There has been human settlement at and around the site of the present-day town of Kyongju from the prehistoric period. The Shilla clan became the rulers of the south-eastern part of the peninsula in 57 BCE. They chose Kyongju as their capital. There followed a long period of internal struggles between rival kingdoms. With the help of the Tang Dynasty in China, the Shilla Kingdom defeated its rivals in the 7th century and established its rule over most of the peninsula; this remained unchallenged until the beginning of the 10th century.
The Shilla rulers embellished their city with many public buildings, palaces, temples, and fortresses. Their tombs are to be found in the surroundings of the ancient city.
Mahayana Buddhism spread from China into Korea during the course of the 7th century and was adopted by the Shilla Kingdom. Mount Namsan, which had been venerated by the existing cults of Korea, became a Buddhist sacred mountain and attracted its adherents, who employed the most outstanding architects and craftsmen of the day to create temples, shrines, and monasteries.
With the end of the Shilla Kingdom, Korea underwent a further period of internal strife. It was unified again under Korean rule by the Yi (Chosun) Dynasty, which reigned until 1910. However, the country was invaded and devastated by the Japanese in the late 16th century and the Manchu in the 18th century, before being annexed by Japan in 1910. Throughout this long period, Kyongju has maintained its urban identity, though many of its major buildings have suffered degradation and demolition.
Gyeongju doesn't have its own airport. The nearest are in Busan (Gimhae) and Ulsan, both an hour away by express bus. Bus service between the airports and Gyeongju's main terminal runs hourly. There are also 5 direct return coach journeys per day between Seoul Incheon Airport and Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. These services take around 4 hours and cost around 40000 Won each way.
Gyeongju is well serviced by intra-city buses. Service from Daegu, Pohang, and Busan (depending on terminal) leaves at least every twenty minutes, and every 40 minutes between Gyeongju and Seoul. Travel time from Seoul is approximately four hours, and Daegu, Pohang, and Busan are usually 40 minutes to an hour. There is limited daily service to other parts of Korea, and travelers going between Gyeongju and other cities will usually be routed through either Daegu or Busan, depending on direction of travel. An inter-city bus leaves directly from the Incheon International Airport near Seoul.
Gyeongju station is located in the city centre, and is served by 7 direct (but slow) Seamaeul trains per day from Seoul. These trains take up to five hours and stop at a large number of stations along the route. An alternative option is to take the KTX high speed train to Dongdaegu and transfer to the Saemaeul there, which takes about 3 hours plus transfer time.
The KTX (Korea's high speed train) also serves Gyeongju directly, although the train goes to the brand new out-of-town station called Singyeongju (신경주 역). The journey time from Seoul is 2:05. From the new station, many buses will take you to the city in about 15 minutes. Use buses 50, 60, 61, 70, 203 and 700. Ask the driver to let you off at the Express Bus Terminal (Gosok Teominal) which is a pretty convenient location. One way economy class Seoul-Singyeongju by KTX costs 44,700 Won (as of March 1st, 2013), and tickets can be purchased from the automated machines (in English or Korean) at the station.
Because of its location off the central train lines (Gyeongbu Line) to Daegu and Busan, train service to other parts of the country is limited or indirect. There is, however, train service to Busan, Daegu, and Pohang connecting riders to more extensive rail service as well as to the KTX. In addition, there is extensive commuter train service to surrounding communities.
If coming from Busan/Haeundae in particular, consider the train as the route is rather scenic varying from being sandwiched between pine forest and blue ocean during the 15 minutes after Haeundae Beach to the curious sight of and passing through Ulsan elevated over the city with the endless industrial smokestacks in the distance. Most importantly though, there exists a second stop specifically servicing the Bulguksa World Heritage Site (불국사 역). Get off here, take the number 11 bus and it'll typically zip you up to the temple much faster than the intercity bus route.
Be sure to visit the two tourist kiosks to get maps and guides. One is next to the express bus terminal while the other is beside the main train station. Whether walking or biking, if you know your destination's Romanized or Hangul name you will find countless signs along the path at just about every intersection pointing the direction to the nearest attractions with distances provided.
The best way to get around the central city is to walk or bike. A bike can be rented for 7,000 won per day, return by 7 p.m. from the bike rental shop 3 minutes east of the express bus terminal, motor scooters are available next door but are much pricier for a much shorter duration. Bikes can be used on some of the trails and within a few of the city's parks, so with good planning a bike can save you money compared to buses while providing a more enjoyable experience and allow you to see more attractions in a day. Gyeongju is an extremely difficult place to get lost in when visiting its famous sites.
