On our way home from Busan last month, we stopped over in Gyeongju overnight to break up the trip. The last time I was here was in 2007 with my parents. A LOT has changed in that time. Back then, we struggled to find a spot to stop for a pre-dinner beer or any restaurants that looked especially interesting. We did have a great time and resorted to Norebang (karaoke) for our nighttime entertainment. But now! Now Gyeongju is full of microbreweries, hipster bars and quaint cafes. Some complain about the gentrification of this small city, but the excellent rooftop pizza and gelati shop might make up for it!
First Stop: Bulguksa Temple
Located on the outskirts of Gyeongju, Bulkuksa temple and the nearbySeokguram Grotto is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its two stone pagodas and the dual staircase leading to the entrance are considered national treasures of South Korea. The temple dates back to 751, when Gyeongju was the centre of the Silla Dynasty. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire during the Imjin War with Japan as the site was used as a base for volunteer militia. It was subsequently rebuilt, but the stone pagodas and some of the bronze statues are relics of the art and culture of Silla.
We were driving, but you can reach the temple by bus from Gyeongju station in about 40mins; buses 10 or 11. We didn’t make it to the grotto this time. Appa and I have both visited on different occasions, and the temple visit was enough for the kids. We didn’t want to tire them out as we wanted to do more sightseeing in Gyoungju itself. The grotto is well worth the trip, though, and you either take a 1-hour hike or the number 10 bus from the temple car park.
Tumuli Park and Cheonmachong Tomb
Tumuli, or burial mounds, are hills of rock and soil under which the dead are buried. They can be found worldwide, and the tradition is still practised in modern South Korea. In fact, our family’s land in Jeollanamdo is home to many of Appa’s ancestors’ burial mounds. Those are just a meter or two high, and you will see them all over the countryside, on private land and in the mountains.
During the Shilla Dynasty, however, royalty were built enormous tumuli. As the centre of the Shilla Kingdom, Gyeongju is like an open-air museum, and the tumuli are the main exhibit. There are many dotted around the city that you can walk around for free, but Tumuli Park hosts Cheonmacheong Tomb that you can walk inside, see how the tombs were built and see many relics found inside. It’s certainly worth the small entrance fee and is a peaceful place to walk around and contemplate the rich history.
Just across the road from Tumuli Park, you’ll find Cheomseongdae, thought to be the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in the world. Its name means ‘star gazing platform’, and it was built under the reign of Queen Seondeok, who seems to have been quite a remarkable woman. She built the observatory for public use and to help farmers predict the planting seasons. Apparently, it was unpopular with the aristocracy, and that very few turned up at its opening. The actual structure isn’t that exciting to look at, but the history behind it is intriguing.
Where to Eat and Sleep
Compared to back in 2007 there is so much choice for eating and sleeping. Appa had found a local brewery that supposedly has great food. Unfortunately, they turned us away due to a ‘no children’ rule. Something we’d not experienced yet in Korea. Even though it was 6 pm and we were going there to eat. We ended up at Million Pizza, with a rooftop and beautiful views of the city. We were shocked at the price of a slice of pizza until we found out that one slice is almost as big as a regular small pizza! And we certainly weren’t disappointed with the taste.
Continuing with our less than healthy dinner, we stopped by a gelati shop on the way back. This is not you’re regular ice cream store. You get to choose your character AND your flavour! Missymoo got a chocolate chip bunny, and Bubbaloo chose a strawberry reindeer. Lots of fun! Needless to say, Appa and I stole spoonfuls of each.
We stayed at a family-friendly hostel with a spacious room and breakfast included. The owners were helpful with local tips. They highly recommended we go out and see all the sights lit up at night, but our kiddos go to bed at a shockingly early time for most Korean families – 7.30 pm?! Oh my! The couple made breakfast themselves for all the guests: toasted sandwiches made to order and plenty of juice, tea and coffee. The host didn’t even bat an eyelid when bubbaloo spilt a whole cup of milk all over the floor.
We made this stopover on the way between Busan and Seoul. My parents and I did it as an overnight trip from Seoul, and Appa has done it as a day trip from Gwangju (although I would recommend spending the night).