Best Gyeongju Tours to See Korea’s Ancient Capital in One Day
Is Gyeongju worth visiting? Can you make a day trip from Busan or Seoul to Gyeongju?
Gyeongju is the capital city of Silla for a thousand years with many UNESCO World Heritage Sites and antiquities. While it is not ideal to see the “museum without walls” in haste, you can still get a taste of the razzle-dazzle city in a day with proper planning.
If you are on a time crunch, the best way to see the highlights of the thousand-year-worth history of Silla is to join Gyeongju day trip tours. This article will show how exactly you can do it.
First, I will share how I managed to do two Gyeongju city tours in one day (#1 & #2 below). I recommend these for anyone who understands Korean or budget travelers who only want easy transportation within Gyeongju.
For all others, I highly recommend selecting one of many Gyeongju tours from Busan that offer a professional guide and convenient transportation (#3-7). Scrawl down for easy comparison chart.
>> Pssst! If you are lucky to have more than a day, also check out my post with a more comprehensive list of 20 things to do in Gyeongju and my 3-day Gyeongju itinerary. You can always make your own plan or mix it up with day tours.
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Gyeongju Tours are Best:
- To make an easy day trip from Busan or Seoul
- For foreign travelers or first-time visitors to explore Gyeongju
- To see the highlights of Gyeongju in the most efficient way
- To learn about the thousand-year history of Korea’s ancient capital city in a nutshell by a professional guide.
- To enjoy convenient transportation without the need to rent a car or navigate through the public transportation system.
#1 Gyeongju City Tour: World Heritage Tour
Frequency: Once a day (canceled if less than 15 people)
Duration: Full Day (10 a.m. – 5 p.m.)
Tour Fare: Adult: ₩25,000 | Youth (7-18 yo.):₩23,000
Admission:₩19,000 | 5-12 yo:₩8,500 | 13-18 yo:₩12,500 (Price as of Jan. 1, 2022.)
Payment Options: Pay by credit card or cash. Admissions will be collected in sum (cash only) by the tour guide for the skip-the-line privilege.
Boarding → Royal Tomb of King Taejong Muyeol → Daereungwon & Cheonmachong → Bunhwangsa Temple → Lunch → Seokguram → Bulguksa Temple → Drop off
Pick Up Locations:
10:05 a.m. Gyeongju Train Station (if you are coming on a regular train)
10:10 a.m. Gyeongju Bus Terminal (if you are coming on an Express or Intercity Bus)
10:30 a.m. Singyeongju KTX Station (if you are coming on KTX)
If you are staying in Gyeongju, the tour also offers a hotel pick-up and drop-off at select locations. Ask Cheonma Tour (Korean only) for more locations and schedules.
Note: Cheonma Tour is the official city tour company designated by the city of Gyeongju. Neither am I affiliated with Cheonma Tour nor received any compensation to write this post.
Royal Tomb of King Taejong Muyeol
Once everyone is boarded, the tour bus travels to the outside of the city center to the first stop: Royal Tomb of King Taejong Muyeol (무열왕릉).
King Taejong Muyeol (Kim Chun-chu) was the 29th ruler of Silla and the first king from Jingol (second social class). He was born as a noble-class man, served the Queens Seondeok, and Jindeok as a shrewd diplomat, married to General Kim Yu-shin’s younger sister, and finally rose to the throne when only Seongol (royals born in the first social class) can be a King. He was instrumental in forging an alliance with the ancient Chinese Tang Dynasty and laid the foundation of the unification of Korea’s Three Kingdoms, which led to Silla’s glorious days.
His tomb is an important historical site. The majority of the Silla tombs are left without much information about the owners. The Royal Tomb of King Taejong Muyeol is one of a few that confirm the person buried underneath with the tombstone. Its remnants are the tortoise-shaped pedestal and the capstone carved with dragons. The tortoise is moving forward, which symbolizes the progressive spirit of Silla.
Do you think it’s creepy to stroll around the tombs and snap a shot? Then, wait until you visit the graveyard on the next stop because you will be even entering one.
Daereungwon & Cheongmachong Tomb
Daereungwon (대릉원) is an area with 23 ancient tombs including the Tomb of King Michu, the Hwangnamdaechong Tomb (황남대총), and the Cheonmachong Tomb (천마총). This tumuli park is the place where you can see massive and extravagant tombs before Silla changed the burial culture to be more modest with the influence of Buddhism.
As I said earlier, Silla tumuli don’t specify the owners. The archeologists can only guess based on the size and grave goods. So they assumed that the Hwagnamdaechong Tomb by its massive scale would be the most important.
When the Korean government first decided to excavate these tumuli in the 70s with no previous experience or proper technology, they “practiced” digging small Cheonmachong before moving onto presumably more significant Hwangnamdaechong. It was only after they completed excavating both tombs that they realized Cheonmachong proved to have more valuable relics.
