When thinking of a cultural getaway, South Korea is often overlooked. As of late though, UNESCO has taken notice and in this year’s meeting, it has been granted yet another World Heritage Site to this tiny country. This bumps its total count to 12, making it one of the most World Heritage Site dense countries in the world. Yeah, I made that term up, but its true! Let’s take a brief look at all of them and hopefully it will convince you to leap ahead of the tourism bandwagon and book your flight to Seoul. As a bonus, I also added some pro tips to maximize your experience at each one.
Note – I uploaded full resolution pictures you can download if you’d like. Just click on the pictures to enlarge.
Hwaseong Fortress [Suwon]
Surrounding the city center of Suwon, this city wall is one of Korea’s finest. It was built in the late 18th century and suffered extensive damage from neglect as well as warfare over the years. Today, it looks new with beautiful sharp drops, a large water gate, and even its very own palace in the center.
Pro Tip 1 – Most people enter through one of the main gates, but take a hike through the park on the west and enter through one of the ‘secret gates’ like those 19th century folk in the know! From here, you also get great sky-view of the palace.
Pro Tip 2 – For a little fun, you can also try out some Korean archery on the north eastern end of the loop. At certain times, Korean groups that take this sport a bit more seriously show up with their fancy long range bows. Watch them hit targets 50 meters away while you struggle with the ones no more than 10 meters in front of you.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of the Hwaseong Fortress
Changdeokgung Palace [Seoul]
Located in the heart of Seoul, this palace is the most original of the ‘Grand Palaces’ in the city and served as the court of the Joseon Dynasty. It was badly damaged during the Japanese occupation with only 30% of the buildings remaining from the area before colonization. Of special note is the blue-tiled room to the east of the throne, which served as a study for the king and the inspiration for the Blue House, the formal residence of the President of Korea. Another part worth checking out is Geumcheongyo Bridge, one of the oldest structures of the complex, built in 1411. If you have time, make sure to take a stroll on the guided tour to the royal gardens.
Pro Tip – The absolute best time to visit is in late-March / early-April when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. While you may have competition from other photographers, it is worth the hassle.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of Changdeokgung Palace
Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon, the Depositories for the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks [Gayasan National Park]
The name is a bit of a mouthful, but this site makes it up with its incredible features. The temple itself is one of the “Three Jewel Temples of Korea,” representing the dharma of Buddhist teachings. Located in Gayasan National Park, a brisk two kilometer hike is required to even reach it. While the temple is beautiful and worth a look on its own, what makes it stand out is the Tripitaka Koreana. This set of 80,000 woodblocks with over 50 million Chinese characters is the oldest known flawless version of the Buddhist Sutra written in Chinese. It is nearly 800 years old and is as imposing as it is magnificent.
Pro Tip – Haeinsa is one of the two dozen or so temples which participate in the English version of the Templestay program, allowing you to experience one day as a monk. If you are even remotely interested, Haeinsa is the place to do it.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of Haeinsa Temple
Yangdong and Hahoe Historical Villages of Korea [Andong and Gyeongju]
Admittedly, many historical places in Korea have a very “Disneyland” feel, but I assure you that these are the real deal. Yangdong is only 30 minutes north of the historical city of Gyeongju. The hanok style houses are gorgeous and very well preserved over the years. With that said, it is only overshadowed when compared to Hahoe, one of my favorite places in the whole country. This centuries old village founded by the Yu clan makes you feel like you traveled back in time, with stone-walled roads, expansive fields for farming, and an incredible river that wraps around the whole town on three sides.
Pro Tip 1 – Visit Hahoe in October during the Andong Mask Festival. Korea’s most interesting event is a long tradition in the village with its mask dances and story telling being a thing of legend across the entire country.
Pro Tip 2 – There is a small boat on the north east end of Hahoe Village that takes you across to see the final structures which were built to overlook the whole town. You will never see a better view in the entire country.
Pro Tip 3 – In Yangdong, there are often ladies working some wooden mallets and making Korean ‘ddeok’ or rice cake. If you look like a very interested foreigner and hang out long enough, they will ask you to give the hammering a shot. Works every time!
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of Yangdong and Hahoe
Gyeongju Historical Areas
Gyeongju was the old capital of the Shilla Kingdom, arguably the first power to unify the Korean peninsula after conquering Baekje and Goguryeo in the 660s. In this site, you can see royal tombs, the beautiful Anapji pond, and the oldest observatory in Asia in the central park near just south of Gyeongju train station. One interesting place that doesn’t get many visitors is the Gyeongju National Museum. Not long ago, the Anapji Pond was drained for cleaning, and a plethora of Shilla relics were discovered. They are displayed in this museum.
Pro Tip 1 – While the pond is enjoyable at any time of the day, it really comes alive at night, with beautiful lighting, and some awesome street food nearby. The reflection of the pond at night is also spectacular.
Pro Tip 2 – The observatory has a cost of 1,000 won. While it is not a lot, you get nothing more than being allowed to get 20 feet closer and competing with families for photo ops. You’re better off using that dollar on nearby street food and enjoying it from the outside.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of the Historic Sites of Gyeongju
Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto [Gyeongju]
These temples are two of the best known in Korea, with thousands of locals from all over the country visiting every day. Bulguksa’s most distinctive features are Dabotap and Seokgatap, two beautiful stone pagodas that date back to 751 CE.
