When you ask Koreans which place you should visit if you’re interested in their country’s history, they would unanimously tell you to go to Gyeongju, located in North Gyeongsang Province.
Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Dynasty which ruled the Korean Peninsula more than 2,000 years ago. Then called Seorabeol, it was the center of political and cultural life in the peninsula and home of beautiful Korean Buddhist art originating from Korea’s earliest history. Because of this, the ancient history, art, and artifacts of Gyeongju are distinct from the Joseon heritage that we usually see and experience in Seoul.
If you’re looking to get out of the city and experience another facet of South Korea, Gyeongju is definitely the place to go. The Historic Areas is listed in UNESCO World Heritage List and the entire city feels like an outdoor museum.
I’ve been to this city several times and I haven’t ran out of things to see. Even my tween son enjoyed our day trip here. So it’s definitely a place for everyone, not just for history buffs.
It’s also a great place to visit in any of Korea’s four seasons.
How to get to Gyeongju
The easiest and most convenient way to get to Gyeongju from Seoul is by KTX, Korea’s high-speed train. Although there are trains from other stations within Seoul, Seoul Station (서울역) has trips almost every couple of hours starting as early as 5:30 a.m.
The KTX stop for Gyeongju is Singyeongju Station (신경주역). Tickets cost 49,300 for adults and 24,600 for children. The trip takes 2 hours.
TIP: In Singyeongju Station, make sure to get maps available at Travel Center located in the lobby.
To get to the tourist sites, you can take the bus or take a cab. If you’re going to take the bus, make sure to be at the stop within 10 minutes from the time you arrive.
Bus 700, which stops on many of the main tourist areas, is timed to arrive in Singyeongju Station minutes after the arrival of the KTX. If you miss it, you have to wait another hour in time for the arrival of the next KTX.
Another TIP: If you’re planning on going to Gyeongju during Korean holidays (Chuseok and Seollal), be sure to buy round trip KTX tickets ahead of time.
I don’t really recommend travelling to Gyeongju in a bus because the trip can take from 5 hours or more. Last time I went there with my son during a Korean holiday, we were forced to take the bus back home to Seoul. The trip took more than 8 hours!
Places to see in Gyeongju
Gyeongju’s sites can be roughly divided into 5 areas:
- Gyeongju Daereungwon Ancient Tomb Complex which is in the middle of the city
- Gyeongju Namsan Region for those who have more time and those interested in hiking
- Bulguksa Temple and surrounding areas, UNESCO World Cultural Asset and home to several Korean National Treasures
- Yangdong traditional village
- Bomun Tourist Complex, which has the more family, kid-friendly tourist areas including a water park
If you only have 1 or 2 days to spend in Gyeongju, I suggest that you concentrate on the Ancient Tomb Complex area.
At the most, you can squeeze in a trip to Bulguksa Temple or Yangdong Village, stay there for around an hour, and then visit the Ancient Tomb Complex. But doing this requires arriving in Gyeongju early in the day and advanced planning on your part.
If you can, plan to stay in Gyeongju until after dark (but before the last KTX leaves) to see the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (the Wolji Pond is located within the Donggung Palace grounds) AND Cheomseongdae Observatory at night. These sites are exceptionally beautiful when the lights are up.
This guide talks about the first three areas (Daereungwon, Bulguksa, and Namsan) because these are the places I have been to.
GYEONGJU DAEREUNGWON ANCIENT TOMB COMPLEX
As I mentioned above, if your time in Gyeongju is limited, I highly suggest that you spend most of it here. Even if you spend your entire day in the Ancient Tomb Complex, you would’ve already seen a lot.
The sites in this cluster are within walking distance or a short bus or taxi ride away from each other.
Plus, this complex is located near the city center and the Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal and the Intercity Bus Terminal. So in case you’re forced to take the bus for some reason, the buses to Seoul or Busan are only within 5-10 minutes away.
This place is super fun, even if you bring kids with you. You can rent bikes of tuk-tuk style bikes that you can drive around the tomb complex, which is also a great way to go around. It is also the perfect place to wear hanbok (Korean traditional dress) and stage photo shoots.
How to get here
From the Singyeonju Station, you can take buses 10,11, or 700.
If taking bus 10 or 11, get off at Gyeongju National Museum. If taking Bus 700, get off at Anapji Pond stop.
