Known as ‘the museum without walls’, Gyeongju holds more tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, Buddhist statuary and the ruins of palaces, pleasure gardens and castles than any other place in South Korea. Tumuli (grass-covered burial mounds) are only the most conspicuous and accessible of the sights.
In 57 BC, around when Julius Caesar was subduing Gaul, Gyeongju became the capital of the Shilla dynasty, and it remained so for nearly 1000 years. In the 7th century AD, under King Munmu, Shilla conquered the neighbouring kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje, and Gyeongju became capital of the whole peninsula. The city’s population eventually peaked at around one million, but as empires do, Shilla eventually fell victim to division from within and invasion from without.
The city began a cultural revival in the early 20th century – with much preservation and restoration work thanks to the dictator Park Chung-hee in the 1970s – which continues today.
One can not truly know Gyeongju’s charms without visiting its outlying districts. Gyeongju covers a vast 1323 sq km, and you should allow several days to take it all in.