Image by David Chua Five Hundred Pixels
On a series of stone terraces about 16km southeast of Gyeongju, set among gnarled pines and iris gardens, this historic temple is the crowning glory of Silla architecture and is on the Unesco World Cultural Heritage list, although much was destroyed by the Japanese in 1593 and has been rebuilt. The name of the temple means 'World of Buddha Temple' – the hanja (Sino-Korean) name you will see is 佛國寺 (literally 'Buddha World Temple').
The approach to the temple leads you to two national-treasure bridges (actually a pair of white stone staircases, which take the ancient Korean name for a bridge, 'gyo': 橋); one called Cheongungyo (Blue Cloud Bridge), the other Baegungyo (White Cloud Bridge). One of these bridges has 33 steps, representing the 33 stages to enlightenment; both lead up to the main gate, however you cannot climb them and need to access the temple from the road uphill to the right.
The main hall is the Daeungjeon Hall (大雄殿; Main Buddha Hall) which dates to 1765, as the original was burned in the late 16th century. In front of the main hall are two more national treasures: two pagodas that somehow survived Japanese destruction. The first, Dabotap (Many Treasures Pagoda), is of plain design and typical of Silla artistry, while the other, Seokgatap (Sakyamuni Pagoda), is much more ornate and typical of the neighbouring Baekje kingdom. When the latter was restored in 1966, it was found to contain a copy of a sutra that is one of the world's oldest woodblock print books. The pagodas are so revered that replicas appear in the grounds of the Gyeongju National Museum.
Other halls you will find are the much more recently constructed Nahanjeon Hall (where Buddha is flanked by 16 nahan, or arhats) and a shrine to the Goddess of Mercy (Avalokitesvara), the Gwon-eum-Jon (the original dated to the 8th century, but this is a 20th century reconstruction).
You can reach Bulguk-sa by loop buses 10 or 11 (₩1500, 30 minutes), though from central Gyeongju 11 is much quicker. There’s a tourist information booth in the car park, near the bus stop. From Bulguk-sa, you can either take the regular bus 12 to Seokguram, or walk the 2.2km route uphill.