If you’re planning to spend a few days in the Korean countryside, the sleepy farming town of Gyeongju is one of my top recommendations. Today it is home to pretty rice fields and farmhouses, but 1300 years ago, Gyeongju was the seat of power of the unified Korean nation. Miraculously, many historic structures have survived from that era, making Gyeongju a living museum.
To explore Gyeongju, you first need a means to get around, as it’s too sprawling to be covered on foot. There are public buses, but with barely any traffic on the roads, a bicycle is really the coolest way to get around. The hostel I stayed at, Nabi Guesthouse, provided bikes.
Your first stop would probably be the numerous Tumuli, or tombs of royalty, that can be found within the town proper. Incredibly grand and intricate gold crowns have been found in some of the tombs, the best of which can be seen at Seoul’s National Museum of Korea. But in Gyeongju, you can actually enter one of the tombs and see the inside! Don’t miss it!
Next up is Gyeongju’s top attraction, the extremely well-preserved Bulguksa temple with its Buddhist pagodas. The name of the temple signifies the wish of the Silla kingdom to found a nation of Buddhists – although the religion was suppressed by later dynasties in favour of Confucianism, and has recently been replaced by Christianity as South Korea’s dominant faith. Regardless of your personal beliefs, you can make a wish or prayer at the little stone heaps behind the temple – just don’t knock them over!
Behind Bulguksa is a fun climb to Seokgulam Grotto, where a massive Buddha carving rests in a mysterious cave. No photos are allowed, but trust me, this is one site worth visiting.
There are more Buddha carvings – perhaps thousands – on the holy mountain of Namsan (not to be confused with Seoul’s Namsan) but you won’t be able to bike up the mountain. If you like, you can take a bus there and then hike around the mountain, it should take at least half a day.
In the evening, don’t forget to stop by Anapji Pond (it means a pond for ducks and geese, apparently). Pretty in the day, this attraction is absolutely stunning after sunset and if you’re into photography, you won’t regret bringing a tripod. The pavilions are reconstructed (faithfully, we hope).
Beyond the main hotspots, Gyeongju is just a beautiful countryside getaway amid rice paddies and bibimbap stores. It is also well conserved – even the convenience stores look kind of historical! Gyeongju is also a great place to enjoy cherry blossoms in spring. See more here.
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