Everybody knows Psy, Samsung and maybe kimchi too; these are the most popular aspects of Korean culture that put the country on the spot in the last decades. Korea as an almost-developed, modern & exciting country has a rich history that goes back thousands of years. One of the most significant periods of Korean history was the Silla Period, that ruled the peninsula almost 1000 years (57BC to 935AD). I was surprised to learn about this kingdom only after we visited Gyeongju, the capital of that time. It is shocking that the most people from the West know so little about the history of this part of the world. I promised to myself to read more on this subject at the earliest opportunity.
We initially planned our trip to Gyeongju to be for 3 days but our experience is that 2 days is sufficient to cover the basics. That’s why we changed our plans on the go and left for Seoul after 2 days. Speed trains (KTX) between cities of Korea is very convenient and frequent. Unless it is the most popular holiday season of the country, you do not need to book in advance. Just show up in the train station, you’ll be fine.
On our first day in the city, we arrived in the afternoon. After settling to our ‘uniquely designed (*)’ hotel room, we explored nearby covered Royal tombs of the Silla Dynasty. These tombs are little man-made hills that preserve the remains of the royal family. Even though some of these remains are excavated, the most of them are still preserved and not opened up.
In walking distance to the Royal tombs we have seen the oldest existing observatory in the east, Cheomseongdae. The observatory was built in 634 and is located in the city center, close to Anapji Pond and National Museum.
Many people prefers to cycle in the city and there are lots of bike rental options in the area.
Just like our trip to Japan in 2014, we made sure that our visit to Korea would coincide with cherry blossom season, which usually occurs late March, early April. It was a wise choice because the cherry trees and the nature in general looked beautiful in every angle.
The nature was so alive, we even got the see some serious horsepower in the action :)
Our first day ended with a nice meal and plenty of deliciously addictive Gyeongju bread.
Second day was dedicated to two important landmarks: Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto. I’ll be honest with you upfront: Bulguksa Temple was more interesting to visit than the Grotto. But you are surely free to make your mind.
The trip to Bulguksa Temple from the city centre is around 45 minutes by bus. The bus leaves you on a wide road with the temple on one side and restaurants/shops on the other side.
Bulguksa Temple is the first Buddhist temple in the Korea and it is where this faith has spread the country. Its architecture & layout is well-preserved. The path to the temple with the misty mountains at the backdrop is quite a scene.
The temple is a living place where the tourists are also allowed to roam & take part in the routine.
If you have plenty of time and are really into living in a temple, you can even participate in Templestay. This is a special culture tourism activity where the outsider (tourist) is allowed to stay in the temple for few days along with the monks.
The Bulguksa compound is big, colourful and eventful. It gives you opportunities
If you want to continue to Seokguram Grotto, you should take another bus in the opposite direction of the city from the main square at the exit of the temple.
The bus climbs the mountain roads for a while until you reach a plateau with a magnificent view of the city from above & a big iron bell.
After the bell, there is a short walk and few steep steps to the Grotto.
After our short visit to Seokguram Grotto, we took the same bus all the way back to the city centre. On the way we passed by several spa/hotels that offer stays with famous jimjilbang baths of Korea. If you have the time, a few nights stay in those hotels can be very relaxing.
It was late afternoon when we arrived the city center. First, we had a nice walk in the town and took some pictures in the market.
Then with the sunset, it was a prime opportunity to visit Anapji Pond. The artificial pond and the pavilions by the pond offer spectacular views with the special lighting in the night.
As the hours passed, it got colder and colder. We went back to our hotel. We took our notes and registered in our memories that Gyoengju was one of the most memorable parts of our Korean holiday.
* Some hotels in Korea are ‘one of a kind’, to put it mildly. The design can be quite eccentric with mirrors on the ceiling, dark motifs on the walls or lights that do not actually lighten the room. The service can be haphazard too, you may need to wait 30 mins to 1 hour for the receptionist to come back from his/her break.