There is another side of Korea to the high-tech, modern cities and bright lights. That side is of green spaces filled with the tombs of ancient kings, tranquil temples and traditional buildings, and some of the best food in all of South Korea. Ideal for a 24 hour trip, Gyeongju is a place that anybody craving an authentic slice of the country should include on their itinerary.
The Silla Dynasty put Korea on the map as a serious regional power and bequeathed the country a deeper sense of identity and culture than it had ever known. It is no surprise then, that the Kings of this era (57BC – 935CE) hold a special place in the hearts of many Korean people. Gyeongju is where most of their burial mounds, known as tumuli, can be found. They look like gentle, grassy hills, often rising up beside pretty hanok (traditional houses).
Gyeongju was Silla’s capital city, and is now South Korea’s primary historical pilgrimage site. UNESCO listed temples, like Bulguksa, are some of the best examples of architecture from this era on the Korean peninsula and are still home to monks. The large number of devotees who visit is also testament to the enduring importance of Korean Buddhism in the lives of many Koreans.
The main area of tumuli burial mounds lies to the south of the main town. Hwangnam-dong and Inwang-dong, which has the highest concentration of important sites, can be easily reached on foot or bike, and has many of the best restaurants close by too.
It is in this region that you will find the Hwangnam-ri (aka Tumuli Park), a collection of 28 burial mounds set in pleasant landscaped gardens with a walkway through the mounds. Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory looks more like a chimney, but its history is nothing to shrug at. Built in 634CE, it is the oldest in East Asia. Some even believe it’s the world’s oldest surviving observatory. Meanwhile, the royal leisure spot of Anapji (aka Donggung Palace) is unerringly photogenic, where pretty, traditional pavilions reflect on a still pond, which is blanketed in lotus flowers during high summer.
The other numerous tombs and shrines of Gyeongju are spread across a rather wide area, known as Gyeongju National Park. It is advisable therefore to plan how you wish to get around in advance, unless you are happy to wander and explore. The local bus service is very good and buses run roughly every 10-15 minutes during normal working hours.
Perhaps the most enjoyable way to explore the region however is by bicycle. There are a couple of cycle hire shops around the main train station, and along TaeJong rd. which connects the train station to the express bus terminal. Rental prices vary but it’s unlikely to cost more than $10 a day.
One or two of the bigger temples are not actually located in the city. For example, perhaps the most famous temple of Bulguksa is roughly 10 miles south east of Gyeongju. Bulguksa is the most important temple in Korean Buddhism’s Jeogye Sect. It is ranked as one of the Korean government’s most important historic sites, as well as receiving UNESCO World Heritage status. Buses to the temple gates leave the town centre every 20-30 minutes.
Many of the more popular shrines can get especially busy during national holidays like Chuseok, and during the school exam period, when relatives of studying children pray for a favourable outcome. To find a more serene spot, head to Oreung, a collection of five tombs. Many believe one tomb belongs to Park Hyeokgeose, the founder of the Silla Kingdom. Sungdeokjeon, a shrine just to the south of Oreung built in Park’s honour, would seem to support that theory. The crowds thin out here and amidst the bamboo and ancient eaves you can get the best sense of old Korea.
One of the great draws of Gyeongju is the natural world set in harmony with the ancient culture. The mountain scenery surrounding Gyeongju JY Pension (232-4 Chuwon-gil), combined with the airy and comfortable rooms makes this an excellent hotel choice. In autumn especially, Korean forests are a cacophony of colours, tousling with one another all around the property. Having a car is preferential, although the hotel offers a pick-up service from Gyeongju. There is also a complimentary laundry service, air conditioning and heating in the rooms. For the summer months, the outdoor pool is a great place to cool off.
To keep the theme of history going, stay in a traditional Korean Hanok building at Yettle Hanok Stay (9, Balgeunmaeul-gil), located a few minutes away from Anapji. Rooms are pleasant, with hardwood floors, and there’s a shared kitchen. Blueboat Hostel Gyeongju (2nd Floor, 125-2, Hwango-dong) is a great budget option just around the corner from the train station. Twin, triple rooms and dorm beds are available. Hyundai Hotel Gyeongju (338 Bomun-ro) is a fancy, five star hotel on the shore of pretty Lake Bomun, in between Anapji and Bulguksa. There are occasionally some excellent deals on here, out of season.
