I have been fortunate enough to visit several cities and regions of the very much underestimated nation of South Korea. Cities with enough relics and attractions to keep travellers of varying interests entertained for the duration of their trip. None of which compare to the unbelievable breadth of history and culture that survives in the ancient capital of Gyeongju.
The city is the birthplace of what would become a mighty empire stretched across the Korean peninsula which developed into the Korea that we know today. Dubbed a “museum without walls“, the city is home to more relics, temples and tombs than anywhere else in the whole of Korea. It’s truly the best place in the entire country to immerse yourself in a time long forgotten.
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Gyeongju is a coastal city in the province of North Gyeongsang Province in the South-Eastern corner of the Korea peninsula. The city is wedged between the bigger metropolis cities of Daegu to the East and Busan to the South.
Gyeongju itself is compact and easy to navigate. So much so that everything within the city; from attractions to transport hubs are all within walking distance from each other. The rest of the attractions are scattered across the mountainous range towards the coast, all of which easily accessible.
This would be one of the biggest highlights in the city of Gyeongju, if not the entire country. Known as hanja in Sino-Korean, which translates as “World of Buddha Temple”. In the country’s system of numbering monuments and artefacts, this particular one is placed at number one. From the time it was built under one of the nation’s most powerful empires, all the way until today, its seen as the most significant temples in the entire country.
Built in 528 during the height of the Silla empire, this UNESCO world heritage site was built to mark the 15th year of one fortunate King’s reign. The temple underwent several renovations over the reigns of numerous emperors and pesky Japanese invasions. Basking in the shadows of Toham mountain, its quite an extraordinary scene of spiritual serenity.
Not only is the temple itself a nationally important cultural relic, but plenty more are found within the temple itself. Two of which can be seen before entering the temple; Cheongungyo bridge and Baegungyo bridge (Blue and White Cloud Bridge, respectively).
Further within the temple is Daeungjeon Hall, which houses two other nationally important relics in the form of two pagodas. These are Dabotap Pagoda and Seokgatap Pagoda, with the latter being the more elaborately designed. Both of which were lucky enough to survive Japanese destruction during unfortunate invasions. While restoring the Seokgatap Pagoda in 1966, the oldest surviving wood print book in the world was discovered within.
The list of relics continue with the Golden Seated Vairocana Buddhist Figure and the Golden Seated Amita Figure found within such halls as Nahanjeon Hall. Within the halls you’ll notice there has been little restoration done, allowing for a much more of an authentic sight.
To get there you can either head to Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal or Gyeongju Train Station take bus number 10 or 11 to Bulguksa Temple stop.
Open:Mar-Sep – 7am-6pm
Nov-Jan – 7:30am-5pm
Feb – 7:30am-5:30pm
Price: Adults – 5,000 Won
Teenagers – 3,500 Won
Children – Free
Dongguang Palace and Wolji Pond
You might be asking the same question as I did, why is the pond worth a mention. Surly there must be a good reason to have it permanently associated with a once mighty palace. Upon seeing it its clear to see why.
While walking around the koi filled ponds and surrounding forest which were once full of wildlife including deer, it becomes clear how this would be a place for an Emperor to kick back and relax. Not only was this used as a secondary palace site for the Silla kingdom, it was also used to host banquets for important national events and important visitors.
The pond’s name was discovered carved in pottery excavated at the site, which is translated as “a pond that reflects the moon”. Although only a few structures have been recovered and reconstructed to give a rough idea of the lay-out, the pond itself has remained practically identical from the times of the Silla Empire.
For this your option is 2 buses. From Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal or Gyeongju Station take bus number 600 to Anapji Entrance Bus Stop. From Singyeongju Station take bus number 50, 51 or 70
Open – 9am-10pm
Price: Adults – 2,000 Won
Teenagers – 1,200 Won
Children – 600 Won
Designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, Seokguram Grotto is located on Tohamsan Mountain. Its unusual in that it is an entirely stone temple, constructed out of granite. The construction was started in 751 during the reign of the Silla Kingdom under Samgukyusa of the Goryeo Dynasty. This was the same man responsible responsible for unifying the Korean peninsula at the end of the Silla Kingdom.
According to history, Seokguram was built during the same period of time as Bulguksa Temple. Bulguksa Temple was said to built for the King’s parents in his current life, and Seokguram Grotto for the parents of his former life.
Inside the main hall you’ll find the Bonjon Statue, Bodhi-sattva as well as his disciples. The hall and the figures within are immaculately designed with engraved markings and lotus flowers.
