out more about the events of May 18 at the memorial hall and there are portraits of those buried at the cemetery at the portrait enshrinement tower.
4. Asia Culture Center (ACC)
Opened in 2014 after 12 years of planning and construction, this modern and airy cultural centre in Gwangsan-dong, Dong-gu stages music and dance performances, contemporary art exhibitions, film screenings, workshops, festivals and a wealth of events dedicated to Gwangju and Asian culture.
The ACC was set up at the site of the South Jeolla Provincial Office, which was central to the events of May 18 1980 and is partially preserved on the north side of the complex.
When we wrote this article in summer 2019 the main exhibition was Ten Days of Butterfly Kaleidoscope, a moving artistic representation of the Gwangju Uprising.
Let’s Be Friends with Books was a lovable collaborative exhibition by author Lee Jihyeon and picture-book artist Bonsoir Lune.
This is all just a small introduction to the centre’s packed programme, and there should be something to pique your interest whenever you come.
5. Sajik Park
Starting in the Three Kingdoms Period, between the 1st and 7th centuries CE, this hill in Gwangju’s south-eastern Yangnim-dong was an important shamanistic site.
Cloaked in century-old woodland you can still see a stone altar platform to the State deities from this time.
There’s also an assortment of modern monuments, including one to the sacrifice of police officers during the Korean War and the Yeosu–Suncheon rebellion of 1948. At the crest of the hill stands an observation tower, put up in 2014. You can walk or catch an elevator to the outdoor platform, while just below there’s a wrap-around information panel labelling all the landmarks you can see on Gwangju’s skyline.
Sajik Park is especially lovely for a short time around mid-April when the cherry trees are in flower.
6. Gwangju National Science Museum (Lucerium)
The Gwangju High-tech Science Industrial Complex in the very north of the city is the setting for the Gwangju National Science Museum.
“Light” is the main theme at this striking metal-clad building completed in 2003 and topped with a glass dome.
Inside, the World of Light is a fun introduction to the properties of light, while the Science and Art zone shows the artistic possibilities of using light as a medium.
In the next hall, Science in Living details the scientific phenomena occurring in our everyday lives, and Challenge for the Future relates the importance of space and Earth’s oceans to the future of mankind.
There’s an indoor playground where preschool children can encounter scientific concepts, an auditorium for lectures and a 3D Theatre for lab experiments and a daily robot dance show.
7. Daein Market
Once Gwangju’s pantry, Daein Market suffered in the 1990s when large shopping marts arrived.
This slump was arrested in 2008 when previously empty stores were turned into little art galleries for the Gwangju Biennale.
Now, across six districts, there are art studios mixed in with all the things you would expect from a busy Korean market, like fish, fresh produce, arts and crafts, toys, homewares, fabrics, fermented foods and a lot more besides.
Street food carts and booths are set up along the market’s network of alleys, and maybe the best time to visit for this is on Saturday nights (until 23:00).
The city’s prime shopping and entertainment street was also ground zero for the Gwangju Democratization Movement in May 1980 and so is charged with a certain atmosphere, as well as being one of the best places to go shopping in South Korea.
Come to see what styles the cool kids are rocking, on a street stacked with malls and clothes stores, as well as movie theatres, restaurants, bars, cafes and noraebang karaoke rooms.
Chungjang-ro is mostly pedestrianised, and on the first weekend of October rolls back the years for a festival harking back to life in the city during the 1970s and 80s.
9. Mudeungsan Jeungsimsa Temple
Climbing the western slope of Mount Mudeung you’ll arrive at this Jogye Order Buddhist temple, which has an eventful history beginning in the 6th century, in the time of the Silla Kingdom.
Jeungsimsa Temple has endured a couple of catastrophes in its day, at the hands of the Japanese in the invasions of the late 16th-century, and then during the Korean War.
Restoration work in the 1970s returned the complex to its previous design, as set out by three 17th-century monks: Dogwang, Seokgyeong and Sujang.
Make sure to see the Korean National Treasure (No. 131), a seated Vairocana Buddha cast from iron in the 9th century during Unified Silla.