What you will see here
These are my suggested places to visit and not an exhaustive list all sites in the Ancient Tomb Complex. Gyeongju is so full of ancient archeological sites that you need to get the booklet from the Gyeongju Toursim Center for the complete list.
These places are within walking distance from each other and can be seen in half a day. You can start your tour with Daereungwon/Cheonmachong and finish the day at the Donggung Palace.
Daereungwon/Cheonmachong Ancient Tombs
A complex consists of 23 ancient tombs including the famous Cheonmachong Tomb. The Cheonmachong has been turned into a museum and recently underwent a renovation. Visitors are allowed to enter the tomb and learn about ancient burial customs of the Silla people.
The surrounding park features several giant burial mounds of various Silla dignitaries. This is a very beautiful place to just relax and take photos in, especially during spring and fall.
The observatory is not really that high by modern standards but it is the oldest surviving astronomical structure in East Asia, built during the reign of Queen Seondeok, the Silla Dynasty’s and Korea’s first reigning queen.
The area surrounding the observatory and the park going all the way to the Wolseong Fortress used to be a famous magical forest called Gyerim. Nowadays, this is where most visitor hold picnics, ride bikes, and do photo shoots while wearing hanbok.
There are a lot hanbok rentals shops around this area (although personally, I think wearing hanbok in a Silla site is anachronistic since hanbok were popular during the later Joseon era.)
This fortress was the location of the royal palace of the Silla Dynasty. Right now there it is the site of an active archeological dig and although no trace of the royal place is left except for one ice storage structure made of stone, this is an interesting place to visit.
There is a viewing deck for tourists who want to see the site (people can’t walk where archeologists are digging), with displays about the fortress in different languages.
There is also a free film-showing on the history of the city of Gyeongju and the Silla Dynasty at small building at the bottom of the hill near the snack stands. Just enter the building and tell the nice attendant that you want to watch the free film and they’ll play it for you.
Gyeongju National Museum
Around 5 minutes away from the Wolseong Fortress and 10 minutes away from the Cheomseongdae Observatory is the Gyeongju National Museum. Entrance is free.
The museum displays over 3,000 relics from the Silla Dynasty excavated around Gyeongju. Going around here can easily take up to a couple of hours.
Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond
The Donggung Palace was a secondary palace (the main one was on the Wolseong Fortress) of the Silla royals. It was the residence of the Silla Crown Prince, who decorated the place with an artificial pond based on Taoist principles. The current site is a careful restoration of the original as the place fell into disrepair after the fall of Silla more than a thousand years ago. A visit at nighttime is a must.
Bulguksa Temple was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Asset in 1995. It is one of the most important and iconic temples in Korea since it is the head temple of Korea’s Jogye Order and is considered a masterpiece of the golden age of Silla art and Korean Buddhism.
The entire temple was burnt during the Imjin War in 1593 when the Japanese tried to invade China by way of Korea, but was completely restored during 1969-1973 after thorough research, investigations, and excavations of the ancient temple site.
The complex contains seven Korean National Treasures including the Seokgatap and Dabotab pagodas, the Yeonhwagyo and Cheongyungyo bridges, Anyangmun gate, the seated gilt bronze Amitabha statue enshrined in the Geuknakjeon hall, and the seated gilt bronze Vairocana statue in the Birojeon. All these works and other Buddhist relics attest to the flowering of Buddhist art and culture of Silla.
Visitors can also participate in a templestay program. Details found here.
How to get here
From Singyeongju Station, take Bus 700.
The bus arrives every hours, so make sure that you are nthe bus stop within 10 minutes of arriving in Singyeongju Station. If you miss the bus, you need to wait for another hour or take a cab (which can get reaaaaaally expensive).
The trip from the KTX station to Bulguksa Temple is around an hour.
GYEONGJU NAMSAN REGION
If you have plenty of time to spend in Gyeongju and want to get off the beaten path, you should check out Namsan. If you’re a Buddhist, you should definitely visit!
If you’ve spent time in Korea or know a even a little Hangeul, you’d notice that there are several places called Namsan. Namsan just means south mountain. Many of the sites in Namsan figure in old Korean stories and folk tales. It’s a very interesting place; most of the people that go here are locals tourist.
