Gyeongju the city itself could be a museum. It used to be the capital for 1,000 years and the entire city is filled with historically important national treasures. Seoul has only been the capital of South Korea for just over 500 years. You thought Gyeongbok-gung palace was old, but it isn't that old compared to some houses in Gyeongju. If you want to dive more deeply into Korean history, Gyeong-ju is a good place to start.
What we did
대릉원 (Daereungwon Royal Tomb): It’s a garden of tombs, or a very well kept grave site, to sum it up. There is this one spot where people take pictures for Instagram; everyone lines up for it. There was a long line, even though it was only 11AM in the morning.
첨성대 (Cheom-seong-dae): The astrological observatory is much more remarkable if you have the context. Please read about it before going.
계림원 (Gyeonju Gyerim): It’s a big garden that’s especially pretty in the fall. It’s literally next to the observatory, so you might as well.
석굴암 (Seok-gu-ram): Unfortunately, this grotto is very underwhelming and hard to see since it’s sealed up now. It used to be open to the public when I was younger, but now it’s permanently sealed. The biggest reason is two major restorations. Once in 1913, when Korea was under Japanese rule, the Japanese government moved things around and without fully knowing what would happen, used concrete to cover it up. It was a disaster. In the 1960s the Korean government started another one but due to the past botched restoration, they couldn’t solve the problems with moss and dampness. So now the granite buddha’s humidity is controlled with machine. It’s quite sad one of the most valuable treasures is being ruined, and with all the advanced technology we have now, we still can’t solve this problem.
불국사 (Bul-guk-sa): Really nice garden and temple. Recommend coming down from 석굴암 and not going up. Fall is the best season to visit here (and all of Gyeongju, really).
교리 김밥 (Gyo-ri Gimbab)
This gimbab place is famous for its half egg gimbab. The popularity has caught on in Seoul as well and they have a store up there too, but the origin is right here in Gyeongju. Your choice is simple: 2 rolls or 3 rolls gimbab. No Korean skills required.
Address: 경북 경주시 교촌안길 27-42
쌈밥 (Sam-bab) is a thing here. Across from the main attraction, 첨성대, there is a street dedicated to it. The place we went was touristy but it was still delicious. Any of the places will be fine. It’s really hard to be either exceptional or horrible at this dish, so it’s a pretty safe bet.
Address: 경북 경주시 첨성로 77
Other things if you have time:
This area is the hippest corner of Gyeongju. All the cool cafes, bars, and shops are located here. Most of them are in han-ok (Korean traditional houses), so it’s extra cool. Many coffee shops open late here, so we had to go to Starbucks in the early morning, but Gyeongju Starbucks is not ordinary as well. It’s also in a han-ok! COOL!
How to Get There
There are various train routes you could plan on to get to Gyeongju. Keep in mind there are a number of train stations in Seoul (and in other cities), so depending on your time, budget, and dates it can go three ways.
The fastest and the most popular route
서울역 – 대전역 – 신경주역
Seoul station – Dae-jeon station – New Gyeongju station
On this route, you need to transfer once. It takes two KTX trains (the fastest bullet train): 1 hour to get from Seoul to Dae-jeon, and another hour to get to Gyeon-gu. There are usually 10-30 minutes transfer time in between, so altogether it takes about 2 hours 30 minutes with this route.
Price will vary depending on the train time, but the average is 49,500 KRW for a one way ticket. Since it's the fastest, it's also the most popular route. Thus, when it's prime travel season, it's always sold out.
The compromised route
서울역 – 동대구 – 경주
Seoul station – East Dae-gu station – Gyeongju station
This route is a mix of the fast KTX train and a slow train. Since KTX stops at only certain city stations, this route transfers in Dea-gu and also arrives in a different station in Gyeon-ju. We took the KTX from Seoul Station to East Daegu and transferred to a slower train to the Gyeongju station. It takes 1 hour 40 minutes on the KTX, and there is usually 30 minutes transfer time, then another 1 hour and 20 minutes to Gyeong-ju. Altogether it's about 3 hours and 30 minutes to 4 hours to get to Gyeong-ju with this route. So our question is, why would you not take the fastest route?
The slowest and the saddest route
청량리 – 경주
Cheong-yang-ri station (Seoul) – Gyeongju station
If you hate transferring, there are a few direct trains from Seoul to Gyeongju. However. here is the trick: it takes 5 hours and 20 minutes and leaves from a train station that is not in Seoul central. To sum it up, it's pain in the butt to to ride the direct route even though it may save you a few bucks. Plus there are only two or three trains day. If you are near 청량리 station and your hours are more flexible then this might another route. It's also the cheap sets, priced at a cheaper 23,800 KRW.
There are several train stations in Seoul that could be inconvenient or more convenient, depending on where you’re trying to go. The KTX rolls through Yongsan, Yeongdeungpo, and Seoul station plus the occasional train through Cheong-yang-ri.
Gyeongju station vs New Gyeongju station
The new Gyeongju station is in the city center, so it's easy to get from the station to most of the places you might stay. The best route is to go through the new Gyeongju station, but if you can’t make it work, not to worry. Gyeongju station is a bit far away from the city center, about 20 minutes by taxi and 1 hour and 30 minutes by bus. I recommend just taking the taxi. It's easy to grab a taxi from the station and it'll cost you approximately 17,000-19,000 KRW.
How we got around in Gyeong-ju
Gyeongju is pretty small city and most attractions are clustered in the city’s central area, so it is not necessary to rent a car. The main attractions are all near each other and most of them are in walking distance. Expect to walk a lot. Renting a bike is an option and it was quite tempting but also we thought it wasn’t clear if we could bring bikes to the tombs or the garden. Also where do we even park in such monuments?
석굴암 and 불국사 are places that you will need a vehicle to get to, so hail a taxi for it. You can take a public bus to these places, but it takes 2 hours to get there instead of 40 minutes. KakaoTaxi is widely used in Gyeongju as well so if you have hard time hailing a taxi, call one. If you are a tourist and don’t speak Korean, ask your guest house to arrange a taxi for you.
Where we stayed
Gyeongju is full of history, so we stayed in Korean traditional housing – hanok. Most guesthouses are going to be in hanok, and it was harder to find modern housing. We booked our place using the Aribnb website. Lots of Korean guesthouses also list on Airbnb. There are several things you need to note about staying at hanok.
Walls are thin. It’s so thin, you are likely to hear everything the guest in the next room is saying and when they are waking up and whatnot. So no sexy times.
You will be sleeping on the ground. For people who are used to mattresses and beds it might not be easy. The 이불 you sleep on is thick but it’s cotton, not padded with down or latex memory foam. But the best thing is that the floor is heated. Every single hanok listing we looked at had this radiant floor heating system. It’s called ondol. It’s like warm hug when you are sleeping.
Small towels. You will have to wash your face, dry your body, and dry your hair in this one single small towel. It’s slightly bigger than an American hand towel, but it is the standard size in Korea so do not panic and ask for several when you check-in.
Most have been renovated to a modern-style living space, so no separate bathroom.