Think about your dream destinations. What countries would make the top 5 on your list? Italy? Brazil? Japan? Chances are, sadly, that South Korea didn't even cross your mind when narrowing down that list, and you know what, it definitely deserves to be there! When people think of Asian countries with an abundance of history, they usually think of China or Japan. I am here to make an argument for why Korea should be counted in the mix. Despite being the size of Maine, it boasts a whopping 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There is really no other place with such a history in such a small area. Here is a quick glance at those 10 World Heritage Sites to get you to rethink that dream list and make some space for the "Land of the Morning Calm."
(This floodgate on the northern side of the wall is where that crosses the city drains out to this day.)
1) Hwaseong Fortress
Walled cities are found all over Europe and stir up day-dreams of Medieval times with brave knights giving it everything they've got. However, did you know that fortress walls exist in Asia too? While pretty much everyone on the face of this planet has heard of the Great Wall that stretches across China, the Hwaseong Fortress is a bit more of a low-key structure which quietly acquired it's World Heritage status in 1997. While popular with Koreans, it doesn't get much international attention as few foreigners venture to the city of Suwon where it Is located. It is quite a shame though as Suwon is within the Seoul subway network and is no more than 20-30 minutes south of the city.
So what the heck is the Hwaseong Fortress?
This fortress is a Great Wall-esque structure that surrounds the old city, and modern downtown area of Suwon. It is almost 6 kilometers in circumference and remains entirely intact with constant attention keeping it in pristine condition. Take a walk along the wall, as you are allowed to step on top of it along the whole stretch. Much like the Great Wall, some parts feature steep drops leading to some fantastic pictures. Near the north end of the wall, you can also try your luck at some traditional Korean archery. The professionals that hang around make it look easy, but it is quite the challenge!
(Quite possibly the most bad-ass temple bell ever.)
2) Haeinsa Temple JanggyeongPanjeon, the Depositories for the Tripitaka Koreana Woodblocks
Quick, name some important historical documents: The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Tripitaka Koreana? While it is a bit of a stretch to compare the Magna Carta to the Tripitaka Koreana, it is nonetheless, a very important document. Dated at almost 800 years old, the Tripitaka Koreana is kept safe in Haeinsa Temple, deep inside Gayasan National Park.
So what are they exactly?
The Tripitaka Koreana, with over 80,000 woodblocks and 52 million Chinese characters, is the oldest known complete and flawless set of Buddhist scriptures known collectively as the 'Sutra.' In the times before the printing press, woodblocks were used to quickly transfer large amounts of information as the blocks were brushed with ink and then pressed on paper to make an exact copy. To borrow a Christian comparison, you can think of the Tripitaka Koreana as the oldest known error-free Buddhist 'bible' in the world.
(The king's study next to the throne room.)
3) Changdeok Palace Complex
As one of the five main palaces in Seoul (yes, Seoul alone has 5), Changdeokgung Palace has gained World Heritage eligibility for being the longest lasting palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911). If you have ever been to the much more popular Forbidden City in Beijing, you can think of this palace as a smaller version of that but with a Korean feel to it. The original has been continuously destroyed by Japanese invasions, but the government has been keen on rebuilding and up-keeping this historical gem over the centuries. The main throne hall is the most impressive, with huge golden sculptures on the ceiling and incredible internal and external architecture. Seeing how busy Seoul is, crossing the main gates of this palace is like instantly taking a step back in time.
Another interesting building is the one directly to the right of the main throne room. This room was known to be the king's personal study where he went to contemplate matters of the state and analyze old scriptures. The roof tiles of this building are distinctively blue and have been so for centuries. It is said that this room is the inspiration for the color of the "Blue House," the residence of the President of Korea.
(This table style dolmen site is kind of like a mini-Stonehenge.)
4) Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites
While everyone in the world has heard of the dolmen site of Stonehenge, the dolmens in Korea are far less visited. They gained UNESCO status in 2000 for containing about 40% of the world's dolmens. Dolmens are ancient stone era tombs found all around the world, and one of the few proofs we have of organized humanity from that era. They are important in the same level as the cave paintings in France, or, like I mentioned before, Stonehenge in England.
