I could see myself living in Gyeongju; really, I could. What a wonderful city. It has a population of about 265k and was expanded in 1995 to include the nearby rural Gyeongju County. As a result, it is split between rural land and urban space; something which makes this city a gorgeous one to visit. There are sprawling fields of rice on the outskirts of town and gardens, lily ponds, and historic sites peppered throughout the rest of the city. You get a great mix of the old and the new here.
One of the coolest places we stayed in lodging wise was in Gyeongju. We reserved a room in a traditional Korean house complex for our one night stay. This was one room where all of us slept on traditional mats/blankets on the floor. The room slept 6 and was just fine for the 5 of us. We were no strangers to sharing 1 bathroom so there was no adjustment there. The “complex” (if you can call it that as it was quite small) was a common area dining/kitchen that had toast and juice available for breakfast, an office, and all the rooms lined up in a row. Cats roamed free sunning themselves and playing with toys. The rooms were situated motel style with outdoor facing rooms in a long ranch-like building. The walls were thin wood/rice paper so it was important to be quiet at night. Our hosts were fabulous and outlined the best places to sightsee and eat in the area. One of the guys even told us how we could order drunk fried chicken and beer if we “needed” to later (regrettably, we did not do this due to exhaustion from walking a million miles a day).
We wanted to rent mopeds/scooters for a day to get around the city and to get out to some of the temples a few miles outside of downtown but they require an international driver’s license in order to rent. Sadly, none of us had one so we were stuck on foot or on one of the various bus routes. The buses were easy enough to navigate and pretty painless so it wasn’t a big deal. But, it would have been so much fun to zip around on a moped. Lesson learned for next time for sure.
We did two main things in Gyeongju. First, they have a huge tourist area where there are gardens, forest trails, and various historic landmarks/architecture that you can access on foot. You can basically do a walking tour of the whole area (which is pretty sizeable). Our lodging was fairly close to this area of town so we walked to and from at will. On the northern end of the city, there are massive tombs that look like big grassy hills (below) holding royalty of generations past. There’s a nice park that you can roam through as you walk between them. This was the first thing we did in town accompanied by some Korean McDonald’s (which we also used as a public restroom – literally, everyone comically used it at least twice) for lunch as we waited for our check-in time at the house.
In this tourist area, we saw more of the aforementioned tombs, Cheomseongdae Observatory, and Anapji Pond (among others I cannot remember). There were fields of flowers and gardens to stroll through. Few fields were in season; we noticeably missed the height of the spring flowerings and lily pond blooms (bummer). We also picked up some fun street treats (which were VERY plentiful) – a spiraled potato dipped in various spice/cheese mixtures and a coveted J cone! These cones are shaped, you guessed it, like the letter J and hold soft serve ice cream throughout. We had tried to snag one in Seoul but just couldn’t find a place that aligned with our location and eating schedules. The J cone was as funny as it was good; a great novelty dessert experience. See below for some snapshots of everything.
The second thing we visited here was the Bulguksa Temple. It is located on the slopes of mount Toham so there’s a bit of a (vendor cart/tourist trap filled) climb to get there. It is a Buddhist temple boasting 7 National Treasures of South Korea within its walls. The stairway entrance to the temple is 33 steps high representing the 33 step of enlightenment.
An excerpt from Korea’s official tourism site breaks down the restoration of the temple over time:
Bulguksa Temple underwent numerous renovations from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), but was burned down during the Imjin War (Japanese Invasions, 1592-1598).
Reconstruction started again in 1604 during the 37th year of King Seon-jo’s reign (Joseon Dynasty) and was renovated about 40 times until 1805 (during the reign of King Sun-Jo, 1790-1834). After this time, the temple suffered serious damage and was often the target of robbers.
In 1969, the Bulguksa Temple Restoration Committee was formed and in 1973, Mulseoljeon, Gwaneumjeon, Birojeon, Gyeongru, and Hoerang (all of which had previously been demolished) were rebuilt. Other old or broken sites (such as Daeungjeon, Geungnakjeon, Beomyeongnu and Jahamun) were repaired.
See below for some images of the different parts of the temple and all the colorful lanterns from temple visitors that hung in various courtyards throughout the grounds.
Last but not least, we ate well in Gyeongju. We found a “traditional Korean pub” to walk to not too far from our house. We walked through our neighborhood streets and into the folk village where the pub was located for dinner. Around every dark corner, CCTV spotlights would kick on via motion sensors and speak to you (kind of startling/surprising). We picked up a stray puppy on the way who played with a plastic cup in the middle of the street and followed us for several blocks (heartwrenching!). Katie threatened to take him home with us if a home could not be found. That’s one thing that you don’t really notice until you really notice it – there are virtually no dogs in Korea or Japan. We know that these cultures haven’t been crazy about dogs historically and are only recently starting to warm up to the species; but let’s face it, it’s a cat’s world in these countries.
Anyway, we arrive at the pub and it’s a traditional “check your shoes at the door” kind of joint. They thankfully had a full English menu to cater to us out of towners (complete with pictures of all the dishes). We went a little ham and got a spicy scallion pancake, kimchi pancake, cold soba noodles, pork bulgogi, and a few other things I can’t quite remember. Since we were still in Korea that meant we also got a shitload of banchan sides (BINGO!) with our meal. We split some light beers and a teapot of this drink called makgeolli. This is a slightly sweet alcoholic beverage native to Korea. Made from rice or wheat mixed with nuruk (a Korean fermentation starter), it is usually around 6-8% alcohol by volume; just about as much as your favorite go-to IPA. It has a milky color but is quite thin in texture; it drinks like water with little to no bite or aftertaste. We all enjoyed it much to our surprise.
I know this post has been long so, I leave you with food pictures from our pub meal! One more stop in Korea before we hit Japan.
In case you missed it:
On deck: Busan, Kyoto, and Tokyo.