Gyeongju: Korea’s Forgotten Capital City

Paulo Coelho once argued against going to museums when you’re in a foreign city: “[I]sn’t it far more interesting to go in search of the present than of the past?”

But what if the entire city itself is a giant outdoor gallery of history, where artifacts are as big as a hill and replicas as ambitious as an unfinished 1,000-year old bridge?

Or at least, that is what Gyeongju is.

The Golden City of Gyeongju is one of South Korea’s underrated destinations. First-time travelers in South Korea often miss this place, preferring to go to Seoul and its outskirt destinations like Nami Island or Busan. But after spending 8 days in 6 cities in South Korea, Gyeongju emerged as our favorite.

Why Gyeongju?

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Silla Kingdom that reigned today’s Korean Peninsula crowned Gyeongju as its capital. And so, spread across this valley are remnants of that past, which includes Buddhist temples, Asia’s first observatory tower, giant burial mounds, and old Korean villages. Many of these sites are collectively listed under UNESCO World Heritage.

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A lot of these burial mounds are spread across Gyeongju. Reminds me of Chocolate Hills in the Philippines! Photo by Paolo Abellanosa
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Here are more of the burial mounds. Photo by Paolo Abellanosa

Gyeongju is a peaceful, rustic city surrounded by fields and mountains. It is provincial compared to Seoul and Busan, and a place best enjoyed on a bike.

We recommend to pair Gyeongju with Busan, which is just 1 hour away by express bus.

Going There

From Seoul: Take the KTX to Singyeongju Station. A cheaper option is to take a 3.5-hour express bus.

From Busan: Bus ride between the two cities takes one hour. Busan has the nearest airport connected to Manila, Clark and Cebu.

Within Gyeongju: You can rent a bike to go around the city. Several sites like Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto are far from the city proper but can be conveniently reached by bus or private vehicles.

Budget

P3,500 per person may cover decent accommodation in Gyeongju, bike rental, express bus from Seoul to Gyeongju and Gyeongju to Busan, entrance fees, and food.

Our Itinerary

The original plan was to make Gyeongju a sidetrip from Busan before we arrive in Seoul. But seeing the list of attractions to see in Gyeongju, we decided to spend overnight. It was one of the best decisions we made!

DAY 1

09:00 AM – Departed Seoul’s express bus terminal for Gyeongju

11:30 AM – Arrived in Gyeongju. Walked to Chacharang Guesthouse to check-in and rent a bike

1:00 PM – Bike to the Daerungwon Tomb Complex just on the next street.

2:00 PM – Late lunch

3:00 PM – Bike to Gyeongju Yangdong Village and Woljeonggyo Bridge

4:00 PM – Bike to Cheomseongdae Observatory

5:00 PM – Bike to Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond

6:00 PM – Return to hotel

DAY 2

09:00 AM – Bus ride to Bulguksa Temple

10:00 AM – Tour around Bulguksa

12:00 NN – Bus ride to Seokguram Grotto

12:30 NN – Tour around Seokguram Grotto

2:00 PM – Return to Gyeongju and stroll around the city’s street market

4:00 PM – Return to Gyeongju bus terminal bound to Busan

 

Alternatively, Gyeongju can also be enjoyed for a day. If you wish to maximize your time here, we recommend to get the services of tour operators like Trazy.

 

Top 5 Highlights of the Trip

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Stroll around the city on a bike. Photo by Paolo Abellanosa

1. Rent a bike on your first day – (10,000 KRW) We recommend you rent a bike from your hotel and stroll the city on your first day. Otherwise, you can buy a Gyeongju City Tour bus pass here.

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Yangdong Village features well-preserved Korean houses turned into galleries and shopes. Photo by Paolo Abellanosa

2. Woljeonggyo Bridge – South Koreans take heritage very seriously. While biking around just outside Yangdong Village, we stumbled upon a small museum managed by Mr. Kim. He is the curator of a gallery to Woljeonggyo, an adjacent bridge project that aims to complete a Silla Kingdom-era connection. Perhaps delighted of his only guests, he treated us with a welcome coffee and a special tour of the bridge (We couldn’t go up the bridge yet, but we saw it at close range).

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Dusk at Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond in Gyeongju. Photo by Aien Branzuelaaa

3. Donggung Palace & Wolji Pond – The palace and pond are best enjoyed at night after a stroll at the nearby Cheomsangdae Observatory. The area was once the Silla Kingdom’s place to receive guests. The Koreans researched the original layout of the palace that once stood on this field and managed to rebuild a few pagodas seen above.

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Cheomsangdae Observatory in Gyeongju is believed to be the first one in Asia. Photo by Paolo Abellanosa
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Street market in Gyeongju’s city center. Photo by Aien Branzuela

4. Street market – Before we headed to Busan, we took an hour to stroll the city center. Tried their famous Gyeongju Bread and other delicacies!

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Bulguksa Temple, one of the designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in Gyeongju. Photo by Paolo Abellanosa

5. Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto – These sites are the farthest from the city but mustn’t be missed; you should allot at least half a day to see these two sites. A lot of walking is involved so be prepared. Bus No. 10 and 11 lead to Bulguksa from Gyeongju Bus Terminal and Gyeongju Station. To get to Seokguram, take Bus No. 12 from Bulguksa.

How about you? What was the highlight of your Gyeongju trip?

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