If you had to ask me my singular favorite place in all of Korea, I would have to tell you it’s the colorful Gamcheon Culture Village.
When I think back to my first visit to Gamcheon, I realize it was quite a random event. Roslyn, a friend who lived in my Namwon villa (and who I’d later visit in Port Elizabeth!), invited me to go on a wintry weekend trip to Busan. She was nearing the end of her contract, and visiting the this village was still on her bucket list of things to do in Korea.
We arrived in Busan Friday evening to meet up with her friends and on Saturday morning, we made our way over to Toseong Station to catch a bus up to the entrance.
While the mini-bus ride was…harrowing to say the least, all was forgotten as soon as we exited and saw tier after tier of colorful, blue-roofed houses that lay in front of us.
This was before I’d visited other similar areas in Korea, so I was pretty new to the idea of mural villages. We were also blessed with a particularly warm and sunny January day, so it just heightened how cheerful Gamcheon was. After walking around for a bit, I fell in love and knew I’d be back again.
Since that first trip, I’ve been back another three times! The next visit would be later that spring when Lynsey and I went to Busan for one of her last weekends. I went again the following New Years Day when Elissa’s sister, Helen, came to visit, and, finally, I returned while living in Suncheon when I went to visit Kayley and Mark.
Gamcheon has changed a lot even in those few years!
While the village wasn’t super well known in 2015, it has easily become one of the top tourist attractions in Busan. I’ve seen way more tempting souvenir options, pop-up displays, matching couples on dates, and food or cafe options with each new visit.
I’m excited to see what else is new on my next trip as the village is still as charming to me as it was on that very first visit. If you’re planning to visit while you’re in Busan, here’s all you need to know to get the most of your experience.
A History of Gamcheon
One thing I love about Gamcheon is that unlike some other similarly colorful places, like Meta Provence in Damyang or Petite France near Seoul, its influence is totally Korean, not some storybook version of a European country.
According to CNN, the village grew in aftermath of the Korean War and was born out of a religion known as Taegeukdo. Taegeukdo is a branch of Jeungsanism (증산교), a religious movement named after Kang Jeungsan that spawned about a hundred different branches since his death in 1909.
If you’re curious about the history, you can read about Kang Jeungsan (also known as Kang Il Sun) here. Basically, he claimed to be the next coming of Sangje, known as the highest deity in Korean shamanism whose grandson, Dangun, founded Korea. His teachings were an amalgamation of Buddhishm, Confucianism, Taoism, shamanism, and a sprinkle of Christianity thrown in for good measure. When he died, he left no successor, which is why there were so many branches.
Tageukdo started out as Mugeukdo under Jo Cheolje, who claimed to have had a revelation from Kang in 1917 to be his successor. His claims were supported Kang’s sister, mother, and daughter, though the movement was paused under Japanese occupation. When he came back, he changed the name to Taegukdo and settled in Busan.
Post Korean War
Around 800 families or 4,000 people were forced to move to Gamcheon’s hillside location either during or after the Korean War. Since Busan was one of the few places the North Korean army hadn’t gotten control over, the city saw an influx of refugees, and Gamcheon quickly grew from its initial 20 homes. Among them were Jo Cheolje and the members of Taegeukdo, who became community leaders.
As you might imagine, most of the country was not well off in the fifties, so Gamcheon was more or less a slum area for a long time. You can actually see some aerial images of the neighborhood through the decades at one of the exhibits.
Even so, the village was built following Taegeukdo beliefs, which set the foundation for what we see today. All homes are built on a tiered layout so that no house is left in another’s shadow. This follows the principle that you ought to allow your neighbors to prosper as well.
Art Projects & Revitalization
For much of the latter part of the 20th century and most of the first decade of the 21st, Gamcheon simply remained one of the poorer areas of Busan. It was in 2009 when things began to change as the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism sponsored a series of art projects to revitalize the neighborhood. The themes were as follows:
- 2009: Dreaming of Machu Picchu
- 2010: Miro Miro Alley
- 2011: Sanbokdoro Renaissance
- 2012: Twice the Pleasure
While residents already painted their homes in pastel colors, these projects invited local art students to come and decorate the village further with their own murals and sculptures, often turning many of the abandoned homes into mini galleries and exhibits.
What you see in Gamcheon now is a result of those art projects. Unlike the issues Ihwa Mural Village in Seoul has had between residents and tourists, Gamcheon’s residents directly benefit from its recent exposure. Buying souvenirs, getting a coffee, or eating at one of the restaurants goes directly back to the neighborhood, and as long as you’re respectful of residents, you’re welcomed to explore its maze of alleyways.
