Get Lost In Gamcheon, The Colorful Cultural Village of Busan

Apart from the bustling and busy Seoul, this small town of Busan is also one of the tourist attractions in Korea. Besides the peaceful natural scenery, Busan also owns Gamcheon, a colorful village that is often compared to Santorini of Greece or Cinque Terre in Italy.

Photo: Visit Busan
Photo: Visit Busan

Gamcheon Culture Village is a town within Gamcheon-dong, Saha District, Busan, South Korea. The area is known for its layered streets, twisted labyrinth-like alleys, and brightly painted houses, which have been restored and enhanced in recent years to attract tourism. Built on a steep mountain-side slope, the village has been nicknamed “Korea’s Santorini,” as well as the “Machu Picchu of Busan”.

While the village’s beautiful landscape gave it the nickname of the Machu Picchu of Korea, the town was a part of the painful history of Busan. Refugees settled in Gamcheon Village during the Korean War and cultivated the mountainous region to make a living. In 2009, students, artists, and residents decorated the village as a part of the Village Art Project, and the town grew into a leading tourist attraction of Busan since then.

The Village Decorated With Art

Gamcheon Culture Village | Kit Dale / © Culture Trip
Gamcheon Culture Village | Kit Dale / © Culture Trip

Gamcheon Village was built during the 1920s and 30’s when the Busan city administration decided to relocate its poor Korean population into an area secluded from the port, yet close enough to provide labor. In the midst of a post-war recovery in 1955, around 800 families moved to the village, contributing to the growth of an ascetic religious community known as Taegeukdo, a branch of Jeungsanism. A long-time resident noted the village’s development throughout the decades: “Gamcheon was only one district in 1950, now it’s nine. In the ’70s there were only houses made of wood. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, families started to get bigger so they built two-level houses.” Nonetheless, the village faced persisting poverty and poor living conditions.

In 2009, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism carried out a public art-themed renovation effort to convert the village to a cultural hub. It called for art students, professional artists, and residents to maintain, repair, and “decorate” the village with art. The renovation efforts reached their peak with the success of the “Empty House Residency Preservation Project.” With improvements to infrastructure, fresh paint and other home improvements, the establishment of spaces for retail and museums, and the addition of several dozens of art installations, the village has been reborn as Busan’s most colorful and artistic spot. Some examples of the colorful art installations include bird sculptures, Murakami-like playful installations, scenes from the Little Prince, and painted schools of fish that guide bearings through the alleyways.

Photo: Visit Busan
Photo: Visit Busan

The Gamcheon Culture Village, now a landmark of west Busan, is favored by tourists as an experience-based destination. Follow the stamp map purchased at the village information center to complete the alley tour. First, stop by the small museum located at the Gamcheon Culture Village entrance to listen to the village’s story and start the tour.

Artworks and mural paintings turn the backward alley of Gamcheon into an animated village, attracting people’s attention along with various souvenir shops and workshops where you can stop by to attend the experience programs and create your own souvenir.

Most tourists who visit the Gamcheon Culture Village try out the hanbok program where various outfits, including traditional hanbok, modified hanbok, and outfits of the enlightenment era, can be rented for a low price. The photo zone where the little prince and the desert fox look over the village is the highlight of the alley trip. Despite the long queue, wearing beautiful hanbok to take a great picture is worth it. If you want to take a picture against the village backdrop, try the photo zone by the lighthouse.

Photo:  Lost With Jen
Photo: Lost With Jen

The Best Things to Do in Busan’s Gamcheon Culture Village

1. Get lost

Photo:  World Footprints
Photo: World Footprints

While the map will certainly help you find the neighborhood’s most popular attractions, one of the best things to do in Gamcheon is simply get lost in its labyrinth of alleys. Because it is still very much a residential area, it’s easy to get a feel for what local life is like. While residents are very friendly, it’s important to be mindful of their privacy. Refrain from taking intrusive photos and keep your noise level down, especially in the evenings.

2. Marvel at the street art

Photo:  Daily Travel Pill
Photo: Daily Travel Pill

Gamcheon Village, once a dilapidated neighborhood that housed refugees following the Korean War, was transformed in 2009, when the government’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched an initiative to turn the area into a creative community. Under the theme, “Dreaming of Busan Machu Picchu,” painters and sculptors added their artistic touch to the streets, homes, and businesses of Gamcheon. Nowadays, tourists flock here to marvel at some of the most beautiful street art in the country.

3. Snack on street food

No visit to Busan would be complete without sampling the city’s famous ssiathotteok, a delectable fried pastry stuffed with sugar, honey, nuts, and sunflower seeds. There are a number of stalls and cafes selling this sweet treat, so don’t miss your chance to try it! You most likely won’t be able to eat just one!

4. Peek into the past

Photo:  Going Somewhere Slowly
Photo: Going Somewhere Slowly

Explore the rich history of Gamcheon at the Little Museum, a small attraction that exhibits more than 70 old-fashioned household items donated by local residents, illustrating the vibrant past of the neighborhood. Visitors can also see replicas of old shanties, and learn more about the artistic transformation of Gamcheon through the cooperation of residents, artists, and local authorities.

The village has turned into one of the most featured tourist attractions in Busan. Since the public art renovation project in 2009, tourism in Gamcheon has increased considerably—the village saw approximately 1.4 million visitors in 2015. Village residents have met this influx of traffic with mixed attitudes. While some residents have participated in the renovation and tourism efforts, others have opted to move away despite difficulties with selling their homes. It is estimated that 300 local houses were empty as of 2015; Part of the development efforts in the Village include converting these abandoned houses into art galleries, museums, and shops.

Charlotte Pho