What To Expect
Touching down at the ultramodern Incheon International Airport places us at the heart of Korea which is known as the Land of Morning Calm. After clearing immigration and customs, you will be met by a gracious tour guide and escorted to the hotel.
Day 2 Seoul - Breakfast
You will explore Korea's capital city that is full of rich heritage, culture, history and tourist attractions. Your exploration will begin with a driving tour of the city featuring sites such as the Gwanghwamun Plaza and a statue of Yi Sunsin, who had engaged in twenty-three naval battles against Japan and emerged victorious in all of them during the Hideyoshi invasion (1592-1598). The statue of King Sejong who propagated the Korean alphabet in the 15th century is honored with prominent statue in this plaza.
Visit Gyeongbok palace or Palace of Shining Happiness and see its magnificent gates, graceful architectures and lovely gardens, all directly inherited from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Built in 1395, the palace is a particularly charming spot that represents a colorful and turbulent side of the capital's 500-year history.
Standing majestically in the whirl of city traffic is Gwanghwadmun, the main gate of the palace. Following two other gates up, you will get to the Geungeongjeon, a throne hall where the king granted audiences to his officials, presided over large official functions and met foreign envoys. The two-tier edifice stands on a high platform reached by stone steps. At the center of the stone-paved courtyard that is fully enclosed by wooden cloisters is lined with two rows of rank stones, indicating the positions of the officials with the highest rank being closer to the hall and where the court officials are to stand. At the back of this hall is a group of three offices; Manchunjeon, Sajeongjeon, and Cheonchujeon where the king used to meet with his top officials. Gyeonghoeru literally Pavilion of Joyous Meeting, supported by 48 stone pillars set in a lotus pond, was a favored place for the King to entertain visiting dignitaries.
Gangnyeongjeon, a king's main residing quarters with its fourteen chambers, rests on top of a tall stone foundation while Gyotaejeon, the queen's domain with ten chambers sits in the back of the king's quarters. The noted feature of these buildings is an absence of a top roof ridge. You cannot miss Amisan garden landscaped with four hexagonal chimneys in orange bricks and decorative roof tiles, and artistic patterns of brick on the walls of queen's quarters which are seldom noticed by the hurried visitors. Jagyeongjeon is the queen dowager's residence. Although less colorful, it is worth noting the wall of Jagyeongjeon, adorned with floral designs and the chimneys with ten longevity symbols.
Hyangwonjeong features a small pond with a man-made islet that supports a beautiful two-story pavilion and is one of the famous sites in the palace. Behind this serene garden is Geoncheonggung, where the king and queen could relax in peace and quiet. It was here that the first electric lights in the country were installed and a tragic chapter in Korea's history was recorded in 1895 when empress Myeongseong was assassinated by the Japanese. Upon exiting the Sinmumun gate, you will take a few minutes to take some pictures in front of the Blue House, the executive office and official residence of the president of Korea.
Onto the National Folklore Museum showcasing cultural wealth of this friendly and picturesque nation - life and work, costumes and ornaments, handicrafts and technology, educations, living quarters, dietary life, oriental medicine, performing arts and games, beliefs and rituals, and socio-cultural life of the Korean people from the prehistoric age to the Joseon Dynasty.
Visit Jogyesa, the head temple of Jogyejong the principal sect of Korean Buddhism. It emphasizes the Zen orthodox, meditation tradition and maintains the purity of monastic celibacy. The temple does not give off the solemn and traditional air of the other temples located deep in the mountains, but when you enter the temple the frenzy of the city start disappearing letting you explore the main worship hall, pagodas and bell tower. The Main Worship Hall holds triad Buddhas, Sakyamuni, Amitabha and Bhaisajyaraja. The figure in the center is Sakyamuni Buddha who has overcome greed, hatred and delusion. While here it is worth noting the 500 year old lacebark pine and 400 year old locust tree that still grace the property.
Next is Insa-dong, the center of traditional Korean art and antiques. Clustered along the main street and alleys are numerous shops dealing antiques, oriental art supplies, and modern Korean arts of all types and styles. A number of galleries also vie for attention with their exhibitions of works by modern artists. Here, you will look for some souvenirs or simply wander and browse at leisure.
