An ancient East Asian capital, seat of power for a thousand years, and still home to a staggering host of treasures from that period – it’s hard for Gyeongju to avoid comparisons with Kyoto, though we’d argue this little city is actually even better than its far more famous Japanese counterpart.
For anyone who wants to relive the glory days of Korean history, Gyeongju is the place to start. Locals often refer to it as a “Museum without Walls”, on account of the regal burial mounds spread liberally not just inside the city, but throughout the fields and forests outside the centre. Unlike Kyoto, which has plenty of factories and traffic around its (admittedly wonderful) sights, Gyeongju has remained humble, low-rise, more connected to its days of dynasty.
Gyeongju was founded in 57 BC as capital of the Kingdom of Silla, and remained its seat of power for nigh on a thousand years – the Silla dynasty got through a whopping 56 monarchs before collapsing in 935. As a result, the city has more historic sites than anywhere else in the country. You genuinely can’t miss the burial mounds of Silla’s various royals, of which hundreds remain, including some huge ones – more than twenty metres high – right in the centre of Gyeongju. It’s also worth tracking down Cheomseongdae, a seventh-century astronomical observatory, or the World Heritage-listed Buddhist grottoes in the mountains to the east, set amid arched bridges and willow trees – a scene straight from the pages of a Korean fairy tale. Anapji Pond, meanwhile, is not just the prettiest spot in the city, but a fascinating archaeological site that once formed part of an enormous palace complex. Today, the area is home to a huge museum, and an astonishing collection of bling from the Silla period.
One of the best ways of seeing many of these sights, plus enjoying the fields and emerald-green rice paddies in between them as a bonus, is to rent a bicycle for the day. In recent years, outlets renting out hanbok (Korea’s national dress) have also proliferated in these parts, and we have to say that with Gyeongju’s sights in the background, the silken attire can make for some phenomenal photos – though if you’d like to rent both bikes and togs, perhaps do this at different times of the day, since silk and spokes don’t mix all that well...