Gyeongju is a museum without walls, starkly different from the bustling built-up city of Seoul with its luscious green nature, bright magenta-hued flowers, and quaint historical architecture.
Situated on the south-eastern coast of South Korea, Gyeongju is one of the top destinations for those interested in Korean history and culture. Gyeongju was the capital city of Korea during the 1000-year-long ancient Silla dynasty, and much of its heritage remains in unison with modern life: cafes, restaurants, and brand-name clothes and cosmetic shops. Some historical constructions have undergone renovations since the 10th century, but all heritage sites are beautifully intact and well cared for.
The most popular temple, Bulguksa, is the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and serves as a landmark UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple is active, and hosts a large golden Buddha, two stone pagodas, and an entourage with smaller temple structures, coloured paper lanterns and a golden pig – visitors can pat the pig for luck if they wish. The temples wooden structures embody the Dancheong colours of many temples in South Korea – reds, greens, blues, oranges, and whites – distinguishing them from temples in other countries and symbolizing Buddhist meanings such as wisdom, infinity, and truth. The significance and beauty of the temple alone merits a visit, not considering its small entry fee of ₩5’000 (around €4).
The Bulguksa’s sister temple, Seokguram, hosts a giant golden Buddha and an entourage behind glass. Beyond the temple lies a view of the surrounding mountains and nature, which is an ideal spot for rest and contemplation. The downside of Seokguram is that it can be viewed within minutes, but costs an equal fee of ₩5’000. Unless you appreciate the significance of the temple, it may not be worth visiting.
A short walk from Gyeongju city centre lies much of the area’s nature and free-to-visit cultural spots – the reason why Gyeongju is a museum without walls. Tumuli park features plains of burial grounds, perfectly round green mounds which encase the tombs of ancient Silla rulers. Adjacent to this lies Cheomseongdae, the oldest existing astronomical observatory in Asia. Further down stands the Woljeonggyo bridge along the Hyeongsan river, a remarkable sight at night when its red, green, yellow and blue colours illuminate. The bridge is a replica of the original, which was built in 760.
Yangdong Village, another UNESCO World Heritage site, encompasses the way people lived during the Silla dynasty. The area of thatched houses and small gardens belong to the ancestors of just two families, the Wolseong Son family and the Yeongang Lee family, which date back 500 years. A walk around the village will give you not only a sense of Gyeongju’s history but also its natural countryside. Nearby, stands selling iced barley drinks and Korean puffed rice rolls offer a mix of a refreshing and sweet taste.
Visiting Gyeongju is the perfect opportunity to try some of South Korea’s temple food – Buddhist food which is vegetarian (often vegan), served in traditional restaurants. Orders come in three-course meals with numerous side dishes of fried herbs and vegetables, syrup-coated rice cakes, rice wrapped in bay leaves, savoury pancakes, and tofu in a soybean paste broth.
Image Credit: Sabrine Donohoe