Gyeongju, South Korea

Gyeongju tombs, South Korea

© Damien Bouhours

I was really amazed at how culturally captivating Gyeongju was.  This peaceful coastal city in the far southeastern corner of North Gyeongsang province, in South Korea, is famous for its many artifacts from the Silla kingdom. Gyeongju was indeed the capital of that ancient kingdom (57 BC– 935 AD).

© Damien Bouhours

Bulguksa © Damien Bouhours

Among all the attractions, including the grotto of Seokguram and the temple of Bulguksa, both UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1995, Tumuli Park, in the center of town, is one of my favorites. Those underground tombs, reserved to the rulers of Silla, look like regular grass hills from the outside. Those upside-down pyramids honored and guarded the bodies of the generals and members of the royal family, and their treasures. And they had nothing to envy to the Egyptian pharaohs.

© Damien Bouhours

© Damien Bouhours

How to go there?

By plane

Gyeongju doesn’t have its own airport. The nearest are in Busan (Gimhae) and Ulsan, both an hour away by express bus. Bus service between the airports and Gyeongju’s main terminal runs hourly. There are also 5 direct return coach journeys per day between Seoul Incheon Airport and Gyeongju Intercity Bus Terminal. These services take around 4 hours and cost around 40000 Won each way.

By bus

Gyeongju is well serviced by intra-city buses. Service from Daegu, Pohang, and Busan (depending on terminal) leaves at least every twenty minutes, and every 40 minutes between Gyeongju and Seoul. Travel time from Seoul is approximately four hours, and Daegu, Pohang, and Busan are usually 40 minutes to an hour. There is limited daily service to other parts of Korea, and travelers going between Gyeongju and other cities will usually be routed through either Daegu or Busan, depending on direction of travel. An inter-city bus leaves directly from the Incheon International Airport near Seoul.

By train

Gyeongju station is located in the city centre, and is served by 7 direct (but slow) Seamaeul trains per day from Seoul. These trains take up to five hours and stop at a large number of stations along the route. An alternative option is to take the KTX high speed train to Dongdaegu and transfer to the Saemaeul there, which takes about 3 hours plus transfer time.

The KTX (Korea’s high speed train) also serves Gyeongju directly, although the train goes to the brand new out-of-town station called Singyeongju (신경주 역). The journey time from Seoul is 2:05. From the new station, many buses will take you to the city in about 15 minutes. Use buses 50, 60, 61, 70, 203 and 700. Ask the driver to let you off at the Express Bus Terminal (고속터미널, Gosok Teominal) which is a pretty convenient location. One way economy class Seoul-Singyeongju by KTX costs 44,700 Won (as of March 1st, 2013), and tickets can be purchased from the automated machines (in English or Korean) at the station.[2]

Because of its location off the central train lines (Gyeongbu Line) to Daegu and Busan, train service to other parts of the country is limited or indirect. There is, however, train service to Busan, Daegu, and Pohang connecting riders to more extensive rail service as well as to the KTX. In addition, there is extensive commuter train service to surrounding communities.

If coming from Busan/Haeundae in particular, consider the train as the route is rather scenic varying from being sandwiched between pine forest and blue ocean during the 15 minutes after Haeundae Beach to the curious sight of and passing through Ulsan elevated over the city with the endless industrial smokestacks in the distance. Most importantly though, there exists a second stop specifically servicing the Bulguksa World Heritage Site (불국사 역). Get off here, take the number 11 bus and it’ll typically zip you up to the temple much faster than the intercity bus route.