When most people (myself included) think of Korean history, they think of the past century. The Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the separation of North and South – these are all parts of the story that we are more familiar with.
Not surprisingly, though, none of South Korea’s World Heritage Sites are related to this period or these events. In fact, they almost seem carefully curated to showcase the long proud history of the peninsula that came before the recent and undignified events.
And there’s a lot of heritage to talk about – from the states that ruled the land in ancient times, to the three main kingdoms that dominated in the first millennium, the rise of Buddhism in a united peninsula, and then the period of kings that have left the biggest mark on modern Korea.
When it comes to the World Heritage Sites of South Korea, there’s not much emphasis on nature (despite the country having some impressive national parks). Of its 15 sites on the World Heritage List, only two of them are natural, and one of those is not even particularly spectacular to look at.
Travelling around South Korea, the World Heritage Sites are actually a really good way to learn about the country’s history and I would recommend visiting quite a few of them.
Some of the World Heritage Sites in South Korea are also the country’s biggest landmarks, so you’ll likely visit some of them on any sightseeing trip. But others that may appear to be a little off the tourist trail are among the most interesting, in my opinion.
I’ve marked the locations of the South Korean World Heritage Sites on the map below. Something to note, though, is that quite a few of the sites are made up of multiple locations, so the map looks quite confusing at first. (You can select and deselect those ones in the menu.)
As you can see, there are lot of World Heritage Sites in Seoul, so even if all you’re doing is the capital city, you’ll be able to easily tick a few off the list.
In case you’re travelling even further throughout the country, let me give you a bit more background about all the World Heritage Sites in South Korea so you can consider which ones might be worth visiting yourself.
Changdeokgung Palace Complex
Nestled in the heart of Seoul, the Changdeokgung Palace Complex is a must-see for any traveler with an interest in Korean history and culture. This stunning palace complex was built in the 15th century and served as the seat of power for the Joseon Dynasty.
As you walk through the palace’s beautiful gardens, it’s easy to see why it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The landscape is meticulously designed, with manicured lawns, ponds, and walkways that wind through ancient trees and shrines.
Once you enter the palace itself, you’ll be transported back in time to an era of grandeur and opulence. The intricate architecture of the palace’s buildings is a sight to behold, with sweeping roofs and ornate carvings adorning every surface.
One of the highlights of visiting Changdeokgung Palace is the Secret Garden, a sprawling green space that was once reserved for the royal family’s private use. It’s a peaceful oasis in the heart of the bustling city, and a great place to unwind after a day of sightseeing.
Overall, the Changdeokgung Palace Complex is a true gem of Seoul, and a testament to Korea’s rich cultural heritage. It’s definitely worth taking the time to explore this stunning complex and learn more about the fascinating history of this incredible country.
Jongmyo Shrine is a Confucian shrine dedicated to the memory of the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty. Located in Seoul, it was built in 1394 and rebuilt in 1601 after a fire. It is the oldest and most authentic of the Confucian royal shrines to have been preserved.
There are two important halls you’ll see when you visit Jongmyo Shrine. The main hall called the Jeongjeon houses 49 spirit tablets of kings and queens, while the Yeongnyeongjeon has 34 of them. Set within parklands, there are a few other things to see at the shrine complex.
The shrine is still used for ceremonies and rituals, including the Jongmyo Jerye, a traditional royal ancestral rite that has been performed for over 600 years. It is an important cultural site that reflects the Confucian values and traditions of the Joseon Dynasty.
Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty are a group of 40 tombs located in the cities of Seoul and Gyeonggi. These tombs were built for the members of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910. The tombs were built in accordance with Confucian principles, which emphasised the importance of respecting one’s ancestors.
The tombs are surrounded by beautiful landscapes and are designed to blend in with the natural surroundings. They are also adorned with various sculptures and decorations, including stone bridges, pavilions, and gates. The tombs are also home to various artefacts and relics, including pottery, weapons, and clothing, which provide insight into the lives of the Joseon Dynasty.
The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. They are considered to be one of the most important historical and cultural sites in South Korea, and attract visitors from all over the world.
Namhansanseong is a fortress city located in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea. It was built during the 17th century to protect the capital city of Seoul from foreign invasions. The fortress is situated on a mountain ridge and is surrounded by steep walls that are up to 12 meters high.
The fortress was designed to be self-sufficient and has many features that allowed it to function as a city. It has four gates, three main palaces, and many other buildings, including temples, shrines, and military facilities. The fortress also had a system of water supply, with wells and reservoirs that could hold up to 1 million liters of water.
