Photo: The past (Cheomseongdae Observatory) meets the present (Cheomseongdae chocolate)
Recently in Korea, dramas based on “time travel” are gaining popularity. Drama “Signal (2016)” uses a two-way radio to connect the present and the past and “Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016)” unfolds the story of a present day female character being warped in time. Time traveling stories that go back and forth in time excite viewers’ imaginations.
Do not be surprised to learn that “time travel” is not just an imaginary tale, but it is also possible in real life at Gyeongju! Gyeongju served as the capital of the Silla Dynasty for a thousand years and as a result, the city itself is like an enormous historical museum, but observe closely and you will find many modern day attractions hidden within. Visit Gyeongju this fall to enjoy your own special experience of time travel!
TIP) This article is divided into two sections, “Travel to the Past” and “Remain in the Present,” so that visitors can explore Gyeongju in a unique way. “Travel to the Past” introduces historical sites that retain stories of the past, while “Remain in the Present” introduces places where visitors can go for a pleasant walk or take memorable photos.
Photo: Seokgatap and Dabotap Pagodas standing in the front yard of Bulguksa Temple (Courtesy of Gyeongju City Hall)
As a representative temple built during the time of unified Silla, Bulguksa Temple is a designated UNESCO World Heritage. Located at the foot of Tohamsan Mountain, the temple is popular for blooming cherry blossoms in spring and colorful foliage in fall. The specific date of Bulguksa Temple’s establishment remains uncertain due to conflict in the historical records; however, most agree that it was built by Prime Minister Kim Daeseong during the reign of King Gyeongdeok (r.742-765), the 35th ruler of the Silla Dynasty.
Bulguksa Temple holds many stories, but the most famous story would be how the temple was built. Kim Daeseong’s determination to build the temple came from his belief of karma and reincarnation. He believed that he was born and raised poorly in his previous life, but was reincarnated in a wealthy family and was raised to be a prime minister as a result of his prior mother’s good deeds. As he had lived two lives, he built Seokguram Grotto for the sake his parents of his previous life and Bulguksa Temple for the sake of his parents of his present life.
Photo: Cheongungyo and Baegungyo Bridges of Bulguksa Temple (Courtesy of Gyeongju City Hall)
Hours will pass by in the blink of an eye at Bulguksa Temple. Take in the scenery and stories of Cheongungyo and Baegungyo Bridges that connect the secular world to the higher world of Buddha, Seokgatap Pagoda that tells the heartbreaking tale of a famous stonemason Asadal and his wife Asanyeo, and Dabotap Pagoda engraved on Korea’s penny. Bulguksa Temple is a treasure trove of cultural relics and stories like these.
Photo: Cheomseongdae Observatory, known to be the world’s oldest observatory
Cheomseongdae Observatory is the symbol of Gyeongju. According to historical records, the observatory was built under the rule of Silla’s first female ruler, Queen Seondeok (r. 632-647), making it the oldest surviving observatory. The actual size of this historical artifact is quite small when seen in real life.
Cheomseongdae Observatory is made in the shape of a well and holds a few interesting secrets. The structure was built with stones stacked in 24 layers with one square window at its center, dividing the stone layers into top and bottom of 12 layers each. This represents the 24 seasonal periods within 12 months in 1 year. In addition, 362 stones were used to represent the total number of days in lunar year. These amusing facts add more fun when visiting the observatory.
Photo: Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond at night
A spot famous for the most beautiful nightscape in Gyeongju - AnapjiPond! Its original name is Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, but Koreans more commonly know the pond as Anapji (pond of geese and ducks). There is a story behind to why this place earned its name. Donggung Palace refers to the palace where Silla’s crown prince lived and Wolji Pond was the man-made pond created in front of Donggung Palace. The site was a royal villa often used as a banquet venue for important guests and special celebrations. When the Unified Silla had fallen, the entire place was left abandoned to be occupied by overgrown reeds, wild geese and ducks, hence the name Anapji Pond. However, a clay bowl was unearthed in 2011 with the name “Wolji” written on it, thereby identifying the true name of the pond.
Photo: Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond at night
Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond are known to be more spectacular at night than in the day. When the sun sets and darkness falls upon the site, the night lights and the surrounding trees create a fascinating scene. It may even give a sensational feeling of walking at night in the past during the time of Silla Dynasty.
Photo: Ginkgo Forest in Dori Village
Dori Village is located a short distance out of the city of Gyeongju. It may be more challenging to find compared to other tourist attractions, but visitors will be rewarded with an exotic and mesmerizing scene upon arrival. This site gained attention as a filming site for the movie “Slow Video (2014).” The ginkgo trees surrounding the village create a grand forest, captivating the hearts of visitors, with its beauty reaching its peak during fall. The contrast of blue skies and yellow ginkgo leaves creates a perfect background for spectacular photos.
