13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea For your Bucket List
With a rich history and vibrant culture dating back thousands of years, it is no surprise that there is a fascinating amount of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea. From prehistoric dolmen sites and cultural sites of the three Kingdoms period to the royal palaces and tombs in and around Seoul, South Korea‘s world heritage sites are nothing less than impressive.
Here’s a list of all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea.
1. Baekje Historic Areas (2015)
The Baekje Kingdom was one of the three earliest kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula and lasted from 18 BC to around 660 AD. This period brought about a lot of advancements in technology, religion, culture and art, especially in exchanged between other East Asian kingdoms in Korea, China and Japan. Today, you can visit several Baekje historic sites including the Gongsanseong fortress and royal tombs at Songsan-ri related to the capital, Ungjin (present day Gongju), the Busosanseong Fortress and Gwanbuk-ri administrative buildings, the Jeongnimsa Temple, the royal tombs in Neungsan-ri and the Naseong city wall related to the capital, Sabi (now Buyeo), the royal palace at Wanggung-ri and the Mireuksa Temple in Iksan related to the secondary Sabi capital.
2. Changdeokgung Palace Complex (1997)
There are five grand royal palaces in Seoul and one of them is Changdeokgung Palace. This palace was constructed in the early 15th century on the order of King Taejong to build a new palace at an auspicious site. The palace includes a number of official and residential buildings and a vast “secret” garden that was exclusively accessible to royals only.
Due to Changdeokgung’s exceptional Far Eastern architecture and design, as well as the harmonious blending of nature and buildings, it became one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea.
3. Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites (2000)
Megalithic dolmens can be found in many parts of the globe dating back thousands of years. However, the prehistoric cemeteries found at Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa have the largest concentration of such dolmens in the whole world. They are estimated to have been constructed as early as the first millennium BC and are believed to have served as tomb sites.
4. Gyeongju Historic Areas (2000)
Because it is so rich in culture and historic sites, Gyeongju is one of those places I could revisit constantly. There is so much to see and do in Gyeongju, it just never gets boring (check out my Gyeongju guide here). As the city used to be the capital of the Silla Dynasty (57 BCE – 935 CE), Gyeongju contains a remarkable concentration of outstanding examples of Korean Buddhist art. This includes not only sculptures and pagodas but also the remains of ancient temples and palaces from the prosperous 7th and 10th centuries.
One of the most famous site in Gyeongju is Cheomseongdae Observatory, the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Asia (and possibly even the world), dating back to around 630 AD.
5. Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon (1995)
The Temple of Haeinsa lies on Mount Gaya in Gyeongsan Province. This temple is home to the Tripitaka Koreana, the most complete collection of Buddhist texts, engraved on 80,000 woodblocks between 1237 and 1248. The building housing the woodblocks at the temple itself is also incredibly beautiful and dates back to the 15th century.
6. Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong (2010)
Hahoe (in Andong) and Yangdong (in Gyeongju) are considered to be the two most representative historic clan villages in the Republic of Korea dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Their unique layout and location reflect the distinctive aristocratic Confucian culture: The villages are sheltered by forested mountains and face out onto a river and open agricultural fields.
Adding to that the fact that several 17th and 18th century poets wrote about the beauty of these villages in their artworks show why these two villages are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea today.
7. Hwaseong Fortress (1997)
This fortress was built by King Jeongjo to protect his father’s tomb that was moved to Suwon from Seoul at the end of the 18th century. Today, the strong defensive walls still stand and bear witness to ancient military architecture combining Eastern and Western influences. The walls of the fortress extend for almost 6 kilometers and are equipped with four gates and various bastions, and artillery towers.
8. Jongmyo Shrine (1995)
Because it is the oldest and most authentic of the Confucian royal shrine preserved until today, Jongmyo Shrine is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea. The shrine was built in the 16th century and is home to various historic tablets bearing the teachings of the former royal family from the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910). To keep the traditions alive, ritual ceremonies are still held here every year.
9. Namhansanseong (2014)
Namhansanseong was built and defended by Buddhist monk-soldiers as an emergency capital for the Joseon Dynasty around 25 km from Seoul. Due to the unique circumstances of this place, Namhansanseong has become a symbol of Korean sovereignty. Today you can explore a variety of military, civil and religious buildings here that are all considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea.
10. Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty (2009)
This heritage site includes a collection of 40 tombs scattered over 18 locations around South Korea and built over a period of five centuries. The tombs were built to honor the memory of the Joseon ancestors and to show respect for their achievements. What’s especially impressive are the locations chosen for the tombs as they are all of outstanding natural beauty and reflect Confucian believes of balancing harmony with nature and people. The tombs are classified into two types: neung-type tombs for the kings and queens and won-type tombs for crown princes and their wives, as well as the parents of royalty.
The probably most noteworthy tomb of all are the Yeongneung Tombs located in the city of Yeoju, the eternal resting place for King Sejong the Great and his wife Queen Soheon. They are buried within a mound surrounded by statues near a pond and memorial shrine. You can find a detailed list of all the tombs and their locations here.
11. Sansa, Buddhist Mountain Monasteries in Korea (2018)
Seven temples make up the Buddhist Mountain Monasteries UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea: Tongdosa, Buseoksa, Bongjeongsa, Beopjusa, Magoksa, Seonamsa and Daeheungsa. What makes these temples stand out is their spatial arrangement with the ‘madang’ (open courtyard) flanked by four buildings (Buddha Hall, pavilion, lecture hall and dormitory). These characteristics, dating back to the 7th and 9th centuries, are specific to Korea and found nowhere else in the world.
All of these temples also contain a large number of individually remarkable structures, statues, documents and shrines. These mountain monasteries are houses of worship and an excellent example of faith and daily religious practice in Korea to the present day.
12. Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple (1995)
Built in the 8th century, the Seokguram Grotto contains an impressive statue of the Buddha surrounded by portrayals of gods, Bodhisattvas and disciples. This grotto and its inherent artworks are considered a masterpiece of Buddhist art in the Far East. The nearby Temple of Bulguksa (built in 774) is also of exceptional significance.
13. Seowon, Korean Neo-Confucian Academies (2019)
This heritage site comprises 9 so-called seowon, a type of Neo-Confucian academy of the Joseon dynasty (15th -19th centuries CE). The buildings were all built near mountains and water sources, favoring the appreciation of nature and cultivation of mind and body. These seowons illustrate a historical process in which Neo-Confucianism from China was adapted to Korean culture.
Bonus: Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes (2007)
The only natural UNESCO heritage site in Korea, the Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes are a perfect example of global volcanism. This site comprises three components: the Geomunoreum lava tube system, the fortress-like Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone and Mount Halla. The lava tube system is in fact regarded as the finest such cave system in the world and is incredibly impressive to see.
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