We went on a trip to Gyeongju together with the local travel agency Klook. The trip starts in Busan at 9.00 a.m. (pick up point at KTX Busan Station). The trip ends in the late evening around 9.30 p.m. The “Gyeongju Historic Areas” trip plan includes magnificent monuments inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as well as those classified as National Treasures of Korea.
Here is the list of all attractions:
- Yangdong Village, a heritage of the Joseon Dynasty
- Seokguram Grotto with a stone statue of the Buddha
- Beautiful Bulguksa Temple
- Artificial Wolji pond (Anapji), hiding the secrets of the ancient capital
All these places are Korea’s great cultural heritage and an interesting lesson about the history of the country.
Yangdong Folk Village is the largest clan village of South Korea, presenting the traditional culture of the Joseon dynasty. Sheltered by forest, at the foot of the Seolchangsan Mountain. Located on the river in front of vast arable fields, it is a classic image of the village founded at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. There are about 160 old houses and thatched houses in the valley.
The village has more than 50 houses that are more than 200 years old. There are also some buildings estimated to have been built more than 500 years ago. All these houses are perfectly preserved in their original condition, which is rare from the perspective of the whole country.
The village was recognized as an important material and folklore heritage of the country. Its layout was planned according to Confucian philosophy. Thanks to that the divisions signifying the social status of the inhabitants of individual households are clearly outlined. Yangdong Folk Village is a living museum of Korea. Some houses are still inhabited there, and visitors are not allowed to enter some places. You should also remember the appropriate behaviour and follow the hours set for sightseeing.
Yangdong Village, along with the Hahoe Folk Village, has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is eagerly visited not only by Koreans but also by tourists from around the world. The most honourable guest was Charles, Prince of Wales – heir to the British throne, who visited Yangdong in 1992.
- In the summer season, the village can be visited from 9.00 a.m. – 7.00 p.m. Out of peak season entrance is available until 6.00 p.m.
- Admission ticket: 4000 WON (about 3,5 $).
- In the place where the ticket office is located there is also a great gallery. Scenes from the life of former villagers are painted on the walls that are surrounding the building. It is worth stopping here for a moment and getting acquainted with the history of this place.
- More information about the Yangdong Village can be found on the UNESCO and Cultural Heritage Administration websites.
Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju
Bulguksa Temple is an amazing place even from the perspective of the whole country. For Koreans, it is important not only due to religious reasons but also because of the numerous National Treasures located in that place. The Bulguksa temple has also gained recognition in the international arena because in 1995 it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Bulguksa name means “Buddha-land temple”. The first temple was erected in Gyeongju in 528. Since then, it has been expanded several times, until in 751, when it was decided to build a large monastery in this place. The entire reconstruction took 17 years. Over the next centuries, the monastery was set on fire, robbed and destroyed several times, and the greatest damage affected the complex during the Japanese invasion in the 16th century. It was left in ruins until 1969 when a special Committee for the Reconstruction of the Bulguksa Temple was created, which allowed the full reconstruction of this monumental place. The main reconstruction and reconstruction of destroyed buildings took place in 1973.
Originally, the extensive temple complex consisted of about 200 wooden buildings, arranged around several courtyards. Currently, the complex is much smaller, but it is very valuable in terms of architecture and religion. Bulguksa is the parish monastery of the School of Chogye, which manages 61 other monasteries scattered throughout the country.
Bulguksa temple treasures
There are stone stairs that are symbolizing a bridge connecting the people’s world beneath and the Buddha’s world above. Also, there is a historic gate that leads to the temple, guarded by Four Heavenly Guards. There are two valuable pagodas in the main courtyard: Dabotap Pagoda and Seokgatap Pagoda, and eight National Treasures. You can find there also several valuable pavilions and temples in the complex, where the faithful can worship the Buddha.
In the Bulguksa temple, it is also worth paying attention to the gardens. Like the entire monastery complex – gardens were built following the principles of feng shui. Therefore, striving is visible to emphasize the natural beauty of nature, preserved in an unchanged form.
