Where: Gyeongju, south east South Korea.
When: July 2011, May 2012 (Buddha’s birthday) and September 2012 (Chuseok).
Why: If you visit Korea, Gyeongju is a must-do. It’s one of the ancient capitals of Korea and is full of interesting sights. It’s also located in a really beautiful, rural part of Korea, with gorgeous mountain scenery and no tower blocks.
I first visited Gyeongju with Jeff on our way back from our Taiwan trip, then I returned with my brother in May 2012 and my parents in September 2012. Gyeongju is probably the most historic place in the country, it’s a unique place in the world, and I highly recommend a trip here for anyone visiting South Korea.
One of my colleagues asked me what one place should a foreign tourist to Korea visit, and I said Gyeongju. This is because it is one of the most fascinating places in the country and a unique place in the world. My British-Korean friend calls Gyeongju Telly-Tubby land, because the tombs of the ancient kings look like the mound from Telly-Tubbies.
Gyeongju is littered with the tombs of kings and queens, ancient palaces, important temples, grottos, pagodas, stone carved Buddhas etc etc. It is also in a really beautiful location and the rampant development that you find elsewhere in Korea has been restrained here. There are no ubiquitous tower blocks, just beautiful woods, lakes and mountains.
The centre of Gyeongju is not all that – in fact the centre of town is actually a bit of a dump – but the sights on the outskirts and the resort at Bomun Lake are lovely.
I went to Gyeongju three times: once with Jeff, then with my brother and friends, and then with my parents. I took my visiting family to Gyeongju as I think it is one of the most pretty and interesting places in Korea, and also because it is relatively easy to get to. I also wanted to show them the rural, pretty side of South Korea. I wanted to show them the best of Korea, and for me, Gyeongju is the best. For a visitor to Korea, it really is a must-do.
On our first visit we caught a train from Haeundae Beach (in Busan), direct to Gyeongju. This was a really pretty journey, partly along the coast, which took about an hour and a half, and cost ₩9,000 (about £5).
On the other two visits we travelled to Gyeongju from Suwon, by train. We caught a sameul train from Suwon to Dong-Daegu and then another train from Dong-Daegu to Gyeongju. Sameul trains are not as nice or as fast as the KTX bullet trains, but they are very comfy and still pretty quick. The train journey from Suwon took us about four hours and cost us ₩34,000/one way (about £17).
There’s a nice cafe, a tourist information centre, bike hire and local cake shops at the station. Local buses depart from directly outside.
Gyeongju has a KTX station (Singyeongju). There’s direct trains from Busan (about 30 minutes) and direct trains direct from Seoul (about two hours) to Singyeongju. A KTX ticket from Seoul to Singyeongju costs ₩44,000 (£22) one way.
The first time we visited Gyeongju we caught a mughwa train back to Suwon (the mughwa trains are one category below the sameul trains). We risked buying an unassigned ticket, which basically means you don’t have an allocated seat, you just sit in any spare seats and if there are none you stand. Unless I was looking to save money or was travelling on a quiet route at a quiet time, I don’t think I’d do this again. We seemed to have to change seats at every station and then had to stand for the second half of the three hour journey. The cost of the ticket was ₩14,100 won (about £8), which is incredibly cheap but I think I’d rather pay the extra for a seat.
On the next two visits to Gyeongju, we caught the train on to Haeundae Beach, in Busan.
Our second and third visits to Gyeongju were on the bank holiday weekends: Buddha’s birthday in May and then Chuseok in September. Chuseok is the largest Korean national holiday – the equivalent to Christmas in the west – and pretty much every Korean travels to see their family. As there is one main rail corridor which connects the four major cities in Korea, this means that train tickets get booked up straight away. To try to make this fair, Korail releases Chuseok train tickets at specific times. Korail group members get to buy their tickets first, then the remaining seats are opened to the general public. So, if you want to buy train tickets to travel over Chuseok, it is worth finding out from your local station when the tickets go on sale, and then go buy them in person from the station. Otherwise, there is a good chance you won’t get to travel.
Thank you to Jeff who went to Suwon station to buy the tickets for us and my parents as soon as they became available, otherwise we might not have been able to make this trip.
Buddha’s birthday was also really busy for train travel. We weren’t able to pre-buy tickets online as the train seats had sold out, but we found out at Gyeongju station that we could pre-buy standing tickets for the train home and so we did this.