The fortress played a crucial role in defending Seoul during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 16th century. Today, Namhansanseong is a popular tourist destination and a symbol of Korean history and culture.
Hwaseong Fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Suwon, South Korea. It was built in the late 18th century during the Joseon Dynasty to protect the city of Suwon from foreign invasions. The fortress stretches for 5.52 kilometers and features impressive architectural design and engineering, including four main gates, artillery towers, and observation towers.
The Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon was designed by Jeong Yak-yong, a prominent scholar and scientist of the time, who incorporated both Eastern and Western military tactics into the design. The fortress also served as a center for education and culture, with many important historical and cultural relics preserved within its walls.
Visitors can explore the fortress and learn about its history and significance through guided tours and exhibits. The fortress is also a popular destination for festivals and events throughout the year, including the Suwon Hwaseong Cultural Festival and the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress Moonlight Tour.
Gyeongju Historic Areas
Gyeongju Historic Areas encompasses five parts of the city, including the Gyeongju Historic Area, the Yangdong Folk Village, the Bulguk Temple, Seokguram Grotto, and the Namsan Mountain.
The Gyeongju Historic Area is home to numerous temples, palaces, and tombs from the Silla Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 57 BC to 935 AD. Some of the most notable structures in this area include the Cheomseongdae Observatory, the Anapji Pond, and the Gyeongju National Museum.
The site also includes Namsan Mountain, a sacred mountain in South Korea that is home to numerous temples and shrines. The mountain is a popular destination for hikers and tourists, and offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple
Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple are located on the slopes of Mount Toham and are easily reached by bus from Gyeongju.
Seokguram Grotto is a small hermitage that was built during the Unified Silla period, around the 8th century. It is a small temple that is located inside a man-made grotto. The grotto is made of granite and is about 3.5 meters high. Inside the grotto, there is a statue of Buddha that is seated on a lotus throne.
Bulguksa Temple is a large temple complex that was also built during the Unified Silla period. It consists of several buildings and is considered to be one of the most important Buddhist temples in South Korea.
The temple was originally built in the 8th century, but it was destroyed several times and was rebuilt in the 18th century. The temple complex is known for its beautiful architecture and is considered to be one of the best examples of Buddhist art and architecture in the world.
Haeinsa Temple, set within the lush forests of Gayasan National Park, is one of the three most important temples in South Korea – although that’s not the reason it’s been named as a World Heritage Site.
The highlight of visiting Haeinsa Temple, and the reason for its inscription, is the complex of wooden buildings called Janggyeong Panjeon, and what is housed inside – the Tripitaka Koreana. These 80,000 wooden blocks carved with the text of Buddhist scriptures are one of the oldest and most complete sets in the world.
The Janggyeong Panjeon is unique in its construction, with a system of air ducts and vents that regulate the temperature and humidity inside the building to preserve the woodblocks. While, in other parts of the temple complex, there are plenty of other interesting halls and pavilions to discover.
Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong
The Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong are two villages located in the south-eastern part of Korea. These villages have preserved their traditional Korean houses, which are built in a unique style called ‘hanok’.
The Hahoe village is located in Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do, and it has a history of over 600 years. The village is situated on the banks of the Nakdong River, and it is surrounded by mountains. The village is famous for its traditional masks, which are used in the Hahoe Mask Dance Drama, a traditional Korean dance drama that has been performed for over 1,000 years.
The Yangdong village is located in Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do, and it has a history of over 500 years. The village is situated on the foothills of Mount Seolchang, and it is surrounded by rice paddies and orchards. The village has preserved its traditional Confucian culture, and it has many historical buildings, including the Yangdong Confucian Academy, which was built in 1558.
Sansa, Buddhist Mountain Monasteries in Korea
Sansa, Buddhist Mountain Monasteries in Korea are a group of seven Buddhist temples located in the southern provinces of the Korean Peninsula. The temples were built during the Joseon Dynasty, from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and were designed to harmonise with the natural environment. The temples are located in the mountains and are surrounded by forests, rivers, and valleys.
The seven temples are: Buseoksa Temple, Bongjeongsa Temple, Beopjusa Temple, Magoksa Temple, Seonamsa Temple, Daeheungsa Temple, and Tongdosa Temple. Each temple has its unique architectural style, layout, and cultural significance.
The temples were built by Buddhist monks who believed that the mountains were a sacred place to connect with the divine. The temples were designed to blend in with the natural surroundings and to create a peaceful and harmonious environment for meditation and reflection.
The temples are also important for their historical and cultural significance, as they represent the development of Buddhism in Korea.