Sites further afield can be reached using the city's bus system. The #10 and #11 buses circle the central city, and many of the most notable tourist destinations, in opposite directions. All buses cost 1,500 won, and don't offer a transfer (transfers using local transportation cards unconfirmed). The buses don't accept Daegu nor Daejeon Hankkumi but they do surprisingly accept Busan Mybi cards and Seoul's T-money card. There are stops in front of the train station and the bus terminal. All the stops for the most popular attractions are voice recorded in Korean followed by English.
Gyeongju National Park. Either take a bus or taxi to get to the park. Once there, hiking trails lead up into the mountains. At first the signs are in both Korean and English but soon they become Korean only. Make sure you take a map or even better a Korean!
Bulguksa Temple. A wonderful temple well outside the main city. It can be reached by bus every half-hour. Try to go in the early morning or on a weekday when there are fewer tourists. It's a humongous working temple so treat the site with the respect it deserves. Possibly the most impressive temple in Korea. It is regarded as a masterpiece of Buddhist art, and was built in the 8th century during the Silla Kingdom period. Take bus 10, 11 or 600 from opposite the bus terminal.
In front of the main prayer hall, there stand two famous stone pagodas. They are both National Treasures. Dabotap means the pagoda of many treasures. Standing on the right of the courtyard facing the main hall, it shows the artistic beauty of Silla culture. In comparison to the simple Seokgatap, it is highly decorative. It was so delicately carved that they say ‘Silla masons managed stones like clay.’
Seokgatap means the pagoda of Buddha. It stands on the left of the courtyard facing the main hall. This three story pagoda is admired for its simple and dignified design. It is considered Korea’s most typical stone pagoda.
Seokguram Grotto - the grotto is an amazing site, not to be missed. A few kilometers hike up from the Bulguksa Temple, or a 20 minute bus ride that leaves every hour at 40 minutes past the hour and then goes back to the temple every hour on the hour, you will find this national treasure. This is a classic example of high Silla art and architecture, a spectacular Buddhist site. One will encounter a seated Buddha protected by two sets of 12 royal guards. On the soltice the third-eye of the Buddha is hit by a ray of the sun coming through the dome above his head. The light from the third eye is said to shine South-south-East, in the direction of an ancient temple in the valley below, destroyed by Mongols in the 13th century. The line continues and points exactly to the tomb of King Mum-Mu in the East Sea, 3km father South-south-East. This was said to protect Korea from Japan. Although the grotto is behind a panel of glass, this is to protect it from the breath of thousands of daily tourists. Photography is not permitted inside the grotto due to the sacred nature of the site. The site may best be left for a clear day otherwise you will miss out on some great views. The hike up to the Grotto is worth doing due to the great views, but it's further than the signs indicate. Expect at least 30 minutes, up hill all the way.
Golgulsa Temple is located 20 km east of the ancient Silla Dynasty capital city of Gyeongju in Southeastern Korea. In the Golgulsa temple area can be found the oldest historical Buddhist ruins on Mt. Hamwol and the only cave temple in Korea. The original temple was built out of solid rock during the 6th century by Saint Kwang Yoo and his companions, Buddhist monks from India. This temple contains a sculptured Maya Tathagata Buddha (Buddha was known as the “Tathagata”; his mother was “Maya Devi”) and twelve rock caves. You can enjoy Temple Stay in Golgulsa.
Gyeongju National Museum A museum full of the treasures of the Silla Kingdom. Free admission. At the Gyeongju Bus Terminal or Gyeongju Train Station, take Bus #11, 600, 601, 603, 604, 605, 607, 608, 609 and get off at the Museum.
The Covered Market close to the Gyeongju train station is a classic example of the Korean market with lots of fresh seafood, food stands and some textiles.
Cheomseongdae Observatory - the oldest existing observatory in the Far East, built during the reign of Queen Seonduk in 634
The world famous "Korean tapdancing museum". You can try on various tap shoes, some dating back as far as 16th century Shilla models.
Royal Tombs There are many royal tombs including: The Gwoereung Tomb, Oreung Tombs Park, Baeri Samneung Tombs, Gyeongju Hwangnam-ri Gobungun Tomb Park, Nodong/Noseo-ri Tombs Park, Seoakri Gobungun Tombs Park, Kim Yushin's Tomb, King Munmu's Underwater Tomb. They are interesting for a stroll around. Some of the parks have a small admission charge: 1,500 - 4,000w per person.
The Wolseong Yangdong Village has 150 tile roof houses and thatched cottages. Some are 500 years old. Interesting examples of old Korean architecture. Take bus number 203 from the Express Bus Terminal, it runs right to the village entrance and costs 1500 Won.
As a major tourist destination in Korea, Gyeongju is host to many festivals and events.
