The Best Things To Do in Gyeongju

Gyeongju is the former seat of the Silla Dynasty
Gyeongju is the former seat of the Silla Dynasty | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
Paul Stafford

Beyond the neon lights of high-tech modern cities, there is another Korea where the tombs of ancient kings are buried beneath grassy mounds, and tranquil temples are set on the side of forest-clad mountains. Gyeongju is packed with unique experiences that showcase the best of Korean history, culture and nature, ranging from immersive temple stays to dining out like a royal.

The Silla Dynasty (57 BCE – 935 CE) put Korea, and its capital city Gyeongju, on the map as a serious regional power and bequeathed the country the beginnings of its identity and culture. It is no surprise then, that the kings and queens of this era hold a special place in the hearts of many Korean people, which is why historic and cultural attractions are key features of any trip to the city.

Despite this popularity, Gyeongju is surprisingly serene, with forests, mountains and leafy parks offering some of the most unique experiences, both traditional and modern. This guide will aim to demonstrate plenty of both, as well as exploring traditional cuisine and rice wine, quirky museums and natural wonders in and around the marvellous open-air museum that is Gyeongju.

1. Stargaze in the fields around Cheomsongdae Observatory

Hill Station, Park

Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observation Tower
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

A total of 365 stones make up the remarkable, yet diminutive Cheomsongdae Observatory. If that is not impressive enough, the 7th-century structure, believed to be one of the oldest surviving buildings in Korea, also has 12 stones making up its base, suggesting the Silla Dynasty had an advanced understanding of the skies and a calendar system of their own. This astronomical accuracy seems far from a fluke. But better yet, it is situated in an open field away from town, making it a good place to come and do a little stargazing of your own to get a sense of the perspective shared by people here centuries ago, who were moved by the heavens enough to build an observatory in the first place.

2. Cycle between the Silla tombs in the south of the city


Royal Tombs of Silla Dynasty
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

Numerous burial sites surround Gyeongju, manifesting themselves as grassy, rounded hills known as tumuli. These final resting places of great Silla monarchs are clustered most densely at Tumuli Park to the south of the city. There are plenty of self-guided routes to take, and the best way to explore is by bicycle. Tumuli Park is the best place to start, with at least 20 separate tombs clustered in a verdant expanse of raised mounds. One of the largest, Flying Horse Tomb, is around 50 metres (164ft) wide and 13 metres (42.5ft) high. From here, it’s roughly a mile (1.6km) cycling to the Oreung Tombs, which include the burial sites of the first Silla king and queen.

3. Eat like royalty at a traditional hanok restaurant

Restaurant, Korean

In the movies, a royal mealtime involves sitting at a long table stuffed with every dish imaginable. There’s a similar dining experience common in Gyeongju that can be had for a sum accessible even to a pauper. Ssambap, which literally translates to ‘rice wrap’, is also known as hanjeongsik and consists of one main dish, often comprising pork or fish, followed by up to 30 side dishes (banchan) served at a large, low table. These can include various types of kimchi, fish, mushrooms, kelp and a whole range of perilla and lettuce leaves in which to create a bite-sized food parcel. In the south of the city, there are still a number of traditional hanok-style restaurants, like Dosol Maeul, that further add to the sense of timeless dining.

4. Martial your inner strength at a Golgulsa temple stay

Buddhist Temple

Golgulsa Buddhist temple
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

There are ordinary temple stays and then there are those where you can learn a Buddhist martial art from the monks who live in the temple. Sunmudo is a practice whose roots stem from Zen Buddhism and acts as a form of moving meditation. Golgulsa temple, on the east side of Gyeongju National Park, is one of the few places in the world where non-Buddhists can go to receive training in sunmudo, along with many of the other attendant benefits of a temple stay, including chanting services, guided meditation and plenty of local cuisine. Stays of one night up to a month are accepted throughout the year.

