When it comes to preserving ancient capitals, sometimes you just can’t beat a bit of good, old-fashioned dictatorship. Kyoto lost much of its original genteel atmosphere after World War II, largely transforming into a modern Japanese city.
In the 1970s, the same fate may have befallen Gyeongju, capital of the Silla empire (57 BC– AD 935), had Korea not been ruled at the time by a military strongman from the area. The city was shielded from the burgeoning Korean economy by a cap on building height. So, from just 72 ft (22 m) above ground level, one is able to see the whole city – something hard to imagine in present-day Kyoto.
The limit is based on the height of Gyeongju’s largest burial mound, or tumulus. The city is dotted with these soft, grassy hillocks, evidence of a line of Silla kings that stretched unbroken for almost a millennium. Other royalty and assorted noblemen were afforded the same privilege, so there are a fair few such mounds to see, mostly in Tumuli Park in the city center. Here, you are even allowed to walk inside one mound for a look at the way in which Silla royalty was entombed.
This period has left its mark in other ways, too. Sillan artisans were the envy of East Asia, and a glut of golden treasure has been hauled from the earth and displayed at the Gyeongju National Museum – a sight not to be missed. Also scattered around the city are some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful temples in the land – most notable are sumptuously painted Bulguksa, the martial arts center of Golgulsa and isolated Girimsa.
Most visitors also take time to check out Namsan, a mountain just south of the town that still yields archaeological discoveries on a regular basis. It is best reached by bicycle and, on the way, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the city gives way to farmland and bucolic landscapes – unthinkable in Kyoto.
Kyoto’s jewels may be more highly polished, and certainly better known, but it’s Gyeongju that better evokes the atmosphere of its bygone days as the capital of an advanced and noble culture.
MAIN CITY SIGHTS
Tumuli Park Containing almost two dozen burial mounds, this enclosed area is very picturesque. The Cheonmachong (“heavenly horse”) tomb, named for an exquisite painting of a flying horse found inside, is open to the public as a museum.
Bulguksa In a country with no shortage of stunning temples, ornately painted Bulguksa is among the best. It is thoroughly deserving of its place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, as is Seokguram, the nearby mountaintop Buddhist grotto with breath- taking views, that can be reached via a steep but pleasant hiking trail or a winding shuttle-bus ride. Anapji This pleasure garden and palace complex, centered around a charming lotus pond, was built for King Munmu in the 7th century. Many people opt to visit at night, when the surrounding trees and bamboo are delightfully illuminated.
Namsan This mountain lies just south of central Gyeongju. Surrounded by tombs and temples, and still yielding up its treasures to archaeologists, it can fill a whole day of hiking and sightseeing. Many visitors opt to explore by rented bicycle, on which you can also weave through the surrounding patchwork of farms and fields.
Having served as the imperial capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto boasts a suitably impressive collection of palaces, temples, shrines, and gardens.
Geishas still trip through streets lined with traditional inns and townhouses.
Kyoto was largely spared from bombing during World War II, but much of its magnificence has been destroyed by factories, traffic, and high-rise apartment blocks.
City planning has occasionally bordered on sabotage – the mammoth new train station (Japan’s largest) being a case in point.
Its Zen gardens are among Kyoto’s most appealing features. However, visitors are often required to carry their footwear around in a plastic bag, which somewhat spoils the atmosphere. It may be worth booking a tour around one of the more illustrious imperial villas instead, as these receive far fewer guests.
Getting There and Around
Gyeongju can be reached directly by bus from Incheon, Korea’s main airport (5 hours), but most travelers come here via Seoul, from where there are buses every half hour or so (4 hours).
Gyeongju’s tiny train station is also served by seven trains a day from the capital (4–5 hours).
Where to Eat
As in all Korean cities, you can eat excellent food for next to nothing in Gyeongju. The city is noted for its restaurants serving ssam-bap, a largely vegetable-based meal made up of over a dozen separate dishes.
There are several places to eat on the road running along the eastern edge of Tumuli Park, but the most attractive is Sampo Ssambap, which is decorated with photos and Korean bric-a-brac.
Where to Stay
There are numerous 5-star options around Bomun Lake, a few kilometers east of central Gyeongju, but those seeking something more homey should head to Sarangchae, a budget gem of a guesthouse whose rooms are set around a traditional courtyard.
When to Go
Winters in Korea can be bitterly cold and summers stifling, so go in spring (Mar–May) or fall (Sep–Nov).
Budget per Day for Two
US$140 will be more than enough.
Transportation, admissions and food are cheap in Gyeongju, so your expenses will depend upon your choice of accommodations.