“Beautiful Gyeongju” is the most historical city in Korea. It was the capital of the Silla Dynasty (57BC-935AD), one of the longest sustained dynasties in the world. Therefore, you can only imagine the amount of tradition soaking the streets, history that is steeped, and culture that has curved the city into a fascinating representation of Korea, it’s historic past and it’s charming present.
“it is like stepping back in time, as you walk through temple sites dating back hundreds of years that are still standing proudly today”
Much like Kyoto in Japan, Gyeongju has remained traditional in its architecture and customs, and has emphasized the historical significance of the city and surrounding areas as the it’s main attraction. There are numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including temples, shrines, tombs and national treasures to uncover and capture your imagination. It is like stepping back in time, as you walk through temple sites dating back hundreds of years that are still standing proudly today, with impressive artistry and architectural design. The serenity of its sacred sites and alluring treasures scattered throughout the city will stay with you, and you’ll always remember the heart of Korea, as it leaves a mark on yours.
Bulguksa Temple Complex and Seokguram Grotto are prime examples of these stunning sites that represent Gyeongju as national treasures. These enchanting ancient Buddhist Temple sites nestled through Tohamsan mountain are both designated Unesco World Heritage Sites – Bulguksa is the representative relic of Gyeongju, built in 528 AD while Seokguram Grotto being the representative stone of Korea, built in 751 A.D (the stone temple site made of granite took 24 years to complete). Both are internationally renowned as they exemplify some of the best Buddhist artistic beauty in the world, as well as impressive stature. These temples certainly justify the title Gyeongju has earned as the most historic city in Korea.
Other striking characteristics that shape Gyeongju into the fascinating city we see today include the oldest star observatory in the world, Cheomseongdae (which translates to star gazing tower in Korean). It was built in the 7th century of the Silla Dynasty and the 9meter tall tower is still standing tall today. Yangdong Folk Village is the largest traditional village in Korea, and this Unesco World Heritage Site is located just outside the city. With about 160 traditional houses – some with 500year old thatched roof cottages, beautiful scenic surroundings and an excellent representation of the Joseon Dynasty, it’s full of character and charm.
There are copious amounts of tombs not only nestled throughout the mountains, outskirts and contiguous districts but also in the heart of the city. As you walk past Starbucks (one of the MANY franchises in Korea) you’ll casually be greeted by another tomb, towering over you in impressive importance yet so informally perched in your vicinity, you almost become desensitised to the significance of them (dare I say).
“thousands of extravagant accessories and ancient artifacts depicting a very lavish lifestyle of the King and Queen”
For a breathtaking view of the tombs in style, and for the chance to actually step inside one of them, you can visit Daerengwon Tomb Complex, that has 23 tombs scattered throughout the magnificent park. With many royals and nobles buried inside these tombs, you may even enter Cheonmachong which is a tomb that has been excavated showcasing thousands of extravagant accessories and ancient artifacts depicting a very lavish lifestyle of the King and Queen during the Silla Dynasty.
These are a few memorable features at your fingertips as Gyeongju welcomes you to its mountainous land. It’s a perfect place for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts to visit, and you could spend weeks climbing mountains and exploring the countryside and farmland. It’s such a beautiful site to get lost in the outskirts of the city, without a car in sight, sirens stinging the air or concrete dullness consuming your view.
With fluffy green hilltops towering over you, as well as miles of flat fields growing crops – it’s a meditative wander in the wilderness and majestic countryside of Korea. Local farmers will wave as you cycle past, fascinated by a foreigner which is always enchanting. It’s an incredibly large world we live in, and it’s astounding how often you’ll find people thunderstruck with an encounter of a foreigner. It brings you back to the reality that we are all living our lives the best we can, through what we know and how we know it. Be humble on your journey appreciate it, and share it with others. Take full advantage of these alluring qualities of country life in Gyeongju, and enjoy the other side of the city.
Gyeongju is a tourist city, and although it’s no where near the metropolitan hubs of its neighbouring counterparts such as Deagu, Busan and even the coastal city of Pohang, it has many qualities that trump skyscrapers and subway stations in my opinion. There are so many traditional restaurants to choose from, you won’t have a choice but to enjoy local delicacies and taste the culture of Korea while in Gyeongju.
You also won’t be stuck for choice, whatever district you step into, you will leave with a satisfying taste in your mouth, and a food baby in your belly. Bibimbap, (rice dish) jjigae (stew) dak galbi (stir fried chicken) and samgyeopsal (bbq pork) are amongst my favourites. Korean dining is made for groups, so make sure to bring your friends with you to rotate the cooking tongs and pass the beer. If you’re travelling alone just grab someone off the street I’m sure they’d only love to cook and discuss the daily world topics and Taylor Swifts new sauce with you!
The best part of dining out in Korea is the limitless amount of side dishes that compliment the meal, which you can refill as you please. Making the meal on the table yourself is also an enjoyable aspect of Korean eateries, some find it effort where I find it atmospheric.
What better way to create an open and friendly ambience than to get stuck in and cook up a storm. Not only does it keep you busy, it occupies your mind while your hungry stomach yearns for the food on the table. The fusion of flavours, smells and colours in front of you always makes for a memorable meal. What’s interesting about Korean courses is that desserts aren’t very common, rather another course of savoury food generally including rice with eggs, soup or noodles. You end up craving some Dwen Jang Jjigae after your meal instead of ice cream!
If sea salt and a beach breeze is what you’re looking for, just outside the city you can even visit the seaside village of Gampo. It’s a beautiful place to get away from the city centre, get a bit of fresh crab and conversation with the locals. There is an annual crab festival here at the beginning of the year that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the area, and a fan of seafood.
“strips away the flashing, fast paced aspects of everyday life”
If you’re interested in learning about Buddhism, and experiencing the tradition of temples in a more intense and captivating manner, you can sign up for a temple stay and enjoy all aspects of temple life, for as long as you wish. Golgulsa Temple is a perfect place to get in touch with your spiritual side, and enjoy the scenery of the mountain it is situated on.
Go back in time and live a simplistic lifestyle, even just for the night. Rise at dawn, with early morning chanting accompanied by monks, meditate and take in the profound stillness of sitting. Watch the sunrise as you become aware of the beauty around you, refresh and recharge. It’s an experience that strips away the flashing, fast paced aspects of everyday life. It draws you back, and slows you down as you refocus your perspective, attitude and intentions. A breathtaking break away that I think everyone of us could do with, and what better place to do it than in the most historic city in Korea.
These are the eclectic qualities of Gyeongju that come to mind at first thought, and they only tip the iceberg. It’s the most historic place in Korea, and one of the most beautiful. You need to explore the importance of it’s past if travelling through Korea, and Gyeongju is where you’ll find it. The people are eager to meet you, the mountains await you and the serenity of the city is there for the taking. There is so much to learn from and you will leave with a better understanding of not only Korea, but of traditional customs, belief systems, artwork, philosophy and therefore life as we know it.
Useful links while travelling Gyeongju:
- This company offers a very reasonable bus tour of the city; Gyeongju City Bus Tour
- Gyeongju Lonely Planet
- Visit Korea; Gyeongju
- Wiki Travel; Gyeongju
- Tripadviser; Top 10 Activities in Gyeongju
Check out my video on Gyeongju to get a taste of the “Museum without Walls” here.