I always dreamt of traveling in time and seeing places of old at the height of their existence. However, since time travel is still not possible, the closest I got to fulfilling my fantasy was in September 2021, visiting the city of Gyeongju on a day trip from Busan.
It was a rainy autumn morning during one of the non-working days of the Korean Thanksgiving Holiday. We left the car in the fortunately empty Gyeongju National Museum’s parking lot. Then, we decide to walk to the Gyeongju Gyochon Traditional Village, basically the old part of the ancient Silla Kingdom’s capital.
We took a trail running through the hilly Gyerim Forest (The Rooster’s Forest). Everything was quiet and peaceful, the valley below devoid of traffic due to the holidays. The only sound breaking the eery silence was the faint murmur of the falling rain. I am not inclined towards mystical experiences, but I’ll never forget that other-worldly feeling of careless content.
We sat on a bench at the forest’s edge, taking in the view below us. A lazy river snaked in the misty valley, passing below a beautiful roofed wooden bridge. Beyond the river and the empty road, we could see a patch of rice paddies and wooded hills. While on our side of the flowing water, we saw a path leading from the bridge to the historic town. It was like admiring a painting that came to life.
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Gyeongju – a short history
As the capital of the Kingdom of Silla, Gyeongju became the center of Korean political and cultural life by 668 A.D. Records of Samguk Yusa, a medieval collection of historical accounts, legends, and folk tales, puts Gyeongju’s population at over 178.000 households, circa half a million inhabitants.
The city was relegated to a secondary position after the formation of the Kingdom of Goryeo (935 – 1392); the new dynasty moved the capital to Kaesong (now in North Korea).
During the Joseon period (1392 – 1910), Gyeongju further declined, eventually being replaced by Daegu as the provincial capital in 1601. The city witnessed destruction during the 13th-century Mongolian attacks, while the entire area became a heated battlefield during the Japanese invasion of 1592 – 1598. However, foreign invaders were not the only ones damaging the ancient city. Joseon’s enforcement of Neo-Confucianism encouraged their radical supporters to mutilate valuable Buddhist sculptures and destroy religious artifacts.
Today Gyeongju is a major tourist spot, attracting 8-9 million visitors a year, including close to 1 million foreigners. The main points of attraction are related to the invaluable historical, architectural and cultural heritage of the Silla period.
What to do and see in Gyeongju on a day trip from Busan
The old town’s traditional buildings host several restaurants. We had the chance to enjoy delicious cuisine worldwide over the years, but one of the best meals was in Gyeongju.
It was a treat fitting the kings who ruled Korea from Gyeongju, enjoyed in the appropriate setting; the picturesque wooden building, with its traditional courtyard, was probably a nobleman’s house during the Silla dynasty. And the price was well within the budget of a less aristocratic pocket such as ours – the menu containing seventeen different dishes for two persons was around 50 dollars in total.
Speaking of aristocrats, you should drop by Richman Choi’s House; it is a historic building complex that served as a residence for a wealthy Gyeongju family hundreds of years earlier.
Another place I wouldn’t miss is the Gyeongju Hyanggyo, a historic government-run school. The site was originally the national academy of the Silla Kingdom, the so-called Gukhak, founded in 682 AD; South Koreans’ penchant for education goes back a long time. Later, the complex became a hyanggyo, a kind of high school, during the Goryeo and Joseon Kingdoms.
Nearby the old town proper, you could admire the monumental tombs of the ancient kings. Each grave is a pyramid-like earthen mound covered in green grass; it is not a bad place to rest, surrounded by nature, with clear ponds and wooded hills in the background, the picturesque traditional village in sight.
Before you leave this part of Gyeongju, stopping for a coffee might be worth your time. So we dropped by Café Sabaha. The coffee shop has an interesting design, its several rooms being furnished in different styles, from pretend-Victorian England-feel to modern coffee-shop style. However, we mostly enjoyed the floor-to-ceiling windows that afforded a view of its nice, tree-surrounded traditional courtyard.
I mentioned the roofed bridge we saw from the hill – Woljeonggyo Bridge; you have to walk through it! The painted and decorated roof rests on numerous pillars, making the whole thing look like a royal throne hall rather than a structure designed for crossing a river; in those days, the style seemed to be as important as the functionality. Have your smartphones and cameras on hand; the bridge is definitely an instagramable place.
