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Things to Do in Gyeongju

If you’re interested in exploring South Korea’s long history, there’s no better place to start than the coastal region of Gyeongju. Known as “the museum without walls,” the former capital of the Silla Dynasty ranks among the most historically rich sites in the nation, dotted with ancient tombs, temples, pagodas, and palaces.

The Basics
Humans have occupied what is today known as Gyeongju since prehistoric times. While some visitors come on a day trip from Seoul to explore the area’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Cheomseongdae Observatory, Bunhwangsa Temple, and several royal tombs among them), the area rewards those with more time to spend. Overnight tours by rail typically include a guided tour of Gyeongju’s historical points of interest, as well as leisure time to explore on your own. Those with three days to spare can combine guided visits to both Gyeongju and Busan into a single tour from Seoul.

Things to Know Before You Go

  • Gyeongju is a must-visit for history buffs and those looking for an escape from the bustle of Seoul.
  • The best way to get around Gyeongju is on foot or by bike.
  • Day trips to Gyeongju can last upwards of 9 hours; multi-day trips range in length from two to three days.

How to Get There
Gyeongju sits in the southeast corner of the Korean Peninsula, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) from Seoul. The best way to get here from the capital is by train, which takes about two hours. Buses ferry visitors from the train station to the city center.

When to Get There

Gyeongju offers an escape from Seoul throughout the year, but it is perhaps at its most beautiful during the spring months, when cherry blossoms bloom at many of the area’s historic sites. Fall offers an equally impressive display of colorful foliage in the surrounding mountains.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Gyeongju

The UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Gyeongju Historic Areas in fact comprises several areas known for their Korean Buddhist art and historic significance. The UNESCO site is divided into five distinct zones. Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple together make up a second UNESCO site.
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Seokguram Grotto
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Known for being home to one of the finest Buddha shrines in the Asia, South Korea’s Seokguram Grotto looks out to the East Sea from Mount Tohamsan near Gyeongju. Commissioned in 742 AD by the Silla Kingdom’s chief minister, Kim Daeseong, it was built in honor of Daeseong’s parents from a past life.

If you’re feeling fit, one of the best ways to get to the UNESCO World Heritage Site is by hiking under the canopy of trees from Bulguksa Temple, past tumbling waterfalls and wildflowers, to the top of the mountain where Seokguram Grotto sits.

Pay the small entry fee and head inside, where the 3.5-meter tall granite Buddha sits on his lotus throne. Surrounded by panels of bodhisattvas and guardians, Buddha peacefully sits with his legs crossed in the bhumisparsha mudra position. The only structure to survive fully intact from the Silla era, look up at the ceiling -- it’s beautifully decorated with half moons and a lotus flower. For a truly special experience, come at dawn to see the sunrise over the East Sea in the distance.

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