The Hwangnamdaechong Tomb dates to the 5-7th century. This most massive Silla tomb measures 80m x 120m x 23m. It is actually composed of two mounds containing an unknown high-class noble couple.
Whereas, the Cheonmachong Tomb (The Heavenly Horse Tomb) is an excellent example of Silla tumuli. It is one of few Silla tombs you are allowed to enter, so do not miss it even if the idea of walking into a tomb might give you chill.
Once inside, you can see the Silla burial mechanism through a cutout wall behind the protective glass. To protect precious contents from grave robbers, the burial pits of the tombs were first covered in earth, sealed with clay, then further pressed with a large pile of stones, and finally covered in a mound of earth.
Cheonmachong contained a total of 11,500 artifacts. Many of which are Korea’s national treasures, including the famous Heavenly Horse painting. If you love anything glittery and sparkly, like me, you will be mesmerized with the magnificent gold crowns, jewelry, caps, girdle, plates, and all things gold. Don’t be too tempted with them, though. The displayed are replica. The authentic enshrining items are exhibited in the Gyeongju National Museum and the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
The tour doesn’t allow enough time to walk the entire sizable ground. However, I had enough time to take photos with gorgeous fall foliage and grave mounds as a backdrop. It is strange to say this, but this ancient tomb park has a beautiful landscape!
Bunhwangsa Temple (“Fragrant Imperial Temple”) or Bunhwangsaji is a Buddhist temple built in 634 under the auspices of Queen Seondeok. The temple was passed through by high Buddhist priests, such as Wonhyo and Jajang.
Bunhwangsa Temple is one of many temples Queen Seondeok built to propagate Buddhism. She was the first woman to sit on the throne. And she needed to adopt Buddhism as a way to strengthen her leadership under one religion.
Also, many neighboring countries such as China’s Tang Dynasty looked down on the country ruled by a queen and frequently find an excuse to invade. Taejong, the Tang Emperor, sent her a painting of peonies and unfragranced seeds to take the mockery of her unattractiveness as a woman. She responded to Tang’s harassment by naming the temple as “Fragrant Imperial Temple.”
The Stone Pagoda of Bunhwangsa (National Treasure No. 30) was the first of its kind during the Silla period. The original is believed to be a 9-story pagoda; however, only three stories are remaining today.
The tour stops at Bulguksa Temple parking lot. Across the street, a tourist complex offers many restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops.
Lunch is not included in the tour. You can select any restaurant you would like during the one-hour lunch break. We managed to get a delicious meal and coffee.
If you are not sure about which one to choose, go to Gyeongchunjae on the corner on the front row of restaurants. This restaurant serves delicious, reasonably-priced Korean food. We enjoyed a grilled mackerel and clam bibimbap.
Seokguram Grotto (National Treasure no. 24, UNESCO World Heritage Site) is an artificial cave temple in Mt. Tohamsan that contains the most famous Buddhist hermitage in Korea.
Prime Minister Kim Daeseong in the 8th century during the reign of Queen Gyeongdeok has built Seokguram for his parents in his previous life and nearby Bulguksa Temple for his parents in his current life.
A granite statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha sits inside the granite chamber with a domed roof. It is 3.26 meters in height and sits on a 1.58-meter pedestal. The Buddha statue is carved so smoothly that it is hard to believe it was done on hard granite. The walls of the cave feature 41 Buddhist figures.
It is short hiking up the mountain (from the parking lot) to Seokgruam Grotto. Although the hiking with stunning scenery is worthwhile, the encounter of the Sakyamuni Buddha seems too brief. (I lined up again to see the Buddha twice.) It is currently protected with a wooden antechamber and glass walls. No photography or videography allowed.
Bulguksa Temple (UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the slope of Mt. Tohamsan is also known as the “Temple of the Buddha Land.”
The temple complex is so vast and built with mathematical and geometrical precisions that it took almost 40 years to build. The wooden buildings of Bulguksa are restored from the originals destroyed by fire.
The head temple of Korean Buddhism encompasses seven national treasures of South Korea.
Dabotap Pagoda (National Treasure no. 20) and Seokgatap Pagoda (National Treasure no. 21 – also known as the Three-story Stone Pagoda of Bulguksa Temple) are the two most essential pagodas in Korea. The two pagodas were built at the same site to represent Dabo Buddha (Buddha of the past) and Sakyamuni “Seokga” Buddha (Buddha of the present), respectively.
During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese dismantled and reassembled Dabotap Pagoda in 1925. In the process, all reliquaries and artifacts inside the pagoda disappeared. Three of the four lions on each corner of the stone staircases also went missing. They are nowhere to be found, except one currently displayed in the British Museum.