The sites in Korea are spread across three different areas. While on a map, it may seem like the Ganghwa site is easier to visit, this is definitely not so. The dolmens in Ganghwa are spread across large distances making it difficult to view them all without a car or motorcycle as public transportation is nearly non-existent. The Gochang site, on the other hand, has all of its tombs in a single area which take a couple of hours to explore, and there are buses to the small town directly from Seoul. One of the most curious things about the site is how few people visit it. While Korea is often extremely crowded everywhere you go, this site seems to be largely neglected. Re-live Korea's stone-age by being one of the few to venture to the dolmen sites of Korea.
(The oldest observatory in Asia. Doesn't look like much, but it was enough to observe the stars over a millennium ago.)
5) Gyeongju Historic Areas
Gyeongju was the old capital city of the Shilla Kingdom. Historically, Korea has been fragmented over its 5000 years of history into numerous kingdoms, including Shilla, Baekje, Goguryeo, and the Gaya Confederation (Gaya doesn't really count though as it was never really strong, unified, or completely independent). In the middle of the 7th century, there was a power shift towards Shilla as it managed to conquer both Baekje and Goguyreo, and subsequently absorb Gaya. This created the first unified Korean Kingdom known as the Unified Shilla.
This unification also sparked a sort of golden era in Korean history as intra-Korean squabbles largely ended and resulted in the building of many structures and cultural wonders found in Gyeongju today. The historic center areas include the Anapji pond, an ancient ice chest, and the oldest observatory in Asia in a sort of outdoor museum. Recently, the Anapji pond was drained and many artifacts were found on the pond floor. These artifacts are now displayed in the Gyeongju Museum next to the pond, adding to the cultural wonders of Gyeongju.
(I was asked to take a few swings of the mallet to crush some 'tteok' (rice cake). It is a lot harder than it looks.)
6) Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong
Hahoe and Yangdong are but two examples of the wonderful ancient village culture that is alive and well in the more rural areas of Korea. These villages' architecture and customs are frozen in time and are largely similar to what they were centuries ago.
Yangdong is adjacent to the old Shilla capital of Gyeongju (which I mentioned above), but is its own World Heritage Site as it is not related to Gyeongju's historic areas. Hahoe on the other hand, has the much smaller town of Andong next to it, which is famous for its yearly International Mask Festival (late September, early October). If you are interested in how Korea looked like centuries ago, visit one of these two villages. Who knows, you might even be allowed to swing a wooden mallet to make traditional rice cakes known as 'tteok.'
(The Jongmyo Shrine during the Jaerye festival is one of the greatest yearly spectacles in all of Korea.)
7) Jongmyo Shrine
It has been declared by UNESCO that no other culture on earth has maintained a tradition quite like the one in the Jongmyo Shrine. According to Confucian beliefs, the body and spirit separate at the time of death. The Jongmyo Shrine was built to honor the spirits of the fallen kings since the founder of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1911), King Taejo. For 600 years, every fallen king has been honored in this shrine.
The Jongmyo Shrine contains the traditional sets of tablets which describe all of the major accomplishments of every Joseon King. Unfortunately, while you can roam around the complex year round, the tablets and individual shrines are only on display only once a year and it takes a deep love and knowledge of Korean history to appreciate it any other day.
For that reason, make sure to visit during the Jaerye Festival in early May (varies depending on the Lunar calendar). On this day, the traditional kingdom rites are performed, starting with a massive parade from Gyeongbok Palace to the Jongmyo Shrine. After the parade marches into the shrine, official food offerings are made along with traditional dance performances, accompanied by traditional Korean folk-music.
(These huge wooden soldiers guard one of the many gates of Bulguksa Temple. They are two of the four legendary protectors of the Buddha.)
8) Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple
Located in the outskirts of Gyeongju city, Bulguksa Temple and its Seokguram Grotto are considered masterpieces of Buddhist art. Bulguksa Temple is one of the largest and most beautiful temples in all of Korea. In addition, the temple holds a whopping 7 national treasures including two stone pagodas dated at over 1200 years old. The masterpiece, however, is definitely the sitting Buddha in the Seokguram Grotto.
Going up a rather lengthy bus ride or one hour hike from Bulguksa Temple is the Seokguram Grotto on top of a taller than expected hill. In the main hall is a sitting Buddha looking out to the east sea. The Buddha is made of pure granite and is widely considered one of the best sculptures of Buddhist art.