Korean Traditional Liquor and Cake Festival. An annual festival held during March and April. Events include traditional music and dance performances, as well as opportunities to learn traditional Korean arts and crafts. However, the highlight of the festival is the rice cakes, traditional tea, and rice wines.
Hike Namsan Mountain This historically and spiritually significant mountain only 5min south of the central city is littered with historical Buddha reliefs carved into its rocks and boulders as well as dotted with ancient pagodas and temples. A hike up the mountain (466m) through its western valley from the Samneung tomb site is recommended.
Take a relaxed stroll through the Tumuli Park with 23 old grave hills ('Tumuli') from the Silla period scattered through a well-developed park with beautful paths.
Take a walk through Wolseong Park where the locals take their well-deserved Sunday break with kites, horse-coach riding or just walking through the beautiful park setting.
California Beach A relatively new water park built in 2008. As at summer 2012, entrance fees are 53,000 for adults, so it is quite pricey, but it does include a free pass to the next-door Gyeongju World amusement park. The water park is relatively small, and the rides are definitely not as exciting as one would expect from the hype they have built up. Expect huge line-ups on weekends and summer vacation.
The best items to buy in Gyeongju are mostly reproductions of Shilla craftworks, such as ceramics, metalworks, and artwork. There will be numerous vendor stalls on your hikes to Bulguksa and a few more if you continue onto Seokguram Grotto in addition to the souvenir shops that sell mostly the same goods plus some higher ticket items in addition to small trinkets and nicknacks. You are more likely to get a good deal from the street vendors who you might reward buying multiple items with a discount off the ticketed price.
Do-sol Ma-eul, 71-2 Hwangnam-dong Gyeongju-si (Near Cheonma-chong, Daeleung-won), ☎ 054-748-9232. 8,000 won (8 USD). edit You can experience a Korean traditional meal of Gyeongbuk area here. Located right next to the Sarangchae accommodation. The building is one hundred-year-old traditional Korean house.
Unlike many cities in Korea, there is no particular dish the area is known for besides a general association with seafood. However, there are some famous edible items found in Gyeongju that has become reknowned throughout Korea: Hwangnam ppang (ppang being the Korean word for "bread"; derived from the Portuguese word "pan") which is a small ball of silky-smooth sweet red bean paste surrounded by a thin pastry shell, and Gyeongju ppang which is the same sweet red bean paste enclosed between two thin barley bread pancakes. Both can be purchased many places in town (including from a booth at the train station) but the best way to taste them is fresh and warm from the bakery, just across the street to the east from the Flying Horse Tomb (Cheonmacheong) Park.
For seafood, many locals head to Gampo, a village directly on the coast. Most of Gyeongju's fishing catch is brought here and served locally, rather than being exported to other markets. The local hoe (sashimi) is excellent and very fresh.
If you happen to drink too much Gyeodong Beopju you might want to check the famous Haejangguk — a pork spine and coagulated blood stew — at the "Hangover Soup Street".
The area around Bulguksa's bus stop and carpark hosts a veritable village of restaurants. The owners will, unusually for Korea, tend to aggressively spruik their shops over others but there are enough around that if you can ignore their advances, you can pick and choose. Prices are surprisingly standard, given the location.
Gyeongju is known for Gyeodong Beopju, a mild rice wine. Although it is principally made from glutenous rice and spring water, locals believe that a boxthorn or Chinese matrimony vine growing near the wellsource of the water has imbued the wine with special medicinal properties and flavor.
Schuman and Clara, Daehakryo (the main street leading from downtown to Dongguk University, basement level on the right hand side when heading north). One of the best baristas in Korea.
Motel Byul Right next to both the Express Bus Terminal and Intercity Bus Terminal is Motel 별('Byul' in korean character) which charges around 35,000-40,000 won per night and the quality of the rooms are almost close to a 3 star hotel, with wooden flooring and a huge and clean bathroom. Although the owner does not speak English well, the quality of the rooms makes up for it. One of the few motels that allows the use of air conditioners even during cold periods. Take note that it is located in the same alley as a convenience store ;GS25' and the entrance is covered by 'car curtains'.
Hanjin Hostel, ☎ 82-054-771-4097, . checkin: 12:00 p.m.; checkout: 10:30 a.m.. The owner has 30 years of experience and hosts around 2-3000 guests each year. He has a proprietary tourist map with destinations and bus numbers which he will mark up in your presence to give a sort of personal-itinerary with some verbal tips while answering your questions. He highly encourages congregations on the rooftop at night where stories can be shared and tomorrow's journey can be made, either of which he may join. He speaks excellent Korean, English and Japanese.20,000 won for shared bathroom; 25,000 for private bathroom. edit
Near the train station there are some yeoinsuk (guesthouses) where you can stay for as little as $10 USD/night. However, none of these places have hot water, making it difficult to use the very dirty facilities. There are also roaches in many of the rooms. Far better are the few "motels" near the train station that charge around $20/night.
