Seoul has been on most of our wanderlists for a long time, but have you heard about Gyeongju? This chilled-out city has always been a travel hotspot for Koreans, but the rest of the world is just catching on to all the incredible things to do in Gyeongju. As Korea’s ancient capital, you can’t walk far in Gyeongju without stumbling upon a national treasure, and you’ll soon see why it’s nicknamed the ‘museum without walls’. But despite all this history, Gyeongju stays cool – you can find palaces, royal tombs and Buddhist temples right next to unique cafes, innovative cocktail bars and creative local brands.
The vibe here is different to Korea’s big cities, thanks to the preservation of traditional hanok houses and a ban on building high rises, which means you can always see the misty mountains that surround the city. Daily life moves slowly and there’s the added bonus of everything being way cheaper than Seoul. You might come for a weekend and find yourself staying for a month.
Here are the best things to do in Gyeongju!
- Hang out in Hwanglidan-gil, one of Korea’s coolest neighbourhoods
- Check out Cheomsongdae
- Cross Woljeonggyo Bridge
- Explore royal tombs in Daereungwon
- Take in the night view at Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond
- Drink coffee in a show-stopping café
- Spend the night at Bulguksa temple
- Enjoy Gyeongju’s laid-back nightlife
- See the city at its prettiest in spring or autumn
- Eat a street food feast at Jungang Market
- Snap a souvenir in a selfie studio
1. Hang out in Hwanglidan-gil, one of Korea’s coolest neighbourhoods
Gyeongju is famous for ancient history, but Hwanglidan-gil is its most precious modern treasure. This charming sprawl of streets is full of cafes, restaurants, bars and boutiques that have turned Gyeongju into a hotspot. What makes it truly special is that they’re all inside hanok buildings – modern architecture is banned in this area to preserve Gyeongju’s signature charm. To take it all in, grab an iced latte and head to the rooftop of Café Ohi for the best views of the endless hanok roofs and rolling mountain backdrop.
Hwanglidan-gil’s colourful main street has kitschy shops selling everything you never knew you needed, selfie studios galore and Insta-famous street food. But get lost exploring the maze of side streets to find the best cafes, hidden restaurants and cutest pubs. After living here for a year and a half, I still haven’t had time to try everything.
Hwanglidan-gil gets pretty crowded at weekends, when it always seems like half of Korea is visiting, so it’s best to come on a weekday to avoid long wait times for bars and restaurants.
2. Check out Cheomsongdae
Cheomsongdae is an astronomical observatory built in the 7th century, and it’s THE iconic landmark of Gyeongju which locals are extremely proud of. You’ll see its image everywhere around the city, from tote bags to phone cases and even cute desserts. And while the building itself might not seem that impressive, you really have to go there to feel its magic. It’s surrounded by bright flower displays that change every season, and there’s always a wholesome buzz of families riding bikes and flying kites nearby, especially in spring or autumn when the weather in Gyeongju is perfect. Travel can get pretty hectic (especially if you’ve just spent the weekend clubbing in Seoul), but I guarantee you’ll feel totally healed at the end of an afternoon here.
3. Cross Woljeonggyo Bridge
One of the most beautiful places in Gyeongju is Woljeonggyo, a covered wooden bridge that’s the biggest one in Korea. The mighty green and red structure looks spectacular from viewpoints beside the river, but it’s amazing when you enter and see the tiny details up close. By day, crossing the bridge feels like stepping back in time, with people dressed in hanbok (traditional Korean dress) strolling through. At night it’s best enjoyed from afar, as it lights up and reflects on the water below – just grab a maekju (beer) from the convenience store and enjoy the romantic view from the riverbank.
4. Explore royal tombs in Daereungwon
One of the first things you’ll notice when exploring Gyeongju are the huge grassy mounds dotted around the city. These hills are actually the burial sites of Kings and Queens from the ancient Silla dynasty, and are an important part of Gyeongju’s history as Korea’s ancient capital. You’ll see tombs everywhere, but the best place to learn about them is inside the walls of Daereungwon park, a peaceful spot right in the city centre. Taking a relaxing walk amongst royalty, as Korean folk music plays from speakers along the leafy pathways, is one of the most essential things to do in Gyeongju. You can also spot the uniquely Korean phenomenon of people queuing for hours to take photos in the best spot. No judgement if you choose to get in line!
