Korea has an incredibly diverse and turbulent history of nation conquering Emperors and undeniable foreign influence. As a result, the peninsula has a spectacular culture that stems from its ancient kingdoms. Across both the north and south, there are few destinations that highlights the immense amount of history that the ancient capital of Gyeongju provides!
From thousand-year-old temples to watery royal tombs and dynastic relics, the city is an open-air encyclopedia of Korea’s incredible past and the glory of the former Silla Kingdom! So let me guide you through some of the best highlights in the ancient capital Gyeongju.
Table of Contents
1. Bulguksa Temple
Let’s start off with the biggest of highlights in Gyeongju! In South Korea’s system of numbering national treasures, Bulguksa Temple is placed firmly at number one, and for good reason! In a country of many fascinating temples, this is easily the most important.
Built over a thousand years ago in 528, it was built as a celebration of King Gyeongdeok’s reign, the man who unified the Korean peninsula, during the height of the Silla Kingdom. Since then this UNESCO world heritage site has seen little restoration which gives the temple an incredibly authentic feel.
Not only is the temple itself a nationally important relic, but there are plenty more inside! Upon entering you’ll be crossing two of them in the form of Cheongungyo bridge and Baegungyo bridge. The most recognisable of relics are the Dabotap and Seokgatap Pagodas. Whilst the latter was being restored in 1966, the world’s oldest wood print book was discovered inside!
2. Dongguang Palace and Wolji Pond
While walking around the koi filled ponds and forests that were once full of frolicking deer, it becomes pretty clear how this was the perfect place for an Emperor to kick back and relax. Dongguang was not only used as a secondary palace during the Silla Kingdom, but it also played host to banquets that celebrated important national events and welcoming notable visitors.
Translated as “a pond that reflects the moon”, the palace’s name was found carved into a piece of pottery that was excavated at the site. Though only a few of the palace’s former structures have been recovered and reconstructed, the pond itself is practically identical to what passed Emperors would have also gazed at.
3. Seokguram Grotto
Barely a stone’s throw away from Bulguksa Temple is yet another UNESCO Site that was built during the same period of history! Located right along the edge of Toham Mountain, Seokguram Grotto is a temple made entirely of stone! And just like its bigger neighbour, it also boasts some incredible history!
This was yet another thousand-year-old temple built under the reign of King Gyeongdeok during the height of the Silla Kingdom in 751. While Bulguksa Temple was said to be built for the King’s parents in his current life, Seokguram Grotto was dedicated to the parents of his former life. What a sweet boy!
From the outside, it may not look like much, though hidden down a dark chamber is one of the greatest masterpieces of Buddhist art and architecture anywhere in the world! Deep within lays a figure of Bodhisattva sitting on a circular chamber beneath and surrounded by his disciples. The figure was also made to face east, to protect Korea from the pesky Japanese invaders, a common fear during this time.
4. Golgulsa Temple
By now it’s pretty clear that Gyeongju isn’t short of some incredible temples, and this is yet another one of the best highlights! Golgulsa Temple shares a lot of similarities with Seokguram Grotto as it’s completely made of stone. However, the temple is unique in the fact it’s carved right into Mount Hamwolsan! This makes Golgulsa the only temple cave in Korea!
A total of 12 caves at the foot of the mountain play host to rock-carved sculptures of various monks and deities. Just like with most temples built during this period, most figures face towards the ocean, to yet again protect Korea from the land of the rising sun.
Golgulsa is also one of the many temples in Korea which offers training programs and templestays for tourists! So if you ever wanted to know what temple life is really like, this is your chance!
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5. Tumuli-gongwon (Tombs of the Silla Kingdom)
It’s safe to say that Gyeongju is all about its history, and there are few sites more significant than this one! These simple-looking mounds of earth may not seem like much, if anything they fit right into the area’s surrounding landscape, but you couldn’t be more wrong. These mounds make up the final resting place of 23 of the Silla Kingdoms’ finest Emperors and family members.
Of all these tombs, only one is open to the public. Inside the 5th century tomb is the remains of the coffin that once stood within and its decorative additions which include jade ornaments and weaponry. Other treasures found inside these tumuli are also on display in the nearby Gyeongju National Museum (more on that later!)
Oh, and as tempting as it might be to climb atop these mounds, it wouldn’t be very wise. You could spend up to 2 years in prison for it!
6. The Tomb of Emperor Munmu
If you didn’t know about the site beforehand, then you could easily miss this nationally important relic. This unassuming pile of rocks just a stone’s throw away from the beaches of Bonggil-ri is actually the final resting place of one of the nation’s most powerful rulers, Emperor Munmu.
He was the man responsible for unifying the three kingdoms and shaping the modern Korea that we know today. This strange tomb was actually picked out by the Emperor himself, as he believed that in his afterlife, he would become a dragon that would protect the Silla Kingdom from the ever so pesky Japanese.
The site actually leaves you with more questions than when you arrived. Is the body still there? How did they do it? Was the tomb carved into the stones? Can I be buried like this? Sadly, these questions will go unanswered. Certainly one of the strangest highlights in Gyeongju
7. Cheomeseongdae Observatory
Yet another relic of a once-mighty empire, Cheomeseongdae holds the title of the oldest surviving observatory in Asia, and possibly the entire world! Built between 632-646 AD, this simple-looking structure has a very deliberate design. The entire observatory is made up of 365 stacked stones that represent each day of the year. At its base, 12 stones symbolise each month and a total of 30 layers are used for the days of the month. Pretty clever!