Bulguksa is also a place where you can stay for a Teplestay, for short stay sessions, 1-2 days. Staying in the temple allows participants to experience the lives of Buddhist practitioners and to learn about various aspects of Korean culture and history through stories told by monks. During their stay, participants are taught various forms of meditation, have the opportunity to eat a traditional meal with the monks living in the temple, participate in the tea ceremony, copy Buddhist books by hand, learn to glue paper lanterns in the shape of a lotus flower. You can read more about the program, how to sign up and what the temple offers, at templestay.com
- When we were visiting the temple, the faithful were preparing for the solemn celebration of the Buddha’s birthday. On this occasion, all pavilions and squares located within the complex were decorated with paper lanterns and hundreds of fresh flowers.
- In April and early May – wisteria blooms in Korea. It can be found at that time in wet forests and on the banks of streams also in China and Japan. Wisteria is an extremely decorative high-climbing vine, which in early spring is covered with garlands of lilac flowers. These are extremely beautiful plants that not only look amazing but also smell very pleasant. We were lucky to see them in full bloom in the temple gardens because in other parts of the country the wisterias have already faded and there were no more flowers on the trees.
- You can visit the temple every day. In the summer season from 7.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m. Outside of the peak season entrance from 7.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.
- Admission ticket 5000 WON (4,2$).
- You can read more on the temple’s website en.bulguksa.or.kr
Seokguram Grotto – grotto with a smiling Buddha
A paved road leads from the main complex entrance to the cave. The grotto is located on the slope of a steep hill, and the walk takes about 30 minutes one way. On the way, you will pass a great temple bell and a single-pillar gate. You can also reach the grotto by a stone path directly from the Bulguksa temple, but this route takes about 1h each way (4 km steep stairs uphill).
During the most important holidays, the road leading to the cave – along its entire length – is decorated with colourful lanterns.
A walk in this place is a real pleasure because there are no sounds of civilization. In addition to the sound of the wind and murmur of the leaves, you could also hear the sound of paper lanterns moved by the wind. Along the way, you can meet animals living here, who have long got used to the presence of man in the middle of the forest.
The cave was not carved out of the rock due to the specific geological structure of the mountains located here. It was built of large, matched boulders, and the whole structure was covered with a layer of soil, now covered with grass. That is why it is called an “artificial grotto”.
Inside the grotto
The cave is small, but it makes a big impression. The first part is a small vestibule in which Buddhist rituals were once performed. The establishment of the temple in this place is estimated in the VIII century. Today a guard is on duty there who makes sure that nobody takes pictures inside, as this is prohibited.
After passing a small corridor you will reach a semi-circular dome containing a wonderful treasure. There is a huge stone monument of Buddha inside, made of granite. The monument is 3.5 meters high, and the dome where the monument was placed is 7 meters high. Although the Buddha has eyes are almost closed, he smiles and has a cheerful expression on his face, that is why the unofficial name of this place is “grotto of a smiling Buddha”. It is also said to be the most beautiful Buddha statue in the whole country.
Interesting reliefs were carved into the dome’s internal walls. The whole rotunda can be viewed from behind thick glass. It is a protection of the interior of the dome from temperature changes, moisture, dirt and dust.
- Access to the Buddha statue is protected by the Four Devas. They were carved in the rock on both sides of the main entrance.
- In the interior of the dome, there are also carved figures of eight world guards. Originally, they derived from Hindu mythology, whose task in this place was to protect the teachings of the Buddha.
- Mount Toham, where the cave is located, is over 700 meters high. From its top, there is an interesting view of the surrounding area and the Bulguksa Temple – located at the foot of the mountain.
- The grotto is currently one of the best-known cultural destinations in South Korea. A viewing of the sunrise over the sea is a particularly popular spot.
- In 1995, both: the Seokguram Grotto and the nearby Bulguksa Temple were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Those were some of the first buildings in South Korea described on that list.
- The grotto can be visited every day between 6.30 a.m. and 6.00 p.m. in the summer season. Entrance between 7.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m. is available off the season.
