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Asia,  Gyeongju,  South Korea

The Ultimate Travel Itinerary: Gyeongju in 2 Days

While most travellers head toward the bright neon lights of Seoul or Busan, a little gem hides between the rugged mountains and the cold embrace of the Korean Strait. Gyeongju – the city which resonates with the echoes of the Silla Kingdom.

Few destinations on the Korean peninsula hold as much history and significance as this miniature city.

Ancient temples and royal tombs stand amongst the cobblestone streets and traditional hanok houses, bringing you back to the heyday of a once mighty empire. Gyeongju is not just a destination; it’s a living museum preserving the essence of Korea’s past for generations to come.

So in that case, let me show you the perfect 2-day itinerary to help you get the most out of Gyeongju!

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One day of your Gyeongju itinerary should be dedicated to visiting all the sites outside of the city itself. Conveniently, many of the area’s greatest treasures are all found practically along one straight line towards the coast.

gyeongju itinerary
Gyeongju Tower

Start off your Gyeongju itinerary with a modern talisman to the city’s greatness. Standing just on the outskirts of the city, Gyeongju Tower is a shining example of modern Korean architecture while giving a humble nod to its historic past. Though it may be an impractical design, it’s a beautiful show of architectural skill.

The park where the tower stands also plays host to a number of yearly expos on everything from traditional Korean culture to tech conventions. On top of that, the tower has its own observation deck, which is absolutely free!

gyeongju itinerary
Bulguksa Temple

South Korea has a unique system of numbering national treasures, and Bulguksa Temple is placed firmly at number one. In a country of many fascinating temples, this is easily the most significant of all.

Built over a thousand years ago in 528, it was built to celebrate the reign of King Gyeongdeok, 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, giving the temple an authentic touch.

This priceless national relic has even more treats hidden inside. You’ll cross two in the form of Cheongungyo Bridge and Baegungyo Bridge. By far the most recognisable artefacts are the Dabotap and Seokgatap Pagodas. Whilst the latter was being restored in 1966, the world’s oldest wood print book was found inside!

Seokguram Grotto. Photo by american_rugbier on Flickr

Barely a stone’s throw away from Bulguksa Temple is yet another UNESCO Site built during the same period of history. Nestled in the shadows of Toham Mountain, Seokguram Grotto is a temple made entirely of stone! And just like its bigger neighbour, it also boasts some incredible history.

It’s yet another thousand-year-old temple built under King Gyeongdeok’s reign during the Silla Kingdom’s height. While Bulguksa Temple was built for the King’s parents in his current life, Seokguram Grotto was dedicated to the parents of his former life.

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 in 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 the time.

The dark halls of Golgulsa Temple. Photo by Jirka Matousek on Flickr

By now it’s pretty clear that Gyeongju isn’t short of some incredible temples to add to your itinerary, and here’s one more for you! Golgulsa Temple is yet another temple completely made of stone. However, the temple is unique in the fact it’s carved right into Mount Hamwolsan, making it the only temple cave in Korea.

The whole complex is made up of 12 caves which hold rock-carved sculptures of various monks and deities. Just like with most temples built during this period, most figures face the ocean as even more protection against the land of the rising sun.

Golgulsa is also one of the many temples in Korea which offers training programs and temple stays for tourists. So if you ever wanted to know what temple life is really like, this is your chance!

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gyeongju itinerary
The relics of Gameunsaji Temple

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 (we’ll get to him again later) for Buddha’s protection and guidance. Against whom I hear you ask? Who else but those troublesome Japanese again! Its coastal location played a big part in protecting Korea from a possible (and eventual) invasion from across the ocean.

Even though it’s one of the earliest remnants of the Silla Kingdom, sadly, there’s little left. The few remaining foundations and a pair of restored pagodas still make for an awe-inspiring view before the backdrop of the valleys.

gyeongju itinerary
The rocky Tomb of Emperor Munmu

Though it looks like an unassuming pile of rocks, this happens to be 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.

The Emperor himself actually picked out this peculiar tomb placed just a stone’s throw away from the beaches of Bonggil-ri. He believed that in his afterlife, he would become a dragon that would protect the Silla Kingdom from the ever-so-pesky Japanese.

You can spend the last day of your Gyeongju itinerary much closer to the city itself. This day should be dedicated to exploring the wonderful sites scattered just on the rim of the city limits.

The peaks of Namsan Mountain. Photo by theaucitron on Flickr

Surrounding Gyeongju on all sides are some of the most beautiful rolling mountain ranges in Korea. Of these peaks, one is considered most 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.

Woljeonggyo Bridge. Photo by Xiquinho Silva on Flickr

This stunning bridge is yet more evidence of the once-prominent Silla Kingdom. Though it was originally built in 760, the bridge was sadly destroyed. However, excavating the river allowed researchers to reconstruct the bridge in 2018 after finding pieces of the original stonework.

Once it was finished, it became the largest wooden bridge in Korea! For the best views, make sure to visit as dusk falls or when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

The traditional houses of Gyochon Hanok Village. Photo by Christophe95CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gyeongju is a city built around the mighty Silla Kingdom and still lives in the echoes of its ever-lasting heritage. Luckily, there’s a perfect place to see exactly what thing were like back then!

Gyochon Hanok Village is like a time machine taking you back to old-school Korea. It’s packed with these traditional Korean houses called hanoks that are made from wood and clay. This village is said to be the birthplace of a Silla-era princess and, more significantly of all, it’s the birthplace of bibimbap!

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gyeongju itinerary
Wolji Pond

While walking along the edges of koi-filled ponds and through forests that were once full of frolicking deer, it’s easy to see how this was the perfect place for an Emperor to kick back and relax. Dongguang Palace 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 welcomed 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 enjoyed.

Gyeongju National Museum. Photo by martinroell, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The intimidating figure of the Gyeongju National Museum stands as a grand representation of the area’s royal heritage. The museum highlights both the fascinating history of Gyeongju and the Silla Kingdom as a whole through a number of incredible exhibitions.

Not only does it house relics from that rich period of history, but it also continues to research its ever-evolving past. You can even see some excavation sites around the museum itself!

gyeongju itinerary
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. It then played a part in determining equinoxes and seasonal solstices, which were some of the earliest forms of cosmology.

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gyeongju itinerary
The stone pagodas of Bunhwangsa Temple

Despite being oversaturated with ancient temples and tombs, Bunhwangsa has a unique quality to it. The temple has the oldest pagoda in all of Korea which stands proudly in the middle of the compound. On top of that, its completely built from stone!

The temple happens to be in a very historic area. The now empty field next door once had a gigantic temple/palace being built on it, but was sadly destroyed before its completion. For once, the attack can’t be blamed on the Japanese, this time it was the even more dominating Mongolians!

gyeongju itinerary
Tombs of the Silla Kingdom

It’s clear to see that Gyeongju is all about its history, and there are few sites more significant than this one to add to your itinerary. These simple-looking mounds of earth may not seem like much, 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 are 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.

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!

A busy day at Seongdong Market Photo by riNux on Flickr

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 Gyeongju’s history. It’s the perfect place to wrap up your Gyeongju itinerary.

Thank You for Reading! Check Out These Other Helpful Links!

Thank you so much for reading The Ultimate Travel Itinerary: 2 Days in Gyeongju! Check out these other helpful articles! See you next time!

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