Dareungwon Tomb Complex
Cheomseongdae Observatory Tower
They don’t call Gyeongju the “museum without walls” without good reason. The entire city teems with history; even the breaths you take are weighted and seemingly unabating. Two days would be a comfortable itinerary to see Gyeongju but if you, like us, want to spend only a day, it is possible too.
The ideal itinerary would be:
1) Bulguksa Temple → Seokgulam Grotto
2) Dareungwon → Cheomseongdae → Anapji → National Museum
Bulguksa Temple→ Seokgulam Grotto
As you can see, there are two parts. Visit Bulguksa in the morning – clear it off your checklist as the temple is about a 40 minutes ride from the bus terminal. There is a Tourist Information booth just outside the bus terminal – facing the road, walk towards the left to the first bus stop you see and cross the road. From there, take bus 10 or 11.
The site has an entrance fee of 5,000 won. Standing tall since 528 during the Silla Kingdom, it also houses 7 National Treasures of Korea. A huge estate built to symbolise Buddha’s utopia, it is filled with an air of sobriety and solemnity. One can spend up to two hours just enjoying nature and visiting the different buildings of prayer.
About 9km from Bulguksa sits the Seokgulam Grotto. One can take bus 12 from Bulguksa’s bus stop – it takes about 20 minutes but it is at least another 30 minutes of hiking before one reaches the man-carved cave. We skipped this due to the amount of walking needed (it was drizzling) and also the mismatch of the bus timing.
The bus from Bulguksa → Seokgulam arrives at 8:40, 9:40, 10:40…hourly until 4:40 with the last bus at 5:20pm. Where as from Seokgulam→Bulguksa, the bus arrives hourly from 9, 10, 11, 12…till 6pm. If we visited Seokgulam, we would have arrived back in town only at 3pm.
Dareungwon → Cheomseongdae → Anapji → National Museum
We chose this route but in all honesty, I think it is best to do the reverse which is to visit the National Museum first. The museum is very insightful and gives a detailed historical narrative of Gyeongju, the Silla Kingdom and how the Dareungwon Tombs came to be built. With this understanding, you will be able to capture and soak in the beauty of the sites.
They are all within walking distance, starting from the bus terminal to Dareungwon.
Dareungwon Tomb Complex is basically one of the many sites where you will see round oversized burial mounds that are as impressive as they are peculiar. In Dareungwon, you can visit the insides of Cheonmachong Tomb and get a feel of how the burial rites were like during the Silla Kingdom. Most of the tombs here are meant for kings, queens and nobles with the most famous being Cheonmachong and Hwangnamdaechong. Archaeologists unearthed huge amount of luxurious accessories (hint: gold) from the queen’s tomb which was significantly more than the king’s. It makes one wonder about the social positions between men and women then.
Exiting Dareungwon, one crosses the road and reaches Cheomseongdae, the oldest astronomical observatory in East Asia. Standing at 9.17m high, this tower was used to observe the stars to forecast weather and season changes. Around the tower is just flatland which might be boring to some but to me, it was a refreshing change from the claustrophobic skyscrapers and lego-buildings of cities. Nearby the tower is also where the Gyerim Forest, Wolseong Fortress, Gyochon Hanok Village are situated.
After that, it is about a 25 minute walk to Anapji which is currently known as Gyeongju Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond. This was used by the Crown Prince and during important national events. Walking in, one will see three large pavilions facing the artificial pond. At night, the pond is shimmery and reflects the pavilion beautifully; it is no wonder they named this place Wolji which means pond-reflecting-moon. There is a 2,000 won entrance fees for this site.
Right opposite Anapji is where the Gyeongju National Museum is situated. We reached the museum at around 4.30pm and was ushered in after the guard told us it is free of charge which really surprised us. I really enjoyed looking at the relics, artefacts and videos of how the tombs were built and their burial rites.
Conclusion: If we had spent two days instead, we would have rented bicycles and just roam freely around the entire city, visiting more sites and tombs along the way. Because we traveled from Busan to Gyeongju and stayed only for a night before our early KTX ride back to Seoul the next day, the trip felt a little too rushed.