South Korea is mostly known for being modern – even futuristic. And when you’re in the major cities like Seoul and Busan, this is highly evident in the towering buildings, ultra-bright city lights, and high-speed Internet. Even their tourism organizations highlight the country’s dynamism and rapid progress.
Despite this, however, there remain pockets of cultural destinations where visitors can catch a glimpse of Korea’s splendid past. One such destination is Gyeongju – the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Silla, home of some of the best Buddhist art in the Far East.
If you’re into ancient cultures and traditions – or just want a break from the fast cars and bright lights of South Korea’s cities – take a day trip to Gyeongju, South Korea’s ancient capital.
Gyeongju – a glimpse into South Korea’s ancient history
Gyeongju is a city in the North Gyeongsang Province, near the southeastern coast of mainland Korea. It’s an hour’s drive or bus ride north of Busan, a perfect day trip for those seeking a cultural experience.
While Busan has its share of cultural attractions, if you really want to learn more about Korean history and culture, you’re better off spending a day in Gyeongju instead.
The Silla dynasty ruled the Korean peninsula for almost 1,000 years, from 57 BC to 935 AD, and much of the cultural achievements of the time can still be seen in Gyeongju. At the time, Silla was a prosperous country, and its capital Gyeongju was the fourth largest city in the world. The city was home to the Silla court and most of the kingdom’s elite, and you can still see remnants of their lavish lifestyle and after-life.
Apart from relics from the elite of Silla, you’ll also find a lot of Buddhist art in Gyeongju. Mahayana Buddhism spread from China into Korea during the 7th century and was adopted by the Silla kingdom. Mount Namsan became a Buddhist sacred mountain and inspired its devotees to hire the most outstanding architects and craftsmen of the time to build temples and sculptures dedicated to Buddhism.
But, all kingdoms eventually cease to reign. When the Joseon dynasty came to power in 1392-1910, Gyeongju ceased to be a national capital. It suffered numerous assaults from foreign forces – in the 13th century, the Mongols destroyed a wooden pagoda; during the Japanese invasions of Korea, Gyeongju became one of the bloodiest battlefields; and in the early Joseon period, Neo-Confucian radicals hacked off arms and heads off Buddhist sculptures in Namsan.
Throughout the centuries, Gyeongju’s influence declined and it was no longer considered a major city. However, thanks to archaeological excavations done in the early 20th century, Gyeongju’s historical significance was recognized and it became a cultural destination.
In November 2000, the Gyeongju Historic area was designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site for containing “a remarkable concentration of outstanding examples of Korean Buddhist art, in the form of sculptures, reliefs, pagodas, and the remains of temples and palaces from the flowering culture of Silla dynasty, in particular between the 7th and 10th century.”
Gyeongju is now referred to as “the museum without walls” and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea, especially for visitors who are interested in the cultural heritage of the Silla dynasty and the architecture of the Joseon dynasty.
If you’re a foodie and wondering about the cuisine, food in Gyeongju is generally typical of the cuisine elsewhere in Gyeongsang province – spicy and salty. However, they do have local specialties that include Gyeongju bread, a red-bean pastry, and beopju, a traditional Korean liquor.
If you’re looking for seafood dishes, though, head to Gampo-eup, a coastal town on the east district of Gyeongju where you can enjoy fresh seafood and jeotgal (fermented salted seafood). You’ll find hundreds of seafood restaurants along Gampo Harbor where you can get raw fish dishes, abalone soup, grilled seafood, and more.
Best things to see and do – Gyeongju day trip itinerary
With all the cultural and historical richness of the region, Gyeongju is a major tourist destination for both locals and foreign visitors. In such a compact area, you’ll be able to see 1,000 years of Silla heritage as well as fine examples of Buddhist art.
Start your day tour of Gyeongju at the Gyochon traditional village. If you’re arriving in the city at noontime, this is a great area to grab lunch as well.
1. Gyochon Traditional Village
Traditional villages all throughout Korea mostly consist of “hanok” or traditional Korean houses. Traditional Korean houses are typically environment-friendly – they are designed with raw materials that do not cause pollution (such as soil, timber, and rock) and are designed in a way that is in harmony with the natural surroundings. Traditional Korean architecture also considers the positioning of the house in relation to its surroundings, and designed to endure cold winters (utilizing the ondol heated rock system unique to South Korea) and hot summers (by having a wide daecheong front porch for keeping the house cool).
In Gyeongju, you can visit the Gyochon traditional village, which is a hanok village centered on the life of the Choe clan. The Choe family were particularly well-loved by their neighbors, as they were said to be very public-minded and generous with their wisdom and wealth.
Within the village, you’ll see various traditional houses and restaurants specializing in traditional cuisine. You’ll also be able to take part in glassmaking classes, pottery making workshops, and tea ceremonies. This is also a good place to pick up some postcards and souvenirs.
If you’re particularly keen on learning more about the traditional village, drop by the Information Center where you’ll see dioramas and audio-visual setups. You can even take a quiz!
2. Daereungwon Tomb Complex and Cheomseongdae Observatory
The Daereungwon Tomb Complex holds the large ancient tombs of kings and nobles of the Silla Kingdom. Twenty-three large tombs are located here, the most significant ones being the Cheonmachong and the Hwangnamdaechong.
The Cheonmachong contains the only discovered painting from the Silla era, as well as relics demonstrating the king’s lavish lifestyle. The Hwangnamdaechong tomb is a queen’s tomb, showing more luxurious accessories.
Near the tomb complex, you’ll find the Cheomseongdae Observatory – the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia. Cheomseongdae, which means “star-gazing tower,” was constructed in the 7th century in the kingdom of Silla, under the reign of Queen Seondeok. It’s 9.4 meters tall and made up of 362 pieces of cut granite which represents the 362 days of the lunar year.
3. Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond
From the tomb complex, make your way to the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, an artificial pond also formerly known as Anapji.
This is what remains of a palace complex of ancient Silla, constructed by the King Munmu following Taoist aesthetics in 674 CE. After the fall of Silla, the pond was abandoned and was only rebuilt in 1974. During this time, excavations revealed many archaeological relics, which are now on display within the complex.
The pond is especially gorgeous at night if you happen to be staying the night at Gyeongju.
4. Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto
The Bulguksa temple complex is 12 kilometers from the Gyeongju National Museum Park and contains both the Bulguksa Temple and the Seokguram Grotto. Together, they are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East.”
The Seokguram Grotto is a hermitage and national treasure. It was established in the 8th century and contains a monumental statue of the Buddha looking out to sea with his left hand in dhyana mudra position (the position of concentration), and his right hand in the bhumisparsha mudra position (the earth-touching gesture). The grotto also houses statues of devas, bodhisattvas, and disciples sculpted on the surrounding walls, which to this day is considered a masterpiece of East Asian Buddhist art.
Bulguksa is a Buddhist temple complex comprised of a series of wooden buildings on raised stone terraces designed to represent the land of Buddha.
The complex is a great glimpse into Buddhist art and architecture. You can also arrange a temple stay if you want to immerse more.
Gyeongju tourist map
Use this Google map to plan your day trip to Gyeongju. Note, though, that you can’t use Google maps to navigate in South Korea – instead, download the KML file (see options) and import it to the maps.me app on your smartphone.
Essential information – how to visit Gyeongju from Busan
Getting there and around
The nearest international airport to Gyeongju is Busan. There is also an airport in Ulsan. You can ride airport shuttles from Incheon (Seoul), Gimhae (Busan), and Ulsan straight to Gyeongju.
Driving from Busan to Gyeongju takes about 60-90 minutes via the expressway. Head first to the Gyochon Traditional Village, and explore the surrounding areas from there.
Here are the telephone numbers of the major tourist destinations in Gyeongju. You may use some of them for navigating with the Korean GPS, but during our trip, some of the numbers don’t show up on our GPS. My tip is to find a phone number that will take you to Gyeongju (check against other maps, like maps.me) then use maps.me while within Gyeongju.
Destinations and phone numbers in Gyeongju:
Note: Don’t forget to set your area code to (54)
- Gyochon Traditional Village – (54) 779-6981
- Daereungwon Tomb Complex – (54) 779-8796, (54) 743-1925
- Cheomseongdae Observatory – (54) 779-8744, (54) 772-3843
- Gyeongju Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond – (54) 772-4041
- Poseokjeong Pavilion – (54) 745-8484, 779-6394
- Bulguksa / Bulguk Temple – (54) 746-9913, (54) 746-0983
- Seokguram Grotto – (54) 746-9933
From Busan –
- If you’re coming from the Gimhae International Airport, you can ride the Geuma Tour shuttle bus directly to Gyeongju.
- If you’re coming from elsewhere within Busan, you can ride a bus from the Busan Central Bus Terminal (near Nopo station on the Busan Metro Line 1) to Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal. This ride takes about 50 minutes, with buses leaving from the terminal every 15 minutes.
From Seoul –
- Ride a bus from the Seoul Express Bus Terminal (near the Express Bus Terminal Station on the Seoul Subway Lines 3, 7, and 9) to Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal. This ride takes about 4 hours and is the cheapest and easiest option from Seoul.
Restaurants in Gyeongju
If you’re craving traditional Korean food, check out:
- Hongsi Restaurant – it’s a bit far from the main attractions in Gyeongju, but well worth the visit if you’re looking for a traditional Korean meal experience.
- Sukyeong Sikdang – this is within the vicinity of the Daereungwon Tomb Complex and the restaurant serves pajeon (green-onion pancake) and dongdongju (rice wine)
- Dosolmaeul – this is another traditional restaurant serving seafood and various stews. If you want to try a huge variety of traditional Korean dishes, you can get their set meal.
Check the Gyeongju tourist map above to find these restaurants.
Hotels in Gyeongju
If you’re traveling to South Korea for just a short holiday, a day trip to Gyeongju will suffice. But if you want to explore more of this cultural city, Gyeongju has lots of hotel options.
★Travelers’ Pick: If you want to combine culture with luxury, stay at the Hilton Gyeongju. It overlooks the Bomun lake and has 6 in-house dining options serving a variety of cuisine. The rooms and amenities are, of course, top-notch. Double rooms start at USD 275.
For bigger groups looking for holiday rentals in the area, YJ Pension is one of the best-value properties you will find. You’ll get a spacious apartment with complete amenities including an outdoor pool, a garden, and barbecue facilities. Apartments for four start at USD 160; they also have options for couples.
For budget or solo travel options, check out Gyeongju Friend Guesthouse, a friendly and clean hostel that’s within walking distance of the historical center. Beds start at USD 15.
Here are some other resources to plan your trip to Busan and the surroundings areas:
A quick guide to spending 3 days in Busan, South Korea.
Busan is a great base from which to explore South Korea’s southeastern region.
While it is possible to go around South Korea using public transportation, driving around is a lot more convenient and fun. It definitely saves you travel time and if you plan your trip right, it can even save you money. Plus: it’s a lot easier to do than you think – even if you don’t speak their language. Here are my tips for renting a car and driving in South Korea.
I write a lot about South Korea so if you’re looking for other information about travel in the country, you can check them out here.
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Enjoy your trip to Gyeongju! If you found this post helpful, please bookmark and share with your friends or anyone you know who’s headed to South Korea.
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Photo credits: Bulguksa Temple by Boon Hong Seto. Creative Commons.