Simply stunning: 33 incredible Korean temples

Simply stunning: 33 incredible Korean temples

These temples demand a visit, regardless of your religion

There are some 900 traditional Buddhist temples in Korea -- and around 20,000 in total. A visit to any of these local places of worship -- many of them centuries-old -– can be a humbling, calming or uplifting experience.

Many of them can be found nestled in the countless mountains throughout the country, usually in locations believed to have the best pung-su (feng shui) of the area.

But despite the endlessly beautiful and endlessly numerous temples, even the most serious pilgrim need not visit all 900. The 33 temples below -- 33 as in Buddha's 33 steps to enlightenment -- are simply breathtaking. 

1. Manggyeongsa (망경사)

The statue may be frozen, but the smile is still warm.

Manggyeongsa Temple is situated on Taebaek mountain, at an altitude of 1,460 meters.

Legend has it that a stone statue of the Bodhisattva of wisdom appeared at the Manggyeongsa Temple site. When Jajang, a monk from the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-935 AD), heard of it, he built the temple to enshrine the statue.

The "Dragon Spring" near the entrance of the temple is known as the highest spring in Korea.

Hyeol-dong, Taebaek-si, Gangwon-do (강원도 태백시 혈동); +82 33 553 1567 

2. Taeansa (태안사) 

Everything in this picture is perfectly in sync.

Taeansa Temple is especially beautiful in fall when the thick forest surrounding the temple turns red and yellow.

The 2.3 kilometers of driveway leading up to the temple, as well as the 1.8-kilometer-long valley where it is situated, make for beautiful drives in every season. 

Nearby attractions include Neungpa Tower, an exquisite traditional site near the Dongli mountain valley, Gok-song Haneulnari Village (a farming-themed village) five kilometers away and a sledding hill. 

622-215 Taean-ro, Jukgok-myeon, Goksung-gun, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 곡성군 죽곡면 태안로 622-215); +82 61 363 6622 

3. Naejangsa (내장사)

A potential 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Although Naejangsa is said to have been first erected in the year 636, most of its current buildings were built after the Jeongyujeran (the Japanese invasion of 1597) and the Korean War.

The scenic beauty of its surroundings -- particularly the Naejang National Park -- is especially notable for its fall foliage. 

1253 Naejangsan-ro, Jeongeup-si, Jeollabuk-do (전라북도 정읍시 내장산로 1253); +82 63 538 7875; sunrise-sunset

4. Daejeonsa (대전사)

A sight that makes one want walk around in hanbok.

Daejeonsa is the largest temple in Cheongsong-gun and its magnificent view of Juwang mountain is one of the best views in the country. 

Daejeonsa’s most famous building, Bogwangjeon, is Korea's treasure no. 1570, while the woodblock of a handwritten letter from Lee Yeo-song, a general of the Ming Dynasty, to Samyeong Daisa is kept within the temple.

226 Gongwon-gil, Budong-myeon, Cheongsong-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 청송군 부동면 공원길 226); +82 54 873 2908; open sunrise-sunset

5. Cheongpyeongsa (청평사)

May all these colorful wishes come true.

According to the legend surrounding this temple, a man loved a princess so much that he became a snake and wouldn't leave her alone. When she begged leave to get some rice from the temple, the snake let her go but then went looking for her, only to be struck by lightning and die. The princess then buried him at the temple. 

Visitors to the temple can also take a boat ride on Soyang lake and a walk along a beautiful valley and a waterfall, thus enjoying a perfect weekend getaway. 

674 Cheongpyeong 1 ri, Buksan-myeon, Chuncheon-si, Gangwon-do (강원도 춘천시 북산면 청평 1리 674); +82 33 244 1095

 6. Beopjusa (법주사)

No, these aren't Christmas lights.

With more than 60 buildings and 70 hermitages, Beopjusa was a large, glorious temple before it caught fire in the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. 

Currently the temple houses 30 buildings and many cultural properties, including the highest pagoda existing in Korea (a five-story wooden pagoda 22.7 meters high) -- which is also a national treasure.

405 Beopjusa-ro, Sokrisan-myeon, Boeun-gun, Chungcheongbuk-do (충청북도 보은군 속리산면 법주사로 405); +82 43 543 36615; open sunrise-sunset 

7. Gangcheonsa (강천사)

Gangcheonsa's beautiful fall palette.

