As evening descends just outside downtown Gyeongju, long shadows stretch from enormous burial mounds, the stone walls of the Cheomseongdae Observatory glow in the golden light, and Anapji Pond dances with reflected starlight.
After a full day of exploring local museums and important historical sites, both in the town and on its outskirts, it’s easy to imagine you’re standing back in the heart of the Silla dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD) at the height of its power.
When the feeling passes, take a short walk to the edge of downtown and into any one of the friendly traditional Korean restaurants that dot Gyeongju – a small town with a giant history.
Even outside Gyeongju, you’ll notice that buildings have traditional Korean structures and roofs. In the 1970s, Gyeongju was restored and the national government mandated that no skyscrapers be built and that the “traditional character” of the local architecture be preserved.
In fact, dozens of national treasures and historical sites are preserved here (“preserved” often means “lovingly rebuilt”). Locals refer to Gyeongju as an “open-air museum.” Wherever you walk, you come across tombs, temples, shrines, remains of palaces, gardens, castles, Buddhist statuary, and even the oldest remaining astronomical observatory in East Asia.
You can suddenly emerge from a cramped street overhung with flashy signs and festoons of cables into a bright open vista of tumuli (tombs) and gardens. The effect is breathtaking.
The outskirts of Gyeongju contain several of its most famous destinations. Don’t miss Bulguksa Temple (15 kilometers from town) or Seokguram Grotto (an additional 9 kilometers away). These two sites combine breathtaking natural scenery with stunning architecture and artistry.
Bulguksa is a sprawling compound of stone and wood artistry that needs several hours to adequately explore. Seokguram is more compact, except for a short walk between its two main attractions. Visitors here can admire the golden Buddha encased in a man-made granite grotto looking out over the East Sea.
If you are of a literary bent, you can stop off between Bulguksa and Seokguram to check out the Dongni Mokwol Literary Museum, which celebrates two of Gyeongju’s greatest literary masters (Dongni Kim and Mokwol Park).
Turning from antiquity to the modern, Gyeongju sits next to Bomun Resort, a man-made lake below the fortress of Myonhwal-san. Bomun Resort has modern hotels, shopping areas, restaurants, an amusement park, a huge traditional water mill, a 12-meter-high artificial waterfall, and a 100-meter “performing” fountain.
While at the resort, you’ll find plenty to do at the Yukbuchon Convention Hall, Sonjae Museum of Contemporary Art, Bomun Outdoor Performance Hall, and the largest drive-in theater in Korea. When you’re ready to explore the outdoors, several hiking trails, at all degrees of difficulty, lace the scenic beauty of the area.
If you aren’t into hiking, Gyeongju is also a bicycle town. Bikes can be rented for W7,000 per day and returned by 7 pm to the bike rental shop three minutes east of the express bus terminal.
Bikes can be used on some trails and within several of the city’s parks. Some brave cyclists go as far as Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto, but that might be better left to bus or taxi.
The 10 Best Places To See In Gyeongju
1. Bulguksa Temple
One of the most famous and beautiful temples in Korea.
2. Seokguram Grotto
A short hike or bus ride from Bulguksa Temple, this is a classic example of Silla art and architecture and a spectacular UNESCO Buddhist site.
3. Anapji Pond
Some find this disappointing; it is largely destroyed, with only three buildings on a lake. But if you don’t go? You’ll meet someone at a cocktail party who did!
The oldest surviving astronomical observatory in East Asia is often teeming with hundreds of Korean schoolchildren on field trips.
5. Daereung-won Tumuli Park
There are over 200 massive tumuli (burial mounds) in Gyeongju, but the most concentrated array is found here. The Cheongmachong (Heavenly Horse) Tomb is open for display.
6. Gyeongju National Museum
The entire history of Silla including an astonishingly complete history of Anapji’s roof tiles.
7. Seokbinggo (Stone Ice Storage)
This funky but interesting stone structure demonstrates how Koreans historically stored ice. On hot days it is worth visiting for recuperation as well as historical significance.
8. Seongdong Covered Market
Near the Gyeongju train station is a classic Korean market with astoundingly fresh seafood, food stands and a scattering of textiles.
9. Gyeongju Folk Craft Village
Towards Bomun Resort, the village has 45 traditional Korean houses supporting a variety of artisans and traditional products. Around these houses are “souvenir” shops, which offer cheaper items of less certain provenance.
10. Korean Traditional Liquor and Cake Festival
The festival is held during March and April with traditional Korean events. The highlight is the rice cakes, traditional tea, and rice wines.
What You Should Eat
Gyeongju is one of the few cities in Korea that does not have a regional specialty. The closest to it is Hwangnam-ppang, a bread filled with red-bean paste. Ssambap (wrapped rice served with side dishes) is also a local favorite, and there is a “Ssambap Alley” at the southeast corner of Tumuli Park.
Beyond that, you will find the normal range of Korean restaurants. Walking through an unfamiliar door will often result in great food served by friendly staff in the company of friendly locals.
How To Get There
Gyeongju is less cosmopolitan than Seoul or Busan, but the residents are friendly and eager to help lost or confused tourists.
Bus: Service to/from Daegu, Pohang and Busan (depends on the terminal – but the terminals are shouting distance apart) arrive/leave at twenty minute intervals. Service between Gyeongju and Seoul is available every 40 minutes.
Train: There are half a dozen daily Saemaul trains to Gyeongju from Seoul, but it’s a long ride. A better choice is to catch a bullet-train to Dongdaegu from anywhere in Korea and transfer to a slower train for Gyeongju. If you plan to leave Gyeongju on Sunday, purchase tickets in advance. Outbound trains fill early, and while standing tickets can be had, it can be a fairly uncomfortable way to travel.