Sa Rang Chae Guesthouse, 019-520-4868 Located down an alley next to Tumuli Park and within easy walking distance of several of Gyeongju's other spectacular historical sights. Cozy and inexpensive, for less than 30,000 won per night you can sleep in a traditional style Korean room (there are only a few so call ahead) which surround a common courtyard where guests can meet around the small firepit or in the large modern kitchen/lounge at nighttime and exchange stories. The lounge offers free internet and coffee while a rudimentary make-it-yourself egg and toast breakfast is also included. Difficult to find, and the Lonely Planet guide is incorrect, so check the website to be sure on directions.
Icarus Motel Just behind the Express Bus Terminal is a whole street of motels. It seems the intense competition has increased the quality of these motels, as they are some of the best in the whole country. Icarus Motel is typical of the street, for 50,000w per night you get a very clean and modern room, with extras such as free wi-fi, a working jacuzzi and a simple breakfast (toast with jam and milk). The lady who runs it is friendly and speaks some English.
Outside Central Gyeongju
Bomun Lake Resort Area is home to several luxury hotels aimed at Korean tour groups, including the Hyundai and Hilton Hotels, as well as the Concord, Chosun Spa Hotel, and other more moderately priced hotels. There are also many accommodation facilities near Bulguksa.
Gyeongju Guesthouse, Gyeongbuk, Gyeongju, Hwango-dong, 138-2 (300m from Gyeongju Station, turn left out of the station and the guesthouse is down a small signposted sidestreet on your left.), ☎ +82547457100, . checkin: from 2pm-10pm; checkout: 11am. This is where all the young Koreans who come to visit Gyeongju stay. You may not find it in tour guides as yet as it was opened in 2010. A clean and welcoming guesthouse which offers 4 bed dorms for 17000won per person per night and double rooms from 40000won per night. The guesthouse has free wireless and internet facilities in the bright and modern lounge/lobby and a self-service breakfast is provided. Dorm rooms have individual lockers and most importantly the beds are extremely comfortable. from 17000won. edit
Nahbi Guest House, 340-22 Seonggeon-dong, Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do 780-943, South Korea (On the street parallel to the one of the bus terminal towards the city centre (river/terminal/Nahbi). If you arrive at Gyeongju train station, walk out the main entrance and walk straight along the main street for about 10 minutes. Go left on the second to last big street before the river. Look out for a yellow sign on the 4th floor.), ☎ +82 07087199500, . checkin: noon; checkout: 11am. They call themselves the "lowest budget guesthouse in korea". Shared bathrooms, kitchen and free breakfast (toast, eggs, strawberry jam; coffee/tea). Very nice stuff, T.J., who runs the place is extremely friendly and helpful. Regular parties in lobby or on the rooftop give the chance to meet fellow travellers. They also offer work-for-free-lodging-food-and-Korean-lessons.15000 (dorm) 25000 (private). edit
Baramgot Guesthouse/Backpackers, 287 Hwango-dong, 137 Wonhyo-ro, Gyeongju-si (3 minute walk from Gyeongju station, next to Segeomjeong Motel), ☎ 054-771-2589. checkin: 3 pm-9 pm; checkout: 11 am. This guesthouse has 2 buildings, one for men and women, and an annex building for women only. The owner, Mr. Park, speaks Korean and some English. Bikes are available for rental, but only 3 are available and there are no reservations. There is a large space available for eating and drinking, with books for browsing, low tables, 3 computers and a water cooler. A light breakfast is provided (eggs, toast, milk, juice). The guesthouse also offers laundry service. There are bars and noraebangs nearby, for after 12 when alcohol is not allowed in the guesthouse. Reservations are available through Naver Cafe, and there is also a Facebook page..15,000 (annex building)-20,000 (main building). edit
Buses and trains regularly leave to Busan and other cities, the intercity and express bus terminal are very close to each other at the river in the southwest of the city. Take the #100 (local) bus, across the street from the express bus terminal, to get to Gampo.
KTX trains to get to cities northwest of Gyeongju require a transfer at Dongdaegu, however for short trips the Saemaeul will be cheaper, more comfortable and more convenient.
The travel time to Daegu by train or bus is almost the same but there are far more frequent buses and they're also cheaper. Express buses to Daegu and Busan run about every 10 minutes during the day, and to either destination it's just under an hour.