5. Take in the night view at Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond
There’s something to take a picture of in every corner of Gyeongju, but make sure you leave plenty of space in your camera roll for your visit to Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond. It’s made up of three regal pavilions overlooking a tranquil pond, and like Woljeonggyo, it’s way better to visit after dark to see the palace lit up in the water like a giant mirror. The nighttime view here is straight out of a K-drama, and there’s not a more perfect snapshot of Gyeongju. Don’t be confused if you hear older locals referring to it by its former name ‘Anapji’ – it was renamed in the 80s after a pottery fragment showing its true name was found buried in the grounds.
6. Drink coffee in a show-stopping cafe
There’s way more to Korean cafes than coffee and cake – cafes here are next-level and nowhere in the country does them better than Gyeongju. The most famous cafes are in Hwanglidan-gil, but my number one recommendation is a lesser-known spot called Au Vert, a multi-storey cafe/botanical garden with a miniature church on the roof and a literal river filled with koi carp running through the ground floor. You should also try to visit Sol, a hanok cafe with outdoor seating, a pretty pond and lemon trees, and Terelj, which has adorable ponies roaming around the backyard and turns into a cocktail bar by night. Those are just a few, but there are countless independents, each with their own speciality. Just take a walk and see what you discover!
7. Spend the night at Bulguksa temple
Gyeongju’s most sacred religious sight is Bulguksa, a magnificent Buddhist temple complex that houses many of Korea’s national treasures. Sitting at the base of a mountain, the landscape is as stunning as the temple itself, made up of many intricately painted buildings and terraces joined by dusty pathways. Walk under thousands of colourful lanterns, pinned with people’s wishes for their families, and don’t forget to rub the head of the pig statue for good fortune. If you have a few days in Gyeongju (as you absolutely should), you can even spend a night here and experience an authentic temple stay. Local monks will guide you through a day and night of Buddhist ritual, meditation and dining. Definitely one of the most unforgettable things to do in Gyeongju!
8. Enjoy Gyeongju’s laid-back nightlife
Nobody really comes to Gyeongju to party, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a fun night out here – it’s just more about casual chilling than club-hopping. Most nights start with beer and soju over dinner, and continue into a cool bar around Hwanglidan-gil. In summer, head to Songa Maekjip, a popular hanok pub with an open terrace that serves killer beer slushies, or Hwangnam Turtle for self-serve beer and cosy evenings around a fire pit. If artsy vibes and cocktails are more your thing, check out Bar Cilando, or if you’re a craft beer nerd then Heuheuheu is the place for you. A little further out, Round 2 is a super social bar where you’re most likely to meet other travellers and ex-pats. But Gyeongju is so welcoming that you’re bound to make new friends wherever you end up!
9. See the city at its prettiest in spring or autumn
There is no bad time to visit Gyeongju, but the scenery gets even more special before and after the long, hot summer. In early April, cherry blossoms start to bloom all over Korea and Gyeongju is one of the hotspots. There’s something about pink petals against the old city walls that just hits differently. They’re not around for long, so you’ll have to time it well and prepare for big crowds – if you value your personal space you should absolutely not come during the weekend!
My favourite time is autumn, when the brutal summer humidity has died down but the days are still long and warm. In September, fluffy pink grass called ‘pink muhly’ springs up like candy floss around Cheomsongdae and the area becomes even more magical. Gingko trees around the city turn yellow and the leaves start to cover the ground. Dori Village (a 45-minute bus ride from downtown) has a gingko forest that looks like a scene from a Disney movie!
10. Eat a street food feast at Jungang Market
If you want a cheap intro to Korean street food, look no further than Jungang market. It has dozens of vendors selling Korean and other Asian dishes, and my favourite thing about this market is that you can sample a bit of everything. For ₩11,000 (about £7), you get a food tray and 4 coupons to use at any of the stalls – perfect if you’re known for having food envy! You can BYOB to drink inside, so grab some soju and paper cups from the convenience store, fill up your tray and enjoy a cheap night with a local vibe. This is one of the best things to do in Gyeongju for foodies!
11. Snap a souvenir in a selfie studio
Want a cheap souvenir to remember your trip that’ll slip nicely into your backpack? Just head to Hwanglidan-gil and choose from dozens of selfie studios dotted around the area! If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of Korean selfie houses, here’s how it works. Enter and choose as many accessories as you can carry from the shelves, find a booth, select your frame style and snap away – your pictures will be printed in a few minutes! To fully embrace the experience, check the pictures on the walls for Korean posing inspo – peace signs and heart hands at the ready. These shops are unmanned and open 24 hours a day, with many a drunken photo shoot taking place at the end of the night. They also have free beauty facilities, so if your hair straighteners didn’t fit in your backpack, just come and get ready here – life hack!
I hope this list of things to do in Gyeongju shows that there’s more to Korea than just Seoul! Come to visit this little city and you just might find it hard to leave.