Photo: Picturesque photo spots in Dori Village
The most popular photo spots in Dori Village are the ginkgo forest pathway and the abandoned house. The forest pathway offers a picturesque scene at every angle while the abandoned house is perfect for creative and unique photos. When taking pictures at the abandoned house, look for positions where shadows of tree leaves fall upon the house walls to create beautiful photos that look just like paintings.
Photo: View of Gyeongju Folk Craft Village
Gyeongju Folk Craft Village is a village formed by local artisans of Gyeongju who gathered to preserve and pass on traditional skills of Korean arts and crafts. The village welcomes tourists to explore the diverse world of Korean handicraft through exhibitions and purchasable items. The overall atmosphere of the village may seem like a restoration of the past with tiled-roof houses with long eaves, but many of the modern-day technologies are merged, stirring up a feeling as if you are moving back and forth between the past and the present.
Photo: Exhibitions and experiences at “Master’s Trace”
Make sure to stop by “Master’s Trace Museum” within the Folk Craft Village! It is a one-stop exhibition where visitors can observe Korean traditional masterpieces from the past to the modern arts, articulately handcrafted by master artisans of diverse fields. Special exhibitions such “Guest in the Inner Room” and “Sarangbang (main room)” are also prepared so that visitors can take a peek at what life was like in the past.
Photo: Crossing the bridge at Marsh Eco Park
As taking photogenic shots is becoming a trend among young people in Korea, locations that create beautiful and picturesque photo backgrounds are gaining attention. One of the many places that is gaining in popularity is the Gyeongsangbuk-do Forest Research Institute. The most popular photo spot within this arboretum was the tree log bridge at Marsh Eco Park. However, the log bridge was recently replaced with a regular wooden bridge for safety precautions. Do not be disappointed, though – you can still take awesome scenic photos with the bridge over the marsh.
Photo: A photogenic spot at Marsh Eco Park
There are four paths with the Marsh Eco Park at its center. Flowers and trees of various species create a different scene along each path, offering plenty of opportunities for outstanding photos. Even an ordinary bench can seem like a photo set. When taking a photo seated on the bench, including the leaves covering the bench in the photo adds more colors and a natural feeling to the picture.
Photo: Night view of Gyeongju Tower (Courtesy of Gyeongju World Culture Expo Park)
Gyeongju Wolrd Culture Expo Park has the most modern feeling in all of Gyeongju while offering much to see and explore in the world of arts and culture. A walking pathway leads visitors from the entrance to Gyeongju Tower. Visitors are also welcome to explore Asia’s largest fossil museum, Jurassic Road, and Gyeongju’s public art museum, Gyeongju Solgeo Art Museum.
The attention-grabber in Gyeongju World Culture Expo Park is none other than Gyeongju tower. As the tallest building in Gyeongju, it boasts a unique design. The building features a modern design with a hollow relief at its center. The shape of the relief was inspired by the nine-story pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple redesigned to match present day architecture. Gyeongju Tower itself offers quite a sight, posing as a splendid background for memorable photos. Be sure to get the whole building in your pictures!
After touring around Gyeongju, the specialized breads and chocolates are must-buy items while on site. Not only are they delicious, but they are also perfect for souvenirs. The expiration dates are relatively short, so it is advised to consume the goods within 2-3 days after purchase.
Silla Smiley Bread
The serene smile on this bread will surely catch your attention. Inspired by a fragment of roof end tile artifact from the Silla period with a human’s smiling face engraving, the bread is filled with red beans, walnuts, and blueberries. The bread is not too sweet and has a similar texture to sponge cakes.
This is a two layered pancake made from barley flour with red bean paste in between. It can get addicting with the bread’s sweet and chewy texture that fills your mouth with every bite.
Cheomseong Walnut Bread
Recommended to those who love rice cakes, this walnut bread is shaped in the form of Cheomseongdae Observatory with a texture closer to rice cake than bread. Peas are also added for more color and flavor.
Although this bread is a delicacy that represents Gyeongju as a whole, it is known to have been made in the Hwangnam-dong neighborhood, thus its name “Hwangnam Bread.” The biggest characteristic of this bread is the sweet red beans stuffed inside a thin crust. Take the first savory bite and you will be surprised by the sweetness that comes with each following bite.
The recent rising star of the Gyeongju treats are the handmade chocolates in the shape of Cheomseongdae Observatory. You can enjoy different flavors as the chocolates come in three flavors – green tea, dark chocolate, and coffee.
* This column was last updated in October 2016, and therefore information may differ from what is presented here. We advise you to check details from the official websites before visiting.