Best things to do in Gyeongju
Find out more about those top places in Gyeongju
Gyeongju is a city that deserves more attention than it gets. Undoubtedly the jewel in South Korea’s already dazzling tourist trail, this coastal city is one of the country’s most ancient attractions where treasures were accumulated over 1000 years of Silla dynasty rule. The city’s main draw is the Tumuli-gongwon, a huge and tranquil park within the city’s formidable walls that contains the grassy burial mounds of twenty-three Silla monarchs. Beyond this, the former palace complex of the Silla dynasty is one of South Korea’s most historic locations while the spectacular Bulguk-sa Buddhist temple is listed on UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list. In short, Gyeongju is a city that contains a clutch of world-class historical and cultural attractions that are the envy of far larger and better-known East Asian metropolises.
Bulguksa, the crowning architectural achievement of the Silla Kingdom, is one of South Korea’s most iconic attractions. Set on a series of stone terraces, the temple complex encompasses numerous ornate bridges, gilded pagodas celebrating the Buddha and landscaped gardens that are a joy to explore. Guided tours of this UNESCO listed site are easily arranged and help delve into the rich symbolism of the architecture.
The South Korean ministry of tourism likes to describe Gyeongju as an open-air museum, and they are not wrong. Tumuli Park, which covers a vast swathe of the city, is home to the burial mounds, known as tumuli, of 23 Silla monarchs. The tumuli are grassy mounds meant to represent that rounded hillocks that surround the city. Currently, only one tomb is open for visitors, Cheonmachong.
Not far from the Bulguksa temple is the UNESCO listed grotto of Seokguram, which contains numerous Buddhist sculptures. The temple’s position high in the mountains overlooking the East Sea has made it the symbolic protector of the Korean nation and the site’s history is palpable. Guided tours of this remarkable complex are available.
Right in the heart of Gyeongju’s shopping district are two of the largest extant Silla tombs, known as Noseo-dong. Both were erected in the 5th century and were excavated during the 1940s with archaeologists finding a plethora of historic artifacts, including two golden crowns. While the tombs cannot be entered, they are impressive to wander round and marvel at the engineering prowess of the ancient kingdom.
Often touted as Korea’s best museum, the Gyeongju National Museum has a simply astonishing collection of artifacts dating from the Silla period. The main exhibits have countless pieces of jewelry, weaponry and ceremonial items dating from the 5th and 6th centuries AD while an art hall focuses exclusively on the Buddhist art forms found at Bulguksa Temple.
Newly weds from across South Korea come to the idyllic Anapji Pond, which is surrounded by the imposing Donggung Palace complex. The pond itself is also a site of great archaeological importance. It was created to commemorate the unification of Korea under the Silla Dynasty and many historic relics have been dredged from the pond in recent decades, most of which are now displayed at the Gyeongju National Museum.
Thought to be the only underwater tomb in the world, the tomb of King Munmu is one of South Korea’s most unusual historic attractions. The burial site was chosen as King Munmu was thought to be able to transform in death into a sea dragon that could protect the Silla Kingdom. Today, little can be seen from the land bar the remains of the temple that once stood in the sea. However, the spot is popular for shamanic rituals giving it an unforgettable atmosphere.