GOYANG, Gyeonggi Province -- Less than a 50-minute drive northwest from central Seoul, Goyang is an easy-to-reach destination for Seoulites.
The city's reputation as a quiet residential area might have kept it off the top of day-trippers' lists, but in recent years, Goyang's increasingly successful spring flower expo has been encouraging people to see more of what the town has to offer.
Looking to capitalize on this, the city has begun to offer guided bus tours to introduce its most charming spots.
Here are a few recommended highlights from the city tour routes.
Latin America Cultural Center
One of the biggest draws to Goyang is the Latin America Cultural Center. With a museum, a gallery, a religious exhibition hall and a spacious sculpture park, there is a lot to see. It takes more than three hours to take in everything.
The center was built in 1994 by retired Ambassador Lee Bok-hyung, and holds some 3,000 sculptures and other works of art from various countries in Latin America.
Goyang might not seem the obvious place for such a center, but it hadn't always been the plan for the site. Lee and his wife Hong Gap-pyo bought the land in the 1960s, planning to grow crops there after they retired, but ended up using it for an altogether different kind of cultivation.
Lee became a diplomat in 1967, serving for some 30 years in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Mexico.
During their years abroad, the couple together to collect ancient relics and art pieces in every country and city they worked in, with the dream of sharing the beautiful culture once they returned to Korea.
"I was so fascinated by the Indio culture and Inca and Maya civilizations, that I wished for my husband to serve his last term in Mexico once again, and it came true,” Hong told The Korea Herald.
The center not only operates as a museum with a massive art collection, but is also used as a platform for showcasing Latin American culture and promoting cross-cultural understanding between Korea and Latin America through music performances, food and other cultural events throughout the year.
Haengjusanseong Fortress is the site of one of the three main sieges that took place during the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. Under General Gwon Yul's command, some 2,300 elite soldiers, monks, civilian troops and women gathered at the fortress and held off over 30,000 Japanese troops. The name of the fortress comes from "haengju chima," a nickname for the women who carried rocks in their skirts to the soldiers in battle, resulting in victory.
Although originally studied as an earthen fortress on a mountain, on March 2017, parts of a stone fortress were discovered on a slope near the top, which is currently closed for further research.
The walk is not too steep, and key facilities to look for include the Siege of Haengju Monument, the Siege Memorial and Chungjangsa, a temple created in memory of Gwon. On the way toward the memorial, a beautiful panorama overlooking the Han River unfolds.
Another historical site worth a visit is the Bamgasi Thatched Cottage in Ilsan, designated a Folklore Cultural Heritage site in 1991.
The well preserved commoner's house made of chestnut trees is thought to be from the early 19th century. The dwelling contains simple elements that allow the occupants to adapt to and stay in harmony with nature.
Baekma Hwasarang Cafe
An ivy-mantled cottage that looks like the house of Hansel and Gretel, sits in the Goyang neighborhood of Pungsan-dong, but the place is dedicated to coffee, not candy.
Cafe Baekma Hwasarang initially opened in 1980, and soon became a hip location where poets and pop singers would visit, taking the short train ride there from Seoul. It was also a popular date spot for college students and young couples in the 1980s and 1990s.
The oldest known cafe in Ilsan, Baekma Hwasarang was on the verge of demolition in 2019, but it was spared when Goyang City bought it and turned it into a cultural and educational space for the public.
The cafe has on display some 70 guest books signed in the 1980s that contain visitors' notes, poems, scribbled secret messages and wishes for the new year.
"Recently, a lady in her 20s visited the cafe and asked if she could look through the guest books to find an entry by her father, who passed away last year," the cafe manager, a Goyang resident, told The Korea Herald. "After searching several days, she found her father's note and photocopied the page as a memento."
The cafe retains its 1980s feel, with much of the interior preserved and the rest renovated to maintain its original atmosphere. The period ambiance has led to a number of popular Korean dramas to be filmed in the cafe, including "Young Lady and Gentleman (2021)," "Awaken (2020)" and "Signal (2016)."
Find your own way
The city tour is run by Goyang Tourist Information Center, which opened in November 2020, a minute-walk from Jeongbalsan Station. The center is a great place to map out plans for first-time travelers to Goyang, as it provides basic travel information and recommended spots throughout the city.
The center's second floor has a library with tourism books and others, while a play zone is equipped with traditional games such as "tuho" and "yutnori." You can also rent hanbok for the day at the center's studio and enjoy a view of Ilsan Lake Park from the rooftop.
The tours operate every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with a different route for each day, and take travelers around the city on a six-hour course. Each tour can take up to 15 guests.
While waiting for the tour bus at the center, visitors can try a special rice frappuccino at its cafe made from high-quality Gawaji rice grown in Goyang.
The tour costs 6,000 won for adults, and lunch is not provided. Reservations can be made by calling or visiting the center.