Gwangju, the capital of Korea’s southwest Jeollanam-do province, is a smaller city of around 1 million inhabitants. It’s also home to the eclectic hideaway of Yangnim-dong — a tiny district with a mighty historical influence on the City of Democracy that nowadays is the heart of the city’s vibrant coffee scene.
This particular slice of Gwangju traces its heritage back to the early 1900s, when American Presbyterian missionaries set up shop here. The missionaries established schools and hospitals, injecting vital life into what was then still very much a rural outpost. Traces of their influence can still be found in the churches, seminaries, and hanok scattered throughout the area. More recently, however, Yangnim-dong has come to fame for a rather peculiar attraction called the “Penguin Village.” Contrary to what the name might suggest, you won’t find any waddling sea birds here, but you will find all sorts of bric-a-brac from a bygone era — a trip back in time, if you will. The “penguin” moniker is said to be inspired by the hunched-over walking style of the many elderly Korean residents who donated their relics to create this time-travel experience.
Penguins and missionaries aside, there’s something else that Yangnim-dong has become well-known for: Coffee.
Over the past few years, this unassuming area has become something of a hotspot for Gwangju’s (and dare we say) Jeollanam-do’s best coffee. The baristas and coffee shops here get the basics right and offer up an elevated coffee experience. Consider this a local’s guide to some of the best coffee shops in Gwangju’s de facto coffee district.
Upon entering this inconspicuous establishment, you’re greeted by a hoard of eclectic coffee paraphernalia that will have you wondering if you’ve entered something other than a coffee shop. But no, the colossal variety of contraptions here are simply a nod to just how seriously the owners take their coffee.
Forget the lattes and Americanos that constitute the staples of so many big-name outlets; instead savor lesser-found concoctions like cortados and delectable cold brews. You can get your beans here too, if that’s your thing. There’s an interesting backstory behind this little outlet, as well. It is named after Lois Neil, a missionary who sponsored missionaries and churches within the Yangnim-dong area, making it something of a community institution among the locals who favor this joint as their go-to coffee merchant.
Just up the road from Lois Coffee is 6K Coffee, or in Korean, 욕각 커피, meaning Hexagon Coffee — evident in their modern, six-sided logo.
Space is at a premium here, so consider this more of a take-out joint. If there is one must-try, it’s their coconut coffee. The creamy blend of coconut milk and house brew is coffee with a tropical twist; a trip to white-sand beaches, azure blue waters and palm trees. You won’t go wrong with anything else though, and the 6K Coffee brand is steadily gaining a reputation among Gwangjuvians for making some of the best caffeinated beverages in the city.
Situated on the pathway between Lois Coffee and 6K Coffee is Milldang, a boutique space featuring lots of exposed concrete, hanging greenery, and an outstanding cake selection. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the cake selection here trumps their coffee menu. From mouthwatering slices of matcha cake to moreish tarts, this is the place for coffee lovers with a sweet tooth.
Cafe Illda is far removed from the minimalist contemporary Korean coffee shop aesthetic. Instead, it’s a little more baroque, eclectic, and perhaps more homey. Just as much a dessert cafe as a regular coffee joint, the hand-drip comes highly recommended, with a choice of Guatemalan, Kenyan, or Ethiopian beans. There’s a particularly pleasing ambience about this space in the warmer months, as the outside alleyway allows patrons to enjoy the fresh air while observing passing foot traffic.
The next time you find yourself in Gwangju, be sure to pay this little gem of an area a visit. A peaceful hideaway from the bright lights and blaring loudspeakers of Gwangju’s downtown area, discerning coffee lovers definitely won’t be disappointed with all that awaits in Yangnim-dong.