1316 marked a big year for Gangcheonsa, when a five-story stone pagoda was added to the temple. It is said that 1,000 monks stayed here at one point.

In addition to the cultural assets at the temple, various attractions are nearby, such as the Geumseong mountain fortress, Yongso waterfall, Lake Gangcheon, Lake Damyang and Naejang National Park.

270 Gangcheonsan-gil, Paldeok-myeon, Sunchang-gun, Jeollabuk-do (전라북도 순창군 팔덕면 강천산길 270); +82 63 652 5420; sunrise-sunset 

8. Buseoksa (부석사)

The soft colors of Buseoksa will calm your mind.

Buseoksa counts five national treasures among its cultural assets and is one of the 10 largest temples in Korea.

Buseoksa’s Muryangsujeon (Korea’s national treasure number 18) is one of Korea’s oldest wooden buildings. 

"If you like flowers, spring is the best season, if you like thick green trees -- summer, fall foliage -- autumn, and sunsets are particularly beautiful in winter," says the temple's manager, who adds that it is very popular with a lot of Japanese and Chinese visitors. 

148 Bukji-ri, Busuk-myeon, Yeongju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 영주시 부석면 북지리 148); +82 54 633 3464; 

9. Cheoneunsa (천은사)

Serenity is one of the hallmarks of Korea's traditional temples.

One of the three largest temples in Jiri mountain, Cheoneunsa Temple has had its fair share of drama; it was first built in 828, burned down during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592, rebuilt in 1610, burned down again in 1676, rebuilt the next year, caught fire once again in 1773, and finally rebuilt in 1775.

Legend has it that when people were rebuilding the temple after 1592, they killed a big snake that kept appearing at a nearby spring. When the spring dried up and the temple kept catching fire, the villagers believed that the snake must have been the guardian of the spirit of the water. 

When Wongyo Lee Gwang-sa, one of the four most famous master calligraphers of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), heard the story, he wrote “Cheoneunsa” in a flowy style and hung it up at the temple -- and there hasn’t been a fire at Cheoneunsa since. 

209 Nogodan-ro, Gwangui-myeon, Gurye-gun, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 구례군 광의면 노고단로 209); +82 61 781 4800; 7 a.m.-7:30 p.m.

10. Geumsansa (금산사)

Geumsansa runs temple stay programs.

First built in the year 599, Geumsansa Temple contains several treasures, including stone pagodas, a stone lantern, and a lotus flower-shaped pedestal.

The admissions fee is ₩3,000 for individuals (adults) and ₩2,500 for groups.

Geumsan-ri, Geumsan-myeon, Gimje-si, Jeollabuk-do (전라북도 김제시 금산면 금산리 39번지); +82 63 542 0048 

11. Golgulsa (골굴사)

On his way to nirvana.

A cave temple built on a limestone cliff in Hamwol mountain, Golgulsa Temple gained fame as a place where sunmudo, a Zen martial art and a training method that has been secretly handed down through generations, is practiced.

There are 12 large limestone caves in this temple and a rock cliff Buddha is carved in relief on the highest part of the rock face.

Anyone who wants to participate in the sunmudo training can check out the Golgulsa temple stay program -- but remember, you will have to get up at 4 a.m.

304-1 San Andong-ri, Yangbuk-myeon, Gyeongju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 경주시 양북면 안동리 산 304-1); +82 54 744 1689;

12. Sasungam (사성암)

How they managed to build that there, we'll never know.

The stone stairs at this temple recently received its share of celebrity when actress Lee Da-hae filmed a now-famous scene on it in the period drama “Chuno."

Lodged in between large rocks, the small temple features a beautiful and steep stone staircase adorned with tiles.

The breathtaking view of Seonjingang river and Jiri mountain is definitely worth the climb.

303 Saseongamgil, Muncheok-myeon, Gurye-gun, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 구례군 문척면 사성암길 303); +82 61 781 5463; open sunrise-sunset

13. Hyangilam (향일암)

The majestic sight of the rising sun at Hyangilam.

Although an unfortunate fire burned down a number of the temple's buildings in 2009, Hyangilam’s view of the southern coast and Geumo mountain makes it one of the best places to visit in Korea. 

