Five Great Day Trips From Gwangju
Gwangju is perhaps Korea’s most underrated city for expats. Bursting with energy, a vibrant expat scene, and and tons of great places to visit nearby, Gwangju has more to offer than most people realize. Here, Blake Bouchard gives us the lowdown on Gwangju’s greatest day trips.
Originally from Prince George, British Columbia, Blake has been teaching at a public middle school in Gwangju since February 2013. An avid outdoorsman, Blake spends many of his weekends climbing mountains, wandering islands, and generally exploring the ins and outs of Gwangju.
No matter how much you love a city, there are times when you just need to get out. Now, many Gwangjuvians will take the weekend and head to Seoul or Busan for the bright lights and (even bigger) city, but those are destinations you will get to at some point anyway. One of the great things about living in Gwangju is that it is surrounded by so many amazing things to see and do- things that are completely unlike the Korea of Seoul or Busan.
Here, in no particular order (because they’re all great), is my list of five great day trips you can take from Gwangju.
Look in the Jeolla-do section of any Korea travel guide and you will find at least a mention of the Boseong green tea fields. Tucked down by the southern coast, this area has a well-established and globally recognized green tea industry. You can purchase Boseong green tea all across Korea. However, in addition to growing green tea, Boseong has begun to establish itself as a tourist destination for people who wish to wander through the neat rows of green tea plants and sample a plethora of green tea-based treats. For those who, like me, are rather lukewarm on green tea, don’t go for that: Go because it’s gorgeous.
There are lots of different farms you can visit and walk through; they are all terraced into hills and usually face the ocean. The views are breathtaking. The terraces are especially nice at sunset and, once you have finished your wander among the greenery, most fields have a café where you can sample green tea ice cream, green tea jelly, and other green tea treats.
While this is generally considered a summer activity, there is a festival of lights in January and February that has been growing for the past eleven years. The entire area gets involved and most of the tea fields are decorated to some degree. Several of the larger fields put on huge displays with entire hillsides lit up.
From the Gwangju bus terminal buses depart for Boseong every 30-60 minutes. Tickets cost approximately 9,000 won (prices vary depending on the type of bus you take) and it’s about an hour and a half ride south. Once you arrive at the Boseong bus terminal, purchase a ticket for a local bus heading to Yulopo and get off at Daehan Dawon. The buses run fairly regularly and cost less than 3,000 won. It’s about a 30 minute bus ride to the fields. The largest fields are not the first set that you pass, so I suggest you stay on the bus until you see a second set, down the slope on your right.
Naejangsan National Park straddles the boundary between North and South Jeolla-do, but the best hiking is in the northern part of the park. Although there are several hikes and temples within the park boundaries, the most popular trails are on the ridges around Naejang-sa (Naejang temple). The main temple sits in the valley, with the smaller temple of Byeongnyeonam on the slopes to the north. Naejangsan is most popular in the fall, as the wide variety of trees provides a vivid backdrop for the temples and spectacular views from the ridge tops.
There are trails for all levels of fitness and interest. The most challenging ascends to the ridge from the gate of Naejangsa and then circles the entire valley, covering 8 peaks in 15 kilometers. For those who aren’t fans of hiking, a cable car takes tourists most of the way up the southern ridges with a shorter hike leading to the highest peak in the park. Of course, the wander from the parking lot to Naejangsa itself is a tree-lined path along a creek with a small lake and picnic area, so if you don’t like mountains but like pretty things and temples there is something for you in Naejangsan as well.
There are direct buses from the Gwangju bus terminal to Naejangsan that depart most mornings in spring, summer, and fall. However, the schedule changes depending on the season, so be sure to check at the information desk in the bus terminal for details. This bus will drop you at the convenience store in the village just inside the northern park boundary. Buses depart for Gwangju from the same point every 20-30 minutes.
Alternatively, it is possible to catch a bus from Gwangju to Jeongeup and then take a local bus (number 101) to the village at the start point. The cost to enter the park is 3,000 won.