A Walking Guide to Gamcheon
Now that you know the history, how about a little walking guide to the village? If you’d like, you can buy a map for maybe 2 or 3,000 KRW at the visitor center and try to find all the exhibits to fill it with stamps. I did this on my first trip, and I definitely still have it somewhere in storage.
My best advice is to just get lost! Aim to get up to the top of the village and see where the streets take you. Of course, I know that’s not everyone’s ideal advice, so here are some spots to look for while you explore.
Map of Gamcheon Spots
Like I said you can get a much better, more comprehensive map at the village, but to give you an visual on the spots I’m talking about below, here’s my cobbled together version for you!
The Entrance View
By far one of the best views of Gamcheon is right at the beginning. If you take a bus up, it’ll actually go a little past the main village entrance. Before you backtrack, go towards these mirror guys above for one of the landscape scenes of Gamcheon. You can see the view in the first photo of this blog post! Chances are you’ll also catch this at the end if you wind up doing some sort of loop.
Entrance & Fish Wall
Once you’ve seen the initial view, then you’ll want to backtrack towards the main entrance. This is where you’ll find the visitor center, some shops, and, of course, the giant fish wall!
Besides being a fun photo op, the wall acts as sort of the beginning of the walking course through the village.
If you notice, the fish themselves are kind of like arrows. This is meant to help guide you through the village, but I feel like I’ve only ever intentionally followed them once.
Rose Ice Cream Spot
Along the path there’s a rose ice cream spot if you want something fun. I could have sworn there was also a hotteok place near here but I can’t figure out where it is on the map.
Little Prince Area
Korea’s love for the Little Prince continues! This is by far the most popular spot in the whole village as people will line up to take a photo with either the little prince or the fox. There are also some neat exhibits right around here, and if you’re looking for map directions look for the Moon Yaki Cafe (문야끼 어린왕자점).
Book Staircase Area
I’m not really sure what else to call this haha. But if you keep walking away from the Little Prince statues, you’ll come to this fun little area where the stairs are painted like books! There’s also the Plate for a brunch spot and that “train station” building has some cute souvenirs.
Hangul Poem & House Area
Keep on the same path and you’ll get to my favorite view point! You’ll know you’re there because you’ll see the above house and Hangul poem structures. If you go up to the mailbox structure across from them, you’ll get this view:
I need to go with better lighting, but you can see out to the bay from this point. You used to be able to get up onto the roof for an even better view that cuts out the giant apartment building, but, uh, they built the mailbox in front to block you, heh. It looks like they built a “sea zone” area though, so I’ll have to check that out on a return trip!
At this point if you keep following the path, you’ll head down and kind of around the village. I’d turn back and cut through the smaller paths that take you through the homes. This way you can see the different murals and whatnot as you loop back towards the entrance and you won’t have as much of a hike back up.
Blue House Cafe
One of the stops I was excited for on my last trip was to the Blue House cafe (계단위푸른집). If you go back past the Little Prince area and go down a few levels, you’ll get to the next main road. Make a left and walk and you’ll eventually see a cafe painted to look like the sky. This is where Kyuhyun filmed part of his music video for “Goodbye for Now,” and the rooftop has such pretty views! You can find the photo zone with the rain boots next to the cafe.
Along the way, you’ll see a ton of fun murals, especially off the main road. Above are some of the extra ones I snapped. I’m always a sucker for landscape ones!
Alleys + Stairways
Like I said getting lost in the alleyways and finding narrow staircases are the best ways to see the charm of Gamcheon. Just remember to keep your voices down and to respect the residents who live here.
Gamcheon Travel Tips
- Korean Name: 감천문화마을
- Address: 부산 사하구 감내1로 200 (우)49365
- English Address: 200 Gamnae1-ro, Saha-gu, Busan, 49365
- Phone: 051-204-1444
- Cost: Free
- Open: All day, but the main hours are 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM
What to Eat
One of my favorite hotteok stands is in Gamcheon, though I can’t figure out where it would be to point out to you guys on a map. Hotteok is like a sweet pancake with a sugary filling (more in my Korean food post). Busan is known for its ssiat hotteok (씨앗호떡) where there are a bunch of seeds stuffed inside as well as the sugary filling. Trust me, it’s delicious.
