Gyeongju, in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang province, isn't as famous a destination as Seoul, Jeju island or even the Seorak-san national park, though still a major must-see when traveling to South Korea. Don’t miss out on this cultural jewel! Its rich history and four UNESCO world heritage sites conferred to this humble city the nickname of "the museum without walls.
The Silla stamp
As the capital of the Silla Kingdom for nearly a thousand years (57 BC – 935 AD), Gyeongju has been able to conserve many traces of its glorious past. The cultural heritage of Silla is present everywhere for who can open its eyes. But the best place to probably start your journey would be Gyeongju National Museum. Home to over 16,000 artifacts, this beautifully planned museum has been founded in 1945. Encircled by cultural treasures, the museum acts as both the storehouse and the centerpiece for these perpetual and precious historical landmarks. You can admire a vast range of treasures found in fortresses, palaces and historical remains: prehistoric potteries, the gold crowns of Silla, Korean Buddhist art or usual objects which now provide us simple testimonies of the time. The museum's garden, extending some 74,000m2, is used for displaying outdoor exhibits, including stone Stupas, Buddha statues, lanterns and other stone sculptures from temple and palace ruins in the Gyeongju area. The outdoor space also includes the three-story stone Stupa from the Goseonsa Temple Site and the famous Bell of King Seongdeok. The visit will give you enough cultural background to grasp a better understanding of all the jewels surrounding you and that you will later thoroughly check out of your to-do list.
A UNESCO yard-sale
Gyeongju concentrates four of Korea's UNESCO world heritage sites. Three of them belong to the Silla dynasty of which Gyeongju was the epicenter throughout 56 different reigns. You will need at least two days to claim them all.
In 1995, Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple were the first ones to be included in the UNESCO world heritage list. Bulguksa, which name means "Temple of the Buddha Land", has been built between 528 and 751 on the slopes of mount Toham Mountain, within Gyeongju National Park. It is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and hosts on its grounds seven National treasures of South Korea, in particular Dabotap and Seokgatap stone pagodas.
Seokguram, which is located four kilometers to the east, is a magnificent example of Buddhist art. The 3.5 meter high Buddha statue nestled in the richly decorated grotto is surrounded by a mystical aura. Its vision is truly breathtaking, and not only because the hike up there will get your windpipes going.
In 2000, the whole Gyeongju territory has been registered by UNESCO as Gyeongju Historical Heritage Region, with the notable exceptions of the previously registered sites. The Gyeongju Historic Area has a total of 52 designated cultural assets that are registered as World Cultural Heritages. You will find among them Namsan Mountain, home to several important artifacts; and the former Silla Royal palace. My favorite though is Daereungwon Tomb complex, or Tumuli park. Those underground tombs, reserved to the rulers of Silla, look like regular grass hills from a distance but those upside-down pyramids honored and guarded the bodies of the generals and members of the royal family, and their treasures. And they had nothing to envy to the Egyptian pharaohs.
The last one to join in 2010 the array of cultural treasures is Yangdong Folk Village. A beautifully preserved testimony of the Korean aristocracy lifestyle and Neo-Confucian traditions of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), this traditional village is located in Gangdong-myeon, 16 km northeast of Gyeongju.
Don’t forget the folklore
The cultural appeal of the Gyeongju area doesn't stop at its countless artifacts. The best way to digest everything you have seen will certainly be to indulge in some local delicacies. The most remarkable one is without a doubt the Hwangnam bread. This bun filled with red bean paste is famous nationwide and many bakery shops scattered around town will sell you the chrysanthemum marked pastry.
Apart from this lovable treat, you can also savor some traditional Korean meal with the spicy and salty flavor profile of the local cuisine. You can try ssambap, a rice dish served with vegetable leaves, various small side dishes and condiments. And to quench your thirst, sip on some beopju, a traditional Korean rice liquor.
As for resting your tired feet (and full stomach), I strongly recommend you to stay in a Hanok, a traditional Korean house. Those hundred years old accommodations have been renovated through a governmental program while keeping their authentic charm with old furniture and paper-pasted windows. Some of the Hanok homes also offer activities for foreigners who want to learn about Korean culture, such as tea ceremony or folks games. In Gyeongju, I suggest Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, a cute, centrally located and inexpensive way to sleep the Korean way.
How to go there?
When coming from Seoul or Busan, don't take the very slow train to head to Gyeongju. Your destination is well serviced by intra-city buses. Service from Daegu, Pohang, and Busan (depending on terminal) leaves at least every twenty minutes, and every 40 minutes between Gyeongju and Seoul. The journey will take you around 4 hours from the Korean capital.