Interestingly, Seokgatap Pagoda was preserved in perfect condition for centuries until 1966 when the robbers attempted to steal (but failed) treasures inside the pagoda. This incident led to the discovery of a secret chamber containing various artifacts and reliquaries, including the Spotless Pure Light Dharani Sutra and the sarira of Buddha inside the Sarira Box (National Treasure no. 126). While these two national treasures are displayed in the National Museum, you can see the sarira of Buddha inside the shrine hall (make sure to see this!).
At Bulguksa, you can also see two of the three most celebrated gilt-bronze Buddhist statues of the Unified Silla Period. The Golden Bronze Vairocana Buddha Sitting Statue (금동비로자나불좌상; National Treasure no. 26) is to pray for your current life and the Gilt-bronze Seated Amitabha Buddha of Bulguksa Temple (금동아미타여래좌상; National Treasure no. 27) for after this life in paradise.
However, the Golden Pig statue seems to win the heart of the most tourists visiting Bulguksa Temple. The year of Golden Pig in 2019 unveiled an unofficial treasure of the golden pig that has been hidden behind the hanging board of Daeungjeon Hall all these years! Why is it so popular? Because golden pig brings you fortune in Asian culture! There is a replica in front of the hall with a line of people taking a photo (do you see it in the photo above?). But it takes quite an effort to spot the original one!
Gyeongju City Tour by Cheonma Tour offers various drop-off locations, including Shingyeongju KTX station, Gyeongju Bus Terminal, and select hotels.
The tour ends around 5 p.m. at Bulguksa Temple. If you plan to go back to Busan or Seoul right after the tour, be sure to reserve tickets for departure after 6:30 p.m. You may also want to ask the tour guide in advance in case of traffic or other concerns.
We asked to be dropped off at Bukgun-dong. I believe we arrived at around 5:20 p.m. We had dinner and coffee before the Night City Tour (see #2 below) bus came to scoop us up at the same spot around 7:20 p.m.
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#2 Gyeongju Tour: City Night Tour
Duration: 2 hours (7:30 p.m. – 9:20 p.m.)
Tour Fare: Adult: ₩20,000 | Youth (7-18 yo.):₩18,000
Admission: Included in the tour fare
Payment Options: Pay by credit card or cash.
Boarding → Donggung and Wolji (Anapji Pond) → Cheomseongdae → Gyerim → Gyochon Hanok Village → Woljeonggyo Bridge → Drop off
Pick Up Locations:
6:30 p.m. Gyeongju Bus Terminal
7:05 p.m. Hilton Hotel
7:25 p.m. Bukgun-dong
Ask Cheonma Tour for more locations and schedules.
Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond (Anapji Pond)
The first stop of the night tour is Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond. The illuminated palace reflecting on the water creates the most romantic and stunning sight at night.
Donggung Palace was built during the 19th year of King Munmu to be used as the primary residence for a crown prince, and host state festivals and banquets.
In 674, an artificial pond was dug inside the palace. The construction of Wolji Pond includes the creation of artificial hills, a garden with flowers and plants, and a zoo with exotic animals. And it became an entertainment hall to host parties for diplomats, VIPs, and royals.
Wolji Pond has been deserted for a long time. During the Japanese occupation, it was called Anapji because only wild geese and ducks inhibited. In 1972, the Korean government drained the pond. This cleanup unintentionally revealed thousands of valuable Silla artifacts that had fallen into the lake.
The bus will take you to the next spot, Cheomseongdae Observatory. From here, the rest of the tour requires walking. Besides wearing comfortable shoes, I recommend a proper outfit in winter; there is nothing in the field to block the chilly wind!
Cheomseongdae is the oldest astronomical observatory in Asia that helped the Silla kings to predict the weather. In the agricultural society, being able to read celestial bodies and weather was essential to retaining political power.
Without understanding the cultural and scientific significance, the observatory tower might seem dull. But at night, even the seemingly boring tower can turn into a splendid site. Cheomseongdae changes its colors from pink to purple to blue.
Gyerim Forest is where Kim Al-ji, the progenitor of the Gyeongju Kim clan, was born. The story goes, someone heard a rooster crying and walked inside the forest to find a golden chest with an infant inside. This forest has been a sacred place for two thousand years since the founding of Silla.
The Night City Tour passes by Gyerim quickly. But if you have time, it is a beautiful place to stroll during the day.
Gyochon Hanok Village
By the time the night tour reaches Gyochon Hanok Village, the old house of the famous Choe family would be closed. The tour guide will share a few stories about the respected, wealthy noble family, who had practiced noblesse oblige for generations.