Seokguram is a stone cave shrine holding a Buddha largely considered to be one of the best examples of Buddhist art in the world. While technically part of Bulguksa, you do have to take a bus ride up the hill or take an hour hike from Bulguksa to reach it, but it is definitely worth it.
Pro Tip 1 – Seokguram’s Buddha is technically a no photo zone, but that really depends on the mood of the guard. I’ve had guards be very strict about it, and others allow complete tripod set ups, as long as no flash was used. Just a heads up for you photographers out there.
Pro Tip 2 – As possibly the #1 place for local tourism, you would be wise to chose a day or time when people are otherwise occupied. Whatever you do, don’t go on school holidays.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of Bulguksa and Seokguram Grotto
Joseon Dynasty Royal Tombs [Across Seoul and Gyeonggi-do]
This site is a set of 40 tombs scattered across 18 locations all throughout Seoul and Gyeonggi-do. From King Taejo’s formation in the 1390s to its demise 500 years later, every single king and queen has been buried and protected in these royal tombs. During the Japanese colonization period, royal grave keepers simply lied and claimed their family members were buried there, preventing Japan from wiping out yet another piece of Korean history.
Pro Tip 1 – With 18 choices, which ones should you visit? Many are very similar and unless you have incredible patience and time, I wouldn’t advice seeing them all. The three I recommend are Donggureung (the largest), Seolleung / Jeongreung (the easiest to access from Seoul), and Yeongreung (holding Sejong the Great and King Hyojong).
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
Jongmyo Shrine [Seoul]
Just across the street from Changdeok Palace is another World Heritage Site, Jongmyo. This shrine is the place where the kings’ spirits come to rest after death according to Confucian tradition. Strolling in here is by guided tour only, which you will need as there aren’t many signs or explanations throughout the complex.
Pro Tip – Even as a UNESCO enthusiast, I struggle to enjoy this one on a normal day. Instead, visit during the Jaerye festival in early March, complete with a parade, chants, dances, and of course, some food offerings.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of Jongmyo
Dolmen Sites of Hwasun, Ganghwa, and Gochang [Gyeonggi-do and Jeolla-do]
The first thing you might be thinking is “what the heck is a ‘dolmen’?” Simply put, they are stone tombs, much like the famous Stonehenge in the UK. South Korea has 40% of all dolmens ever discovered, by far the largest share in the world. Large concentrations are located in Hwasun, Ganghwa, and Gochang, which are a joint UNESCO site. Discover the archaeologist in you and check them out!
Pro Tip – While Ganghwa looks like the easiest to reach by looking at a map, it is actually the most difficult to reach. In addition, the tombs there are very scattered and difficult to see them in quantity besides a very impressive one near the museum complex (pictured above). Gochang is a better bet with over 200 tombs within walking distance of each other.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of the Korean Dolmen Sites
Volcanic Island of Jeju
As Korea’s sole Natural Site, Jeju does not disappoint. This volcanic island just south of the mainland is hyped up to be a natural wonder and delivers with lava tubes, fantastic waterfalls, great beaches, and one amazing hike up the volcano itself. Give yourself enough time to get away from the tacky attractions like the chocolate and teddy bear museums, and truly enjoy what this island has to offer.
Pro Tip 1 – While of course, getting to the top of Hallasan is a fantastic hike, don’t dismiss the other trails up the mountain. They may not reach the summit, but are significantly less crowded and equally as amazing.
Pro Tip 2 – Disregard any advice to visit Jungmun unless you like your beaches crowded with lots and lots of people in bikinis… wait a minute. DO go to Jungmun beach, but ALSO visit the less crowded Hamdeok on the north end of Jeju.
Pro Tip 3 – Jeju has public transportation, but you will definitely get more out of your trip by renting a car. You can ask for information upon arriving, or book ahead through Jeju’s Airport website.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of the Volcanic island of Jeju
Last year’s addition to the World Heritage List was this fortress wall just outside of the Seoul city limits. While a long time local favorite, it is as famous for the hike up to the wall and the food in the quaint little town as the wall itself. It also has a newly refurbished palace and some very beautiful temples.
Pro Tip – For a little isolation, walk along the west end of the wall and head uphill. There are some great views to be had, and almost no one will be around.
Here’s a more extensive review and pictures of Namhansanseong
Baekje Historic Sites [Buyeo, Kongju, and Iksan]
Just this week, the Baekje Historical Sites in Buyeo, Kongju, and Iksan were added to the World Heritage List. Kongju has a magnificent fortress wall that has ongoing restorations for the last couple of years. Buyeo was the old capital known as Sabi and while not part of the UNESCO nod, the Baekje Cultural Complex in the city will leave a huge impression on how this kingdom looked like on its heyday. The best part of this site is definitely the Tomb of King Muryeong which was discovered in 1971 after laying dormant for over a 1200 years.
Pro Tip – Make sure to visit the Buyeo National Museum near Jeongnimsa Temple. While it is mostly in Korean and rather small, it has an interesting array of Baekje relics, including one of only two incense burners ever discovered.