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Gyeongju, South Korea, is a major city in world history, yet comparatively few people are aware of its rich background. During the time of the Silla Dynasty, which lasted from 57 BC – 935 AD – a remarkable length of time, Gyeongju served as its capital. Around the year 750, Gyeongju was the 4th largest city in the world, with around 1 million residents. Today it is much smaller, but still draws tourists from all over the world, as it’s the home of several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While Gyeongju is worthy of a much longer stay, the day trip from Busan to Gyeongju is a must-do if you can spare a free day on your itinerary.
A day trip from Busan to Gyeongju
Getting from Busan to Gyeongju is fairly easy. Take the metro out to Nopo station, which is where the Busan Central Bus Terminal is located. This name can only be interpreted as being sarcastic, as it’s nowhere near central Busan. At least the metro system makes the trip easy. From there, direct buses from Busan to Gyeongju depart roughly every 15 minutes. The ticket was 4800 won each way, and could easily be purchased in English from the ticket machine. I watched a few minutes of a Mets/Giants MLB playoff game while I waited for the next bus.
The bus ride from Busan to Gyeongju takes less than an hour, thanks to it being an express route. It does seem much longer, however, if there is a screaming child making noises you’ve never heard a human make. If there is a bus every 15 minutes, and they aren’t crowded, please consider waiting for the next one if your child is having a meltdown.
From Gyeongju bus station, I set off towards my two main destinations for the day: Seokguram Grotto & Bulguksa Temple, one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Gyeongju. To get to these other areas, cross the main road by the bus station. You will find bus stops for local buses here. There are a few possible options for buses, the 10 & the 11. The 11 was arriving next, so I took that. The cost was 1300 yen. When I tried to pay, I had something occur that happened several times while I was in South Korea. I was trying to get the correct change, but instead I was just waved away from paying. Either the bus drivers don’t want to deal with change, or nobody in South Korea cares about collecting bus fares.
The bus ride to Bulguksa Temple takes about an hour, but it winds its way through several areas of interest, so you can scope them out for your return trip. The other UNESCO World Heritage site in Gyeongju includes several sites within the city itself, so you will see them on your way to Seokguram Grotto & Bulguksa Temple. This site is officially called the Gyeongju Historic Areas. Highlights include several temples, fortresses, and royal tombs. Sacred Mt. Namsan is to the south. For an overview, you can stop at the Gyeongju National Museum.
It’s about a 5 minute walk from the bus stop to the entrance of Bulguksa Temple. Entry was a very reasonable 5000 won considering how spacious the grounds are. Despite Gyeongju being a fairly popular tourist destination, Bulguksa was not crowded on a weekday. I didn’t see any large groups, which made the visit all the more enjoyable.
Bulguksa Temple is one of the finest temples I have ever visited. If you’re tempted to skip it thinking you’ve seen a lot of temples, don’t. It’s truly special.
The grounds are covered with lush green gardens. The leaves were just beginning to change on some of the trees when I visited in early October. I imagine that the views were spectacular a couple of weeks later when the leaves turned even more.
At first I thought it wasn’t possible to go inside the temple complex itself since the main gate was shut. However, if you walk up the hill to the right, you’ll find yourself inside.
Bulguksa Temple is comprised of many small buildings that terrace the hillside. On a day when it’s not crowded, it’s easy to lose yourself in the tranquility.
Everywhere I walked, there was a different building with different architectural details.
Since this is sacred ground, many of the buildings had signs up saying not to take photos inside of them. You can still do so from afar and remain respectful. It would be impossible to show photos of every wonderful part of Bulguksa Temple, but here are some of my favorites.
The detail of these doors was incredible.
As was this door, set against the rainbow of the decorated ceiling.
I also liked this stacked stone garden.
There was also this dragonfly.
I spent over an hour and a half at Bulguksa Temple, but I could have easily spent more. I don’t consider myself particularly spiritual, but I am moved by nature as well as nice architecture. Bulguksa Temple is lovely for both.
My next destination was Seokguram Grotto. Seokguram Grotto is located 4 kilometers to the east of Bulguksa Temple, but at 750 meters above sea level, it’s at a much higher elevation. You can either hike to it or take Bus #12 to the parking lot. I opted for the hike since it was a nice day, and I wanted to work a bit for the experience. The path is right near the entrance as you exit Bulguksa Temple.
The beginning of the hike to Seokguram Grotto is along a nice stone path with a fairly strenuous constant incline. A drainage channel was babbling with lots of water from the typhoon that had hit a couple of days before.
There were also some trees that had fallen, including one that had destroyed a bench.
After the first kilometer, the trail flattens out somewhat, passing some waterfalls. There’s plenty of shade and a brief view of the valley below.
The trail then passes some restrooms & a mineral water spring before becoming steep again, and then actually turning into stairs. Hiking to Seokguram Grotto is a not a casual hike. The whole thing took about 50 minutes, but it felt like much longer. It’s great exercise, of course, but if you’re short on time, you’re not missing a ton. For much of this last portion, you are on a steep, grueling climb, without many views. The best views of the valley are in fact from the same parking lot you could take a bus to.
Entrance to Seokguram Grotto costs 5000 won. The walk to it from the parking lot is perhaps 1 kilometer or so, but it’s a pleasantly flat walk. Should you be interested in more hiking, there are further trails up into the hills. From the main path, there are still views of the green valleys to the east. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the sea.
Seokguram Grotto was built into the hill with stones, with the centerpiece being a giant stone Buddha. The grotto was completed in the year 774. The building in front is a more recent construction.
Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photos of the stone Buddha. This is understandable, however it is also behind glass, so it’s difficult to get much of a connection with this important historical artifact, as it feels like you are in an aquarium. The glass is to protect the sculpture from visitors as well as the elements, but the divider blocks much more than that.
There are a couple of other buildings on the site as well.
After seeing Seokguram Grotto, I headed back to the parking lot, planning on taking Bus number 12 back down the hill. Unfortunately, I had neglected to check the schedule, and had just missed the previous bus by a couple of minutes. The next bus wouldn’t be for almost another hour. Rather than waiting, I decided to walk down the road myself after taking a few more photos from the overlook.
I underestimated just how long this walk would take. Figuring it couldn’t be much longer than my hike up, I thought that it would be a similar amount of time as waiting until the next bus. Instead, it took me an hour and a half to make it back down the hill. Since it was along a road, I had to watch out for the light traffic. The views were beautiful though, and I accepted this as my punishment for having missed the bus. I passed several farms along the way.
Back at Bulguksa Temple, I then took the bus back to Gyeongju. The route does take a different path from the way there, but at the end it loops to the same parts of the Gyeongju Historic Areas so you can get off as you wish. There are plenty of signs around so you can navigate to the different sights. Unfortunately, I’d spent too much time hiking and walking along roads, so I ended up heading back to Busan.
If you don’t feel like figuring out the details of taking a day trip to Gyeongju from Busan or Seoul, there are also day tours available, which you can see below.
There are so many historic places in Gyeongju that you could easily spend several days getting to them all. In addition to all of its history, Gyeongju has several beautiful lakes & resorts. Had I had more time for my trip, it would have been a lovely place to relax for a couple of days rather than just taking a day trip from Busan to Gyeongju. At the very least, even if you can’t stay overnight, make sure that you give yourself as full of a day as possible. Between its historic sites & pleasant landscape, Gyeongju is one of the nicest places in South Korea to visit.