The Best Temples & Shrines
Magoksa (Gongju-si, Chungcheongnam-do): One of the few temples that wasn't destroyed during the Joseon Dynasty's crackdown on Buddhists, it's worth a visit as much for its scenery as its ancient structures.
Shilleuksa (Yeoju, Gyeonggi-do): Although it's a bit out of the way, the country's only lakeside temple is worth the trip. Founded in A.D. 580 and nestled amid low hills, Shilleuksa is the perfect spot for quiet reflection. The carved reliefs of dragons and lotus blossoms are lovely, but the big draw is the scenery, particularly in the spring, when the flowers are in bloom, or fall, when the gingko trees' yellow leaves light up the landscape.
Beopjusa (Boeun, Chungcheongbuk-do): Although the views are pretty spectacular and the five-story wooden hall quite impressive, this temple's main attraction is its giant bronze Buddha, which towers over the mountain scenery.
Baegyangsa (Jeollanam-do): Known for the beautiful colors of its surrounding landscape in the fall, it's smaller than its sister temple Naejangsa, located in the same national park.
Hwaeomsa (Masan, Jeollanam-do): One of South Korea's 10 most important temples, it is the only one in the country with a two-story pavilion. Destroyed five times since it was originally built in A.D. 544, it was last rebuilt in the mid-17th century. If you can spare the time, the rest of Jirisan is worth exploring as well.
Hyangilam (Suncheon, Jeollabuk-do): Perched on a precarious mountainside, this former hermitage is now a temple complex. Wake up early to climb up its steep steps and catch the sunrise over the ocean. You'll also miss the bus loads of tourists, who usually arrive in the late afternoon.
Songgwangsa (Suncheon, Jeollanam-do): It's quite a trek to reach this temple, but once you do, you will be rewarded with both a fabulous view of the surrounding foliage and some brilliant red and gold murals representing a range of religious figures. Try to time your visit for the noon or evening prayers, as you'll be treated to the echoing of the meditative gong.
Unjusa (Hwasun, Jeollanam-do): This temple complex not only is easy to reach (no giant mountains to climb to get here!), but also houses the most fascinating array of Buddhist statuary in the country.
Bori-am (Namhae, Gyeongsangnam-do): Climb up to this hermitage, one of the three main holy sites in the country, and pray to the Bodhisattva of Compassion. If you're pure of heart, your wishes will be granted. Even if you're not, you'll be treated to a spectacular view.
Bulguksa (Gyeongju): A testament to Shilla architectural ingenuity, this famed temple -- possibly the country's most visited -- has had its wooden structures rebuilt multiple times, but its stone statues have hung on since A.D. 528. Early mornings are best to enjoy a taste of its former tranquillity.
Haeinsa (Hapcheon, Gyeongsang-do): Home of the famous Tripitaka Koreana, this famed temple (and UNESCO World Heritage site) sits in a deep forest. Try to go in the late afternoon to see the wooden blocks (through locked slats), but stay past sunset to hear the sound of the gong echoing through the valleys.
Naksansa (Gangwon-do): Although this expansive temple was largely destroyed by a fire in 2008, a bright new temple has been constructed in its place. Including the cliffside Hongryeon-am hermitage on its grounds, visit during lunchtime and be treated to a free bowl of janchi gooksu (feast noodles).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.