Not to become a broken record or anything, but most tourists just bounce down to Gyeongju for a long weekend, hit up the big tourist sites, and head home Sunday night. It’s a shame really. You can barely even scratch the surface of what Gyeonju has to offer in 2 days. To finally prove what I’ve been harping on so long, I’ve cooked up a 10 day itinerary for visitors to Gyeongju. That’s right: over a week and a half of things to see and do in the area. If you don’t have 10 days, feel free to pick and choose what suites your liking. But here are some ideas for exploring a deeper side of Gyeongju and Korea as a whole.
Day 1: Palaces and Tombs of the City- Starting at Bonghwandae and Noseo-ri tombs downtown, amble through Chongmachong Tombs Park then on to Cheomseongdae Observatory, the ruins of Banwolsoeng fortress and legendary Gyerim Forest. Be sure to visit the neighboring Yangban Village with the Gyeongju Confucian Academy, Boepju Brewery and historic home of the Choi Clan. After the sun goes down, take a romantic stroll around Anapji Pond and back past Cheomseongdae. Then dine at one of the eccentric Ssambap restaurants near by.
Day 2: Bulguksa and Seokguram- Head out to the famed Bulguksa Temple and hike up Mt. Tohamsan to visit the magical Seokguram Grotto. If you’re not too tired, check out the curious statues of Gweureung Royal Tomb or spend an afternoon shopping among the traditional workshops of the Gyeongju Folk Craft Village.
Day 3: West Side of Mt. Namsan- Walk or bicycle among the quaint farming village of Tap-dong and visit the remains of Peoseokjeong Pleasure Palace. Then check out the 3 ancient Buddhas of Bae-ri along with the rustic charms of Sambul-am Hermitage and Mangwolsa Temple. Have some tea and visit the local pottery and antique shops before doing the 2 hour hike up Samneonggol Valley to see the 7 ancient Buddha carvings along with the stunning view from “Paduk” Rock.
Day 4: East Side of Mt. Namsan- Take in the rustic charm of Oknyeongam Hermitage and the mysterious Buddhist carvings of Tapgol Valley, then stroll around the botanical gardens and Bonsai collection of the Gyeongsangbuk-do Arboretum. Sit and relax on the banks of the legendary Seochulji pond and then meander around the quiet temples, pagodas and farm houses of Namsan-dong village. If you’re not too tired, hike 2 hours up to see the ancient 7-sided Buddha of Chillbulam Hermitage and maybe enjoy some galguksu noodle soup or barbecued duck at a near by restaurant.
Day 5: East Side of Gyeongju- Start with the ancient four-sided Buddha of Gulbulsa Temple and walk 10 minutes uphill to the historical Beaknyeulsa Temple. Then head south of the river and visit the striking 3 storied pagoda of Bunhwangsa Temple. Stroll around the nearby ruins of the once magnificent 9-storied Golden Dragon Pagoda of Hwanyongsa Temple. Cycle around King Jinpyeong’s Tomb and the rice paddies of Bomun-dong (the farm village, NOT the resort) and wind up at the mysterious hill of Mt. Nangsan with Neungjitap Pagoda and Queen Seondeok’s Tomb.
Day 6: Day Trip to the East Sea- Head an hour east over Mt. Tohamsan to the Bonggil Beach, on the coast of the East Sea, where you can view king Munmu’s underwater tomb and visit the neighboring ruins of Gamunsa Temple. Grab some fresh seafood at the beach or head up the coast to the little port town of Gampo for a sushi lunch. On the way back, visit the historical temple of Girmisa along with the cliff-side caves and ancient stone Buddha of Golgulsa Temple. Be sure to stop and relax at Beaknyeon Tea House as you cross Churyeong Pass heading back to Gyeongju.
Day 7: Day Trip to Tongdosa- Along with Haeinsa and Songgwangsa Temples, Tongdosa is considered one of the 3 gems of Korean Buddhist Temples, and it’s only a half hour south of Gyeongju. Take the morning to explore the temple grounds and museum, then hike to one of the surrounding hermitages. If you’re traveling with kids, check out the Tongdo Theme Park or, better yet, the cheesded-out wonder of the Jasujeong Amethyst Mines (complete with ice caves and petting zoo!). History buffs will want to stop on the way back to town and visit the prehistoric stone carvings at Bagundae and Cheonjeon-ri.
Day 8: Day Trip North- Head 30 minutes north and take half a day to wander among the traditional houses and workshops of Yandong Folk Village. After lunch, head west to see the Royal Tomb of King Honghong along then on to the Oksan Confucian Academy and the ancient 13-tiered pagoda of Jeonghyesa Temple. If the weather’s warm, be sure to bring a swimsuit as there are some great swimming holes along the river, just past the Confucian Academy.
Day 9: Day Trip West- To the west of Gyeongju are some less visited but still amazing tourist attractions, like the ancient Buddha Triad of Daedu-ri on Mt. Byeonkdosan or the legendary tombs of Geumcheok-ri. Fans of the bizarre will want to check out Yeokgeungok, or “Vagina”, Valley on Mt. Obongsan or the take in kitsch Buddhism of Manbulsa, or “10,000 Buddha Temple”. Ardent hikers will want to tackle the 800 m. peak of Mt. Danseoksan, visiting the impressive carvings of the 1,400 year old Miruk Buddha Grotto on the way down.
Day 10: Bomun Resort- After a week and a half of touring, take day to relax around Bomun Resort. Indulge in the gourmet buffet at the Hilton Hotel or chill out in the green tea hot tubs of the Chosun Dynasty Hotel Spa. Families will definitely want to visit Gyeongju World or the Shilla Millennium Park, while couples would be content with a romantic stroll around the lake. In the evening, enjoy the free summer concerts or the fireworks on the weekend.
And if 10 days isn’t enough for you, there’s still more to see and do, like renting a cabin on Mt. Tohamsan or hiking the neighboring Yeongnam Alps. All the sights around Gyeongju are easily accessible by foot, taxi, local bus or bicycle (my favorite). As for the day trips out of town, it definitely helps to get around if you’ve got a car. If you’re interested in renting, you can check with the Avis office across from the train station. However, if you’re short on cash or you don’t have an International Drivers License, you can still get to most of the main destinations by catching a regional bus from the Shiwae or “Intercity” Bus Terminal. For bus numbers and times, check with the tourist info offices next to the bus and train stations, or dial 054-1330 for the Gyeongju English tourist information line.