Exploring Gwangju: Unveiling its Uniquely Korean Personality

stacey in Gwangju at OIC Lounge

Setting off on a road trip to Gwangju, my countdown in Korea continues with just four weeks left. A mix of excitement and a hint of anxiety fills the air as I prepare to explore a city that has piqued my interest. Despite the feeling that two and a half years have flown by, there’s still a handful of things I’ve yet to experience. Gwangju has always lingered as an unfinished adventure, a place I’ve driven past yet never really explored. That changed recently. I hopped in the car and took a 2-and-a-half-hour drive to Gwangju in the southwestern part of the Peninsula, ready to uncover its unique split personality—a blend of traditional garden charm and modern urban vibes.

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Table of Contents

History of Gwangju
Plan B Cafe
OIC Cafe and Lounge
Naju Image Theme Park
Damyang Bamboo Forest
Lieful Cafe

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Gwangju is one of those places you should visit if you’ve hit all the major cities in South Korea. It’s small enough that you only need a weekend to see the highlights or get a good feel for the city and what it offers.

Why Gwangju Matters in South Korean Politics

The Gwangju Uprising of 1980 is pivotal in South Korea’s history. It marked a pro-democracy movement in response to the military government’s suppressive tactics and political oppression. In the city of Gwangju, located in southwestern South Korea, citizens took to the streets. They united in their call for expanded political freedoms and democratic reforms.

Tragically, the uprising took a grim turn as government forces unleashed violent crackdowns upon the demonstrators, resulting in a significant loss of life. While the exact count of victims remains a contention, estimates propose that hundreds lost their lives. And thousands more sustained injuries during the clashes between citizens and armed authorities.

The Gwangju Uprising illuminated a profound yearning for political change and democracy within the South Korean population. The aftermath of this event played a critical role in hastening the nation’s eventual transition toward a more genuine democratic structure. The sacrifices borne by the uprising’s victims galvanized a collective push for democratic reforms, ushering in heightened political awareness and activism across South Korea.

My Early Experience

Reflecting upon my personal experience, I lived in Seoul from 1977 to 1980, unaware of the Gwangju Uprising’s unfolding turmoil. Only in adulthood did I realize that South Korea’s democratic progress was somewhat nominal until the watershed 1987 elections. These elections, recognized as the June Struggle or June Democracy Movement, marked a pivotal juncture in reshaping the country’s political landscape. Likewise, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul played an equally transformative role, thrusting South Korea onto the global stage and signaling its strides toward greater prominence and international recognition.

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Cafe Street

Gwangju’s Cafe Street is a charming and vibrant locale that beckons coffee enthusiasts and seekers of cozy ambiance alike. This bustling street, often adorned with quaint architecture and inviting outdoor seating, is a haven for those who appreciate the art of coffee and the pleasures of relaxation.

Plan B Cafe

Plan B Cafe opened at 11 a.m., and we walked through the door at 10:59. We ordered the cafe special and a cake, sat upstairs, and enjoyed a little alone time because we were the only patrons until we left 45 minutes later. English menu available.

The cafe has a few snacks, although we hadn’t planned to eat anything because we had a reservation at OIC Lounge at 12:30 p.m.


[KakaoMap] 카페플랜비
126-7, Donggyecheon-ro, Dong-gu, Gwangju


Lounge OIC and Cafe

The OIC Cafe and Lounge is a beautiful cafe, restaurant, and lounge in Gwangju. It has often been voted one of Korea’s most beautiful cafes. And I had to visit before we left. I wasn’t disappointed. However, I could not get a table in the coveted inside pool area.

We shared an order of coconut chicken, fries, and steak kimchi fried rice. The chicken was good, but I think it was overcooked a little. The fried rice was delicious.


[KakaoMap] Lounge OIC
42, Imbangul-daero 826beon-gil, Gwangsan-gu, Gwangju


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Juknokwon Garden (Damyang Bamboo Forest)

Embark on a delightful escape from Gwangju and journey to the captivating Juknokwon Garden, most commonly referred to as the Damyang Bamboo Forest is conveniently located just a short 30 kilometers (about 18.6 miles) from Gwangju. It’s one of my favorite gardens in South Korea. So much so that I’ve traveled to it twice; you can immerse yourself in nature’s beauty as you walk along picturesque pathways flanked by towering bamboo groves, creating an ambiance of serenity and wonder. Within a tranquil environment of rustling bamboo leaves, this serene haven offers a rejuvenating experience, all within easy reach from Gwangju.

Juknokwon Garden Admission Fees for Individuals

  • Adults: 3,000 Korean won
  • Teenagers & Soldiers: 1,500 Korean won
  • Elementary School Students: 1,000 Korean won.
  • Lee Lee Nam Art Center: An additional 1,000 Korean won

Operating Hours:

Winter (November to February): 09:00 AM to 06:00 PM
Summer (March to October): 09:00 AM to 07:00 PM
Note: Last entry is allowed 1 hour before closing time.


[KakaoMap] Juknokwon
44 Mt., Hyanggyo-ri Damyang-eup, Damyang-gun, Jeollanam-do


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Naju Image Theme Park

If you’re a fan of Korean dramas, the Naju Image Theme Park, also known as “MBC Dramia” (나주영상테마파크), is a must-visit destination. With over three dozen palaces, fortresses, and pavilions featured in numerous historical Korean dramas like Goblin, Jumong, and Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, this park offers a fascinating journey into the world of these beloved shows.

Naju is about 30 minutes outside of Gwangju and on the way back to Daegu. It’s a chance to immerse yourself in meticulously recreated historical sets and even get the thrill of dressing up in traditional costumes. The entrance fee is 2,000 won per adult, while teenagers enjoy a reduced rate of 1,500 won, and children under 12 can enter for 1,000 won. The park operates from 09:00 to 18:00 between March and October and from 09:00 to 17:00 from November to February.

Remember to bring your umbrella and comfortable walking shoes, as the park covers a vast area and provides limited shade. With its expansive layout and captivating settings, the Naju Image Theme Park offers an unforgettable experience for anyone captivated by the charm of Korean dramas.

Lieful Cafe

The Lieful Cafe was the perfect ending for a day trip to Gwangju. Located in Hapcheon, a little over an hour from Camp Henry’s front gate, it is an easy lakeside escape from Daegu. The two story cafe serves both food and dessert, as well as signature coffees and organic ice cream.

But the show’s star has to be the lake and the mountains. It’s Korea, there are always mountains. But that doesn’t make them any less beautiful. We often escape to Hapcheon to hike the beautiful Hwanmaesan Mountains— my hand’s favorite place to see the spring azaleas. I had no idea it was a watersports haven, too.


[KakaoMap] 나주영상테마파크 (휴업중)
450, Deogeum-ro, Gongsan-myeon, Naju-si, Jeollanam-do


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