Visiting the Gyeongju Musem might be a good idea; unfortunately, it was closed during our visit due to holidays, so we are not speaking from personal experience.
If you are not in a hurry, we strongly recommend visiting Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto. Albeit it is not in Gyeongju city, it is just a few kilometers away. Moreover, the Buddhist complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing several amazing architectural wonders.
Other activities worth trying in Gyeongju:
Traditional Soju Making Experience – you don’t have to be a huge soju fan to learn how to make it. After all, this is the main drink in Korean culture, and it is always interesting to learn about local traditions. See more about the experience here!
Paint Traditional Folk Illustrations on Folding Fans – this is an experience worth trying when you would like to paint your own fan with traditional symbols. Learn about Korean traditional folk painting, and bring home a souvenir you have worked for. See more here!
Want to learn how to make some of your favorite Korean dishes? Take a cooking class in the charming setting of Gyeongju! Start at the local traditional market, choose the best ingredients, then learn to cook 3 to 4 traditional dishes. The best part? You get to eat it all at the end! See more here!
If you are considering renting a hanbok during your stay in South Korea, the Palaces in Seoul and Gyeongju offer the best setting for unforgettable pictures. Read everything you need to know from our experience and book your hanbok here!
Gyeongju main attractions map
How to get from Busan to Gyeongju for a day trip
A great option is to link your visit to Gyeongju with a stay in nearby Busan, one of our favorite cities in South Korea due to its long beaches, party atmosphere, high-rise skyline, and cosmopolitan feel – it was our go-to place when Hong Kong nostalgia overwhelmed us.
Getting there by car
The distance between the 2 cities is less than 100 kilometers (between 86 and 96 depending on the route), and you can easily drive there in a little over one hour.
If you don’t have a car, the best available option for tourists in South Korea is Hertz. They have desks in almost all major cities (including Busan), and most importantly, accept international credit cards.
Another option would be Rentalcars.com – you get big brands for massive savings. You can book from anywhere in the world and pay with your credit card. See more here!
While renting a car and driving from Busan to Gyeongju would be the most flexible option, there are also other options to get there.
Getting there by train (KTX)
KTX train will take you to Singyeongju Station from Busan Station in roughly 35 minutes.
There are many train options throughout the day, and the only downside is that you will have to take public transportation to get to the tourist area in town.
The train ticket is very affordable, and you won’t have to worry about finding a parking space.
Another great option for when you are planning to take more train rides, want to book on an international site, and use your card, is Klook.
They offer Korea Rail Passes for 2/3/4/5 days – the days don’t have to be consecutive, you can use KTX and KTX-Sancheon High-Speed Trains, along with other types of trains.
Getting there by bus
With only a few bus options throughout the day, this might be the cheapest option for getting from Busan to Gyeongju.
Go on Kobus.co.kr and search for the date you will like to plan your trip.
As you can see from my simulation, for the date I have searched there are only 3 buses. The prices range from 4 to 5 USD for a one-way ticket, and the time estimation for the ride is of 50 minutes.
Getting there by organized tour
A great option when you don’t want to worry about timetables, having to think about itineraries and top attractions, or anything in between.
Ideal for people visiting the city for the first time, and for those who are not so familiar with South Korea.
A guide will join you on a 9-hour journey to Gyeongju and its most important attractions: Bulguksa Temple, Wolji Pond, and Cheomseongdae Observatory.
Make sure to book in advance, because this is a popular day trip from Busan.
Where to stay in Gyeongju
Staying overnight in the ancient city should be on your bucket list if you have the time. Not only you will have more time to explore the charming place, but you will also have the chance to stay in a traditional Korean house.
If you do have the time and choose to spend 2 days in Gyeongju, here are a few great accommodation options to have in mind:
Namuae is a guesthouse with authentic Korean rooms. Expect to sleep on the floor and eat some of the most delicious food in the world. The place has a charming garden and offers free parking.
Dorandoran Guesthouse is another great guesthouse option with great reviews, where you can choose a room with a mattress on the floor or a bed. Its location is perfect for sightseeing around Gyeongju.
Include Gyeongju on your 10-day South Korea Itinerary or visit it as a day trip from Busan.
Other Busan Travel Resources
One day in Busan, a weekend in Busan itinerary, or 3 days in Busan itinerary
Where to stay in Busan for first-time travelers
The complete list of Instagrammble places in Busan