There are many places in Korea that sound similar to ‘Gyeongju’ but you do not want to get confused and miss the opportunity to visit this gem of a place. Gyeongju is extremely easy to get to from pretty much anywhere in Korea by using the wonderful bus and train networks (www.kobus.co.kr ; http://www.letskorail.com) . This small city was also the capital of Korea during the Unified Silla Dynasty before it moved to (at the time) the more centrally-located Seoul.
Being steeped in history as it is, I knew there was a lot to see in Gyeongju before I went. I only had four days and I was concerned that I may not be able to fit it all in but with a lot of coffee and geeky enthusiasm I walked non-stop for this time and can now tell you all about it.
Here are my top 7 things to see and do in Gyeongju (I couldn’t cut it down to 5, sorry).
The tombs of the Kings (and Queens) of the Silla Dynasty have the appearance of over-sized Hobbit holes and you can see them pretty much anywhere in Gyeongju. In fact, all of Gyeongju is like an open air museum. These tombs are where many treasures, including the Gold Crowns of the Silla Dynasty, have been excavated and a stroll where these old rulers rest is a one-off experience. The best place to see them is Tumuli park,and if you walk around the perimeter wall, you can hear traditional Korean music played through speakers. Even though I am sure they are there for ambience, I like to think that they are playing for the Kings even now.
6. Toham Mountain
It can be a little (read: very) daunting sometimes for a foreigner like myself to go into a Korean restaurant. You are often expected to know instantly what you want and also what that is in Korean. However, getting over that anxiety is completely worth it to visit these restaurants and the one that we went to in the area next to Toham Mountain was especially delicious. I had the good ole favourite 신성동 비빔밥 (mountain greens bibimbap – completely vegetarian too!) and we also ate the stalwart of Korean cookery, 불고기 – bulgogi (this translates as ‘fire meat’ but only because it’s cooked with fire, it is in fact one of the few non-spicy Korean meals). If you’re planning a trip to Bulguksa temple, be brave, take off your shoes and make the stop here first.
5. Namsan Mountain
Do you like history? Big statues of Buddha? Clean mountain air? If the answer is yes to any of the above, you do not want to miss Namsan. It’s a quick bus ride from the city centre and there are many routes to the summits which all boast unique and historically important statues and carvings dating from the Silla Dynasty (that’s over 1000 years old!). The view from the top is beautiful to boot.
4. Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (formerly Anapji Pond)
Wolji / Anapji pond was lost for many centuries after the fall of the Silla Dynasty. Fortunately for us, the Korean government excavated the area and reformed this iconic pond in 1974. Alongside the stunning landscaping, there are also replicas on display of some of the treasures that were found in the lake; lifetimes of secrets and thrown away things. Go at night if you want to take photos of the lake and palace; go in the day if you want to take photos of yourself in front of the palace (night photography is very tricky here).
3. Bulguksa Temple
Bulguksa Temple is a head temple of the Jogye order that is famous (at least in my eyes) for being the home to the Dabotap Pagoda which is pictured on the obverse of the 10 won coin. 10 won may not be worth very much (around 1 cent USD) but this uniquely designed pagoda has stood here since 751 AD and it remains a striking monument and depiction of Buddhist principles. It stands together with the Seokgatap pagoda which is solid-looking and less-ornate in appearance; an unlikely pairing but a beautiful one. But Dabotap and Seokgatap are only two of the six National Treasures to see here and make up part of the reason why Bulguksa and nearby Seokgoram were the first Korean sites to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
2. Cheomseongdae Observatory
Yay! Cheomseongdae! I don’t know why I love Cheomseongdae as much as I do, maybe because it was commissioned by one of the two Silla Korean Queens to rule in their own right or maybe because it looks like an old windmill in the North East of England that I know or maybe, because it is just awesome and is incredibly technically advanced for its time. Or maybe all those things.
Either way, Cheomsongdae is the oldest surviving observatory in the world and for that reason it is incredible.
1. National Museum, Gyeongju
I suppose I put the National Museum at number 1 because I’m a curator but if you come to Gyeongju you cannot miss this. There are unbelieveable things here. I don’t even want to say so that you visit to unlock the mystery, but rest assured the National Museum does not dissappoint and on display are unique treasures that tell the story of Gyeongju in a way that no book can. Oh, and there’s the gold crowns too.