Gyeongju was a real highlight of our stay in Korea and it’s got to be at the top of the short list of major attractions in the whole country. It is the historical capital of the Shilla kingdom, which ruled much of the Korean peninsula for several centuries. The iconic hills in the center of town are actually tombs housing the remains of Shilla royalty and there is a fantastic museum that exposes an excavation of one of the tombs. Despite the fact that the whole town seems to be a giant historical sight (there has been documented human settlement here since prehistoric times), the town is lively and full of university students, young English teachers, and tourists of all types. It was also the site of the poshest love motel stay we had on the whole trip.
We stayed several days in Gyeongju- the longest we spent in any one place during our entire stay in Korea- and could have spent even more time exploring the surrounding towns and countryside. We rented bikes to tool around for the first two days, then submitted to public transit to get us to the famous temple just outside of town, the Bulguksa Temple. Bulguksa is widely considered one of the most beautiful and important temples in Korea, along with the Seokguram Grotto, which lies about 4km away. We thought it was just okay. Haeinsa was much more impressive to us, perhaps because the smaller size made it feel more intimate. We were so bored by Bulguksa that we decided to skip the long bus ride and hike up to Seokguram Grotto and just get back to the comforts of our love motel. I feel guilty writing that after the fact, but it is a reality of long-term travel that you get kind of apathetic at certain points. We were equally apathetic about the local specialty-Gyeongju ppang- which are mini barley pancakes made into sandwiches with sweet red bean paste inside. We were able to work up some enthusiasm for the enormous ssamspread that we had for lunch on the second day: not our best meal, but one of our biggest and after all our biking around, we were satisfied by quantity over quality.