At the beginning of February it was Lunar New Year (Seollal) here in Korea so we were treated to a lovely 5 day long holiday! These long weekends are the perfect time to go overseas or explore the country. I’m currently in major save mode, so it was the latter for me. We decided to head to Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Korea! Gyeongju has been on my Korea bucketlist for so long, I can’t believe it has taken me until now to actually go. Especially considering it’s just 2 hours away from my city.
Since Gyeongju is an ancient city, planning permission isn’t given for high rise apartment buildings- a welcome change from the usual identical looking, crammed cities. The whole city is extremely beautiful and peaceful with nice wide roads which are perfect for cycling.
Things to Do
They don’t call Gyeongju a museum without walls for no reason! The area is bursting with things to see from temples to tombs, pagodas, parks, forests and ponds. It’s a great place to get a feel for what Korea was like before K Pop, smartphones and PC rooms took over! There is honestly something to see round every corner, just take a look at a tourist map and you’ll feel overwhelmed by the amount of historically important sites. I’m going to concentrate on some of the main attractions around the city.
Entry: 2000 won
You can see tombs all over Gyeongju, but this is one of the only ones that is actually open for the public to go inside. The tombs are said to date back to the 5th or 6th century but it is unknown who the tomb belongs to since the documents were burned during the Japanese occupation. My favourite thing about the tombs wasn’t the tombs themselves, but the park around them which was so nice for taking a stroll around. I can imagine this would be beautiful in Spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Dongung Palace and Wolji Pond
Entry: 2000 won
This is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in Korea. The palace is floating above the lake and at night is illuminated with golden coloured lights. Honestly, it’s so amazing but sadly none of my pictures can do it justice so you just need to go see it yourself!
Cheomsongdae, meaning star-gazing in Korean, is one of the oldest astronomical observatories in Asia. This is one of the most famous attractions in Gyeongju, and you should definitely come to see this iconic building. Much like Cheonmachong Tombs, my favourite part was the surrounding park where you’ll see lots of children flying kites. Something I’ve never seen in Korea. I just loved the amount of open space here- it was the perfect place to watch the sunset. Also, don’t miss Gyerim Forrest which is right next to the observatory. Since I went in Winter, the trees were looking pretty bare, but was still pretty fun for biking around the dirt tracks! I imagine it would be beautiful in summer when the trees are really lush.
Entry: 5000 won
I almost dismissed this as another Korean temple, but I’m glad I went! This is one of the largest temples in Korea and there is a lot to see here. I loved peeking into all the different rooms and seeing all the huge colourful Buddha statues! Bulguksa is a bit of a trek from the main city. By public bus, it should take about 30 minutes. We decided to go by bike and it took 1.5 hours. Although we were riding along the side of the highway, there were still bike lanes. I love Gyeongju’s friendly attitude to cyclists!
If you only have time to do one thing in Gyeongju, make it Mt Namsan. This is an amazing hike and totally unique from other hikes in Korea due to all the temples, carvings and artifacts you’ll encounter on the way up. We went over Lunar New Year and were invited into the temple to have a traditional Buddhist lunch of bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables) with the monks, one of which was a Czech girl who had become a Korean Buddhist nun! It was so interesting to speak to her about her experience and the staff at the temple were so kind and lovely. The temple was so peaceful and much more understated than other temples I’ve been to in Korea. My favourite thing about it was the beautiful view on the edge of the mountain. After lunch we continued up the mountain, accidentally took a bit of a wrong turn, and ended up at the wrong peak, and missed a lot of the good stuff to see! Oh well, there’s always next time, and I doubt it will be our last visit to Gyeongju. The hike is just 400m, it isn’t too strenuous, so you can really enjoy it and take your time to enjoy the scenery (if you take the right path…….)
Where to Stay
We stayed at Homo Nomad Hostel and would definitely recommend it to other travellers. It’s in a really convenient locations, just a 5 minute walk from Cheonsongmae Observatory, 10 minutes from the bus terminal and 10 minutes from the city centre. Kao, the owner, is so friendly and made us feel so welcome. She is more than happy to give you tips and advice about what to see in the area. The hostel itself is really warm, cosy and most importantly, good value for money.
What to Eat
Since Gyeongju is the ancient capital, it would be a shame to come and not sample some traditional food. We decided to go for Ssam Bbap- a Korean dish, like barbeque, in which you case some meat in some lettuce wraps. The best part about traditional ssam bap restaurants is the amount of banchan (side dishes) you are given. We chose duck bulgoggi as our main dish and tried out jeonpu, the traditional liquoir of Gyeongju. I would definitely be keen to try Jeonpu again- it had a light flavour that really reminded me of sake, which I love!
Another food that you should probably try is Gyeongju bread. If youre a fan of red bean, you’ll love this. For me, I’ve eaten too many red bean breads out of politeness so I wasn’t too enamoured with it There is honestly a shop on every street, so no shortages of places to try it!
I can honestly say that Gyeongju is now my favourite city in Korea! Wow, I didn’t think I’d ever hear myself saying that, especially given my usual dismissive relationship with anything slightly historical or quiet! Ha, maybe I’m getting mature in my old age… But seriously, even if you don’t really care about historical things, Gyeongju has an amazing atmosphere that really sucks you in, and so many open spaces which I’ve really come to appreciate since living in Korea. I think a cherry blossom visit is definitely in order!
Now on pinterest 🙂 hover over the pic to pin!
What’s your favourite city in Korea? Let me know in the comments box 🙂