Gyeongju is a place where history feels as alive as the sparrows that dart between the branches of the pine trees. In this living museum of Korean history, the royal tombs of the Silla Dynasty punctuate the landscape beneath orderly green mounds, centuries-old houses are both homes and hip cafes, and mountain mists polish the surface of ancient Buddhist pagodas.
Gyeongju is easy to reach from Seoul or Busan, but very different in character thanks to its ban on high rises. It's a place to embrace nature, whether that means temple-hunting hikes amongst gnarled pines, or observing the pink grass in autumn or the floating cherry blossom in spring.
Visitors can take in the highlights in a day and a night, but it's more rewarding to spend several days hiking and sampling all the Gyeongju specialties. Here are some of the best experiences in Gyeongju.
Walk between royal tombs at Tumuli Gongwon
The showstopper sight in Gyeongju is the huge park known as Tumuli Gongwon – also known as Daereungwon Tomb Park – where 23 grassy hillocks hide the tombs of the royals of the Silla Dynasty, who ruled over Korea for nearly a millennium until 935 CE. The pyramid-like burial mounds roll across the landscape, providing a surreal resting place for the Silla kings and queens and their treasures (as well as their servants). Setting foot inside a tomb and feeling the temperature suddenly cool is part of an extraordinary sensory experience.
Walk under a shower of cherry blossoms
At the peak of the Gyeongju cherry blossom festival every spring, pink and white petals fill the air like confetti on the breeze. The city is almost unrecognizable as hundreds of cherry trees form glorious archways of blossom. You can spend an especially magical April day walking around Bomun Lake, admiring the cherry blossom and pagodas, stopping for a DIY picnic, enjoying live traditional music and admiring the sunset on the water.
Relive an ancient royal drinking game at Poseokjeong Pavilion
All that remains of the royal villa of Poseokjeong is a stone water feature at the foot of a massive tree – once part of an ancient drinking game. During the Unified Silla era, the royals and their friends would sit around this curving granite channel, floating drinking vessels on the water. Each time a vessel passed in front of a participant, it was their turn to drink and recite a line of a poem. In reality, the poetry was probably only there to lend an air of sophistication to social drinking, but the tradition humanizes the royals and visiting adds some variety to a tour of Buddhist relics. Get here on the 500 bus from Gyeongju train station.
Witness the might of the Silla empire at Bulguk-sa
The imposing Buddhist temple complex of Bulguk-sa was conceived by Silla rulers high on power after uniting the Korean peninsula. The wooden main temple is perched atop a series of stone terraces scented with the sharp perfume of pine needles and irises from the surrounding woodland gardens. Peer under the eaves and take note of the exquisite multicolored tiles and carved dragon heads. Bring your walking shoes – according to local legend, you will cross into the land of Buddha by traversing the bridges and gateways of Bulguk-sa. Come in autumn when the site looks especially heavenly as the maple trees turn crimson.
Revere the 1000-year-old Buddha of Seokguram
Hike beyond the temple complex of Bulguk-sa to find one of the world’s most exquisite Buddha sculptures. Nestled in the Unesco-listed cave temple of Seokguram, the 3m-high (9.8ft) granite statue of Buddha sits in cross-legged contemplation, ringed by depictions of other Buddhist figures. Gazing upwards at the statue's dignified expression is awe-inspiring in the cool, quiet air under the dome.
Meet Gyeongju's cool kids shopping on Hwangridan-gil
Timeworn Gyeongju can be surprisingly hip once you get away from the tombs and temples. The epicenter of Gyeongju cool is Poseok-Ro, more commonly known by the nickname Hwangridan-gil. In this hipster hang-out, you'll find a growing number of well-curated bookstores such as Eoseo Eoseo, and offbeat gift stores such as Samdeok Market, where retro Korean toys and knickknacks are reborn as chic ornaments.
Cool cafes and stylish guesthouses have taken over former industrial spaces and traditional hanok houses around the laneways to create a contemporary Seoul-like vibe, but without the big city price tag. Sip a coffee at No Words and book a room at Hwangnamguan. From the northwest end of Tumuli Gongwon, wander south along Poseok-Ro and look for queues of eager patrons, especially on weekends, to spot the current favorite spots.
Snap a selfie amidst pink muhly grass
A field full of pink muhly grass beside an ancient Korean astronomical observatory and misty mountain peaks in the same photo? Just bring your camera to the Cheomseongdae historical site in autumn. Muhly grass originally came to Korea from America, but it has become a feature of gardens all over the country. Visit from September for an otherworldly scene that you won't see anywhere else in the world.
Snack on sweet Gyeongju bread
It's a common rule in Asia that things that look cute taste better, and the Gyeongju bread known as hwangnam-ppang is as cute as a chrysanthemum. Indeed, a picture of the flower is imprinted on the top of each one of these dainty pastries. There's something about the way the dense egg pastry pulls apart to reveal the sweet red bean filling that brings to mind Chinese moon cakes, but this snack is dumpling-sized, making it all too easy to eat a dozen. Hwangnam Bread sells Gyeongju bread in decorative boxes, which Koreans appreciate as gifts.
