Gyeongju is one of the four ancient capitals of Korea and is considered to be the cultural capital of modern South Korea. The city is known for its many temples and historic sights, but though the city receives its fair share of domestic tourists, international visitors rarely venture from the lights and glamor of Seoul or Busan. Travelers who do make it to Gyeongju are rewarded with one of Korea’s unexpected gems.
The city’s chief historic highlights are the ancient tombs of the rulers of Silla. Silla was one of ancient Korea’s great kingdoms and when its rulers died they were buried in earthen pyramids. There are hundreds of these mound-shaped tombs located across the city—including the city center—and though they are modest in height, only 10-20 feet tall at most, the oldest ones date back several millennia.
A short distance from the city to the southeast is the Bulguksa Temple. This temple was built in 528 and is the area’s most striking temple. It’s hard not to get caught up in the temple’s ambiance, as it’s located in a remote forest and its grounds host a number of gardens, bridges and relics. Check out the stone wish garden, where wishes are written on small rocks that are stacked on top of each other.
From Bulguksa Temple it’s a short bus ride or an invigorating two-hour hike up the mountain to the Seokguram Grotto. The hike really shouldn’t be missed—although cheeky visitors could take the bus up to the grotto and hike down instead—as the path twists its way up the mountain and through the beautiful Korean forest. The grotto itself was constructed at the same time as the Bulguksa Temple and is built into the side of Mount Toham. Inside its stone, rounded halls is a beautiful statue of the Buddha.
Perhaps the best time to visit Gyeongju is in May, as this is when celebrations are held in the city—and across Asia—to celebrate the birth of Gautama Buddha. Paper lanterns colorfully accessorize the temples and the entire city has a festive feel.
Gyeongju can be easily reached by coach from Seoul (four hours) and from nearby Busan (one hour). Busan has the closest international airport, though direct buses are available from Seoul’s Incheon International Airport to Gyeongju.
Once in Gyeongju getting around the small city is a breeze thanks to an excellent public transportation system of buses with clearly-marked and helpful signage.
There are a number of guest houses, hostels and tourist-friendly hotels in Gyeongju, especially in the neighborhood around the bus station. Visitors should plan to spend at least two full days in the city to get a good taste of its attractions.