The mountain path to the temple is a little steep, but visitors come to see the 500-year-old camellia tree at the entrance of the village and the sight of the sun rising from the southern sea. 

Hyangilam Sunrise Festival is held at here at the end of each year.

"The temple receives around 400 to 500 visitors a year," says Kim Man-jae, the manager of Hyangilam.

An overnight stay is also possible at the rate of ₩10,000.

60 Hyangilam-ro, Dolsan-eup, Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 여수시 돌산읍 향일암로 60); +82 61 644 4742

14. Magoksa (마곡사)

Many a cultural asset remains in this temple.

Magoksa was a large temple with 30 rooms when it was first built in the year 640, but after numerous remodeling and reconstructions, not that many buildings remain.

However, the ones that do are important ones, and house a dozen treasures and cultural assets. 

966 Magoksa-ro, Sagok-myeon, Gongju-si, Chungcheongnam-do (충청남도 공주시 사곡면 마곡사로 966); +82 41 841 6220; summer opening hours: 8 a.m.-7p.m.; winter opening hours: 8 a.m.-6 p.m.

15. Samwhasa (삼화사)

Experience Samwhasa's beautiful fall first-hand with its temple stay programs.

Samhwasa was originally 1.3 kilometers east of where it stands now. However, the Japanese army burned down the 200-room temple in their attack on Korea’s volunteer soldiers who were using the temple as their base.

The temple currently offers various temple stay programs, including an one-day program.

176 Samhwa-dong, Donghae-si, Gangwon-do (강원도 동해시 삼화동 176번지); +82 33 534 7661; 

16. Baekheungam (백흥암)

This picture conveys the peace and quiet of this non-public hermitage.

This small temple, home to Buddhist nuns, is not open to visitors except on Buddha’s birthday.

The beautiful magnolia trees out front make for a great photo op. 

Chiin-ri, Cheongtong-myeon, Youngchun-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 영천시 청통면 치인리); +82 54 335 3318

17. Tongdosa (통도사)

Behold, the entrance of Korea's jewel temple.

Along with Haeinsa Temple and Songgwangsa Temple, Tongdosa Temple is considered one of the three "jewel temples" of Korea. It is also known as a Boolbo Temple (불보사찰) because Buddha’s jinsinsari, which is a part of Buddha’s body, is kept there.

There are several cultural assets, the biggest of which is the main building of the temple, which is in itself an official national treasure.

108 Tongdosa-ro, Habuk-myeon, Yangsan-si, Gyeongsangnam-do (경산남도 양산시 하북면 통도사로 108); +82 55 382 7182; 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; 

18. Boriam (보리암)

Worth the climb.

Boriam stands on a cliff in Chuwolsan, a mountain famous for its superb landscape.

The temple's view includes strange-looking rock formations, rugged precipices, glimpses of the roof tiles of the temple buildings through pine branches, and the expansive view of Damyang lake. 

81 San Wolgye-ri, Yong-myeon, Damyang-gun, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 담양군 용면 월계리 산 81번지); +82 61 381 1730

19. Songgwangsa (송광사)

The diamond of Korea's temples.

One of the three jewel temples of Korea, Songgwangsa Temple was originally a small temple named Gilsangsa built during the unified Silla period.

Songgwangsa considers the practice of asceticism most important -- there are more Buddhist nunneries than Buddhist altars here -- and the better part of the cultural assets in this temple are ancient documents and Buddhist tools, not buildings.

A creek flowing from Jogye mountain has been dammed to form an artificial pond near the entrance of the temple, and an elegant arch bridge stands over it, perfecting a beautiful entrance. 

100 Songgwangsaangil, Songgwang-myeon, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do (전남 순천시 송광면 송광사안길 100); +82 61 755 0107

20. Oeosa (오어사)

A Buddhist mecca for fish.

Oeosa, which boasts a scenic beauty of Oeo lake and rock cliffs, was built during the reign of King Jinpyeong of the Silla Dynasty.

There is an interesting legend regarding the naming of the temple -- when Wonhyo Daisa and Hyegong Sunsa, two of the four most important Buddhist figures in the Silla Dynasty, were practicing asceticism at this temple, they competed against each other in reviving a fish with their Buddhist power. One fish lived and one died, and so the two monks both argued that the living fish was the one that he revived.

