In winter, Gyeongju's snowy museum without walls beckons

by Josh Foreman and Shelley DeWees
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com)

No place in Korea has more history than Gyeongju. As the old capital of the Silla kingdom, Gyeongju enjoyed more than three centuries of unchallenged rule over the Korean Peninsula and is, unsurprisingly, littered with historic sites. Palaces, temples and fortresses abound here, but the city is best known for its iconic burial mounds, the final resting places of many ancient rulers. In combination with its tombs, pavilions and other attractions, the city is justly called "The Museum Without Walls."

Gyeongju is one of Korea's top tourist destinations, and will be crowded with people in the warmer months. But in the winter, the small city's ancient sites stand silent and inviting. Nearby Bulguksa temple is home to Dabotap and Seokgatap - two ancient pagodas built in the eighth century, among the most valued in Korea - and the peaceful Seokguram Grotto, with its spectacular Buddha statue and accompanying royal guard. A solitary sunrise hike to the site will immerse you in centuries-old Silla architecture and history.

The region also houses a number of quaint pensions where you can warm up after a day of exploring snow-covered mounds and temples. Gyeongju has its own food specialty, too, of course - the bean-filled pastries known as "Gyeongju bread." Unlike the soft, doughy version one might be familiar with, these are more grown up: A thin, smoking-hot barley pastry is stuffed full of velvety beans and sold on virtually every street corner, fresh for the taking.

Later, head to one of the restaurants around Bulguksa bus stop for a kettle of Gyeongju makgeolli and one of the area's famous seafood pancakes (called haemul pajeon). Order a second round of gyeodong beopju (rice wine) and laugh the night away, uninhibited, and without worrying about your inevitable hangover; there's a whole street devoted to Korea's famous hangover soup, haejangguk, to comfort you in the morning.

GETTING TO GYEONGJU
The KTX goes straight from Seoul to Gyeongju’s new Singyeongju Station. The trip takes just a little more than two hours and costs around 45,000 won. Once you arrive at the station, there are many buses to the city (including buses 50, 60, 61, 70, 203 and 700). Moving around the city is a cinch thanks to its small size; weather permitting, you’ll be able to forego public transportation in favor of walking most of the time.

GETTING TO BULGUKSA TEMPLE AND SEOKGURAM GROTTO
From the Gyeongju Express Bus Terminal, take bus 10 or 11 and get off at the temple. From here you can transfer to bus 12 for Seokguram Grotto. It runs every 30 minutes.

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