(The tomb of Gangneung lets you almost touch the tombs if you'd like (please don't). Make sure to climb to the top on the right side, as the left side is armed with motion sensors which do go off, as I found out the hard way.)
9) Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty
Yet another joint entry, the Royal Tombs of the Joseon dynasty is actually a collection of 40 tombs spread across 18 different locations all across the north-western part of the country. Many of Korea's most treasured artifacts are actually replicas because of the destructive Japanese occupation from 1918ish-1945. The tombs however remained completely untouched!
Every tomb holds the body of a king or queen of the Joseon dynasty and each site was appointed a tomb keeper. This lineage of tomb keepers was crucial during the occupation as they disguised the tombs as those of their personal family members to protect them from possible pillage. The ruse worked and the tombs remain as they have been over the centuries.
One huge tip is to pick your battles. You can't visit all of the tombs, so don't even try! In addition, to the untrained eye, most of the tomb sites look pretty much the same, so unless you plan on living in Korea long term, just pick one or two to get a feel for this UNESCO site. If you are looking for the largest one, that is by far the Donggureung Tomb Site (16 total tombs). If you want the easiest to reach, that is definitely Seolleung & Jeongreung as they are on the subway line (green line 2). If you seek to visit the most significant kings, you have to go a bit out of your way to Yeoju's Yeongneung as it contains the remains of the only two kings who bare the title of "great king," Sejong and Hyojong. Finally, if you want a tomb all to yourself, that probably no one else has ever visited, go to Gangreung. I was the only visitor my entire time there and it is one of the few tombs that allow you to climb right up to the tomb itself instead of viewing it from a distance.
(Hallasan Mountain as viewed from the summit. The lake is said to remain all year long.)
10) Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes
Finally, but certainly not least, is the only Natural UNESCO World Heritage Site in Korea: Jeju Island. Many Koreans call this island the "Hawaii of Korea." While I have not been to Hawaii, I suspect a bit of brain washing from the Korean government, but it is nonetheless quite beautiful. Jeju is a volcanic island that last erupted about 1000 years ago. The main spectacle, Hallasan Mountain, is now a dead volcano with no lava flowing into it. What has resulted is quite an amazing set of lava tubes where millions of pounds of lava used to feed the volcano. These dried tubes are now open to the public and are one of the main attractions of Jeju Island.
By far the best thing to do in Jeju is to climb up Hallasan. The volcano takes about 5 hours to reach the top (4 if you're in better shape than me!) where you are greeted with quite a beautiful crater lake. It is difficult to tell how large the lake actually is until you see how tiny the deer look drinking from it. Be aware that not all trails reach the summit as they are rotated every few years to keep the national park pristine, so ask at the information desks in the airport.
The biggest tip I can offer from Jeju is to avoid the tourist traps. The flight route from Incheon Airport to Jeju is the most travelled route in the world with some airlines dedicated solely to that route. This means that if you go to the wrong places, such as tourist traps, you are bound to feel over crowded in what is supposed to be a serene place. Skip the "Teddy Bear Museum," "Chocolate Museum," and even the famed "Loveland" as there are plenty better places with less people.
When it comes to beaches, the tourist information people will tell you to go to Jungmun Beach on the south side… DON'T. While it is one of the prettier beaches, it is also the most crowded and Koreans tend to think that more crowds = better. Instead, take a stroll to Hamdeok beach on the northern shore. This beach features crystal clear water, far less waves, is far less crowded, and closer to the airport and Jeju City. If you don't like either, rend a car and find your own beach, you might be surprised at what you find!
About the Author:
Julio decided to make the most of his college education by ignoring his degree and following his passion of exploring the world, much to his mother’s chagrin. What was supposed to be a single year of working and exploring South Korea has turned into the four best years of his life. His passion for travel has only gotten more intense since living in Asia, probably because he finally has a full-time job to support his full-time addiction. Follow his quest to explore and evaluate all of the world’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites on his blog. You can also follow him on Facebook, or the necessary evil that is Twitter if you want to hear more of his ramblings about the best places to explore in South Korea and around the world. Sand boarding in an oasis is your thing? You might want to follow him in Youtube too!