|Gyeongju, a fascinating city of historical importance and cultural heritage|
Situated in the southeastern part of Korea, Gyeongju in Gyeongsangbuk-do was the capital of the Silla Kingdom (57 BC – AD 935), which was ruled by 56 kings over 992 years, the longest period of any dynasty in the history of Korea. Over the course of almost a thousand years, Silla transformed itself from a small tribal nation to a kingdom occupying more than half of the Korean Peninsula. During that time, Gyeongju had steadfastly remained its capital. Gyeongju had previously been called Seorabeol and Gyerim, and the name Gyeongju first appeared on record in AD 935. These days, Gyeongju continues to show its importance even though more than a thousand years have passed since the fall of the Silla Kingdom.
Buddhism, which the Silla Kingdom adopted in the 6th century, helped strengthen the royal power and unite the people. The Buddhist religion also left fascinating cultural heritages. For this reason, Gyeongju features numerous Buddhist cultural relics, and is the top destination for school trips in Korea. The Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto are major historical sites in Gyeongju and the essence of Korean Buddhist culture. In 1995, both became the first sites in Korea to be designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. In 2000, five historical sites in downtown Gyeongju became UNESCO World Cultural Heritages under the name of the Gyeongju Historic Areas. Thanks to this mass of culturally rich heritages, Gyeongju must continue to be preserved and recognized both at the national and global level.
Gyeongju can be reached by train or bus in four to five hours from Seoul. Home to the capital of the Silla Dynasty, Gyeongju has so many things to see that the whole city is often referred to as a museum without walls. In terms of city or population size, Gyeongju is just a small city. But having been the capital of a thousand year kingdom, Gyeongju cannot be viewed in just a few days. The downtown features many huge tumuli (tombs) and relics, which are very different from the royal palaces or tombs in Seoul. Here, relics from the Silla Kingdom are scattered throughout the city resulting in multiple sites being designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage under the name of the Gyeongju Historic Areas. So, we invite you to visit Gyeongju and explore the fascinating cultural relics of the ancient capital of Silla.
Major Tourist Sites by Category
Since so many historical relics from the Silla period are scattered throughout the city, you are advised to decide in advance which sites you want to visit based on your personal preference. Read on to learn more about the major tourist sites in Gyeongju.
UNESCO World Cultural Heritage
Those who visit Gyeongju for the first time will first no doubt remember the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites. Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto are hailed as the historical essence of Korean Buddhist culture. They were designated UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites in 1995. In 2000, five key sites in the heart of Gyeongju were collectively designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage and are known as the Gyeongju Historic Areas.
Depicting the ideal world of Buddha, Bulguksa is a precious historical site from the Silla Dynasty that showcases the rich Buddhist culture, which was the spiritual and religious backbone of the Silla Dynasty. The temple is an integration of the incredible craftsmanship and art during the 8th century. It is home to a number of national treasures, the most well-known being the Dabotap and Seokgatap Pagodas in front of Daeungjeon (Main Hall).
Seokguram Grotto looks like a natural stone cave. It was made in a dome shape and only used square blocks. The walls were covered with soil. Inside is Bonjonbulsang, a seated Buddha statue, which is hailed as the essence of Korean Buddhist art of the Unified Silla period. Created about 1,200 years ago, Seokguram exquisitely combines the Silla Dynasty's knowledge in architecture, science, geometry, and art. The superb architectural technique used is unprecedented in excellence.
Bunhwangsa Temple was built for the 27th ruler of Silla, Queen Seondeok, who ruled between 632 and 647 and was the dynasty's first reigning queen. The temple features Mojeonseoktap, which was built in 634 and is the oldest surviving stone pagoda from the Silla period. The pagoda was built with bricks cut from black andesite and has a unique form rarely found elsewhere.
Girimsa Temple was first built in the 7th century, but it was rebuilt several times in the Joseon Dynasty. The temple is expansive and grand. Inside the temple compound, numerous buildings have survived the test of time, including Daejeokgwangjeon Hall where the statue of Birojanabul (Vairocana) is enshrined. The hall is a major Buddhist hall from the late Joseon era and features a solid structure and a magnificent spatial arrangement. Also impressive is the Samcheonbuljeon Hall where 3,000 Buddhist statues are enshrined.
