There are 14 Korean UNESCO sites. Thirteen are cultural and just one is natural. And I’ve been to all but one of them! Including several on the tentative list. UNESCO lists are one of my favorite things to look at when I’m planning to travel to a country. They are especially useful when there isn’t a ton of information available about what to see in a country. Korean guides will talk all day about Seoul and Busan, but it’s hard to know what else to see. SO, I’m going to take you through all of the sites and explain what there is to see at these Korean UNESCO Sites!
Sites in Seoul
These are the easiest places to visit. Just a few subway stops away from wherever you’re staying in the capital, there are three Korean UNESCO sites calling your name!
This is the only one of Seoul’s 5 main palaces to make it onto the UNESCO list. It was designed to be a second palace to Gyeongbokgung but wound up being the main palace used in the 1600-1800s. It features a “Secret Garden” you’ll need to pay a separate fee to take a tour of. In my personal opinion, it’s the most fun palace to dress in hanbok at (which will get you free entry to most palaces). The garden isn’t what you would typically think of. For one, it’s massive. And secondly, it’s more like a curated forest with little pavilions, lotus ponds, and streams. It’s very pretty but if you’re expecting something with lots of flowers or topiary, you won’t find it here. The entire palace was built with the principle of blending into the nature and landscape.
- Closed on Mondays
- 3,000krw entry fee, free if wearing a hanbok or on the last Wednesday of each month
- 9AM-5PM general opening time
This was one of the very first Korean UNESCO sites to be named in the country! Jongmyo is the oldest royal Confucian shrine in Korea. It houses the spirit tablets of the former kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. It’s a large site with shockingly long buildings. If you can time it correctly, there are demonstrations and ceremonies that you can witness.
I think this is the most unexpected site on this list. For some reason, the pictures I had seen on blogs had made it seem rather small. I wasn’t very pressed to see it, and it wound up being one of the last things I saw over my 2 year stay in Korea. Wow! Pictures do not do this place justice. Jongmyo is now one of my favorite places I saw in Korea and I wish I had visited when I first arrived as it is now under construction for another year or so. It’s still very interesting to see! Originally I had heard you would need to take a guided tour on any day but Saturday, but this was not the case for me, perhaps due to the construction. While some parts are closed off, the scale and the emanating spirituality of the palace is magical!
- Closed on Tuesdays
- 1,000krw entry fee, free if wearing a hanbok or on the last Wednesday of each month.
- Sun-Mon/Wed-Fri English tours are every two hours from 10AM to 4PM
- Saturday hours change with the season, but around 9AM to 5PM. Check here for more details.
Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
The Joseon Dynasty lasted for 500 years, a time marked by periods of peace, war with neighbors, isolationism, and internal progress. The royal tombs they left behind were meant to cement their authority and were built to honor their ancestors. They are some of the most ornate of the many tombs in Korea, with consistent structures meant to provide areas for worship and statues meant to guard from evil spirits.
There are several places you can see these UNESCO designated tombs, both inside and outside of Seoul. However, the easiest and some of the most interesting are in Gangnam (called Seonjeongneung). You can get these amazing views (and photos!) of the tombs backdropped against the skyscrapers of this famous Seoul neighborhood. To be honest, I had no idea these tombs were here! I’m shocked that I didn’t make it on my very first trip to Seoul five years ago. Time and time again I am surprised by how many amazing things there are to see that Korea doesn’t advertise well! It’s just a short hike, but the signs are a tad confusing. I wound up going around the site before I finally figured out I could just detour to the tombs. UNESCO site aside, this is a nice park that’s perfect for walking around on a nice day.
- Closed on Mondays
- 1,000krw entry fee
- 6AM-9PM Opening time
Korean UNESCO Sites Near Seoul
Easy day trips from Seoul can take you to these.
This is the one site I haven’t really been to. I think I may have been to parts of it awhile ago but didn’t know where I really was. That’s a surprisingly easy thing to have happen in Korea! Namhansanseong is a fortress that was designed to function as an emergency capital during the Joseon dynasty. The Joseon dynasty lasted from 1392 until the Japanese annexation in 1910. The Fortress has its own palace, known as the Emergency Palace, settled in among the beautiful nature and mountains. The site is wonderful for hiking, with 4 different courses full of detours to historical surprises. It’s a little complicated to get to. I recommend you search for the route to the Namhansanseong bus station on Kakao. You can check out my guide to using Kakao here, as Google Maps doesn’t work in Korea.