Eat and Drink
For an absolutely top-notch pork galbi, head to Daegu Galbi (Bukjeong-ro 5). There is nothing fancy or unique about the exterior, it looks like any other independently run restaurant in Korea, with the main menu items written on the doors and windows. Galbi is their speciality and it is served up in artisanal pewter dishes with a good selection of lettuce and mint leaves in which to wrap the meat.
Mario del Monaco (Cheomseong-ro 173) is perhaps one of the most unusual coffee shops in the world, in that it is run by a former Korean opera singer. The coffee shop is dedicated to his personal hero, and namesake of the coffee shop, Italian tenor, Mario del Monaco. You can watch classic videos of del Monaco, and even of the owner. Oh, and the coffee is as pleasing as the high notes.
For excellent Gyeongju ppang, a soft, savoury pastry shell filled with red bean paste, Juryeonggu ppang (hwangnam-dong 150-6) is the place to go. While you can find something similar in all bakeries in Gyeongju, and from street vendors, these are the pinnacle. They have the right balance of sweet and smooth and have plenty of filling. You can also buy specially designed packs that are a good gift option.
For a Japanese-inspired meal with a Korean twist, try Katsu Shin (85-2 Jungbu-dong). All manner of delicious fried pork cutlets are available here. The cheese pork cutlet bowl is particularly good. Sides include kimchi (it’s Korea, after all) and shredded cabbage. Reading Korean language can be a challenge; the good news is that they have picture menus at Katsu Shin, so the trusty ‘point and nod’ method of ordering should theoretically yield successful results.
WaBar (Dongdae-ro 4) is part of a successful chain of bars found in many major towns in Korea. This WaBar is found up in the north of Gyeongju and, true to brand, offers an excellent range of spirits and beers, including many options from abroad, like Kozel and Heineken. But it’s their range of craft beers that makes them well worth the visit. Like many bars in Korea, food is often available and there is a good pairing menu that suggests which beer works best with each snack.
Fine dining in a traditional setting is done best at Yosokkoong (Kyochanan-gil 19-4). There are both indoor and al fresco tables, the former in beautiful pine wood rooms, at a thick oak table; the latter under wood-beamed roofs so that rain or shine, you can enjoy your meal closer to nature. The cuisine is exquisite. There are four menu choices, each consisting of a large selection of small dishes, almost like tapas. Try the Anab, which comes with hoe (pronounced more like an aspirated ‘hway’), which is the Korean version of sashimi.
Gyeongju is a culinary marvel in a country celebrated for its healthy, delicious cuisine, and no trip is complete without trying the ssambap. Banchan (side dishes) are an integral part of any Korean meal. Normally anything you order in Korea will come with three to five banchan in small plastic dishes. There are roughly 40-50 different types of banchan, with even more variations, ranging from the ubiquitous kimchi, to dried white bait and even pickled lotus root.
In Gyeongju however, the infamous ssambap is a collection of roughly twenty different banchan, which accompany a set house special dish of the day, like bulgogi. Such a number constitutes the main part of the meal. There will also be an assortment of green leaves, like mint or lettuce, in which to wrap the banchan or meat from the main dish. You’d be doing well if you could work out what’s in even half of these side dishes. Many of the ssambap restaurants can be found in the Hwangnamdong region.
Arguably one of the most popular ssambap restaurants in Gyeongju, Byeolchaeban Gyeodong Ssambap (328-1 Hwangnam-dong) has a pleasant atmosphere and a decent selection of banchan. The main dish of the day is likely to be large, but even so there are usually 15-20 sides served along with it. Unlike many of the more traditional Korean restaurants, Gyeodong has tables and chairs, as opposed to the sitting on the floor and eating option, which will suit many visitors unaccustomed to that sort of dining.
Shilla Ssambap (194-9 Hwangam-dong) have been in business for 32 years, serving up ssambap and have certainly perfected the art. While perhaps a little bit tourist friendly, the selection of dishes is excellent. There is plenty of attention paid to tradition and authenticity although the number of side dishes offered is a little lower than what you might come to expect elsewhere.
Eepungnyeoguro Ssambap (106-3 Hwangnam-dong) is as fun an experience for ssambap first timers as it is unpronounceable. If two people are dining together you can expect to receive upwards of 30 different small plates, including kimchi jeon (pancake), a number of different types of kimchi, including full leaf, mushroom, pork and soup dishes. It may be visually impressive, but the taste proves that it’s more than just quantity trumping quality.