Golgulsa Temple features a 4-meter high sculpture of the Maya Tathagata Buddha that stands on the top of a steep rock. The sculpture is estimated to have been built out of solid rock in the 9th century. Golgulsa also operates a Seonmudo (Buddhist martial art) School, drawing a large number of foreign monks. The school offers various programs, including a two-day program and a one-month program. At the Golgulsa Temple Stay & Seonmudo Experience, the day starts and ends with Seonmudo.
Gameunsa Temple was built to secure the divine aid of Buddha in order to protect the nation. All the buildings have been burned to the ground except for two three-story stone pagodas that stand next to each other. Construction of the temple began under King Munmu (ruled from 661 to 681) who unified the Three Kingdoms in 676. It was completed during the reign of his son, King Sinmun (reigned from 681-692). To allow the spirit of his father, who had once expressed his wish to become a sea dragon after his death to defend his country, King Sinmun ordered the area under the Geumdang Hall to be built in a way that the dragon would visit frequently.
Excavation work is still on-going at the site of Hwangnyongsa Temple, which at first sight, just looks like an expansive field. The original plan was to build a palace, but it was decided to build a temple instead after reports were received that a yellow dragon had been spotted at the site. The temple was built over the course of 90 years under the rule of four kings. The Hwangnyongsa nine-story wooden pagoda, which was built as an act of devotion so that Silla might unify the Korean Peninsula, was destroyed, but it inspired the design of Gyeongju Tower and has a replica at the Gyeongju National Museum.
The Gyeongju National Museum exhibits relics of the Silla period excavated in the Gyeongju region. The permanent exhibition halls consist of the Archeology Hall, Art Hall, Anapji Hall, and Special Exhibition Hall. Around 3,000 relics are on exhibit, including the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok (Emile Bell), which is National Treasure of Korea no. 29.
Cheomseongdae is the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia. The observatory was necessary in the Silla period to aid in agriculture, a key sector. The movement of stars was used to predict the fortune of the nation. The number of stones and floors of Cheomseongdae are symbolic of altitudes. The digital hall right next to the entrance offers video information of how Cheomseongdae was built (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese).
This huge pond inside the royal palace of Silla is now lit up at night, creating a splendid night view. Relics unearthed at the site over a ten year excavation period are housed separately in the Anapji Hall at the Gyeongju National Museum.
Poseokjeong Pavilion is located in the secondary palace of the Silla royalty. This place was used for banquets organized by the kings. Today, no buildings remain except for an abalone-shaped stone structure. The structure has curved granite blocks that created a groove around the pavilion and was used to float wine glasses. King Gyeong-ae (924-927) was killed at Poseokjeong Pavillion while indulging in pleasures. For that reason, Poseokjeong stands symbolically as the demise of the Silla kingdom.
Gyerim Forest is associated with the legend of the founder of the Gyeongju Kim clan, which produced 38 of 56 Silla rulers. According to the legend, a rooster was heard crying from deep inside the woods. Nearby, a golden box was found hanging on a tree branch where the rooster was crying. A small child was found inside and was given the name Kim (meaning gold).
Royal Tombs & Tumuli
Daereungwon is the largest tumuli (tombs) in Gyeongju. It is a collection of 23 tombs from the Silla period. The area has been turned into a beautiful park where visitors can enjoy a leisurely walk. Cheonmachong is the only tomb in Daereungwon that is opened to the public. Inside, visitors can view the tomb pattern and find burial goods recovered from the tomb.
The underwater tomb of King Munmu (ruled from 661 to 681) who unified the Three Kingdoms (676) is about 36 kilometers away from downtown Gyeongju. According to his last will, King Minmu requested that he be cremated and scattered in the sea so that he can become a dragon and thwart foreign invasions. His remains were cremated in the Buddhist tradition.
General Kim Yushin (595-673) is a heroic figure who contributed greatly to the unification of the Three Kingdoms (676). He received the highest honorary title of Silla and was posthumously honored with the title King Heungmu. The tomb of General Kim Yusin is a large tomb measuring roughly 30m in diameter. The relief carvings of 12 Korean zodiac gods (half man, half animal) stand guard around the tomb.
