Gyeongju City Guide
‘Have you been to Gyeongju yet?’ If we had a few Won for every time we’d heard that particular expression from a proud Korean, we’d be able to buy our own Kimchi roof… To many Koreans – when it comes to history at least – Gyeongju is their pride and joy.
A small and often shabby city, Gyeongju remained the capital of the ancient ‘silla’ dynasty for more than a millennium, beginning in the first century AD, and away from the less-than-appealing city centre, there are still plenty of those old sites to get stuck in to. Now home to just under 300,000, Gyeongju was once a bustling metropolis of more than a million, for many years Korea’s busy capital, but later ransacked and battered by various invaders before being restored impressively over the past fifty years or so.
Arguably the symbol of Gyeongju is the wide selection of ancient tombs. Looking much like hills if it wasn’t for their unnaturally perfect rise form other areas of flat ground, the tombs belong to former dynasty leaders, and litter many of the attractive parks around the city. On a hot summers day, sitting under and umbrella and snacking on Kimbap is practically a regional pastime. Try to avoid disrespecting the memories of the leaders, though, who are much revered – stepping on the tombs is a particular no-no.
Outside the city, many follow a popular tourist circuit that takes you through a host of attractive temples, gentle ponds and an impressive museum that attempts to explain the complex background. Gyeongju residents are often extremely proud, and here more than even in other parts of Korea, you’ll find yourself offered tours of the local area. Unlike many Asian countries, Koreans aren’t in the habit of attempting to con tourists, and these offers can usually be taken at face value: the locals simply want to show off their city and practice their English. Your first stop is likely to be Buhwangsa, a beautiful 7th century pagoda, delicately painted in vibrant colors and surrounded by tiny towers of stones placed around the buildings during meditation.
Hikers will have a field day here, with Korea’s usual hike-able scenery littered with assorted attractions and ancient monuments, the temptation is always there to just wonder aimlessly, or get hold of a map and a tent and head off into the wilderness. The city centre, on the other hand, is flat and compact and – despite its size – has something of a small town, almost rural feel to it.
As a tourist attraction, Gyeongju is almost as good as they come in Korea, especially if you have any interest whatsoever in history. It’s a harder place to hang out and actually live, but an essential part of any Korea-wide itinerary. Get down there and get cultural, before experiencing a very genuine Korea in the Soju and BBQ focused evenings. An absolute must see.