Most visitors touring the city centre are taken aback by the distinctive urban landscape created by round grassy tombs – called tumuli – and traditional architecture with colourful hip roofs set against a canvas of green rolling mountains.
Two of Gyeongju’s most not-to-be-missed sites – Bulguk-sa and Seokguram – are in the outlying districts and are within reach via public transport. Gyeongju covers a vast area – some 1323 sq km – so you should plan on several days of travel if you want to visit some of the lesser-known places. Bus transport out to these areas is satisfactory, though personal transport is a better option if you value speed and some flexibility.
In 57 BC, around the same time that Julius Caesar was subduing Gaul, Gyeongju became the capital of the Shilla dynasty, and it remained so for nearly a thousand years. In the 7th century AD, under King Munmu, Shilla conquered the neighbouring kingdoms of Goguryeo and Baekje, and Gyeongju became the capital of the whole peninsula. The population of the city eventually peaked at around one million people, but the Shilla eventually fell victim to division from within and invasion from without.
The city began a cultural revival in the late 20th century – with much preservation and restoration work thanks to President Park Chung-hee in the 1970s.