- Closed on Mondays
- 2,000krw entry fee
- 10AM-5PM opening time
Built towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty, the Hwaseong Fortress has massive thick walls that were built to protect Suwon and the remains of a former king which had been moved. It is a fantastic example of how Korean architecture attempts to work with the landscape, and much of the defensive features are still intact. It features the usage of the best military designs available this part of the world in the 18th century.
This site gives you the excuse of going to Suwon, one of my favorite cities in Korea. The entire Old City is ringed by the Hwaseong Fortress. Local laws have forbidden the skyscrapers this country is so fond of, and as a result the views from the fortress walls are simply lovely. I was surprised by how “used” this fortress is. Locals jog in the mornings, the elderly sit at the steps of the gates to people watch, and families take walks in the evenings.
Korean UNESCO Sites Near Busan
Korea’s second largest city, and you’re probably heading here anyway on your trip to Korea. These sites are easy day trips from the city.
Gyeongju Historic Area
Gyeongju is absolutely stuffed with things to do. Most dates from the Shilla Kingdom, who ruled for around a thousand years, 57BCE to 935CE. They left behind simply remarkable things to see, from temples to palaces to the world’s first observatory. Incredibly large tomb mounds dot the landscape of the city which hid golden treasure troves now on display at the Gyeongju National Museum (free to visit).
It’s also my absolute favorite place in all of Korea. If I had to pick a place to live in Korea, it would be here. I will never get over how people live and work right next to the tombs, which have been built around haphazardly as the city expands. Gyeongju is surprisingly walkable, with things making an easy loop. Head first to the Tumuli park (and the free park across the street), then onwards to the observatory. Continue walking into the ancient Wolji forest and then across the gorgeous bridge. If you aren’t tired out from walking, head to the museum. On the way back, check out the Donggung Palace in the evening (it’s much less impressive in the daytime).
- Most sites are free to see, but the Donggung Palace is 3,000krw and the Tumuli Park is also 3,000krw.
Sansa, Buddhist Mountain Monasteries
There are several temples that fall into this category, but one of the easiest and most impressive to visit is Tongdosa. If you can go in autumn, I high recommend it. Tongdosa is also one of the “Three Jewel Temples” of Korea, with each representing a core tenant of Korean Buddhism. This temple represents the Buddha. Tongdosa holds some of the crystallized remains of the Buddha as well as part of the jaw. It’s also one of the pretties temples in Korea, and actually has a feeling of oldness. The monks frequently have large flower displays and there are some lovely architectural details such as a tiny pond with a bridge.
You can get here by going to the Busan Central/Nopo Bus Terminal, from there it only takes about 25 minutes to get to Tongdosa. If the idea of yet more climbing in Korea doesn’t enthuse you, there are taxis. I think the walk down is absolutely worth it, though. It’s very beautiful.
- Open everyday from 8:30 to 6PM
- 3,000krw entry fee
Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple
This is two sites, an easy bus ride away from each other. The Seokguram Grotto features beautiful carved portrayals of Buddha and a large Buddha facing the sea. Bulguksa Temple is a wooden temple with a large amount of stone masonry, such as the two stone pagodas. The temple and grotto were first built in the 8th century. Like many temples, Bulguksa has burned down a few times, but the terraced stone foundations are original. In a way, this site is an extension of Gyeongju, whose artifacts hail from the same Shilla period.
To be honest, this was my least favorite of the UNESCO sites. You can hardly see the grotto due to a plexiglass shield that has been installed at the front of the cave. I understand it’s there to protect the site but I also felt like it was pointless for me to have gone there. Bulguksa is the most crowded temple I’ve ever been too and has a feeling of being run down. With the ridiculous (for Korea) entrance prices of 5,000krw for each site, I don’t feel you’re getting a whole lot.
- Open 7:30 to 5PM
- 5,000krw entry fee for each site
Korean UNESCO Sites Near Andong
Andong itself is a little lackluster unless you’re visiting during the Masked Dance Festival in Sept-Oct. But just outside Andong is where the real magic starts. You can check out my Things to Do in Andong for a quick guide!
Historic Hahoe Village
Technically this village is listed in UNESCO with the Historic Yangdong Folk Village, which is near Gyeongju. I have only been to Hahoe. They are 14-15th century clan villages that still feature their thatched roofs and mud walls. The setting of the Hahoe village is hard to beat. The village is tucked into a bend in a river with a stunning cliff just across the water, looking down over the village. Hahoe was a place where Confucian Korean aristocrats lived. This is reflected in the multiple smalls museums dotted about the site. Study halls, learning places, it’s no shock that Hahoe would be beloved by poets for hundreds of years after its founding.