There a lot of things to see in Namsan. One free pamphlet says that exploring the entire mountain range can be a lifelong task. It contains approximately 13 royal tombs, 150 temple sites, 130 stone Buddha statues and carvings, 22 stone lanterns, and four mountain fortresses, with many more relics waiting to be discovered.
If you’re a Buddhist or are interested in Buddhism, there are 4 places where you can see rock-carved images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The trails leading to these carvings are popular for hikers of all skill levels. But, your challenge as a foreign tourist is finding the entrance to the hiking trails, since these can hard to find if you take the bus.
So if you’re planning on seeing any of the 4 carvings, I suggest you take a cab.
TIP: Even though there English language guide from the Tourism Office, still be careful and don’t follow the instructions blindly. Use your judgment when hiking the trails and make sure you’re wearing proper hiking shoes.
Besides looking for the rock-carved Buddha, here are two sites that you may want to visit:
Tongiljeon or Unification Hall was originally built to commemorate the accomplishments the Silla leaders King Muyeol and King Munmu (Muyeol’s son) and the famous General Kim Yushin.
These leaders were instrumental in the unification of Korea’s three kingdoms under the Silla Dynasty. So it’s kind of a big deal.
The hall is located on top of a hill, so there’s a bit of a hike. Before getting to the hall, visitors will pass through a beautiful park with a man-made lake. Upon reaching the hall, visitors will see the portraits of the three heroes overlook Gyeongju.
To get here, take Buss 10 and get off Tongiljeon (통일전) stop.
Seochulji is only around 5 minutes walk away from Tongiljeon and a great place to enjoy the quiet and the view. This is also the start of a trail going up one of the mountains of Namsan.
Seochulji Pond is the location of a Korean folk tale, which goes like this:
In the 10th year of King Soji (488CE, it was said) of Silla, a crow and a mouse approached the king while he was on his way to Namsan. The mouse told the King to “follow after the crow” for an easy journey. The King and his servant (who was traveling with him) followed the crow, but became distracted and lost their way. As they were wandering about a pond (now known as Seochulji), an old man appeared from the waters’ depths and presented an envelope to the King. Based on the message in the envelope, the King instructed his servant to fire an arrow at the Geomungo (Korean musical instrument) case nearby. The shot killed the queen and a monk who had been hiding there, both of whom had been hatching a plot against the King.
So… the king caught his wife cheating on him with a monk.
One entertaining way to spend time here is by walking around the pond and reading the markers telling the story.
Seochulji is probably best visited in seasons other than winter, although the dead and wilting lotus plants had their own certain charm, especially with ducks swimming about on the shallow water. It’s very picturesque.
There are free Namsan guided tours every Sunday starting at 9:30 a.m., which can be booking by going to this website (in Korean).
There are also hanoks in the area near Seochulji Pond and the Tongiljeon, should you want to stay near Namsan.
When is the Best Time to Visit in Gyeongju?
I’ve been there in different seasons and I can say that Gyeongju is beautiful year-round.
Of course, the entire country is beautiful during spring and fall so going to Gyeongju during these two seasons will give you amazing photo-taking opportunities.
But… there are less people there during winter, which makes traveling more enjoyable.
If you’re a person who likes attending festivals, here are the schedule festivals they have in Gyeongju:
- Cherry Marathon Saturday, every April
- Moonlight of Shilla 66km Walking Festival, every October
- Silla Cultural Festival, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the 2nd week of October
Where to stay in Gyeongju
Every time I have the opportunity to go outside Seoul, I always make sure that I stay in a hanok as much as possible (except when travelling for work :)).
A hanok is a traditional Korean house made of wood and with floor heating. A lot of people might be afraid of staying in hanok during winter thinking that it will be cold but in my experience, there is more than sufficient heating and sleeping on a traditional mattress on the floor is very comfortable. Modern hanok are also outfitted with modern bathrooms and water heaters.
There’s nothing more enjoyable than exploring the traditional side of South Korea and relaxing in a traditional house at the end of the day.
During my last overnight stay in Gyeongju, I booked Raon Guesthouse through booking.com. Raon Guesthouse is very conveniently located near the Daereungwon Ancient Tomb Complex and Cheomseongdae Observatory. There are a lot of places to eat around Raon and there is a bus stop a short walk away.
Have you been to Korea before/have been in Korea a long time but have never been to Gyeongju? You should totally visit this amazing city that feels like an outdoor museum!