When it comes to South Korea, most people think of the big three K's: K-Pop, K-Drama, and K-Beauty. But the country has much more to it than hit music and sheet masks. Korea has a long and storied history filled with stunning remnants of its Buddhist past, which began in the fourth century when Buddhism was introduced to Korea by Chinese monks. Set amid sprawling cities, tucked between towering mountains, and clinging to cliff-sides along the sparkling seas, there are over 900 beautiful South Korean temples that make a welcome, tranquil respite from the modern world.
1 – Bongeunsa Temple, Seoul
Of all the Korean temples in Seoul, Bongeunsa is the most famous. This stunning example of monastic beauty is more striking due to the juxtaposition of a 91-foot-tall stone Buddha statue gazing over the sleek skyscrapers in the trendy Gangnam district below. Bongeunsa was established in 794 (though the temple building was moved to the current location in the 16th century) and is home to 3,479 Buddhist scriptures. It's now known for running one of Seoul's best temple stay programs, where visitors looking for tranquility can stay overnight and participate in monastic activities.
2 – Jogyesa Temple, Seoul
Set near the historic Insadong neighborhood in central Seoul, Jogyesa is the main temple of the Jogye Order and the heart of Korean Buddhism. The colorful temple standing now is a 20th-century replica of the original 14th-century building destroyed by fire centuries ago. It is an excellent example of the vibrant dancheong painting style found in Korean temple architecture. But while Jogyesa is lovely year-round, it shines during Buddha's birthday (celebrated in April or May, depending on the lunar calendar) when thousands of colorful lanterns illuminate the grounds after nightfall.
3 – Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan
Haedong Yonggungsa is possibly the most picturesque temple in South Korea. While most Korean temples are located in mountainous or forested regions, this 14th-century sanctuary in the southern city of Busan sits amid the rocky coastline of the East Sea. Walk across the gently arched stone footbridge to reach the temple's unusual collection of sculptures, including the Seawater Great Goddess Buddha and a pagoda featuring four carved lions overlooking the sea. This temple is a popular spot to watch the sunrise on New Year's Day, as it's thought to be a magical moment when wishes are granted.
4 – Donghwasa Temple, Daegu
In the central Korean city of Daegu lies the mysterious fifth-century Donghwasa Temple. Tucked amidst the foliage along a slope of Palgongsan Mountain, this temple's name means “Even in winter, the Empress tree blooms.” Trees are a major attraction at Donghwasa, where the autumnal leaves light up the landscape. This enchanting ambiance is further enhanced by the stone dragons decorating the staircase into the main hall. In fact, the dragons are so intricate and lifelike it's possible to believe that they are responsible for setting the forest alight in fiery hues.
5 – Baegyangsa, Bukha-myeon
Baegyangsa is a seventh-century gem that's as Instagrammable as they come, with the gently sloping roof of the main temple building backed by the towering granite peaks found in Naejangsan National Park. The stunning grounds feature paths through oak and maple trees, which come alive with shimmering hues in the autumn, and the quaint stone bridge crossing the pond feels as though you've stepped into a painting. Baegyangsa is a popular destination for Korea's temple stay program and books up quickly during the spring and fall.
6 – Tapsa Temple, Jinan
The curious Tapsa Temple lies in a rocky gorge on the remote slopes of Maisan Mountain. The temple's origins are unclear, but it's known for a mysterious collection of 80 stone pagodas built by a retired scholar who came to the area to pray for the souls of humankind in the 19th century. Lee Gapyong spent the days collecting stones and building the pagodas by night, erecting them at an angle to enable them to withstand typhoon winds. The surrounding area has many hiking trails, making Tapsa the perfect day trip destination.
7 – Sinheungsa Temple, Seoraksan National Park
Set within one of South Korea's most beloved national parks in the Taebaek Mountain Range, Sinheungsa Temple features stunning surroundings of gently sloping forested hills, granite outcroppings, and trickling streams and waterfalls. The temple may be the oldest Zen Buddhist temple in the world, but it's really known for the 48-foot-tall guilt-bronze Buddha statue. Known as the “reunification” Buddha, the figure was erected after the Korean War to symbolize hope for eventual reunification with North Korea.
8 – Boriam Temple, Namhae
Arguably the most striking Korean temple, Boriam clings to the top of Geumsan Mountain and features panoramic views of the East Sea and the emerald islands dotting the southern coast. Perhaps due to the soaring heights, the incredible beauty of the natural surroundings, or the sheer remoteness of the temple, it's become known as one of the most prestigious prayer destinations in all of Korea, and according to legend, each visitor is granted one wish. The temple is located in Hallyeohaesang National Park on Namhae Island and is accessible via foot.
9 – Gwanchoksa Temple, Nonsan
Gwanchoksa claims the accolade of housing the tallest Buddha statue in South Korea. Dating from over 1,000 years ago, this official Korean National Treasure took 38 years to complete and is 59 feet tall. The Buddha was constructed after a woman heard a baby's cry coming from the rock but upon inspection, found that there was no baby nearby. In addition to the statue, the area is known for its spectacular cherry blossom tunnel stretching from the city center to the temple grounds.
10 – Jikjisa Temple, Gimcheon
With a construction date of approximately 418, Jikjisa is likely the oldest temple in South Korea. It's particularly notable for the 1,000 Buddha statues enshrined in the main hall, for housing a 1,000-year-old piece of arrowroot, and for the seated stone Buddha statue dating from the Silla Period. The peaceful, forested locale and proximity to the major cities of Daejon and Daegu also make it a particularly popular temple for a day trip away from urban life. Check out the temple stay options here for a deep dive into monastic life.
Whether you're in Seoul to the north, Busan to the south, or anywhere in between, there's bound to be a beautiful temple a mere hike or bus ride away.