Tip: When hiking in Korea, be sure to take lots of water, your own lunch, and small snacks that can be easily shared. Fellow hikers will often share a bite of lunch, shot of soju, or other snacks, and it is appreciated if you are able to reciprocate.
Byeonsan Beach is near Buan in Northern Jeolla province. This beach is one of several along the coast outside Byeonsan National Park, all of which are serviced by the same road running south from Buan. The water off Byeonsan Beach remains shallow for quite a distance out, making it great for those who are not strong swimmers. A river flows in at the southern end and on the hill on the northern side there is a slightly strange, heart-themed park.
From the Gwangju bus terminal take a bus to Buan, an hour and a half away. At the Buan bus terminal catch a local bus (either the 100 or 200) to Byeonsan Beach. The frequency of the buses seems to vary and they do not always run on schedule, so be sure to leave some cushion time. Be aware that the last bus from Buan to Gwangju leaves around 6:00 most days and it is at least a 45-minute bus ride from the beach to the terminal.
There are a few small shops along the back of the beach, but it’s best to bring some food if you plan to spend the day there. Regardless of how long you plan to stay, bring a lot of sunscreen!
Wolchulsan is Korea’s smallest national park, but (in my humble opinion) one of the most beautiful. Many of the trails are quite steep, and novice hikers should allow a full day to cover most of the terrain. The park is full of gorgeous, craggy peaks, and in many places there are amazing views, largely unobstructed by trees. Spanning a gorge is the Cloud Overpass, an orange bridge that transfers hikers from one spur to another. If you are afraid of heights, this is probably not for you! Other attractions include a small waterfall, several peaks, great ridge hiking, rock climbing opportunities (bring your own gear), and a small temple near the base of the mountain.
There are many different trails in the park, but be aware that most of them have steep sections. My favourite is the loop that includes the Cloud Overpass, several different lesser peaks, a tunnel through the rocks, the highest peak (Cheonhwangbong), and the waterfall. This route is only about 7 kilometers, but has an elevation change of over 700 meters. Of course, all that climbing just makes the payoff even sweeter.
From Gwangju bus terminal, catch an intercity bus to Yeongam – which will run you approximately 7,000 won. From Yeongam you can either catch a taxi to the base for about 5,000 won, or take a local bus to Wolchulsan for less than 2,000 won. Either way, it is only another 10-20 minutes from Yeongam before you get to the trailhead.
Damyang is one of my favourite escapes from Gwangju, largely because it is so close and has such a diverse set of attractions. Damyang is both a county and a town. Along the river in the town there are several restaurants serving ddeokgalbi, for which Damyang is well known. On the north side of the river is a bamboo forest and a nearby art gallery/café. Altogether, the town itself is a great place to spend some time relaxing.
In the surrounding countryside there are even more great things to do. The Damyang Resort Spa has an outdoor pool as well as the standard Korean public paths. If you want to go into the pool you must wear a bathing cap – although the definition seems to include bush hats, ball caps, and beanies. There is also the metasequoia road, which was once voted Korea’s most beautiful road. Lined with massive metasequoia trees, this road provides some great photo opportunities and is especially popular in the summer and fall.
Damyang County also has abundant hiking opportunities. Two hikes that I would recommend are Chulwolsan for great views and Geumseung (which is right behind Damyang Resort Spa) for some great views coupled with history. Geumseung is a 7-kilometer loop that is walked almost entirely on the partially restored walls of a hill fort that played an important role in several conflicts, including the Imjin wars.
From the Gwangju bus terminal, take an intercity bus to Damyang. It will cost less than 3,000 won and take under 45 minutes. Returning, it is possible to take a local bus for even less, but the ride will be longer. If you live in the northern part of Gwangju it is also possible to take a cab from Damyang to Gwangju for around 30,000 won if you negotiate with the driver ahead of time.
Do you live in Gwangju or Jeolla-do? Have you been to any of these places? What are your favorite day trips in Korea? Let us know in the comments below.