While Korea isn’t a heavily touristed place by Western standards, most people who have at least a passing interest in this East Asian country have at least heard of the worldly city of Seoul, and its southern cousin Busan. Unless you’ve truly dedicated yourself to learning about South Korea, the name Gyeongju will almost certainly register a “huh?” from most foreigners, even among those who have signed up for a year of teaching ESL in this fascinating country.
In spite of this lack of knowledge, Gyeongju is one of South Korea’s most historically significant cities, possessing a large amount of relics from the distant past, dating back to the days of the Shilla Kingdom that began more than a millennia ago. As such, this city became South Korea’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it boasts many temples, ruins, and museums relating to the ancient days of civilization on the Korean peninsula.
So when you have a few extra days to take off your teaching schedule, or if you are wondering if you should make the journey to this place you haven’t heard about until today, go ahead and jump on the KTX (this city now has bullet train access) and spend a little time here. For those seeking a taste of traditional Korea in the sea of modernity that sweeps this nation today, you’ll be glad you did!
Of all the culturally significant locations you could explore in Gyeongju, Bulguksa Temple ranks among the top attractions to explore, as its commonly regarded as one of the most visually stunning temples in whole country. Make your way through ornately built structure with care, as its actively used by monks and worshippers today, on your way to see two pagodas that are considered national treasures, Dabotap and Seokgatap. Smoothly carved by Shilla stone masons, their simple beauty inspires all who come into sight of them, making them worth the trip out here by bus to see them.
The fleet of foot can make a hike out the journey to the next attraction (those who would prefer a ride can take a bus that runs passengers to the next site), the Seokguram Grotto. Situated in a cave at the top of a moderately high hill, the Seokguram Grotto features a stone-carved statue of the Buddha in an inner sanctum of the cave, lit by sunlight via a hole in the ceiling above the statue. Visitors are advised that photography is not permitted inside of the grotto, but it can and should be used outside, where stunning views of the valley below will make for some excellent pictures, especially in the Autumn.
Next on your tour of Shilla period artifacts and archeological sites should be the Royal Tombs, where mounds in the earth contains the final resting places of the monarchs that reigned back in the kingdom’s heyday. Some sites charge a small admission fee, but for the experience of going inside the mausoleums of royalty, and strolling through intricately maintained gardens (again, come by in the Fall for some truly amazing colours, or in the Spring for cherry blossoms to add to the atmosphere), it is won well spent indeed.
If your schedule permits and you would like to indulge in the traditional food and drink of the Koreans, then try to take in the Korean Traditional Liquor and Cake Festival, held sometime between March and April. Be prepared to consume copious amounts of tea, rice cakes, and rice wine, while taking in dance and musical performances of yesteryear, in a celebration of the traditional Korean arts.
Those who were barely fazed by climbing the hill to the Seokguram Grotto should take on an additional challenge on their Gyeongju adventure by hiking up Namsan Mountain, the largest mountain in the region. Topping out at 466 metres high, and with the way up the mountain being peppered by various types of Buddhist stone tablets, you will be inspired both by the history and geology of this area, while burning off the bulgogi and soju that you consumed the previous evening!
Lastly, South Korean summers can stretch on forever, and being accompanied by smothering humidity, you will be begging for relief from the oppressive heat at some point if you decide to come here during the summer months. Fortunately, a state of the art waterpark by the name of California Beach is ready to serve both your need to cool off, and for an adrenaline rush, all in one shot. While prices can be a bit steep in peak season, you can get discount fares for an afternoon visit at these times, allowing enough time to wash away the sweatiness and crankiness that comes with temple tramping in South Korea in the middle of July.