Seowon, Korean Neo-Confucian Academies
Seowon were private institutions of higher learning in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. They were established by Confucian scholars who wanted to promote Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. These academies were built in rural areas, away from the city, to provide a quiet and peaceful environment for study and contemplation.
The Seowon were not only places of learning but also played an important role in Korean culture and society. They were centres of intellectual and cultural exchange, where scholars, artists, and poets gathered to share their knowledge and ideas. Seowon also served as a place for community gatherings, where people could come together to celebrate festivals and events.
There are nine Seowon that have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, each with its unique history and architecture. Visitors to these Seowon can experience the traditional Korean culture and gain a deeper understanding of the country’s history and heritage.
Baekje Historic Areas
Baekje Historic Areas is a group of archaeological sites from the Baekje Kingdom, which existed from 18 BC to 660 AD. The sites include fortresses, royal tombs, temples, and other structures that showcase the culture and architecture of the time.
One of the most notable sites is the Gongsanseong Fortress, which was built in the 4th century and served as the capital of Baekje. The fortress features impressive defensive walls and gates, as well as a palace complex and a large water reservoir.
Another significant site is the Jeongnimsa Temple Site, which was the largest temple in Baekje and served as a center for Buddhist learning and practice. The site includes the remains of several buildings, including a lecture hall and a pagoda.
Other notable sites in the area include the Wanggung-ri Archaeological Site, which contains the remains of a Baekje palace complex, and the Naseong City Wall, which was built in the 5th century to protect the city of Buyeo.
Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites
The Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites are located in the southwestern part of South Korea. These sites are a collection of tombs that date back to the Neolithic period, around 1,000 BCE. They are considered to be some of the most well-preserved examples of dolmen architecture in the world.
The Gochang Dolmen Site is the largest of the three sites and contains over 400 dolmens. The Hwasun Dolmen Site contains over 120 dolmens, and the Ganghwa Dolmen Site contains over 170 dolmens. The dolmens were used as burial chambers for the ruling class during the Bronze Age and are a testament to the cultural and technological advancements of the time.
The dolmens are made up of large stone slabs that are arranged in a specific way to create a chamber. They are often covered with a mound of earth or stones and are surrounded by smaller stones. The dolmens are decorated with carvings and engravings that depict scenes from daily life, as well as symbols and patterns that are thought to have religious significance.
Getbol, Korean Tidal Flats
A ‘getbol’ is a mudflat system, found along the coast, where tidal flats are formed by the ebb and flow of the tides, and they are home to a wide variety of plant and animal species.
These tidal flats are important because they provide a habitat for migratory birds, as well as a breeding ground for fish and other marine animals. They are also an important source of food for local communities, who harvest clams, oysters, and other shellfish from the flats.
Although there’s no disputing the importance of the ecosystems here, they’re not the most interesting places to visit because there’s not too much to see (the idea of ‘mud flats’ don’t exactly conjure up beautiful images, do they?). But there is a good ecopark at Gochang Getbol and this is probably the best option for visitors.
Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes
Parts of Jeju Island, off the southern coast of South Korea’s mainland, have been protected as a World Heritage Site because of their incredible volcanic geology and, in particular, the lava tubes that formed more than 100,000 years ago.
Most of the tubes are in an area called Geomunoreum, a volcanic cone where the tubes were formed by flowing lava hardening on the outside while the inside continued to flow. Visiting today, you can go inside and see their multicoloured carbonate roofs and floors, with dark-coloured lava walls.
The site also includes Seongsan Ilchulbong, a volcanic crater that rises out of the sea on the eastern coast of the island. You can hike to the top of the crater for panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
And the site’s final component is the dormant volcano called Mount Hallasan, which is the highest mountain in South Korea. Right in the centre of the island, there are heaps of hiking tracks you can take.
The Gaya Tumuli are burial mounds that were built by the Gaya Confederacy, a collection of six different kingdoms that existed for about 500 hundred years from the 1st to 6th centuries. The custom at the time was to bury people of all classes just below the ground and then build a large mound over the top.
The World Heritage Site consists of seven of these burial grounds (out of more than 700 that have been uncovered). Including locations in each of the six kingdoms, they show how the technique evolved over the centuries from simple holes dug in the ground to large chambers built of stone.
One of the easiest locations to visit is the Gaya Tumuli in Gimhae, a city just outside Busan. This was the capital of the most powerful of the Gaya kingdoms and has some of the earliest examples of burial mounds, including the tomb of the king who is said to have founded the Gaya Confederacy. The museums here about the site are also excellent.