This is the tomb of Queen Seondeok (ruled between 632 and 647), the 27th king of Silla and its first reigning queen. It is a round-shaped tomb with earthen layers, 6.8 meters high and 23.6 meters in diameter. It is comparatively smaller than other royal tombs. The tomb itself doesn't have any unique features, but the pine trees surround the tomb, creating a cozy and peaceful ambiance.
General Tourist Sites
Bomun Lake Resort is a general tourist resort around Bomun Lake. It features a deluxe hotel, hot springs, golf club, horse-rising resort, Gyeongju World theme park, the Shilla Millennium Park, and the Gyeongju World Culture Expo Park.
The Shilla Millennium Park is a park offering education and entertainment about the history and culture of the Silla period. Inside the park is an outdoor set where the Korean drama Queen Seondeok was filmed. There is also an ultra-large performance venue, a craft village, and a replica of an aristocratic village of the Silla period.
The park was built to commemorate the Gyeongju World Culture Expo. Inside, there is the Silla Culture History Pavilion, 3-D Animation World, and World Fossil Museum. The Gyeongju Tower at the park is a replica of the nine-story wooden pagoda of Hwangnyongsa Temple. The tower is a new landmark of Gyeongju.
Recommended Travel Courses
Gyeongju Stamp Tour
The Gyeongju Stamp Tour offers a fun way of exploring the major tourist sites of Gyeongju. Visitors can get stamps at fifteen historical and cultural sites. At each of these destinations, you can find a booth where you can get a stamp tour booklet and a stamp. The booths are open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., during which times the culture tour guides are at work.
Downtown and Namsan Mountain Areas
The downtown area was the center of the thousand-year Silla kingdom and is where the Gyeongju tour starts. This area is home to the largest number of cultural assets, and can be toured by bicycle or by foot. There are many accommodation facilities near the train station and bus terminal, and many restaurants are found near major historical sites. The Namsan Mountain area features many historical relics symbolizing the rise and fall of Silla. There are around 150 temples, 120 stone Buddha statues, and 90 stone pagodas scattered throughout the area. Namsan Mountain is only 500 meters high, so take one of the many hiking trails, and enjoy the sites along the way.
Recommended itinerary: Daereungwon Royal Burial Grounds → Cheomseongdae Astronomical Observatory → Bunhwangsa Temple → Donggung Wolji (Imhaejeonji, Anapji Pond)→ Gyochon Village → Oreung Tomb→ Poseokjeong
Seoak and Northern Areas
Seoak area is home to the tombs of King Muyeol and General Kim Yushin who envisioned the unification of the Three Kingdoms. The Seoak area can be toured by bicycle, but the Yangdong Village in the Northern area must be visited by car.
Recommended itinerary: Royal Tomb of King Muyeol → Tomb of General Kim Yushin → Yangdong Village
Bulguksa Temple, East Coast Areas
The Bulguksa Temple area features the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites of Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto. The two sites can only be accessed by bus or taxi as they are located in the mountains. There is a bus running between Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto. The East Coast area is home to the underwater tomb of King Munmu (30th king of Silla, ruled between 661 and 681), who unified the Three Kingdoms, and the Gameunsaji Temple site. The underwater tomb of King Munmu can be seen from Bongil Beach.
Recommended itinerary: Royal Tomb of King Wonseong (previously Goereung) → Bulguksa Temple → Dongri Mokwol Literary Museum → Seokguram Grotto → Gameunsa Temple Site
Gyeongju City Tour
The Gyeongju City Tour is a convenient way to explore Gyeongju and get to major tourist sites, including Bulguksa Temple, Seokguram Grotto, Gyeongju National Museum, Cheonmachong and Cheomseongdae. Currently, the city tour organizer offers four courses, and visitors can choose their own course for a one-day, two-day, or three-day trip. You can get on and off freely at Singyeongju Station, Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal, Bomun Lake Resort (hotels and condominiums), or Bulguksa Accommodation Complex. A video guide of each tourist site is displayed on a monitor in the front of the bus and is available in Korean, English, Japanese, and Chinese.
Food and Regional Specialties
In Gyeongju, there are streets dedicated to a variety of local specialties such as hwangnamppang (soft bread with a red bean paste filing), ssambap (rice wrapped in a variety of vegetable leaves), kalguksu (a noodle dish made of handmade, knife-cut wheat-flour noodles), and tofu dishes. The following describes some of Gyeongju's most popular specialties.