Hunt temples on the hike up Namsan
Solitary temples, some without walls, squat in weathered ruin amongst the twisted pines of Namsan mountain. This is not the place for perfectly preserved pieces of Korean history, but the slopes swim with atmosphere, and you can actually touch the long-revered relics. A network of hiking trails, some steep and some gentle, winds through the mountain valleys and walking here is a unique treasure hunt for hundreds of Buddhist wonders.
Highlights include statues hewn in bas relief on the surface of rocky outcrops – the head honcho here is the Maitreya Buddha, the future Buddha who will arrive on Earth when the dharma is forgotten. There are dozens more small Buddha statues hidden in caves and other surprises not listed on the maps. Ideally, you'll want a full day to take it all in, but even on a short walk, you'll encounter treasures every 10 minutes or so along the trails. Namsan really lives up to Gyeongju's reputation as a "museum without walls."
See dazzling Donggung Palace mirrored in Wolji Pond
Lovers of picture-perfect moments should ready their cameras for nightfall at Wolji Pond (known previously as Anapji Pond). The former royal pleasure garden is impressive by day but spectacular at night when the adjacent Donggung Palace – once used by the crown prince of the Silla Kingdom – is illuminated, creating a floating mirror image in the still waters.
Learn about sex (or giggle trying) at Love Castle
If you are heritage-fatigued, slip out of central Gyeongju for an adults-only museum that is partly a serious study of sexual behavior (complete with sex-related paraphernalia and information panels), and partly a cheeky theme park. The titillating outdoor "art" includes plenty of phallic and sexual sculptures – some puzzling, many comical. It's a sprawling place that is worth half a day if you need some light relief from historic sites.
Sip traditional Gyeongju rice wine
The perfect way to wind down after a day of sightseeing is with a cold shot of gyodong beopju, a clear rice wine with subtle sweet and sour notes. Forms of this alcoholic tipple have been brewed in Korean Buddhist temple villages since at least 1124 and it was a favorite drink for the Silla kings. It's an intriguing, little-known specialty of Gyeongju that makes a good digestif and you can sample it at many local restaurants.
Wander back in time at Yangdong Folk Village
Ancient Korean society is recreated in cultural villages all over Korea, but Yandong is different because people still live in some of its hanok (traditional houses). The homes here are up to 500 years old, and they sit perched above green fields that were tilled by past occupants. Head uphill to see some classic examples of handsome Korean architecture. To dial up the nostalgia, eat in a traditional house restaurant such as Uhyangdaok with sunlight dappling through the wooden windows.
Sample the specialties of Gyeongju cuisine
Gyeongju is known for high-quality, tender cuts of beef that are fit for a Silla king. Gyeongju beef is especially delicious served as bulgogi (marinated in pear juice and barbecued at the table). You'll find it in many local restaurants, including on hanjeongsik set menus. Vegetarians should seek out dishes that include sundubu tofu, made from soybeans hand-ground in Gyeongju in a stone mill. It's often served in spicy sundubu jjigae stew, but ask the cook to leave out meat or seafood if you don't eat it.
Cross Woljeonggyo Bridge
Yes, a bridge is one of the highlights of Gyeongju. In fact, it's one of the most photogenic spots in the whole country, with the crowds to prove it. Woljeonggyo Bridge is pretty by day, but this Silla-era structure is at its most spectacular when lit up at night when it resembles an ornate wooden palace.
Woljeonggyo is the largest wooden bridge in Korea and visitors are free to cross through a hall of red columns and exquisite roof beams and clamber up the towers that bookend the bridge. Get there just before closing time at 10pm to avoid the crowds.
Step inside the set of a Korean reality TV series
Korean visitors flock to Cafe SUPIA for photos to fill up their Instagram Stories. Sure the drinks are great, and the location in a sprawl of rice paddies and woodland is enchanting, but it's the exposed wooden beams of this handsome hanok house that bring Korean fans. Cafe SUPIA was the backdrop for the Korean reality TV series Kang's Kitchen 2 and the yellow dolls featured in the cooking show decorate its open-plan spaces, while the scent of the pines wafts in through the sliding window shutters, mingling with the smell of freshly-ground coffee.
See the Silla kingdom's greatest hits at Gyeongju National Museum
New artifacts are constantly being excavated in Gyeongju and most of these treasures find a home at Gyeongju National Museum, the best place to learn about the Silla kingdom. It's one of the country's top museums, and a must-visit if you're in Gyeongju. Objects on display include a gold crown, dragon-shaped musical instruments, an ornamental dagger sheath, bronze candle-wick trimmers and a face sculpted into a roof end tile. Jeweled beetle ornaments and gold earrings are the latest finds to join the collection. The museum is free too, so you can dip in and out as the mood takes you.
Gyeongju is on our 2022 Best in Travel list. For more stories from some of the world’s most exciting destinations click here.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during COVID-19.
You may also like:
The endangered royal dogs of Gyeongju
How Gyeongju has become South Korea's city of cool
Gyeongju City: a window to the past and the future