Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla which ruled from 57 BCE to 935 CE, and with the support of the Tang in China, it conquered and absorbed the kingdoms around it, thus toppling the era of the Three Kingdoms.
As such, Gyeongju is rife with historical treasures. It boasts tombs of kings and queens, ancient architecture, and historically accurate village restorations.
Each site is hyperlinked to the dedicated Korean tourism page which has further information about opening times, costs, and parking. See the map assembled by the tourism organization here.
Nearly all the main attractions are along the road running north into the city which made sightseeing easy for us as we had a car.
Namsan Mountain is to the southwest of Andong; Silla Arts and Sciences Museum along with Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto are to the southeast. Most of other other attractions are located within the same 2 mile radius in the city.
The temple is a bit far from the main downtown area. The site is sprawling with monks working on site in real time. There is no on-site exhibition or museum, but you can observe the many different buildings. Only one managed to escape complete decimation in the mid-century Japanese invasion; most other buildings were restored in the 1990s, as with many Korean historical sites. You can also do a temple stay here.
Time: 2 hours
Located 3km away by hiking or 9 by car from the temple, this smaller temple has a 3m tall Buddha facing the east.
If you are coming into town by car, I’d recommend a quick stop to this tomb. Parking is easy and we were the only visitors. The path around the mound circled closely and you could get a much closer look than at the other tombs closer to town. There were also nice views of fields and mountains surrounding it.
Time: 15 minutes
There is alley after alley of beautiful and varied cafes and restaurants. Green tea ice cream, Japanese udon, vietnamese coffee, Thai noodles, Italian pasta. Eat lunch and then take a long stroll to digest… and then get dessert.
Time: 2-3 hours
This is best viewed at night. People come to take a stroll and photograph the famous reflection of the palace in the pond. As many of the old buildings have not been restored, don’t plan to spend too much time here. We came forty minutes before closing at 10pm and felt satisfied.
Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour
A must-see! There are more than four buildings on campus. The historical section focuses on the Silla dynasty which ran from the 57 BCE to 935 CE. The most interesting fact I learned is that servants used to be buried alive with the deceased king. Luckily, this practice stopped around the time Silla started to absorb nearby kingdoms that had more humane, Buddhist-centered customs. I also found the jewelry of the Silla king and queen to be exquisite and wondere, if they sold any replicas in the gift shop. Amazingly, they did not.
In addition to the historical section, there is also an art museum along with a special exhibition. Outside along the grounds you can find many pagoda pieces and ruins that were simply so numerous they couldn’t be fit inside a building.
Time: 2-4 hours, depending on if you prefer to browse or read in detail
Directly north of the Gyeongju Historic area, this tomb complex boasts additional tombs as well as one that has been partially unearthed so that visitors can see what lies inside.
Time: 1 hour
Take a long stroll through these sprawling grounds to see the observatory, bridge, traditional village, and royal tombs.
Woljeonggyo Bridge: This time, make sure to look down; you can see beautifully recreated flower pattern tiles. It’s the largest wooden bridge in Korea. Originally built in the 8th century and then burned down during Japanese invasion during the Joseon dynasty, it was rebuilt to current splendor in 2018.
Gyochon Traditional Village (교촌마을): The village is in the same area as the bridge, tombs, and watchtower. You can park on the long alley between the bridge and the village. There are a few restaurants in traditional hanok houses. There are also culture activities but unfortunately none when we attended. The standout for me was the old well where Princess Yoseok was said to have used. After she was widowed, she had an out of wedlock child with a monk whose appearance it seemed was orchestrated by her father. The monk was allowed to go swimming and then had to stay the night while his clothes dried. The rest is history.
Time: 2-4 hours
There are a few more sites to see that I did not personally experience but did take note of:
- Oksanseowon Confucian Academy (옥산서원); get a feel for ancient school life at this academy.
- Silla Arts and Science Museum (신라역사과학관); look at miniature models (who doesn’t love dioramas??) of important artifacts.
- Gyeongju Namsan Mountain (경주 남산); take a hike here and see over 80 Buddha statues and 60 pagodas.
- Gyeongju Tower; if you go to the expo park, you can stroll around the tower which represents the nine story pagoda famous to Gyeongju.
You can stay in a traditional hanok, guesthouse, or hotel; we opted for a small hotel called Mini Maison, about three blocks from the cafe area. There was a small parking lot on the first floor and additional street parking.
Checkout booking.com or AirBnB for more options.
If you need a muse, more ideas, or want to get a feel for what Gyeongju has to offer, check out these videos made by the local tourism organization. I find Imagine Korea, especially the fabulous dance videos, both entertaining and helfpul in identifying the top must-see spots of each city.
Imagine Your Korea (search by area)