Often referred to as Korea’s "museum without walls," Gyeongju is an archeological and architectural wonderland, comprising more marvels from the Middle Ages than any other place in the country. Overwritten with an epic history that saw Gyeongju as the capital of the ancient Shilla kingdom from the 1st to the 10th centuries, it is worth taking a few days to explore the many tombs, temples and ruins of this UNESCO-protected site.
Spend a few days gawking at Gyeongju’s historical sites and you might just feel like you’ve travelled through time to an ancient era when Buddhist spiritualism and Shilla monarchs reigned supreme.
Visit ancient rulers
Gyeongju is home to some of the oldest and most magnificent tombs in Korea, an abundance of which can be found inside Tumuli Park. Here, scattered amongst the gardens, the burial mounds of the ancient Shilla rulers rise like rotund, grassy hillocks creating a rather bizarre and otherworldly landscape. Few specifics are known about the occupants of these tombs, but toward the back of the park, one mound has been excavated. Known as the Cheonmachong tomb, inside is an exposed cross section of the mound, as well as a sparkling collection of personal relics of a bygone ruler: jewellery, weapons and ceremonial artefacts dating back to the 5th century.
Gyeongju’s National Museum is an excellent spot to get a comprehensive overview of the vast cultural heritage that weaves its way through the region. Entire buildings have been dedicated to telling the history of single areas of Gyeongju which, along with temporary exhibitions, an art hall and the impressive collection of imperial relics and archaeological treasures, really brings to life the lives and legacy of those who lived, worked and ruled in the Shilla dynasty.
Have a spiritual experience
A short bus ride from the centre of town takes you up onto the slopes of Mount Tohamsan and to the sprawling site of Bulguk-sa. This highly elaborate Buddhist temple complex built in the 6th century is a true example of the opulence and craftsmanship of the time. Going early allows you to avoid the crowds and capture the spectacle of the resident Buddhist monks’ morning prayers at 10.30am. A nice spin on the typical souvenir stand here is a stall where you can inscribe a message or prayer on a roof tile, which will then be used in the construction of any new temples or pagodas. The 10,000 won pricetag gets recycled back into the temple.
Further up the mountain, nestled on Tohamsan’s forested peak is the Seokguram grotto, a cave temple housing the awe-inspiring Sakyamuni Buddha. A real feat of 8th century engineering, the Buddha sits resplendent at just under 4m tall, surrounded by a myriad of carved deities and guardians. Standing face-to-face with this zen giant offers some insight about why Buddhism remains integral in Korean culture. There are also amazing views over the East Sea from here; if you’re lucky, you may catch it as a dense mist cloaks the mountain, giving the whole place a feeling of mystical reverence.
Topping Gyeongju’s fascinating collection of museums and historical sites is Golgul-sa, a temple offering an immersive temple stay program, where you get a first-hand glimpse at the day-to-day of temple life, including morning chanting, meditation, tea ceremonies and community work. But the real allure of Golgul-sa is the chance to try sunmudo, a Korean martial art that synergises fighting techniques and meditation. Training is offered to those on the temple stay program, but daytrippers can catch 20-minute demonstrations everyday at 11am and 3.30pm on the temple grounds.
Explore the treasures of outdoors
Gyeongju’s landscape ranges from undulating lowland burial mounds to forested mountains. Feet itchy to get outside will find plenty of hiking trails lacing through the area’s national parks. Namsan Mountain is a great all-rounder, as it has tucked-away temples and stone Buddhas along trails that range from quick 3-hour hikes to full-day treks.
Scattered around Gyeongju’s city centre are numerous lakes, gardens and some smaller historical sites that are easily explored by bike. Bike rentals can be found all over and shouldn’t cost more than 12,000 to 15,000 won for the day. There is no set route, but the manicured lawns and pagodas of the ornate Anapji Pond make an excellent rest stop, best viewed in the calm of the late-afternoon. A short cycle from here is Cheomseongdae, an ancient astronomical tower that is considered one of East Asia’s oldest observatories. Although not open to the general public, if you come after nightfall, the tower looks majestic illuminated against the night sky it once studied.
Grab some traditional grub
Gyeongju is a good place to get to grips with Korean food, too. Seongdong (visitkorea.or.kr) is a traditional covered market (and Korea’s largest, at that) with a colourful feast of local fruit, veg and seafood. It’s a great spot to pick up some grub for a picnic lunch, and there are food stalls where you can sample dishes like bibimbap (mixed vegetables over rice) and dwaeji-gukbap (hearty pork soup).
Tucked to the side of Tumuli Park, Dosol Maeul is another good bet if you're keen to try traditional dishes like kimchi, tofu, vegetable stews and steaming bowls of seafood, and the location in a traditional hanok courtyard lends an air of history to the dining experience.
Teahouses are another Korean pastime that have lasted through the ages. Disguised behind a shabby courtyard in the Noseo-dong district of Gyeongju, Ah Sa Ga Teahouse (아사가찻집; 9-2 Jungbu-dong) opens into something like a rustic art gallery full of calligraphy and hand-made crafts. The menu has an wide range of teas and they also sell tea sets.
Louise travelled to Korea with support from Kia Motors (kia.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.