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Gyeongju: Going back in time

Gyeongju was already old when I first saw it—over a thousand years old, really— and I was young, just turned 25. As with most things old, it makes you think of time, and how much of it passes unnoticed until there is little left, our lives marked by random remembrances: births, deaths, breakups, graduations.

But unlike us, this ancient capital has a long memory, preserved beautifully by its inhabitants. Gyeongju, which lies 370 km south of Seoul, in the North Gyeongsang province, has the most number of World Heritage Sites in South Korea.

Known as the museum without walls, it is often offered as a day trip from Busan or an overnight excursion from Seoul, which is ridiculous. How do you squeeze in a millennium of memories in a day, or even a week? How do you navigate a city whose (nearly) entire area, including the Namsan Mountain, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

To help out, Gyeongju Tourism presents themed itineraries for travelers: the 1-3 day courses; the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage course; the cycling and driving courses “that refresh the eyes and mind”; the “photo zone spots to complete your lifetime photos” course; and  the “moonlit spots for night walks” course. All of them offer practical ways to discover the history and culture of the Silla dynasty, which reigned in Gyeongju from 57 B.C. to 935 A.D, and ushered in the golden age of Korean civilization.

Thing is, I was not sure which kind of visitor I was. A travel writer? A photographer? A history seeker? A nostalgic guest, back after 19 years? All I knew, as I stepped out of the KTX train on a rainy October, was that the seasons—mine and Gyeongju’s—were changing.

For a place steeped in history, Gyeongju does not feel out of touch with the present, if you judge by the number of Starbucks and branded shops scattered there. More hotels have popped up, too, catering to some 8 million annual visitors (pre-pandemic). I stayed at the Gyeongju Bonghwang Mansion (KRW 60,000/night),a well-equipped hostel downtown that opened in 2020. From there, you can walk 300 meters to the Daereungwon Ancient Tomb Complex, which hosts 30 of over 150 tombs of Silla’s nobility. In the morning, you can have free breakfast at the hostel’s lounge with a view of the Bonghwangdae tomb, the largest of the Silla tombs—I’ve never had coffee with dead royalty so I enjoyed this immensely.

For DIY travelers, it’s best to make your base downtown because four of the five districts comprising the UNESCO-listed Gyeongju Historic Areas—Wolseong, Hwangryongsa, Daereungwon and Bomun Tourist Complex—are accessible by walking or taking public buses. The fifth district, Namsan, is better explored on a tour bus, unless you don’t mind hiking the 8.8 km trail through the mountain’s important spots (don’t forget the walk back as there are no buses or taxis up there).

Gyeongju’s downtown, surrounded by greenery, is ideal for strolling, especially in autumn when it’s the right kind of cold. In fact, the Daereungwon complex is more a like a park for locals than a historic site –until you see people entering the Cheonmachong tomb, the only one open to the public and is famous as the site where the biggest gold crown from Silla was unearthed.

Strangely, the longest queue is not for this relic but for the spot with a magnolia tree behind the Hwangnamdaecheong tomb, where couples—some wearing hanbok rented from shops around the complex—come prepared with a tripod. This is an obligatory Gyeongju photo-op and must not be missed, even if traveling solo (just ask the next-in-line to take your picture).

Strolling past the pink muhlies, you will find the Cheomseongdae Observatory standing in the same place since the time of Queen Seondeok – the oldest surviving observatory in Asia; the 2,000-year-old Gyerim Forest, where Kim Al-ji, great ruler of Gyeongju, was found and adopted by King Talhe, according to legend; and the Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond, highlights of the night tours, where noble guests used to dine with King Munmu.

For hungry travelers, however, there are no fancy pavilions, only outdoor tables across Daereungwon, which offer the perfect spot to people-watch while eating Gyeongju’s famous eggroll. Coming from Seoul, I appreciate the pace of life here: kids flew kites, couples held hands, dads pushed strollers, moms chased toddlers. There seemed to be less hurry, more time; less worry, more smiles. There was also an ample supply of good coffee.  

Bus no. 10 or the Golden Line is your ticket to culture and cafes in Gyeongju. It is not a hop-on, hop-off bus so you pay for every ride, but it runs on a loop and stops at the main historic and cultural attractions.

The Gyeongju National Museum, with its vast collection of gold jewelry, bronze and stone weapons, and Buddha statues, gives a glimpse of Silla’s skills and wealth. The museum grounds also host the Divine Bell of King Seongdeok – completed in 771 and hailed as a masterpiece of Silla art – and South Korean chain Ediya Coffee, which has some of the best views in Gyeongju (plus wireless charging stations!).

Six stops away on bus no. 10 are the treasures of Tohamsan, Silla’s holy mountain: Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto (accessible only from Bulguksa through bus no. 12). You can’t take pictures of the white granite Buddha in Seokguram but the rock-carved Buddhas in Namsan will more than make up for this lost photo-op, if you manage to get on a tour bus.

Exploring Namsan could easily take an entire day. According to Gyeongju Tourism, the 2.650 ha Mount Namsan Belt has 694 cultural heritage sites, including 122 temples. How you can possibly see each one is a mystery to me, but Namsan tours are available with CM Tours or KJ Namsan. Their websites are in Korean so ask your hotel or the nearest tourist booth for assistance.

Of course, you can always save Namsan for another trip, and just spend the rest of the day on Bulguksa shopping street (which really should be renamed dining street because it has more restaurants than shops). The boutique Café NaeRyuSa, with its glass walls and indoor pool, serves up a fancy hot mocha with its signature cacao. It’s a treat, especially as temperatures drop at dusk.

As I sink into my chair in a quiet corner, mocha in hand, I catch a glimpse of the bus stop across the street and am momentarily jolted by thoughts of being left behind. And then I remember I‘m in Gyeongju—I have time.

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