Literally translated as “Observe the Stars Platform“, it was first used to predict upcoming weather. Over time it then played a part in determining equinoxes and seasonal solstices, which was some of the earliest forms of cosmology.
8. Mount Namsan
Surrounding Gyeongju on all sides are some of the most beautiful rolling mountain ranges in the country! Of these peaks, one is sacred above all others, Namsan Mountain. Even up here there is no escaping the historical and cultural influences of Buddhism! The mountain acts as a vast open-air museum filled with over 100 temple sites, 80 stone Buddhist statues, and 60 stone pagodas scattered across the mountainside.
Other historical landmarks are hidden amongst the peaks, such as Anapji Pond and Najeong Well, which is thought to be the mythic birthplace of King Hyeokgeose, the founder of the Silla Kingdom. Not too far from there is Poseokjeong Pavilion, which quite poetically was where the mighty era of the Silla Kingdom came to an end.
9. Woljeonggyo Bridge
Yet another throwback to the endlessly hyped Silla Kingdom, but there’s little wonder why with this one! There are a few bigger highlights than Woljeonggyo Bridge lighting up as dusk falls onto Gyeongju. Though it was originally built in 760, the bridge was sadly destroyed. However, an excavation in the river allowed researchers to reconstruct the bridge in 2018 after finding pieces of the original stonework.
After its completion, it became the largest wooden bridge in Korea! Yet another record that this city has earned! Be sure to visit during the spring to get the absolute best views of the cherry blossoms in full bloom!
10. Yangdong Village or Gyochon Hanok Village
Now that you’ve heard so much about the Silla Kingdom, what was it like living during that time? Well, you can find out for yourself at Yangdong Village and Gyochon Hanok Village!
Yangdong Village is not only Korea’s largest traditional village, but it has been home to the Wolseong Son family and the Yeogang Lee family for over 500 years! From its humble beginnings, Yangdong Village still oozes traditional Joseon culture with countless national treasures, folklore museums and approximately 160 houses that are over 500 years old! As such, this is rightly listed as yet another one of Gyeongju’s many UNESCO Sites.
Though Gyochon Hanok Village may be smaller it’s no less noteworthy! The village is home to the famous Choi Clan who have lived there for over 12 generations! The village was also the birthplace of the Silla Princess Yoseok. If history isn’t your thing, why not try the village’s famous Gyeongju traditional Beopju liquor, definitely one of the highlights!
11. Gyeongju Tower
You may be thankful to know this next one has nothing to do with the Silla Kingdom…kinda. Standing on the outskirts of the city, Gyeongju Tower is a shining example of modern Korean architecture while still giving a respectful nod to its notable past. Completely impractical and nothing more than a show of architectural skill, it’s still pretty mind-blowing!
It also acts as an observation tower, which is absolutely free! The park that it’s in also plays host to a number of yearly expos on everything from traditional Korean culture to tech conventions. But let’s face it, it’s worth a trip just for that view!
12. Gameunsaji Temple Site
Another temple?! You better believe it, but sadly not much remains with this one! Though the temple may be a shell of its former glory, it’s the historical significance of the site and the godly surroundings that make it worthwhile.
Gameunsaji Temple was originally built in the 7th century by King Munmu of the Silla Kingdom (the one in the watery tomb!) hoping for Buddha’s protection and guidance. Against who I hear you ask? Well if it isn’t those troublesome Japanese again! As the temple is so close to the coast, the hope was that it would protect Korea from a possible (and eventual) invasion from the other side of the ocean.
Even though it’s one of the earliest remnants of the Silla Kingdom, there’s very little left. However, the few remaining foundations and a pair of restored pagodas still make for an awe-inspiring view amongst the valleys.
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13. Bunhwangsa Temple
One last temple, I promise! This particular one sees far fewer visitors than any of the other ones and superficially has less to offer. Far gone are its glory days when it stood next to a once mighty palace. However, that’s not to say it doesn’t still have importance today!
The temple has the oldest pagoda in all of Korea which stands proud in the middle of the compound. Not only does it have the strange quality of being built from stone, but the intrinsically designed Buddhist guardians protecting each entrance and a stone lion on each corner are something to behold.
The temple happens to be in a very historic area. In the wheat field next door is the remains of a once-mighty temple/palace which was destroyed before its completion. For once, the attack can’t be blamed on the Japanese, this time it was the even more intimidating Mongolians! Too much history people!
14. Gyeongju National Museum
Across the wheat-filled field from Bunhwangsa Temple is the intimidating figure of Gyeongju National Museum. The museum highlights both the fascinating history of Gyeongju and the Silla Kingdom with some incredible exhibitions. Not only does it house relics from that rich period of history, but it also continues to research its past. You can see for yourself next door as they continue to excavate the area to this day!
15. Seongdong Market
No Korean trip is complete without a visit to a traditional market! This particular one is lined with vendors selling a mix of vegetables, fruit, meat and ready to eat snacks. With over 300 stores and 30 street vendors, it’s the perfect place to grab a bite to eat after a long day exploring history!