A coastal heritage city with a contemporary vision

Capital of the mighty kingdom of Silla which ruled most of the Korean Peninsula from 57BC to 935AD, this UNESCO World Cultural Heritage City on the country’s south-east coast is appropriately nicknamed ‘the museum without walls’.

The giant burial mounds of the Silla royalty dominate the city centre and Buddhist temples and pagodas pepper the foothills of Namsan Mountain in nearby Gyeongju National Park. From prehistoric remains to traditional hanok architecture, a museum of antiquities to cutting-edge contemporary art and from buzzing food markets to adventurous outdoor activities, this city really does have something for everyone.

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From past to present in Gyeongju

To make sense of the city’s complicated history, visitors should first head to the Gyeongju National Museum, southeast of the city center. Among the many highlights are dazzling displays of gold fashioned into ornate crowns, belt clasps, drinking cups and ornamental jewelry from the Silla Dynasty that has been excavated from the city’s royal tombs. Also unmissable is the massive, bronze bell of King Seongdeok, the largest in Korea weighing over 18 tonnes and dating from 771 AD which stands in the museum’s courtyard.

For a look inside one of the mysterious royal tombs, take a stroll around the small, enclosed park of the Gyeongiu Daereungwon Ancient Tomb complex where a couple of these large, grassy mounds are open to visitors. The reconstructed burial chamber of Cheonmachong is the most interesting as it reveals how the king’s skeleton was discovered, with his hoard of treasures surrounding him. The park itself, which is planted with groves of ginko, red pine, persimmon, Chinese quince and myrtle is another good reason to visit.

Also worth a look is the Cheomseongdae astronomical observatory, built around 632AD the oldest in the Far East, and for a further sense of history pay a visit to Wolji Pond, once part of the ancient Donggung Palace, in Gyeongju National Park. Modern pavilions, built in the style of the now-vanished palace, house some of the domestic items that were discovered nearby – and from June to early August the lotus blossoms which unfurl on the water create an unforgettable spectacle.
If time allows, there are plenty more historical highlights to see: the elegant Woljeong Bridge, constructed in 760AD; the Gyochon Village, full of hanok-style houses; and the Banwolseong fortress with its early 18th-century ice house. You can also take an excursion to the Buddhist Bulguksa temple, 16km outside Gyeongju, which is set in pine forests and iris gardens accessed across two ancient bridges.

Fast forward to the present and Wooyang Museum of Contemporary Art in Bomun Lake Resort gives a taste of modern-day Gyeongju with changing exhibitions (on everything from graffiti to architecture) and a permanent collection that includes work by the likes of Jungjin Lee and Gilbert & George.

Foodies should not miss a trip to the city’s Jungang Market where stalls are laden with exotic ingredients: sample mouth-watering street foods such as grilled chicken on skewers (dakkochi), spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki) and sweet pancakes (hotteok). And no visit to Gyenongju would be complete without trying its famous red bean pastries available from Hwangnam Bbang bakery near the bus terminal, a longstanding local specialty since they were first produced in 1939.

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