You can check train times and prices and book your ticket (in English) at the Korail website.
Most of the sights in the town centre can be reached on foot, or by bike (it’s nice and flat and there are good pathways). However, to get to Bomun Lake or to visit Bulguksa Temple you will need to get a bus.
When we were there, buses 11, 10, 16 and 700 ran between the lake and the town centre. 10 and 11 ran on a loop which went past most of the major sights, including Bomun Lake and Bulguksa Temple. Bus 10 went to the lake first, bus 11 went to Bulguksa Temple first.
You can use your T-Money card on the buses (here you just beep when you get on), although you can’t top up non-Gyeongju cards locally. You could also pay the driver in cash and each journey was 1,100 won (about 60p).
A taxi from the station to the lake side cost us ₩12,000 (about £6).
What we did on our holidays
Tombs of ancient kings and queens
The main reason to visit Gyeongju is to see the telly-tubby like tombs of the Silla kings and queens, as these are unique in the world and very, very special.
The tombs are huge mounds, grassed over, which contain the graves of ancient royalty. These tombs can be found across Korea, but in Gyeongju there are hundreds of them all very close together.
Some of the tombs are in Tumuli Park, which you have to pay a small fee to visit, but many of them are just dotted around town – including the largest tomb, Bonghwangdae (Golden Phoenix) Tomb, which sits in a small park on the edge of the town centre.
You can go inside one of the tombs, Cheonmachong, which is located in Tumuli Park. Inside, you get to see how the mounds were built and what was inside. This tomb is known as the Heavenly Horse Tomb, as they found a horse mud-guard with a picture of a beautiful flying horse on it. In here you can also see a replica of the gorgeous Silla crown, which was excavated from the Geumgwanchong Tomb (the original is in the National Museum in Seoul). Cheonmachong Tomb is free to visit.
In truth, the tombs do look very Telly-Tubbyish – but they are still cool.
Entrance to Tumuli Park was ₩1,500 (about 75p).
You can find out more on the Visit Korea website.
Gyeongju Museum contains many of the relics which have been found in Gyeongju: the pleasure boat from Anapji Pond, huge bells, lots of stone Buddhas etc.
It was good, but to be honest I can’t remember a huge amount about the relics that are here. I think that is because we visited on a very hot day, I was extremely drowsy and I just wanted to lounge on benches. I think as well that I needed a guide to give me context to what I was seeing, and I didn’t have that – so to me I was just looking at lots of big statues and stuff.
However, despite this, I would still recommend the museum as somewhere to visit. Entrance is free, though you still have to get a ticket.
Anapji Pond was a pleasure garden for the Silla royal family. When they excavated Anapji Pond they found many amazing ancient relics in the pond, including a beautiful pleasure boat.
Apparently, the pond is very old (650 something), but I’m pretty sure that like many things in Korea it has been rebuilt much more recently.
To be honest though, pretty as it is, I found it to be a bit boring. We spent about fifteen minutes here, looking at flowers and grass and a pond. The pond is just a pond; it’s the relics that were found in it which make this such an interesting site, and these are to be found in the museum.
Anapji Pond is located between the museum and the astronomy tower, and you can visit it for ₩1,000 (50p).
Find out more on the Visit Korea website.
I love a good observatory. I think that any king or queen who is looking to the stars and trying to understand our universe, is a good king or queen – one who thinks.
The best observatory I have been to is the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur (I think that’s the best historical observatory in the world), but the one in Gyeongju is pretty cool too, albeit much smaller.
The Cheomseongdae Observatory sits in a field on the edge of town. You can go up to look at it, but can’t go inside. You can pay ₩1,000 (50p) to get slightly closer to it, although it’s not really worth it as you can see it so clearly from outside the fence.
The observatory is special as it’s the oldest observatory in East Asia (it was built in 700 something) and it is the oldest scientific installation on earth (according to wiki). The observatory has twelve large base stones (possibly signifying the months of the year) and is made up of 362 granite blocks (possibly signifying the days of a lunar year).
There’s a great little, free display room next to the observatory where you can watch films about space and history (in English if you like), and this is a great place to cool down or warm up, depending on the season.
The fields surrounding the observatory are a nice place for a picnic or to fly a kite etc – there are royal tombs all around this field too, and a series of small walls, which we think are the remains of an ancient palace, although there were no signs to tell us if this was the case.