Of course, another fun thing to get are the different drinks and desserts scattered all around the village. Nothing like a fun, trendy rose ice cream to eat with the backdrop of the houses behind you.
Also, you can find plenty of restaurants and cafes, more than I’ve mentioned or been to. Surprisingly, now that I think of it, I’ve never sat down for a meal here!
If you’re curious, there is a traditional market further down from the village but still in the neighborhood. I’ve never been, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s worth going or not, but it’s here on the map if you want to stop by.
What to Buy
So many cute souvenirs! It’s funny because the very first time I went, I was actually a little disappointed that I didn’t find too many unique things to buy. Nothing that I couldn’t find elsewhere. However on subsequent trips, I found so many cute trinkets or postcards!
When I’m home and can go through my things from Korea, I’ll have to lay everything out to take a photo for you guys. Off the top of my head, I know I bought little handmade house magnets, illustrated postcards, and an illustrated book about Gamcheon in Korean.
Best Time to Visit Gamcheon
I don’t know if I had unseasonably warm weather or if Busan’s southern coastal location means it has milder winter, but I actually liked walking around in January! The light was a bit softer, and the cooler air is nice with all the uphill walking you wind up doing.
I do recommend going in the morning because traffic does pick up quite a bit around lunch time and after, especially on the weekends.
How to Get to Gamcheon
Assuming you’re already in Busan, the closest subway stop to Gamcheon is Toseong Station (토성역) on Line 1. Use Exit 6 and turn right if you’re facing the intersection. You’ll see a cancer center, and the local bus stop is right in front of it. Looks like this:
You want to get the #2 or #2-2 village bus, but there might be more that go to Gamcheon. The bus stop is called “Gamcheon Munhwa Maeul” or “감천문화마을,” and since it’s so popular, any bus driver will know if you ask.
Personally, I’d rather just take a taxi, especially if I’m with other people. The village bus was like 1,000 KRW and is a slow moving horror show. Since the village buses are much smaller than normal intercity buses, you will most likely be standing. The ride up is steep, like I really thought I was going to lose my grip and cause everyone behind me to go tumbling down steep.
In fact, we opted to just walk back down to the station because we didn’t want to deal with getting back on the bus! Every other time I’ve gone, I’ve pretty much gotten a taxi and saved myself the hassle. It’s about 10 minutes on a bus, so a taxi ride should really only cost around 3 or 4,000 KRW! There’s usually a line of them right around the same area, so you should have trouble flagging one down. And if you do, you can always use KakaoTaxi to order one.
Where to Stay in or Near Gamcheon
While there are a few options these days for staying in the village; the options are still pretty limited! All of the places I’ve found, even scrolling in Korean on KakaoMap, are pretty basic at best. Biz House, in the southern part of Gamcheon, gives you the perfect view from below while this Airbnb is in one of the houses within the village, towards the northern end.
ELSEWHERE IN BUSAN
If you’re in Busan for a few days, I wouldn’t recommend staying directly in Gamcheon. It’s not super close to everything and, of course, even just leaving the village for the subway involves a bit of a walk or taxi ride. I’d say if you want to be in this area of Busan, stay in Nampo-dong. Besides it having cool market and things to do, it’s two stops over from Toseong Station and the one in between is where Jalgachi Market and the BIFF Square are, so you’ll have plenty to see.
On the flip side, if you want to be by the beaches and nightlife, then you’ll want to stay further over in Haeundae.
Tours of Gamcheon
- Busan Skywalk, Gamcheon, + Haedong Yonggugnsa: For a full day tour of Busan, check out the different skywalks around the city, ride the Songdo cable car, check out Gamcheon, and visit Haedong Yonggungsa. Book here
- Taejongdae, Gamcheon, + Strawberry Picking: This tour would be nice for spring as Korean strawberries are sooo delicious. Start with strawberry picking, followed by touring Gamcheon, and then finish at Taejongdae. Book here
Other Things to Do in Busan
There are so many other things to do in Busan! Check that link for my full post and guide. You can relax on the different beaches, shop around Nampo-dong, visit one of the nearby islands… so many options that even I’m still discovering.
Like I said, I’m minorly obsessed with Gamcheon Culture Village! I just love how fun and colorful it is; how it’s still charming even now, and, of course, how unique of a place it has in Korean history. I hope you get to go and that this guide helps you make sense of the sprawling alleyways and scenic spots.
Have you been to Gamcheon? What did you think?
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Originally published June 2015; Last updated April 2020
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