South Korea - Getting to know Gyeongju
Often referred to as South Korea’s cultural heart, Gyeongju was capital of the Silla dynasty from 57 BC to 935 AD and is home to more temples and tombs, ruins and rock carvings, pagodas and palaces than anywhre else in the country.
Gyeongju National Park surrounds the city and is the country’s only historical national park, offering a network of walking trails amongst picturesque mountainous peaks alongside the area’s historical and cultural treasures. Just to the east, the man-made Bomun Lake is typically South Korean in its mix of natural beauty and slightly cheesy fun, surrounded as it is with hotels, recreational facilities, restaurants and an amusement park.
For a former royal capital this charming, laid-back city can at times appear almost rustic, with its streets lined with chonnyeo (rural women) selling the fruits of their harvest. Indeed, just outside the city traditional life is still strongly evident, and this is one of Gyeongju’s lesser appreciated charms.
Another hidden pleasure is the sheer number of festivals on offer, from regular performances of traditional song and dance at Bomun Lake to the three-day extravaganza that is the Silla Cultural Festival in October.
What to do in Gyeongju
- Take a trip back in time as you explore the hundreds of Silla royal tombs that create grassy mounds (tumuli) in the city and surrounding countryside. In Tumuli Park alone there are over two dozen of them, thought to be those of kings and high-ranking officials. A must-see is Cheonmachong, the only tomb you can step inside, which when it was excavated yielded over 12,000 6th century artefacts, some of which can be seen in situ today.
- To see more of the treasures and jewels that were buried with the Silla dynasty visit the impressive collection at the Gyeongju National Museum. Arguably, the best collection in the country, though closely rivalled by Seoul’s, there is Silla bling to the nth degree on show here. Intricate, jade-festooned gold crowns, dazzling earrings and detailed pendants cast their glow over finely crafted pottery and really help bring South Korea's rich history to life.
- Just beyond the city centre, the hilly (and holy) area of Namsan boasts some 180 peaks and offers picturesque trekking opportunities. Follow along ancient walking trails once used by Buddhist monks to visit temples, passing stone pagodas, Buddha carvings and temple ruins - a number of which have been designated as national treasures.
Don’t leave with sampling Hwangnam bread - a local speciality - which is essentially sweet red bean paste cooked in a pastry crust. It makes for a great mid-morning snack with a cup of coffee, especially if eaten freshly baked and still warm.
During the Silla dynasty, three of Gyeongju’s rulers were women - unique in Korea’s history.
Getting off the trail in Gyeongju
- Continue your exploration of the history and culture of South Korea by taking in the splendidly decorated, UNESCO World Heritage listed temple of Bulguksa. Built to commemorate King Beop-Heung’s adoption of Buddhism as the state religion in 528, the staircases, pagodas and elaborately painted complex make this one of the country’s most-visited temples. Hanging above it precariously from a mountain ridge, and also well worth a visit, is the grotto temple of Seokguram.
- The rather intriguing Underwater Tomb of King Munmu can be found just off the coast of Gyeongju. The first ruler to unify the Korean peninsula, Munmu wanted his ashes scattered on the rocks here as he believed he would transform into a sea dragon able to protect the country’s coastline. Should the view of the rocky crags underwhelm, the delicious seafood restaurants nearby will most certainly not.
- Visit the area around Andong, a short drive north west of Gyeongju, for its highly picturesque countryside and World Heritage protected Hahoe Folk Village. Forget the recreations of traditional life, here a functioning community lives as if the economic South Korean miracle has never taken place. There are over a hundred traditional thatched-roof homes sidling up to a river that flows as lazily as the pace of life.
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