IN 2000, UNESCO DESIGNATED the entire area around the South Korean city of Gyeongju a World Heritage Site, just one of seven places in Korea to hold the honor. Gyeongju's claim to fame is its concentration of Korean Buddhist art and architecture and the remains of temples and palaces encircling mystical Namsan, or South Mountain.
Gyeongju was the capital of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea in the first millennium. Silk Route traders brought back stories of a riparian valley running to the bountiful Eastern (East China) Sea and forested hills dotted with stone pagodas, royal tombs, Buddhist bas reliefs and fortress ruins. Myths and legends about Gyeongju are part of Korea's national folklore.
It's a must-visit for travelers intrigued by the world's great civilizations. Most of the area was spared damage during the Korean War, and since the 1970s the Korean Ministry of Culture and Tourism has been turning Gyeongju's historic center and natural environs into a modern tourist destination, replete with accommodations and recreational facilities that meet contemporary Asian and Western standards.
Recommend Gyeongju to seasoned and neophyte Asia visitors, and as a countryside getaway from Seoul or Pusan. Most visitors opt to travel via KTX, Korea's new high-speed train: 11/2 hours from Seoul to the Dongdaegu (Taegu) station, where they connect via local rail to downtown Gyeongju. Trains depart Seoul about every 20 minutes during peak times.
If your clients have limited time, these are Gyeongju's top attractions: Bulguksa, the most famous Buddhist temple in Korea; Bunhwangsa Temple, built by Queen Seondeok of Silla and still in use; Tomb of General Kim Yu Sin, a seventh-century leader; Anapji Pond, the finest example of a Silla banquet garden, designed at the empire's cultural apex, and a major influence on Japanese landscaping; Cheomseongdae Observatory, the oldest celestial observatory in Asia; and Cheonmachong, or Heavenly Horse Tomb, an unknown royal's last resting place that was filled with more than 11,000 objects, including a gold crown now designated one of the National Treasures of Korea. The tomb is in Daereungwon Park, a protected greenbelt of 23 huge hemispherical burial mounds (called tumuli).
The Gyeongju National Museum houses the most important collection of Silla-period artifacts outside of Seoul's National Museum of Korea. Hwangryongsa temple site is one of the three great treasures of Silla, and also considered the greatest temple of its time in East Asia.
Travelers with more time to explore should add a visit to Seokguram Grotto, 30 minutes by car. With its exquisitely carved white granite Buddhist statuary, it combines Silla's knowledge of architecture, math, geometry, physics, religion and art into an organic whole. It is said that this Buddha is the first in Korea to receive the sun's rays each morning.
Since downtown Gyeongju is quite small, many tourists head 30 minutes east to Bomun (Pomun) Lake Resort for the best hotels. Five deluxe high-rise properties are situated along the eastern shore of this placid 415-acre lake. The human-made lake is on the site of an ancient castle. Nearby Mount Myeonghwalsan is one of the numerous national parks in the area.
All the hotels have swimming pools, and most offer Korean, Western (often Italian), Japanese and Chinese restaurants, along with bars/lounges and nightclubs with karaoke. Concierges can arrange guided tours, as well as book golf, spa treatments and car rentals. The Bomun Lake Resort hotels operate shuttle buses to collect guests from the downtown train and bus stations. Ondol-style rooms—containing Korean bedding on heated floors and traditional furniture—are available at some properties for an additional cost (about $40).
The Hotel Hyundai and the Hilton are probably the most popular properties at Bomun Lake for English-speaking guests. At the Hyundai (www.hyundaihotel.com/gyeongju), rates run upward of $220 for a room and $450 for junior suites. The Presidential Suite, with its commanding lake view, was in fact enjoyed by Park Chung-hee, five-term president of Korea in the 1960s and '70s. The Hyundai also boasts one of the largest and best-equipped fitness centers in Korea, with swimming pools with natural mineral water, an oncheon (hot springs spa facility), squash and tennis courts and several restaurants. Travel agents should contact manager Jungsoo Park ([email protected]).