Bulguksa Temple (UNESCO)
Bulguksa Temple was originally built around 700AD, reconstructed after a fire in the 17th century and then restored in 1973. (My dad visited in 1978, so it was pretty fresh then).
Bulguksa Temple is possibly the most prestigious and important temple in Korea. It is a very beautiful, special temple in a gorgeous, isolated location.
I’ve visited the temple three times now, and although I think it’s great, it is starting to look a little bit worn; although on our last visit scaffolding was up in certain places, so I think they may be starting to restore certain parts.
The temple has great entrance gates, with huge, cool demon statues. It has three or four courtyards, each with it’s own Buddhas, a great happy, lucky, golden pig and a cool big bell. The grounds of the temple are lovely – there are lots of huge shady trees.
The first time I visited was mid-week in a non-holiday time. When we visited this time the temple was very serene and peaceful and we could walk around calmly and quietly, peeking into the shrines and sitting on steps to relax. The next two times I visited were on major national holidays (Buddha’s birthday and Chuseok) and the temple was very, very crowded – and the peace and calm of my first visit was lost as I tried to constantly avoid being in other people’s photos, or not walk into other people. It was still fascinating, but didn’t have the magic of the first visit.
Entrance to the temple was ₩4,000. You can get there from Gyeongju on bus 10 or 11.
Seokguram Grotto (UNESCO)
Jeff and I think that Korea has two world-class tourist attractions: the DMZ and Seokguram Grotto.
Seokguram Grotto is located on a hill above Bulguksa Temple. It was built by Gim Daeseong in 750 to commemorate his parents in his previous life.
On my first two visits, we intended to visit Seokguram Grotto but we were always too late, so I was determined to go there on my third visit with my parents. To make sure we had time to visit both the temple and the grotto, we visited the temple in the morning. We then did the one hour, gentle hike to the top of the mountain to visit Seokguram Grotto. The hike was not too strenuous and there were toilets and a drinking fountain half way up.
Outside the entrance to the grotto site (by the car park) there is a huge bell which you can ring (₩1,000) and gorgeous views over Gyeongju and the sea. It’s then a ten minute, pretty walk, along a smooth wide path, to get to the grotto.
The grotto is located in a temple, a little up the hillside. Inside the grotto is a huge Buddha and some pretty decorations.
My dad visited South Korea in 1978. He bought my mom a little Buddha back with him as a souvenir. This little Buddha has been sitting on a shelf in our house for the whole of my life. This little Buddha is a replica of the Buddha in the Seokguram Grotto, so for me, seeing this huge Buddha that I had grown up with, was like seeing a familiar friend – but on a huge scale. He’s a lovely Buddha: all serene, sat in a lotus position. Because he is so familiar to me, it made my visit extra special.
Sadly, I can’t show you what the Buddha looks like as you are not allowed to take photos in the grotto. I’ll try to get a photo of mum and dad’s little Buddha to show you what he looks like.
We only actually spent about five minutes at the grotto, as you look at it through a pane of glass – and that is it. However, it is really beautiful and genuinely very, very old (which many things in Korea aren’t) and so well worth a visit.
Ticket price was ₩4,000 (about £2).
Bus 12 runs from Bulguksa Temple car park to the Seokguram Grotto car park about once every half an hour hour. We caught the bus back. We used our T-Money cards on this bus. The drive was very dramatic and very pretty.
Watched the sun set from the inside of a huge plastic duck
At the edge of Gyeongju town is Bomun Lake. This is a resort area with lots of hotels and touristy things, such as a theme park, water slides, 4WD experience etc. It’s a nice area, surrounded by woodland, although a lot of infrastructure here is quite fake and slightly empty, like a British sea side resort out of season.
However, it is very peaceful and pretty too, so twice we have stayed by the lake.
Down on the lake front you can hire plastic pedalo ducks, which you can cycle around the lake. The first time, Jeff and I went at sunset and it was quite romantic and fun. The second time I went with a bunch of friends and we chased each other around the lake, which was also a lot of fun – but this time there were a lot of spiders in the ducks.
The ducks cost ₩10,000 to hire for one hour. They are very silly and a lot of fun.
