Gyeongju, while perhaps difficult to pronounce, is easy to appreciate. Travel writers Barb and Ron Kroll say that a quarter of South Korea's historical treasures are in Gyeongju. Along with a national park that encompasses 36 percent of the city, temples, tombs, pleasure gardens and pagodas list among the numerous attractions that help inspire Gyeongju's reputation as a museum without walls.
Anapji Pond and Park
The Anapji Pond offers plenty of interesting history, such as the fact that it was once inside the former royal palace's walls. A draining of the pond in 1974 led to the discovery of gold, bronze bowls, jewelry, door knockers and numerous other artifacts which are on display at the nearby National Museum (gyeongju.museum.go.kr), just a three minute walk from the pond. For an especially romantic view of the site, visit at night when lights accent the pond, buildings and surrounding forest. Further, for more nature and history, try peaceful Tumuli Park, where you can visit Cheonmachong (Heavenly Horse Tomb), a crypt rivaling Egypt's King Tut's tomb.
Monks, Royals and Astronomers
Gyeongju's royal history goes as far back as 57 B.C., when Gyeongju became the capital of the Shilla dynasty and which it remained for nearly 1,000 years. A 20th century cultural revival brought about restored cultural gems. It's recommended that you take several days to explore what Gyeongju has to offer, such as the restored Bulguksa Temple built in A.D. 535, that houses around 100 monks amid a grove of pines. If you happen to stroll along Bonggil-li beach, look for a tiny islet just off-shore where many believe lies the underwater tomb of King Munmu, the 30th ruler of Shilla. Although you can't walk on the islet, knowing its history enhances the beach experience. Also consider Cheomseongdae, allegedly the oldest observatory where ancient astronomers gauged the stars. It's within walking distance of Tumuli park.
Mountains, Statues and Ice
The Seokguram Grotto, near the top of Mt. Tohamsan, is home to a 1,200-year-old granite Buddha statue that has earned Seokguram a place on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, along with the Bulguksa Temple. Exercise your lungs by hiking up sacred Mt. Nam-san, which has various trails that take hikers among waterfalls (on rainy days), temples and Buddha images -- and where Buddhism purportedly began in Korea. After all that hiking, cool off in Seokbinggo Ice Storage House, easily accessible by catching a bus from the bus station. Ancient Koreans used the granite structure -- which is half underground -- to store ice for the upper class. You'll notice a significant temperature drop inside if you visit on a warm day.
Beauty and Charming Eccentricity
Gyeongju, while known for its rich political history, also attracts visitors simply because of its natural beauty. The politically neutral Sochulchi, a pond famous as a fertile home for the lotus flower, is favored by the Krolls as an especially peaceful spot in Gyeongju. In July it's common to see white and red blossoms litter the pond's surface among jade leaves. As you hike along trails, look for pink azaleas. Also along hiking trails, look for statue images missing their noses; ancient Korean women would chip these noses as a ritualistic way to guarantee their fertility -- an historical eccentricity complementing natural and cultural beauty.
- Kroll Travel: Gyeongju — Korea's Museum Without Walls
- Frommers: Review of Anapji Pond
- Lonely Planet: Gyeongju Travel
- "The Rough Guide to First-Time Asia"; Lesley Reader, Lucy Ridout; 2010
- Frommers: Review of Bomun Lake Resort
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images