5. Get cuddly at the Teddy Bear Museum


Koreans seem to be delightfully adept at doing cute well, so it’s no surprise that the Teddy Bear Museum has been a big hit with families visiting Gyeongju. A series of installations depict various pastiches of Silla-era life and history (involving bears dressed in period costume as kings and queens), with plenty of recognisable sights, like Cheomsongdae Observatory, worked into the cuddly dioramas. Certain displays also get a little bit creative, with some rather unexplained time-travelling and dinosaurs cropping up for added curiosity.

6. Visit seven of South Korea’s National Treasures at Bulguksa Temple

Buddhist Temple

Bulguksa temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

South Korea has an official list of national treasures, which acts as a guide to some of the country’s most important historical, religious and cultural relics. Unsurprisingly, many of them can be found in and around Gyeongju. But few places in Korea house more than Bulguksa, which has even caught the attention of UNESCO. The 8th-century temple’s officially revered features include two stone pagodas, and two gilt-bronze Buddha statues among others. The temple is still active, so you are likely to hear the monks chanting as you explore the buildings.

7. Gain a 'hwarang' perspective from the summit of Namsan

Natural Feature

The view around Namsan Mountain
© Leo Daphne / Alamy Stock Photo

Just like in Seoul, there’s a mountain in Gyeongju called Namsan with fantastic views over the surrounding land. However, the one in Gyeongju was better known as the place where hwarang (flower youth) – teenage boys from wealthy families – were trained in the arts of philosophy, religion and warfare, much like the knights of medieval Europe. They would train on the slopes of Namsan mountain, and you can get a sense of just why it was chosen on one of the paths that lead up to the summit. Physical exertion gives way to inner contemplation as you approach the pagoda-dotted upper reaches, with their expansive views over the surrounding city and countryside.

8. Watch the sun rise over the sea from a mountainside grotto

Natural Feature

Seokguram grotto entrance in Gyeongju
© Keitma / Alamy Stock Photo

Although built at the same time as Bulguksa, Seokguram was forgotten about and only rediscovered in 1909, complete with its ensconced, 3.5-metre-high (11.5ft) Buddha. It was completed in the year 774, and the entrance offers wonderful views out towards Korea’s eastern coastline in good weather. Get here early to watch the sunrise. For the more adventurous, there’s a 2.5-km (1.5-mile) mountain path leading from Bulguksa all the way to Seokguram. This route is especially beautiful during the spring when certain trees are in blossom, or autumn, when all the leaves are changing colour.

9. Discover the relics of an empire at the Gyeongju National Museum


The Divine Bell of King Seongdeok, Gyeongju National Museum
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

While Gyeongju is rightfully seen as an open-air museum, there is one traditional style museum that shouldn’t be overlooked. Within the walls of Gyeongju National Museum, there are thousands of relics from the Silla era on display, including weaponry, porcelain items, carved folk art in jade, granite or gold, and plenty of other earthenware and metalwork artefacts. Few places give a clearer overview of Korea’s nascent cultural history than this.

10. Try the alcohol favoured by rural dwellers who lived in Gyeongju a millennium ago

Bar, Korean

Beopju is the little-known cousin of the better-known Korean alcohol beverages cheongju and makgeolli. It was a member of the Choi clan, named Choi Gukjun, who is believed to have invented this refined rice wine while working for the royal family during the Joseon era. His home town has been faithfully preserved as Gyochon Hanok Village and now provides a unique insight into the daily life of medieval Korean villagers. And you can experience that era through taste as well, for the clan continues to make beopju there.

Culture Trips launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes places and communities so special.

Our immersive trips, led by Local Insiders, are once-in-a-lifetime experiences and an invitation to travel the world with like-minded explorers. Our Travel Experts are on hand to help you make perfect memories. All our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.?>

All our travel guides are curated by the Culture Trip team working in tandem with local experts. From unique experiences to essential tips on how to make the most of your future travels, we’ve got you covered.

Culture Trip Spring Sale

Save up to $1,100 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article