Since 1995, a number of sites of historical and cultural importance in South Korea have been added to the UNESCO World heritage list, ranging from grand places to ancient temples and monasteries, to the natural wonders of the Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes. Before planning to visit the numerous World Heritage Sites in South Korea, foreign travelers should first check if they need a tourist visa for South Korea in order to travel to the country.
A number of foreign nationals are able to visit South Korea for a short stay visa-free, with the stay permitted depending on the traveler’s nationality. Other foreign citizens are required to obtain a visa for South Korea from an embassy or consulate. However, this will soon change once the South Korea online visa is implemented, which will allow eligible citizens to complete a simple online application form to receive an approved electronic travel authorization via email.
How Many World Heritage Sites Are in South Korea?
As of 2019, there are 14 World Heritage Sites in South Korea, including 13 cultural sites and one natural site, Jeju island, located 130 kilometers off the southern coast of the Korean Peninsula. The first 3 sites to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in Korea were the Haeinsa Temple Janggyeong Panjeon in Gayasan National Park, the Seokguram Grotto and Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju National Park, and Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
Those who travel to Seoul and its surrounding area, the Gyeonggi Province, are able to visit a number of historic World Heritage Sites, including Changdeok Palace, Namhansanseong mountain fortress, and the Hwaseong city fortifications.The most recent addition to the list, the Seowon Neo-Confucian Academies, was designated of historical importance by UNESCO in 2019.
List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in South Korea
Find below a complete list of World Heritage Sites in South Korea. While many of the sites are found in one province only, several sites have features in different regions across the country, with the main elements concentrated in multiple locations.
Sites around Seoul:
- Changdeokgung Palace Complex – Located within a large park in Jongno-gu in northern Seoul, Changdeokgung Palace was constructed by King Taejong in the early 15th century and is one of 5 grand royal palaces in the capital city. The place gardens cover a 78-acre area and include a lotus pond, pavilions, landscaped lawns, and over 26,000 trees, some over 300 years old.
- Hwaseong Fortress – Historic fortifications surrounding the city of Suwon close to Seoul, the Hwaseong fortress dates back to the end of the 18th century. It was constructed by the Josean King Jeongjo in order to protect his father’s tomb, and consists of massive walls which stretch for almost 6 kilometers, equipped with protective features such as artillery towers, crossbow platforms, and secret gates.
- Jongmyo Shrine – The oldest Confucian shrine in the country, Jongmyo was the site of numerous memorial services for the deceased kings and queens of the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled from 1392 to 1897. Originally constructed in 1394 when the capital was first moved to Seoul, the Jongmyo Shrine was was destroyed during the Japanese invasions of Korea before being rebuilt in 1608.
Sites in Central South Korea:
- Baekje Historic Areas – A group of monuments located in three South Korean cities, Gongju, Buyeo, and Iksan. The Historic Areas date back to last period of the Baekje Kingdom, which ended in 660 AD, and consist of 8 archaeological sites, including the Gongsanseong fortress and the royal tombs of Songsan-ri.
- Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty – Scattered over 18 locations across South Korea, these royal graves were built to commemorate the lives of members of the Korean Joseon Dynasty. Built over five centuries, the tombs were specifically placed in areas of renowned natural beauty protected by surrounding mountain ranges.
- Sansa, Korean Buddhist Mountain Monasteries – Considered sacred places, these 7 temples located throughout the southern provinces date back to between the 7th to 9th centuries AD, and were added to the World Heritage list in South Korea in 2018.
- Seowon, Korean Neo-Confucian Academies – The most recent sites to be added to the UNESCO list in South Korea, this collection of nine historic schools is located across central and southern parts of the country. Built in a grand pavillion style, many of the academies date back to the 16th century, when they served as private preparatory schools which combined the functions of a Confucian shrine.
- Villages of Hahoe and Yangdong – These historic clan villages in North Gyeongsang were designated World Heritage Sites in South Korea by UNESCO in 2010, and date back to the 14th century. The locations of the villages were chosen to provide both psychical and spiritual strength to their inhabitants and their beauty has long been celebrated by notable South Korean poets. Hahoe Folk Village, arranged in a lotus shape around a river, is particularly striking.
Sites in the South-West:
- Bulguksa Temple and the Seokguram Grotto – Located on the slopes of Mount Toham in North Gyeongsang province, the Temple of Bulguksa was built in 774 and designated a World Heritage Site in South Korea in 1995. Four kilometers away lies the Seokguram Grotto, which dates back to the 8th century AD and contains a huge share of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world.
- Gochang, Hwasun and Ganghwa Dolmen Sites – Three historic sites which stand out for the concentration of hundreds of stone megalithic tombs, which were used to mark the graves of the ruling elite during the first millennium BCE.
- Gyeongju Historic Areas – Often called one of the biggest outdoor museums in the world. The Gyeongju Historic Areas are made up of a protected reserve containing a huge range of ruined temples and palaces and other cultural artifacts left behind by the Silla Kingdom, which ruled south-central Korea between 57 BC -935 AD.
- Haeinsa Temple – Haeinsa, a temple located in South Gyeongsang Province, is most notable for having housed Tripitaka Koreana, the entire Buddhist Scripture carved onto wooden blocks, since 1398.
- Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes – In 2007, Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes became the first World Heritage Site in South Korea selected for its natural significance. The island has a surface area of 1,846 square kilometers and boasts as a central feature a large dormant volcano, as well as 360 satellite volcanos. However, the main attraction is the island’s lava tubes, a huge system of empty caves through which magma once flowed, considered some of the largest in the world.