To experience Jongye Buddhist rituals and traditional Korean culture firsthand you can take part in a templestay programme, lasting for anything from 2-4 hours to four nights.
10. 1913 Songjeong Station Market
Like Daein Market this historic shopping street over the road from Gwangju Songjeong Station had experienced tough times until it was brought back to life as a trendy hangout in 2016. The buildings along the route were given a sharp retro look, and now cafes, pop-up stores and quirky speciality food shops sit among long-established businesses selling groceries and the like.
To illustrate, Hankki Ramyeon for example sells instant noodles from all over the world, and Roh Ji-hyun of Bukakmaeul specialises in slow food snacks like dried sweet potato and seaweed chips.
For tourists 1913 Songjeong Station Market also shines as a place to get comforting street food, most of all on weekend evenings when you can munch on hotteok (hot griddle cakes) and kimchi wrapped in bacon.
11. Gwangju Lake Eco Park
A 30-minute bus ride (187 or 188) from downtown, Gwangju Lake is in a beautiful mountainous crucible north of Mount Mudeung.
The Eco Park is on marshy ground to the lake’s south-eastern shore, and has a long and well-maintained boardwalk over the wetland and open water.
There are inviting grassy areas, wooden observation platforms for bird-spotting and trails leading past 400-year-old willows.
You’ll also find a couple of places to pick up food by the entrance, and a learning centre detailing the lake’s ecology.
Keep your eyes peeled for passerine birds like vinous-throated parrotbills and Japanese tits, and finches like Chinese grosbeaks, bramblings and Eurasian siskins .
A little way down the road from the Gwangju Lake Eco Park is a traditional Korean garden, plotted in the 16th century by a disciple of Jo Gwangjo (1482-1520), who was a Neo-Confucian scholar ordered to drink poison in the Third Literati Purge of 1519 after pursuing radical reforms.
The garden was a response to this death, and Soswaewon’s creator Yang San-bo (1503-1577) wanted it to reflect “anbinnakdo”, the state of being comfortable in poverty and living a life of integrity.
In a peaceful valley and ringed by a mud and stone wall, Soswaewon has two handsome pavilions, Kwangp’unggak and Chewoltang ,as well as a pond and artificial waterfall.
You can cross the valley on a log bridge, and amble in a beautiful bamboo grove and historic woodland of pines, maples, peach trees and zelkovas.
13. Dongmyeong-dong Cafe Street
Another patch of Gwangju that has found a new lease of life, Dongmyeong-dong went through a few lean years after the South Jeolla provincial office moved out in 2005. But recently the Dongmyeong-dong Cafe Street has sprung up to coincide with the nearby Asia Culture Center.
You’ll be lured in by snazzy shopfronts for themed cafes, pubs and restaurants.
For Example, the hip Stoa Urbana is built from repurposed shipping containers, hanging work by local artists and booking live music.
14. Gwangju Family Land
Just right for a family day out if you have younger children, Gwangju Family Land is a mid-sized amusement park towards the top of the northern Buk-gu district.
In 290 acres, fringed by wooded hills and looking over a lake, the park offers a handful of rides and attractions like a Ferris wheel, carousels, a swinging Viking ship and pool area with slides.
Bigger kids will love the rollercoaster, which has two inversions, there’s also an ice rink and a small zoo with tigers, bears, giraffes and elephants.
15. Gwangju Biennale
In the 25 years since its inception, the Gwangju Biennale has elevated the city to a hub for contemporary art in Asia.
The event was founded to channel the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising into a new cultural reference point.
Exhibitions take place at the Biennale Exhibition Hall in Jungoe Park, and for each edition there’s a fresh theme and new curators.
The title of the 12th Biennale in 2018 was “Imagined Borders”, welcoming 153 artists from 41 countries at seven independently curated exhibitions.
Artistic directors for the 13th Biennale in 2020 are Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala, promising a dynamic programme of live performance, exhibitions, a publishing platform and various forums juxtaposing artists, scientists and systems thinkers.