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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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