Oeo means “my fish”.

Hangsa-ri, Ocheon-eup, Nam-gu, Pohang-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 포항시 남구 오천읍 항사리); +82 54 292 9554; open sunrise-sunset

21. Cheongryangsa (청량사)

It's difficult to find a place more peaceful.

Cheongryangsa Temple stands in front of a rock face between countless mountaintops and bizarre rocks.

Many legendary scholars such as Toegye Yi Hwang and Wonhyo Daisa have studied at this temple. A visit should also include an outing to the eight caves named after the outstanding individuals who have studied here.

199-152 Cheongryangsan-gil, Myeongho-myeon, Bonghwa-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 봉화군 명호면 청량산길 199-152); +82 54 674 1446;

22. Seonamsa (선암사)

The snims (Buddhist monks) of Seonamsa.

Described in Koryo scholar Kim Geuk-gi’s poem as a “lonely and silent temple of asceticism”, Sunamsa is famous as the birthplace of novelist Jo Jung-rae. 

The temple is also known for the wild tea that grows nearby. Sunamsa’s wild tea, which grows in the shade of cedar trees and oaks, is described to have an earthy, deep flavor.

"The entryway to the temple is very nice for meditation," says visitor Oh Mi-jung, 49, who came to visit after hearing about the beauty of the temple's stone bridge and the temple itself. "It's too cold in the winter, but I want to go back in the spring or autumn." 

802 Jukhak-ri, Seungju-eup, Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 순천시 승주읍 죽학리 802); +82 61 754 5247 

23. Botapsa (보탑사)

Three different kinds of temple stay are offered.

Botapsa has a short history compared to the numerous thousand-year-old temples on this list, but it has a three-story wooden pagoda -- the only one in Korea that is actually mountable -- and a beautiful scene adorned with over 200 different kinds of wild flowers.

Botapsa currently offers three different Temple Stay programs -- My Beautiful Life, Temple Life and Rest. Prices range from ₩20,000 to ₩50,000.

641 Gimyusingil, Jincheon-eup, Jincheon-gun, Chungcheongbuk-do (충청북도 진천군 진천읍 김유신길 641); +82 43 533 0206;; 9 a.m.-5p.m.

24. Hwaeomsa (화엄사)

Hwaeomsa monks participating in Tapdori, a Buddhist tradition.

This ancient temple took centuries to complete; the first two of its buildings were erected in 544 and extensions were added in the years 643 and 875. The temple burned down during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592 and the final reconstruction was finished in 1636.

Numerous cultural assets are kept here, including four national treasures -- one of which is the biggest wooden building in Korea -- five treasures, and one natural monument.

Cherry blossoms are planted alongside Route 19 -- from Hadong to the temple -- offering drivers a fantastic view every spring.

539 Hwaeomsa-ro, Masan-myeon, Gurye-gun, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 구례군 마산면 화엄사로 539); +82 61 782 7600; 7 a.m.-7:30 p.m.;

25. Tapsa (탑사)

If you get bored, start counting the stone towers.

Tapsa temple is the subject of many mysteries, including how its countless century-old stone towers were built without any glue, cement, or furrows to upside-down icicles.

Some of the 80 stone-stacked towers are more than 15 meters high, but have not faltered despite typhoons and strong winds.

It is said that a scholar in the 19th century first built a stone tower here while saying purgatorial prayers for all of humankind.

The cherry blossom road 500 meters below the temple adds another reason to visit.

Maisan Tapsa, 8 Dongchon-ri, Maryeong-myeon, Jinan-gun, Jeollabuk-do (전라북도 진안군 마령면 동촌리 8 마이산탑사); +82 63 433 0012

26. Unjusa (운주사)

Centuries-old stone Buddhas.

This temple is known for its many stone Buddhas and stone pagodas.

According to the records, the temple housed 1,000 of each at one point but only 17 pagodas and 80 stone Buddhas currently remain.

The stone Buddhas and pagodas at this temple are of different shapes and sizes, while experts come to study the sculpting techniques.

91-44 Cheontae-ro, Doam-myeon, Hwasun-gun, Jeollanamdo (전라남도 화순군 도암면 천태로 91-44); +82 61 374 0660

27. Daeheungsa (대흥사)

You really don't want to get lost in these woods.