- Open all day, you can even stay in the village overnight!
Seowon Neo-Confucian Academies
Just 15 minutes or so from the Hahoe Village is one of the Confucian Academies. It’s hardly gets any visitors and it’s also one of the only places that properly explains Confucianism to visitors. I expect that to change soon, as this is the newest among the Korean UNESCO sites! While there are several sites that fall under this category, strewn across Korea. But this is the easiest one to see if you’re already going to Hahoe. Confucianism is a somewhat difficult and deeply cultural concept I think can be hard for some Western minds to grasp. With the aid of the displays here I came away understanding much more than I had previously. These academies are beautiful, as Neo-Confucianism valued nature and improving oneself mentally and physically.
- Byeongsan Seowon is open from 9AM-5PM
The Rest of the Korean UNESCO Sites
These are generally going to require separate planning in order to visit. It will be hard to base yourself in a single place to see more than one site.
Baekje Historic Areas
Baekje was a Kingdom from the same period as the Shilla. It lasted about a thousand years from around 600BCE to 600AD. They left behind some amazing monuments in this Northwestern Kingdom. The Baekje period was marked as being a remarkable crossroads of technology, religion, and artistry. As you go through the local history museums it is incredible to see how much trade was happening in Korea. Goods cycled in and out from all over Asia!
The main historic areas to see are in Gongju and Buyeo, both an easy day trip from Daejeon. You can even see both in one day, as I wound up doing. Check out my guide to Buyeo! There are 8 places included within the UNESCO Baekje sites list, generally evenly spread between the two cities. Both have fortresses, the one in Gongju is more…fortress-like, the Buyeo one is more spread out with several beautiful sites to see within. They each have tomb sites, although I found the ones in Gongju to be more impressive and easier to get to. There are also temple sites, but I personally did not see them (you tend to get temple-d out after awhile).
- Entry fee for the Buyeo fortress is 1,000krw
There are three spots to see the dolmens, Gochang, Ganghwa, and Hwasun. In case you don’t know what dolmens are, they are ancient stone burials – think Stonehenge. They date from the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The density of these tombs is unlike anywhere else in the world!
Gochang is the only one I’ve been to after careful research – it has the most dolmens out of the three and is fairly easy to get to comparatively. It is simply a once in a lifetime feeling to be able to wander this site. Almost nothing is corded off – you could easily touch them. They’re also not well advertised by the Korean tourism agencies so there’s hardly any tourists. Most Koreans come here for the hiking to some wetlands that have rare species for Korea – which is worth it if you have the time. But it is simply mind boggling to me that these dolmens are not more popular. I will say, I have heard the Ganghwa site is somewhat disappointing to visitors as the dolmens are much more scattered. But here in Gochang they’re everywhere!
- Museum Entry fee 2,000krw
This is another of the Three Jewel Temples. Only Songwangsa, which represents the Buddhist community, is not on the UNESCO list. Haeinsa represents the dharma, or Buddhist scripture. This is found in the form of 80,000 carved wooden tablets. They were originally carved in the 1200s! It’s well worth it to stay in Haeinsa as a templestay (you can check out my experience here!). This is one of the only ways you can actually get to see the wooden tablets and the ingenious way they have been protected and stored over the centuries. The temple itself is a popular pilgrimage site for Buddhists from around the world.
- Generally open from 8:30AM to 5PM, which is why I recommend the Templestay for the early morning beauty
- Entry fee is 3,000krw.
Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes
The only natural listing of the Korean UNESCO sites! And wow, these three places are must-sees if you’re heading to Jeju. The lava tubes in particular are probably my favorite experience on the island. According to UNESCO, these are the best lava tubes anywhere in the world. The caves created by the flowing lava are massive, and the complex ends at an incredible lava cone. Bring a sweater even in summer, it can be quite cold and drippy!
Mount Halla, the large extinct volcano at the very center of the island, is also part of the UNESCO listing. A hike to the top will offer views of the volcanic crater. Ilchulbong, on the eastern side of the island, is my second favorite place to visit. The volcanic creation of these stunning cliffs rising out of the ocean is best viewed at sunset or sunrise. Sunset gives everything a soft, beautiful look. Sunrise features the sun glinting over the sea, illuminating the peak. Be sure not to spend money on the hike if you’re not interested, there are free walking paths that afford beautiful views right next door.
- Closed on the first Wednesday of each month for Manjanggul Lava Tunnels
- 4,000krw entry fee
- Open from 9-6PM
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