The timing of our trip to Gyeongju couldn’t have been better. We left on the tail end of the first week of April and a cycling challenge I am participating in called 30 Days of Biking. It was also smack in the middle of cherry blossom season.
Gyeongju is a city several hours southeast of Seoul and was the Capitol of the Shilla Dynasty back in the day. In recent years the city has developed upon its historic notoriety and along with it made itself into a booming tourist hub, particularly in the early spring when the cherry blossoms that line the streets are in full bloom. As our trips’s organizer told us, it is a city best seen on two wheels.
My bike was a little on the small side, which was fine because we weren’t riding very fast anyway. The traffic, both human and motorized, was heavy and densely packed, all of us with the same mission: to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of a budding springtime season.
The best route to take for cherry blossom vistas is to go around the lake. A longer track runs around the lake-front park following the road, and a shorter yet more scenic route follows the shore and surprisingly high floodwalls encircling the lake. From the moment I entered the lake path my vision field turned to a pink, blue, and green hue, the cool colors of spring are here, and temperate weather to boot.
History and heritage fans should stick close to the area around the tower—the oldest astronomical observatory in all of Asia—as this is where the many tombs of Shilla era royalty are easily accessible. It’s about impossible to miss the tombs, enormous mounds of Earth rising out of the ground as if to remind posterity of the Shilla Kingdom’s prominence in shaping the Korea of today.
The Shilla was the dynasty that unified the three kingdoms ruling over the Korean peninsula. They were promptly overtaken by the Koreyo kingdom which ruled the land until the beginning of Choseon. Most of the buildings of note in Gyoengju were constructed in the 700s.
The area immediately around the tower is one hotbed of historical landmarks—including the stone refrigerator built into the fortress which looks over more than 30 tombs—and just across the road is a park where 25 Shilla kings and queens are buried. This park is also home to a replica mound where one of the kings’s burial affects, coffin, and tomb are on display.
For a truly enchanting experience combining both cherry blossoms and history, a trip to Bulguksa Temple is a must. The temple is a sprawling complex of pagodas, pavillions, living quarters, and various structures for teaching and practicing Buddhism. The entire complex was torched by the Japanese during their ruthless invasion of Korea, and much of it has since been rebuilt.
The lookouts from various parts of the Bulguksa reveal serenely gorgeous landscapes of mountains and forest. For just under $4 one can scale the temple and gaze into the expansive nature surrounding it, pondering the lives of the kings and monks who practiced Shilla Buddhism from this same summit during ancient times.
The local culinary specialty seemed to be Ssambap, a one course meal made up of 30 separate and unique side dishes, or banchan. The place we ate at was nothing to write home about, but there were many places to try the finger-food meal and if banchan is your thing, it’s worth giving it a go. Usually cold and uncooked, banchan often include different varieties of pickled vegetables, raw seafood, and other salty items. If side dishes, aren’t your thing—and you don’t mind paying the premium—there are barbecue beef places in the quaint food village outside the lake.
If the scenery doesn’t entice you to stop and take it all in over refreshments, then the smells of meat cooking on an open fire might seal the deal. Barbeque is a hallmark of Korean cuisine and hardly hard to find. The samgyeopsal, a pork dish that is basically uncured bacon, was among the best we have had in Korea thus far. The place we ate at had an amazing side salad along with three other delectable varieties of banchan.
A trip anywhere outside of Seoul makes for a relaxing weekend, but Gyeongju was a unique blend of history, culture, and natual beauty rarely found so perfectly balanced and preserved.