Gyori gimbap (교리김밥) of Gyeongju of is one of the three major gimbaps (dried seaweed rolls) in Korea along with chungmu gimbap of Tongyeong, and mayak gimbap of Seoul's Gwangjang Market. A must-try local specialty for those visiting Gyeongju, gyori gimbap is characterized by a generous amount of thinly sliced fried egg that is placed inside the rolls. These savory rolls taste even better when eaten with a hot bowl of janchi guksu (thin noodles served in an anchovy-based broth).
A culinary aspect native to Korea, 'ssam' refers to eating meat or rice by wrapping it in a vegetable leaf. Ssambap (쌈밥) is a rice dish served with a variety of vegetable leaves, meat, rice, and side dishes. Though ssambap is readily available in many regions, Gyeongju ssambap is traditionally characterized by the number and variety of side dishes. Using seasonal ingredients, the servings are always fresh and plentiful. Dozens of ssambap restaurants are located along the road near the Daereungwon Tomb Complex.
First introduced in 1939, the name 'hwangnamppang (황남빵)' originated from a district in Gyeongju called Hwangnam-dong. It is a Gyeongju specialty that has preserved the same traditional recipe and flavors for 70 years. The soft bread filled with sweet red bean paste has become one of the nation's favorite snacks. Each batch of bread is handmade from start to finish. In fact, you can watch the bakers at work through the bakery windows.
Chalborippang (찰보리빵) is another popular specialty bread of Gyeongju. It is made with locally produced glutinous barley, which gives it a delectably chewy texture. There are dozens of chalborippang shops scattered throughout the city, so you can easily purchase and taste one. The price ranges from 5,000 won to 30,000 won per box depending on the size.
Gyeongju Gyo-dong Beopju
Beopju (법주), a local liquor, is associated with the Gyo-dong district in Gyeongju, where the Choi clan has been brewing this special libation for over 300 years. Made of glutinous rice, beopju is a kind of cheongju (refined rice wine). This transparent liquor has a yellowish tint, an alcohol content of about 17% and a very smooth taste. As it uses a secondary fermentation process, the whole brewing period takes about a hundred days. Most beopju liquors available for purchase have been aged for over a year.
Ever year Gyeongju holds its regional cherry blossom festival. The festival takes place across three main venues, with a special focus on Bomun Lake Resort. During the festival period, visitors to Gyeongju can experience the intersection of culture and nature.
Gyeongju Cherry Blossom Marathon
In Gyeongju, you may participate in a marathon while the blossoming pink cherry blossom petals rain down on your shoulder. This fantastic marathon race is an annual celebration held every spring. The marathon course starts at Gyeongju World Culture Expo Park and provides multiple courses including a full course (42.195Km), half-course (21.0975Km), as well as a 10km and 5km course. There is even a walking course for Japanese visitors attracting more Japanese participants every year.
Silla Cultural Festival is an annual celebration held every October throughout the downtown Gyeongju area. The festival is to celebrate and promote the Buddhist spirit as well as the time-honored culture of the ancient Silla Dynasty. During the festival you may enjoy a wide variety of traditional games such as Gungdo (traditional archery), Ssireum (traditional wrestling), Geunaetagi (traditional swing) and Juldarigi (a tug-of-war). Also organized are a variety of performances and hands-on programs.
Related Columns on Gyeongju
Tourist Information Center
* Gyeongju City Hall: http://www.gyeongju.go.kr (Korean, English, Japanese, Chinese)
Smart Tour Guide, a historic tour using smartphones
The Smart Tour Guide offers an extensive range of audio tours and is available for use on smartphones. Major historical sites and national museums in the region are introduced through basic and entertaining storytelling and made available in digital form. The audio tours include the Silla History Tour covering the Gyeongju area, the Baekje History Tour covering the Buyeo and Gongju area, the Gaya History Tour covering the Gimhae area, in addition to history tours through the National Museum of Korea, Gyeongju National Museum, and Buyeo, Gongju and Gimhae National Museums. Download your free Smart Tour Guide application at http://www.koreastorytelling.com/eng/ (Korean, English, Japanese) or on the Google Play or iTunes App Stores.
(Smart Tour Guide Application)
* This column was last updated in April 2014, and therefore information may differ from what is presented here. We advise you to check details from the official websites before visiting.
<Last updated in April 4, 2014>