This historic site features splendid scenery of dense forests, fields of silver grass, and a view of the archipelago of the western and southern coast of Korea.

Historians are divided on when the temple was actually built, but the most commonly accepted theory dictates that the temple was erected before the unified Silla period (676 AD).

799 Guryum-ri, Samsan-myeon, Haenam-gun, Jeollanam-do (전남 해남군 삼산면 구렴리 799); +82 61 534 5502 

28. Ssangbongsa (쌍봉사)

Once rated a national treasure, this building had to be rebuilt after a fire burned it down in 1984.

Ssangbongsa, literally meaning a pair of peaks, is thus named because there is one mountaintop in front of the temple and one right behind it. 

Ssangbongsa’s main building was designated a treasure, but it lost the status it was burned down in a fire.

It was rebuilt, of course. 

459 Ssangsanui-ro, Iyang-myeon, Hwasun-gun, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 화순군 이양면 쌍산의로 459); +82 61 372 3765

29. Beomeosa (범어사)

Jogye gate at Beomeosa.

Beomeosa Temple, erected in 678 by Uisang Daisa, is one of the three largest temples in the Gyeongsang province.

It was one of the largest temples in the Silla Dynasty when it was first established, but everything was lost to fire during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592, although it was reconstructed in 1613.

In addition to the treasures and cultural assets present at the temple, there are various attractions such as the field of rattan vines -- which is classed a national monument  -- and 11 different hermitages within the mountain.

250 Beomeosa-ro, Geumjeong-gu, Busan (부산광역시 금정구 범어사로 250); +82 51 508 3636/5726 (temple stay); 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

30. Yeongoksa (연곡사)

A fee of ₩2,000 will allow you to see all the cultural assets kept at this temple.

Yeongoksa has an interesting story. 

When Yeongi Josa, the founder of the temple, first came to the temple site, there was a pond where the sanctuary currently stands. He was staring into the pond when it formed a whirlpool and a single swallow flew away from it. He then filled up the pond, built a temple and named it Yeongoksa (yeon meaning lotus, gok meaning bent or swirly).

Admission is ₩2,000 for adults, ₩1,000 for students.

219 Naedong-ri, Toji-myeon, Gurye-gun, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 구례군 토지면 내동리 219); +82 61 782 7412

31. Cheonchuksa (천축사)

It's hard to tell, but it must have looked like India back in the day.

Cheonchuksa got its name from Jigong, an Indian monk who visited the site of the temple in the Koryo dynasty and said that the scenery was similar to that of a mountain in Cheonchuk, which meant “India.”

The temple was enlarged and remodeled several times in the 15th, 16th and the 19th centuries, its current shape and structure was perfected in 2005. 

92-2 Dobongsangil, Dobong-gu, Seoul (서울특별시 도봉구 도봉산길 92-2); +82 2 954 1474; 

32. Sujongsa (수종사)

Small but powerful.

Sujongsa Temple, located at the top of Ungil mountain (610 meters), offers visitors a magnificent view of high and low mountain peaks and the Bukhan river.

It is unclear when this temple was erected, but it is estimated to have been built in the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Legend has it that King Sejo once stayed a night in Yangsu-ri and heard a sound of a bell from afar. The king made his courtiers search for the bell the next day, but it turned out that the sound was coming from water drops falling in a rock cave.

He must have liked how it sounded, as he then built a temple at that site and named the temple Sujongsa, or "water bell temple."

1060 Songchon 1-ri, Joan-myeon, Namyangjoo-si, Gyeonggi-do (경기도 남양주시 조안면 송촌 1리 1060); +82 31 576 8411;

33. Bulyoungsa (불영사)

Buddha's shadow graced the pond here.

Named Bulyoungsa, meaning Buddha’s shadow temple, as the pond of the temple is said to have once showed a shadow of Buddha, this temple stands amidst the Bulyoungsa Valley and has extraordinary view of a luxuriant forest and crystal-clear water.

48 Bulyoungsagil, Seo-myeon, Uljin-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do (경상북도 울진군 서면 불영사길 48); +82 54 783 5004; 7 a.m.-5 p.m.

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Cin Woo Lee is a freelance writer for CNNGo who enjoys the intense art of stringing words together. 

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