Today, the Choe clan members continue to operate a distillery. They make the famous Gyeongju Beopju (or Gyodong Beopju) with the secret recipe passed down from the Joseon Dynasty. This 350-year tradition is regarded as one of the best Korean traditional liquors. Unfortunately, during the night tour, the distillery would be closed.
If you prefer to have full experience in this village, it’s best to re-visit during the day.
The last stop of the Night City Tour is Woljeonggyo Bridge. This bridge is another stunning Silla architecture best appreciated at night.
Woljeonggyo was constructed in the 19th year of King Gyeongdeok (the year 760) over the Namcheon Stream. The bridge connected the palace inside the Wolseong Fortress and Namsan Mountain and was an essential passage for the royals to pay a visit to Buddhist temples.
9:40 p.m. Gyeongju Bus Terminal
10:00 p.m. Bomun Lake Resort (hotel and condominiums)
The Night City Tour ends around 9-9:30 p.m. at Wolseong Fortress. If you want to join the night tour and go back to Busan or Seoul, first make sure you can reserve a bus or train after 10:30 p.m. Also, ask the tour group if they can drop you off at the terminal or station in time.
↡↡ Looking for hotels in Gyeongju? Book Your Gyeongju Hotel here↡↡
If you prefer to spend a night at Gyeongju, consider hanok stays. Gyeongju is known for its renovated hanok hotels. I stayed at this hanok guest house and loved the experience. You can also check out more guesthouse and hotel options in another post. Find more Gyeongju hanok guesthouses and hotel recommendations here >>
Day Trip from Busan: Gyeongju in One Day with Tours
I would recommend #1 & #2 Gyeongju City Tours for Koreans or anyone who understands Korean. The tour is designed for Koreans, who would already have basic historical background and snippet information about each stop. Also, a tour guide only speaks Korean. Although these tours offer a short English video presentation on the bus, it would not be sufficient for foreigners without understanding all the stories and historical information by the professional guide.
However, if you only have one day in Gyeongju with a limited budget, and your goal is to hit all of the key sites, #1 & #2 tours can save you from the hassle of navigating the city on your own. Note that you will still need to find transportation from your origin to Gyeongju.
Luckily, you have plenty of other day trip tours from Busan to Gyeongju (#3-8). These select tours offer convenient transportation from Busan and a professional tour guide who speaks English. (Some tours even offer Chinese or Japanese.)
For an easy comparison, see the chart below to find the right tour for you.
7 Best Gyeongju Tours
Swipe to see #1-#7.
Note: The tour details and prices can be changed without notice. Please click the link to check.
Cultural Historical Small Group
Historical Full Day Tour
Busan to Gyeongju Private Tour
Busan or Gyeongju Private Tour
|Check details & Book||BOOK||BOOK||BOOK||BOOK||BOOK||BOOK||BOOK|
|Price (Adult)||₩25,000 (+₩19,000 admissions)||₩20,000||₩86,000||₩80,000||₩62,000||₩ 552,000 (~8 ppl.), Or ₩720,000 (~18 ppl.)||₩280,000 (~8 ppl.)|
|Duration||8 HR||2 HR||6 HR||12 HR||14 HR||9 HR||9 HR|
|Language||Korean only||Korean only||English, Chinese||English, Chinese||English, Chinese||English, Chinese||English, Chinese|
|Hotel Pickup||Select Gyeongju Hotels||Select Gyeongju Hotels||At Busan, Seomyeon Stn.||KTX Busan Station, Seomyeon Stn., Haeundae Stn.||At Seomyeon Stn.||Busan Hotels||Busan Hotels|
|Included||Tour guide Bus in Gyeongju||Tour guide Admissions Bus in Gyeongju||Tour guide Admissions Transport to/from/in Gyeongju||Tour guide Admissions Transport to/from/in Gyeongju Lunch||Tour guide Admissions Transport to/from/in Gyeongju||Tour guide Transport to/from/in Gyeongju||Tour guide Transport to/from/in Gyeongju|
|Excluded||Admissions Transport to/from Gyeongju Meals||Transport to/from Gyeongju Meals||Meals||Meals||Meals||Admissions Meals||Admissions Meals|
|Frequency||Everyday||Everyday||Tues., Fri.||Thurs.||Sun., Tues., Fri.||Everyday||Everyday|
|Attractions||Bulguksa Seokguram Daereungwon Cheonmachong Tomb of King Muyeol Bunhwangsa||Cheomseongdae Donggung & Wolji Gyochon Village Woljeonggyo Gyerim||Bulguksa Cheomseongdae Daereungwon Donggung & Wolji Gyochon Village||Bulguksa Seokguram Donggung & Wolji Yangdong Village||Bulguksa Donggung & Wolji Yangdong Village Dareungwon Cheomsungdae||Customizable itinerary||Customizable itinerary|