Saw a cultural show
By the plastic ducks, in the strange fake resorty area, there is an outdoor stage and on our first visit we were lucky enough to see a fabulous Korean cultural show here. They played modern hits on traditional instruments, there was beautiful dancing, a fake wedding ceremony and some cool fighting. The show was free and lasted one and a half hours.
We tried to go back on our second visit, but sadly the show was called off because of a few drops of rain.
Incidentally, just behind the stage area is a brilliant restaurant which we have gone to on every visit. The restaurant is set around a large, open courtyard and they serve lots of great Korean food. They also serve loads of side dishes and have one or two vegetarian options on the menu, so this is where I took my vegetarian dad and brother. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but it is one of my favourite restaurants in Korea and it is located just behind and to the left of the theatre area.
What we didn’t do on our holidays
Sadly, each time we have been to Gyeongju, it has been on a very quick visit and so we have only had time to see the key sites. If I was there for a little bit longer though, I would like to climb Namsan Mountain * – which is the sacred mountain of the Silla kingdom. On the mountain there are 64 pagodas and loads of royal tombs, stone carved Buddhas and 122 temples. Our friends Sam and Ellie climbed it, and they said at times they felt like they were in Switzerland and sometimes felt like they were in Britain. They highly recommend this as something to do, if you have the time.
(* Not to be confused with Mount Namsan in Seoul).
Find out more on the Visit Korea website.
Where we stayed
My first visit to Gyeongju was with my boyfriend (now husband). As we were travelling mid-week in lowish season, we didn’t pre-book anywhere and just found motels when we got there. We followed the neon and went to the hotel with the craziest, brightest lights.
For our first night, we stayed in a motel which I think is called Kings Motel – this was located off a side street just on the edge of down town, right by the park with the huge tombs in it, up the road from Macdonalds.
The room was cheap and good. I think we paid £20/night for an en-suite double.
We decided for our second night that we would like to be by the lake side, as it is a much prettier area and the woods and mountains here are lovely. So again we went to the motel with the most flashing lights, which this time was the Motel Zara.
There was a little mix up over prices (we thought they’d said 70,000 won (£35) for a VIP room, but the VIP room was actually 90,000 (£45). But anyhow, we ended up with a VIP room with lake views, a jacuzzi, two computers which connected to the humungous wide screen TV and free black raspberry wine. It was cool.
From outside, the hotel does look a little sleezy (it’s all the neon), but it isn’t and it is located in the most beautiful woodland.
My second visit to Gyeongju was with my brother and a bunch of mates, so the best thing for us was to stay in a hostel.
As we visited on Buddha’s birthday there wasn’t a lot of accommodation left and so the only place we could book was the Hanjin Hostel.
The Hanjin is located close to the bus station, on the far side of town to the station. It’s in an area full of motels. There’s not a lot right by the hostel and the area is a little seedy – but it was okay.
The rooms were a little bit worn (Priscilla’s bed kept falling apart in the night), but it was an okay set up and they had a lovely garden where you could chill out and meet other travellers.
They messed up our booking, but they did manage to accommodate us. We’d booked two single rooms and two dorm beds, but we ended up with a boys room and beds in a girls dorm.
The owners were lovely however; they were really fun, helpful and interesting to talk to. They made us breakfast in the garden, with products from the garden – that was great.
I probably wouldn’t stay here again, as I didn’t like the midnight curfew and because I can get a motel for nearly the same price, but it was OK – and for a single traveller it was a good place to meet other people.
A bed in the dorm room cost £9.50/night. A single/double room with shared bathroom cost £12.50/night and an en-suite was £15/night.
Swiss Rosen Hotel
My third visit to Gyeongju was with my parents, so we wanted to book somewhere a little nicer for them, and we decided to stay by Bomun Lake as it is pretty and peaceful. The best deal we found was the Swiss Rosen, which we booked through booking.com for about £40/room/night.
The hotel was nice. It was located at the back of the resort. It had a tiny swimming pool (closed when we were there) and some swing seats in the sun. The rooms were fine. They were a little bit worn but OK and the staff were really helpful.
A great ap to download to your phone is the Triposo South Korea guide, which contains maps and information about South Korea, and you don’t have to be connected to wi-fi to use it.
We also downloaded an application called Silla History Tour (as recommended by the Swiss Rosen Hotel). If you can get it to work, it is really informative, although both my dad and I found that it crashed a lot.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or gotten something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.