Did you know that South Korea is home to 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites? That’s more than Egypt, more than Croatia and even more than Israel yet this Asian gem is often overlooked. With a further fifteen sites tentatively added to the list, South Korea is up there with the world’s most UNESCO-dense countries. And if these facts aren’t enough to tempt you then have a look at the sites themselves.
Baekje Historic Areas
This group of monuments consists of eight archaeological sites spread across the cities of Gongju, Buyeo and Iksan in South Korea’s mountainous mid-west. Dating from 475 to 660 CE, the monuments include the fortresses of Gongsanseong and Busosanseong, the royal tombs of Songsan-ri and Neungsan-ri and the temples of Jeongnimsa and Mireuksa There’s also the city wall of Naseong and the palace of Wanggung-ri. Together they represent the height of cultural and technological achievement for the late Baekje Kingdom.
Top Tip: The three cities are within an hour’s distance from one another. This means it’s possible to visit all eight monuments over the course of just a few days.
Changdeokgung Palace Complex
Situated within a large park at the heart of Seoul, Changdeokgung is one of “Five Grand Palaces” built during the Joseon Dynasty. The palace complex is spread across 58 hectares of varied topography at the foot of the guardian mountain of Baegaksan. It’s considered a superlative example of imperial architecture despite suffering heavy damage during the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945. Only a third of structures date back to the original construction though this does not detract from the harmoniously designed buildings, grand halls and attractive gates.
Top Tip: The palace is particularly stunning when the cherry blossoms bloom in March and April.
Gyeongju Historic Areas
The semi-rural city of Gyeongju is home to an impressive collection of well-preserved temple and palace ruins built during the Silla Kingdom. Sculptures and pagodas demonstrate some of the finest examples of Buddhist art found in Korea while the royal tombs of Tumuli Park resemble an open-air museum. Excavations of the tombs revealed a host of treasures from gold to ceramics. There’s a total of 52 UNESCO-designated sites in Gyeongju and star attractions include the historic Bunhwangsa temple and the Anapji Pond.
Top Tip: Visit Anapji Pond after dusk when you can enjoy a star-speckled sky and watch the reflection of carefully-placed lighting play on the water’s surface.
Haeinsa Temple and Janggyeong Panjeon
Located in Gayasan National Park, the secluded Haeinsa Temple is home to the most complete collection of Buddhist texts. These scriptures date back to the 13th century and represent the religion’s teachings, known as dharma. The 15th century Janggyeong Panjeon buildings were specially created to hold the 80,000 engraved woodblocks, known as the Tripitaka Koreana. These texts are famed for their accuracy without a single mistake found in the fifty million or so Chinese characters inscribed on the wooden slabs.
Top Tip: Most visitors stick to the buildings that house the Tripitaka Koreana, which means you can easily find some peace along the paths on the other side of the stream.
Yangdong and Hahoe Historical Villages
The charming folk villages of Yangdong and Hahoe offer an authentic look at South Korea’s pastoral traditions. These villages were founded between the 14th and 15th centuries and are surrounded by attractive countryside. Functioning communities here maintain an unhurried pace of life, tending their vegetable gardens and cattle. Walking around these villages you can see how Confucianism influenced clan structure. Dwellings are arranged according to status – the aristocracy with their finer residences and the commoners with their more simple thatched houses.
Top Tip: Visit Hahoe village during the Andong Mask Festival when traditional dance performances are held and international mask dance troupes take to the stage.
Standing in the centre of Suwon city is Hwaesong Fortress, a relic of the country’s military history. The 18th century fortress is accompanied by one of the country’s finest city walls, which stretches over 6 kilometres. The expertly-constructed fortress was prepared for an unrealised plan to move the capital from Seoul to Suwon, which saw the city grow in importance. The merging of the historic and the modern is perfectly demonstrated by Paldalmun gate, which stands in the middle of a roundabout.
Top Tip: Just an hour from Seoul, the Hwaseong Fortress can easily be visited on a day trip.
Jeju Volcanic Island
Jeju Island is South Korea’s only natural UNESCO World Heritage site. This hotspot of biodiversity encompasses volcanic peaks, waterfalls and beaches, making it a top destination for nature-lovers. The island sits just off South Korea’s southern coast and has gained fame for its incredible lava tubes. These tubes make up one of the world’s largest volcanic cave systems and are multi-coloured thanks to mineral compounds. The lava columns that have grown here look like alien tendrils and are striking in appearance.
Top Tip: Jeju Island is also home to Mount Hallasan, South Korea’s highest peak. If you’re up for a physical challenge, why not try trekking to the top?
Built in the 14th century to honour dead royalty, the Jongmyo Shrine is one of the oldest of its kind. Confucianism was pivotal in its construction and various rites and rituals would take place here five times a year. Much of the original architecture was reconstructed in the 17th century, including Jeongjeon, the main hall, and Yeongnyeongjeon, the Hall of Eternal Comfort. Unfortunately, these buildings are kept locked so visitors cannot see the spirit tables within. Nevertheless, strolling around the wooded grounds is still highly enjoyable.
Top Tip: Visits to Jongmyo Shrine are only available on guided tours with the exception of Saturday when you are free to wander around independently.
Added to the UNESCO list in 2014, this recent addition is one of South Korea’s most unique fortresses. It was created solely as an emergency capital city – if Seoul was to fall then the reigning kings could relocate here. Sitting in a stunning mountainous region, the fortress city uses the topography to its defensive advantage and features a number of buildings that attest to its military, civil and even religious use. A highlight is the Janggyeongsa Temple, the only preserved temple originally built by the Buddhist army that resided at Namhansanseong.
Top Tip: The best time to visit is during autumn when the leaves of the forest trees turn brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow.
Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
Built over the course of five centuries, this collection of 40 tombs reflects the distinctive funeral tradition of the Joseon dynasty. The tombs are all situated in green spaces across 18 different locations. In accordance with Confucian philosophy they stand with a hill protecting their back and facing water to the south. The burial mounds are protected on three sides by a low-rise wall and feature statues of animals to ward off evil spirits. There are also special stones to invite the souls of the buried kings and queens out to play.
Top Tip: Focus your efforts on visiting just a handful of the tombs. We recommend Seonjeongneung, located in downtown Seoul, and Donggureung in Gyeonggi-do, the largest of the collection with nine royal mausoleums.
Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple
Considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art, the Bulguksa Temple is one of South Korea’s most famous temples. Located on the slopes of Mount Toham in Gyeongju city, the temple was originally founded in 528 during the Silla dynasty. It perfectly demonstrates the highly developed craftsmanship of this period with elaborately painted halls and impressive stone pagodas. The Seokguram Grotto is located further up the mountain and houses fine Buddhist sculptures including a monumental statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha.
Top Tip: The views from Seokguram Grotto are worth getting up early for. Get the first bus up here and then walk back down to Bulguksa Temple.