The Gyeongju Hilton (www.kyongjuhilton.co.kr) has 324 rooms and suites, plus a health club, the Seonjae art gallery, Paradise duty-free shop and Benistar, the only foreigner-exclusive casino in the region. Rates at the nine-story property, including breakfast and dinner, begin around $310 for a King Executive Suite and $270 for a King Lake View room. For bookings, contact Jongwoo Yu (011-82-2-317-3378).
Other recommended properties include the Gyeongju Concorde (www.concorde.co.kr), which offers Junior Suites with 180-degree vistas of the lake for $210 and a Royal Suite for $800. For bookings, contact Hyojoo Lee ([email protected]). The five-star Commodore Hotel Chosun (www.chosunhotel.net) has a casino, and its President Park Suite goes for $4,200, but most rooms begin around $300. Call Joonki Ahn (011-82-2-736-0300). Neither hotel has an English-language website.
Clients who wish to stay for a while and save some money might consider a condo-style unit, complete with kitchen and laundry facilities (the staff, however, might not be fluent in English). Hannah Park, manager of US Travel/Infotour, recommends Daemyung Condo, which is operated by a major recreation resort corporation. Bookings can be facilitated by Park's L.A. office (www.ustravel.co.kr/english/tour/citypackage.asp, 213-383-5511, [email protected]).
If clients are open to a real cultural immersion, tell them about the "Temple Stay" program at Golgulsa Temple, where they'd experience Buddhist monastic life and ancient martial arts (www.golgulsa.com. It is not commissionable. Another offbeat accommodations option is a farm stay at Oksan Sesim Village.
Sports and Leisure
Koreans love hot springs, and Gyeongju's natural mineral waters run deep, as much as 1,500 feet beneath the surface. Both the Hyundai and Hilton hotels are highly rated for their waters and facilities, which are open to the public (approximately $13 for adults and $9 per child per day); hotel guests receive a 30 to 50 percent discount, and prices include the use of hot and cold mineral plunge pools, showers, saunas and steam rooms. They're impeccably clean and sport a marble-studded decor and a peaceful ambiance that's in keeping with Korean tradition. Treatments range from European and Asian massages to unique exfoliating body scrubs to modern facials. Advise clients that tipping is not appropriate in Korea.
The Bomun Lake Resort area also has plentiful outdoor recreational activities, including several country clubs for golfing. Counted among the best golf courses in Korea, Gyeongju Country Club offers "Light Golf," which allows players to tee off at night and at daybreak under "perfect light settings." Greens fees for an 18-hole round average $150 on the weekend. Area golf courses also include Bomun and Hyundai, the latter being a "beautiful, fun course," according to Hannah Park.
Other popular activities are boating and windsurfing on Bomun Lake, bicycling and hot-air ballooning. Among the noteworthy attractions in the resort area are Gyeongju World amusement park, the Folk Crafts Village and traditional Korean and contemporary performing arts at historic sites or at the Bomun Outdoor Performance Hall.
Several annual festivals take place in Gyeongju, among them the Korean Wine and Rice Cake Festival (late March/early April), Gyeongju Cherry Blossom Marathon (April) and the Silla Cultural Festival (October).
When it's time to eat, try the local specialty ssambap—a table full of vegetables and fish panchan (side dishes) that are eaten like a taco, rolled up in large salad leaves with a dab of cooked rice. Hannah Park's recommendation is Kooro Ssambap restaurant.
Gyeongju's proximity to the Eastern Sea ensures fresh seafood in restaurants, and many also serve excellent beef dishes. Hotel restaurants are more expensive than restaurants in "downtown" Bomun Lake, a village with hanok (traditional Korean architecture) buildings.
The city's most prestigious, and historic, restaurant is Yoseokgung, owned and opertaed by the Choi family, whose culinary skills and cuisine are legendary. Guests dine in what used to be a royal residence; reservations are essential. Next door is the family's renowned distillery for gyodong beopju, a rice-based alcoholic beverage. Tours can be arranged.