The third stop of my 13-day trip to South Korea was Gyeongju, a small city of about 260-270,000 people and a fascinating history. The city’s cluster of tombs and shrines are all part of the Historic Area, a UNESCO World Heritage site. History lovers, and anyone wanting to escape the larger cities for a day or two, will discover Gyeongju is well worth the visit.
It wasn’t until I left and looked back at my time there did I truly appreciate the uniqueness and tranquility of the city.
Here are a few of the most memorable things from my time in Gyeongju.
It is the capital of a 1000 year Dynasty.
Gyeongju was once the capital of the Silla Kingdom, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, which ruled from 57 BC to 935 AD – that’s nearly 1000 years, making it one of the world’s longest reigning dynasties!
As you explore the city, you will find several sites which hold the tombs of Silla nobles, some of which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries.
The Daereungwon Tomb Complex costs just 2,000 won to enter. Traditional music plays through speakers along the paths creating a calm, tranquil atmosphere as you walk through the site. As someone who is a fast walker, it even made me slow my pace.
At Daereungwon’s back gates, there are two other sites – Noseori-gun and Nodongri-gun – which are free. Each site has signs in English and Korean explaining the tombs’ history and how they were constructed.
Gyeongju is home to another UNESCO World Heritage site: Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto. Construction for the temple began in 528, and was eventually completed in 774. According to Wikipedia, Prime Minister Kim Daesong began the construction of the current temple in 751 to pacify the spirits of his parents. Outside the temple, a sign also explains the purpose of the temple was to protect against foreign invaders.
As a Buddhist temple, there were lanterns hanging everywhere in celebration of Buddha’s birthday, giving the temple a beautifully festive look.
Finally, a walk through Gyeongju’s museum takes you through the early beginnings of the Silla Kingdom, its rise, the daily lives of its people and nobles, and the kingdom’s eventual fall. The museum is a bit small but very informative and well laid out. The best part – it’s free!
A field of yellow flowers and Asia’s oldest observatory
On my way to Bulguksa Temple, I saw large field full of yellow flowers out the bus window and knew exactly where I was going after my visit to the temple.
While flowers didn’t smell very pleasant to me, it didn’t matter; like everyone else, I waded into the field with flowers tall enough to brush just above my knees, and crouched down for a few selfies.
When I hopped off the bus to explore the field, I had no idea where it actually was. It wasn’t until I started walking did I notice the flowers were in the park that held Cheomseongdae – the oldest observatory in Asia, which was built in the 7th century under Queen Seondeok.
The lights at Wolji Pond
One of the main reasons I decided to stay a second night in Gyeongju was to see Wolji Pond at night and get that iconic photo of the walls lit up in a warm yellow glow. And I wasn’t the only one. Once the sun goes down, photographers armed with tripods descend on the pond and set up for the perfect shot.
I propped my little, amateur-level point-and-shoot on the top railing between a couple tripods, taking comfort in the fact that along with the photographers who actually knew what they were doing, I was also surrounded by people taking photos with cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras. The view and lighting is so perfect, some of my best photos that night came from the ones I took on my phone.
It was much smaller than I expected
When I arrived, I expected Gyeongju to be quieter than Gwangju and Busan, but still bustling with groups of tourists and school field trips much in the way they flock to D.C. for its monuments and museums. I expected a city similar to Jinhae – small but still unquestionably a city. Instead, I stepped out of the bus station and looked up to bright blue sky unobscured by high rise buildings and near-empty sidewalks. Gyeongju felt like the kind of city where everyone knows everyone and people leave their front doors unlocked at night.
Staying in a traditional style guesthouse
I stayed at Gallery Jin Hanok Guesthouse. My only complaint was that I sat awkwardly outside the guesthouse for about a half-hour, bumming off the Wifi (no password), until one of the neighbors spotted me and called the owner. I did arrive nearly two hours early, so it was understandable. However, when I returned an hour or so after check-in time, I had to wait for her again. The same thing happened when I was ready to check out. Still, it was affordable, clean, and in a great location, which are all I really need.
The room was small and cozy. You can easily fit two people in here without being cramped, and it was perfect for me as a solo traveler. While sleeping on the floor sounds horribly uncomfortable, the heated floors were the best and make it totally worth it. Plus, where better to experience a traditional-style room than Gyeongju?
One thing I want to mention is the “wet” bathroom, which you may encounter in Korea. Basically, the whole bathroom is the shower. Which can make showering a little complicated because where do you put your towel? I also like to get dressed in the bathroom, because it’s warm, which further complicates things when you have no dry place to put anything (I used the cabinets). These bathrooms also stay wet for a few hours, so if you need to use the bathroom for any reason, take off your socks, and use the rubber slippers that are usually provided for you.
And that’s my stay in Gyeongju!