- Admission ticket 6000 WON (about 5$).
- More information can be found directly on the Seokguram Grotto website, also available in English.
Donggung Palace and Wolji pond (Anapji)
The garden and the artificial pond were built in Gyeongju in the year 674, during the reign of King Munmu (Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Silla). It happened within a few years after the unification of the Korean Peninsula. The pond had three central islands and the area on which it was formed consisted of twelve natural hills. Beautiful trees and flowers, as well as rare birds and animals, were brought here from all over the country. Around the lake, many pavilions were built, which were used to organize state festivals, solemn meetings and banquets. One of them was used as the prince’s palace, called Imhaejeon. Anapji is a great example of the garden and lake construction of that period.
After the fall of the Kingdom of Silla, this place was abandoned and forgotten. Over the years, pavilions and the palace were destroyed and did not survive in modern times.
A reconstruction of the current lake and archaeological buildings was undertaken in 1975–76 and completed in 1980. During the reconstruction works, 26 building foundations were found in the garden. There were also found many small objects (over 33,000 fragments), including bowls, plates and bricks decorated in flowers. Among the others, there were also some valuable discoveries, like jewellery, Buddhism-related deity figures, and everyday objects specific to the Silla period.
During the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties – the pond was called “Anapji” and the palace was called Imhaejeon. However, during the reconstruction work, a piece of ceramics was found with the inscription “Wolji” meaning “pond that reflects the moon”. This discovery revealed the real name of the pond and the palace. After that, it was changed and used today as Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond.
- Currently, there is a small pavilion on the pond, where part of the found objects is exhibited. The showcases display great jewellery, colourful fragments of ceramics, and items related to Buddhism. The showcases also contain graphics depicting the history of this place and how the architecture of the pavilions used to look in the past. It is an amazing place to visit if you are interested in discovering Gyeongju historic areas.
- It’s worth coming to the garden to watch the sunset. A royal pavilion has been recreated there. It is beautifully illuminated after sunset, which in combination with the dark-blue sky – makes a magical impression.
- Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond are open all year round. They can be visited from 9.00 a.m. to 10.00 p.m. (last admission at 9.30 p.m.).
- 3000 WON admission ticket (about 2,5 $).
- It is worth buying tickets in advance because just before sunset, there are long queues in front of the ticket office.
- More information can be found at cha.go.kr, which contains descriptions of all South Korea historical sites and monuments.
Gyeongju – historic areas and former capital of Silla Kingdom
Gyeongju was the capital of Silla for 992 years. The history of this city once called Seorabeol, is therefore also a history of the thousand-year-old Silla Kingdom.
Gyeongju is also the history of Buddhism, the development of science and bustling ancient culture. The kingdom flourished thanks to the craftsmanship of the Silla people and the hwarang code. It was an elite youth organization raised in the service of the state, which enabled the unification of the three kingdoms.
In the year 2000, the historic area of Gyeongju was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On the website you can find below description: “The Gyeongju Historic Areas contain a remarkable concentration of outstanding examples of Korean Buddhist art, in the form of sculptures, reliefs, pagodas, and the remains of temples and palaces from the flowering, in particular between the 7th and 10th centuries, of this form of unique artistic expression.”
The Namsan Mountain (South Mountain) which is located in Gyeongju is called a “museum without walls”. It is because of the richness of Buddhist art of ancient times. In several places throughout the city, there are numerous royal tombs located. They are dating back to the time of the beginning of the kingdom.
Within the city, there are two objects inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and numerous National Treasures of Korea.
The capital of Gyeongsangbuk – Daegu is the third-largest city in South Korea. You can get to Daegu – both from Seoul and Busan by a fast and comfortable KTX train. All of the attractions I described can be reached by suburban bus leaving from the KTX station in Daegu.
SOUTH KOREA – MY OTHER POSTS
I also encourage you to read my other posts about Seoul and South Korea:
- Busan – the summer capital of South Korea
- Nami Island and Petit France
- Seoul – the most important tourist attractions
- Suwon Fortress day trip from Seoul