If you’re planning to visit here, your best option is to go via Bulguksa Temple (Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal or Gyeongju Train Station, bus number 10 or 11). From here, take bus number 12 to Seokguram Grotto.
Open: Feb-Oct – 7am-5:30pm
Nov-Jan – 7am-5pm
Price: Adults – 5,000 Won
Teenagers – 3,500 Won
Children – 2,500 Won
I still stand by my claim that this has to be the most extraordinary building I have ever seen. Standing proud just on the outskirts of the city, this has become a shining example of modern Korean architecture. Completely impractical and nothing more than an aesthetic show of architectural skill, its still mind-blowing to behold.
Located in the Gyeongju World Culture Expo Park, the building itself is nothing more than a showcase of architectural skill and awe-inspiring tourist fodder. It also additionally serves as an observation tower for the surrounding region, which is absolutely free. As for the park itself its the site of numerous yearly expo’s from traditional Korean culture to tech conventions.
To get there head to Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal where you can take either bus number 10, 18, 100 or 150 towards Gyeongju World Expo Park stop. Bus number 150 happens to pass most major attractions, so the recommended one to take for the whole route.
Open: Park – 6am-10pm , Tower admission – 10am-6pm (8pm from May-August)
Price: all free
This would be a temple of a different nature to the rest in Gyeongju. This particular temple will not be as crowd-filled as the ones previously mentioned, and superficially has less to offer. Its much more discrete, having more of a significance to a mighty temple that once stood near-by.
The temple also holds the title of having the oldest pagoda in all of Korea which stands proud in the middle of the temple grounds. Not only does it have the strange quality of being built from bricks, but the intrinsically designed Buddhist guardians protecting each entrance and a stone lion on each corner.
This temple is situated in a very historic area, where previously an enormous developing temple/palace once stood. Today all that remains is a willow-lined field between the temple and Gyeongju National Museum. There’s a pathway which leads through the field and the remaining stones of a once mighty temple. It certainly provides some spectacular landscape views.
Like many other attractions found in Gyeongju, free guides are provided upon request. Being the nature of the smaller, lesser-known temple, here guides will politely approach you and enthusiastically detail every aspect.
To get here, from Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal take bus number 10, 70 or 100 to Gyeonggo-Sageori Bus stop. Alternatively from Singyeongju Station on buses number 70 or 700 to the same stop.
Open: Sunrise-sunset, whenever that may be
Price: 1500 Won
The Tomb of Emperor Munmu
If you didn’t know the significance of the site beforehand, it would be so easy to completely miss this national important relic. Nothing more than a small rocky islet a stone’s throw away from the coast of Bonggil-ri beach, it would be easy to pass by. However you’d be making a big mistake.
This unassuming pile of rocks is actually the final resting place of one of the nations most powerful and important Emperors. Emperor Munmu was the man responsible for unifying the three Korean kingdoms, and shaping the modern Korea that we know today. This mighty emperors tomb was chosen out of his own request, as he believed that in his afterlife he would become a dragon which would protect the Silla kingdom from the ever so pesky Japanese.
The beach is the perfect place to sit back and reflect on its significance and the history which it holds. The site ends up leaving you with more questions than when you arrived. Is the body still there? How was it done? Was the tomb carved into stones that were there beforehand? Can I be buried like this?
Take bus number 150 from Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal until the last stop at Underwater Tomb of King Munmu.
Yet another relic of the once mighty empire, this observatory currently holds the title of the oldest surviving observatory in Asia, possibly the entire world. Constructed between 632-646 AD, evidence of its age comes with its simple design of 362 stoned stacked in a cylindrical shape. The number of stones and intrinsic designs were incredibly deliberate. The number of stones represent the number of days in a lunar year, 12 stones at the base to symbolise the months, and 30 layers for the number of days in a month.
Literally translated as “Observe the Stars Platform“, its exact purpose was to predict to forecast upcoming weather. The observation of the stars extended to determining equinoxes and seasonal solstices, some of the earliest forms of cosmology.
From the Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal there are a number of buses available: Number 10, 11, 60, 600 or 700 to Wolseong-dong Comminity Center Bus Stop. From Singyeongju Station and take bus number 60, 61 or 700 to the same stop.
Tumuli-gongwon (Tombs of the Silla Kingdom)
The enormous grounds of the park are found in the centre of the city, and rightfully so. The scene appears as simple mounds of earth to the untrained eye, not unlike the city’s surrounding landscape. These miniature mounts house the final resting place of 23 of the Silla Kingdoms finest Emperors and family members.
Treasures found within each tumuli have been put on display in the nearby Gyeongju National Museum. Luckily, one of these excavated tombs is open to the public. This particular tumuli is known as Cheonmachong, and was built as far back as the 5th century.
Inside you’ll find the remains of the coffin that stood within, as well as the decorative and aesthetic additions to it, including jade ornaments and weaponry. As well as that there are short expository pieces on how such relics and artefacts made their way to Gyeongju from as far as Europe during the kingdom’s mighty reign.
As tempting as it might be to climb atop the mounds, it wouldn’t be a wise decision. Doing so has a maximum penalty of 2 years in prison.
Price: 1,500 Won
Gameunsaji Temple Site
Admittedly not at the top of the list of best attractions, having a humble selection of a pair of pagoda’s and the remaining foundation of a past temple. However it’s the sites historical significance and its godly surroundings that makes it worth a visit.
Gameunsaji Temple was originally built by King Munmu of the Silla kingdom in the 7th century, its one of the earliest remnants of the once mighty Silla empire. Having only been recently discovered in 1979, very little remains other than a few foundations and the pagoda’s which have been restored.
The man who’d devised the temple was the same who unified several regional tribes to become the first unified Korean empire. Down in no part to its proximity to the coast, the purpose of the temple was to pray for protection and guidance from Buddha against possible (and eventual) Japanese invasion from the other side of the ocean.
King Munmu would not survive to see his temple completed and shortly after was cremated and buried in a other near-by national monument just off the coast. The site would be the tomb of Emperor Mumnmu.
You can get there by hopping back on bus number 150 headed from Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal towards Gameunsa Temple Site stop.
Gyeongju National Museum
Gyeongju National Museum is the prime location for historical and cultural artifacts from the Silla Kingdom. Not only does it house relics from a period of time which left Gyeongju with such a rich variety of historical sites, it also serves to continue researching into this fascinating period in history.
To get there, take bus numbers 11, 600 or 603 from Gyeongju Bus Terminal or Gyeongju Train Station to Gyeongju National Museum.
Open: 10am-6pm weekdays, 10am-7pm weekends
Thankfully the once mighty ancient capital is still easily accessible. Placed not too far from the bustling metropolises of Busan and Daegu, there are plenty of travel options. Unfortunately, in this case Gyeongju doesn’t have an airport, therefore direct flights aren’t an option.
If flights are your only option, it’s best to fly to one of the nearest major cities (Busan or Daegu) which will be easy to get to Gyeongju from there. If you’re willing to fly within the country the closest airport can be found in Pohang, and a 30-minute bus to the Gyeongju. Being that it’s a small airport, tickets aren’t the cheapest.
Gyeongju does have a train station, where regular trains arriving from all the major cities. However, these trains for the most part go via Daegu and will require a transfer.
This predictably would be the cheapest option, and all round the best. From the two closest major cities (Busan and Daegu), the distance is about an hour, which actually ends up half as long as the train. The bus stations are also found directly in the middle of the cities, therefore very practical.
Some more examples:
Seoul – £14-21 – 3hrs 30mins
Daegu – £2-4 – 50mins
Busan – £6 – 1hr
Ulsan – £4 – 1hr
When travelling around the city is concerned, your options are limit yet incredibly efficient. There are essentially two main areas where Gyeongju’s attractions can be found; within the city and towards the coast.
For the attractions within the city, transport shouldn’t be an issue. Everything is within a comfortable walking distance from each other and very easily found. To make it even easier, there are also several vendors that rent bikes for the day to allow an even easier inner-city scout.
The rest of the attractions are scattered towards the coast, which initially appears daunting trying to figure out which buses to take. Problem solved, a single bus (number 150) passes practically every attraction worth seeing up until the coast, and all the way back. This can be caught from Gyeongju Intercity Bus Station or any of the bus stops along the main road through the city. Essentially in a single day by hopping on-and-off the same bus, you’ll be able to visit each attraction.
Bearing in mind that despite its powerful ancient past, it’s a very modestly sized city, without the enormous metropolis infrastructure found in other cities across the country. Thus, the selection of cheap accommodation is limited.
Hostel World only has 3 hostels on offer, all close to the city centre and relatively cheap compared to Korean standards at less than £10. Alternatively there are a fair number of hotels available both within the city itself and spread towards the coast. The cheapest single rooms start at £20 for guesthouses and such, and keeps on rising.
There are a number of different experiences available of both traditional Gyeongju style restaurants, as well as those presenting some examples of past dynasty’s cuisine. There is also a restaurant which offers typical Korean temple cuisine, all of which prepared with ingredients from the local mountains. The city also has its own unique snack; known as Gyeongju Pang; bread made from red beans.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.