Drive past Cheonggyecheon, a 5.8 kilometer long creek that flows through downtown and under 22 little bridges. At the head of the stream stands a sculpture created by world-renowned artist Coosje Van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg.
Lastly, visit the centuries-old Namdaemun market where well over 11,000 shops selling anything you can imagine. Widely acknowledged as one of the Seoul's best tourist attractions, the market is seriously crowded, so be prepared to get bumped around. One of the most colorful aspects of the market is an endless sprawl of street-vendor stalls that setup in the alleys and walkways between the buildings. As you stroll through the market, you can haggle over the price to get the best deal on something you want or simply admire the vibrancy of this massive market.
Day 3 Seoul - Suwon - Songnisan - Breakfast
Travel to Suwon to explore Hwaseong fortress from the 18th century. Although relatively small in scale, it is well acknowledged as the best structure of its kind ever built in Korea. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its unique value, a 5.74 kilometer long fortress is parapeted with crenels and merlons and highlighted by four main gates, lofty observation towers, command posts, floodgates, sentry posts, gate guard platforms, crossbow platforms, beacon tower, and secret gates leading down to the dark labyrinths. The two remaining observation tower named Gongsimdon, meaning "tower with empty interior," are among the most distinctive structures among all facilities of the fortress. A walk through the whole fortress could take several hours but it is well worth making a short walking tour to enjoy the splendor of the fortress.
Your tour starts at the Paldalmun gate that sits in the middle of a busy main road. Following the stairs up you will encounter with a lookout tower sitting on the turret that extends a short distance perpendicularly from the wall. The rampart runs on a flat terrain and you will see the area outside to the north and east. After the sentry post sits beacon tower with its five chimneys for making different signals with fire and smoke: one for peace time; two when the enemy has been spotted; three when the enemy is approaching; four when the enemy has made its way into the city; and five when combat has started. As you move on you will see more sentry posts, turrets, Changyongmun gate, a crossbow platform, a gate guard platform, an observation tower, a secret gate, and an exquisite L-shaped pavilion with an ornate roof. The pavilion stands on a hill with beautiful willow trees overlooking a lotus pond with an artificial islet. Below the pavilion sits northern floodgate, a stone bridge with seven arched sluices topped by an elegant open pavilion and brick-built parapet. After a short walk from here you will finally reach Janganmun, the north gate of the fortress.
Then, onto the Songnisan national park. The Songni literally means an "escape from vulgar." The tour passes through a steep hilly hair-pin road, Maltijae, and shortly thereafter leads you on to the park. Near the park entrance, you will see a 600-year-old pine tree, shaped like an open umbrella that is 15 meters high with a girth of 4.5 meters. This tree was granted a ministerial title when it reportedly lifted its branches in order to let king's palanquin pass in the mid 15th century. In recent years several branches were damaged by wind and snow, though what remains is still beautiful.
Visit Beopjusa temple. Founded in AD 553, the temple boasts of three national treasures and numerous cultural assets. Palsangjeon that houses eight paintings of different stages of the Buddha's life is the five story wooden pagoda constructed in early 17th century, and is a very rare and unique Buddhist architectural structure. Gazing down at the Palsangjeon is a 33 meter high and 160 ton Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha of the Future. The giant iron pot whose diameter is 2.7 meters that may well had been used to feed 3,000 priests in the early 12th century is on display in the temple courtyard. A stone carved lantern supported by twin lions standing face to face is a rare example of the magnificent Silla sculptures. A stone water cistern shaped like an open lotus flower is considered unique for beauty and design. This stone lotus blossom from the 8th century is supported by a round short stone carved like a mushroom. Nearby are two stone pillars which once held the temple banner pole. An excellent carved relief called Maaebul also can be seen.
Hiking is recommendable as many scenic trails available leading to numerous hermitages and eventually the peak of Songnisan. The temple holds a Dharma bell striking ceremony at sunset, and you will also have a chance to see it. The bell, which almost all Korean temples are equipped with, is one of the four Dharma instruments together with Dharma drum, wooden fish, and cloud-shaped gong. Hearing it reverberating through the universe, you will reflect upon the profound symbolism of the instruments. It is a great vow to save, or enlighten, the creatures in the universe including those on land, in the sea, in the air and in hell.
Day 4 Songnisan - Gayasan - Goryeong - Gyeongju - Breakfast
The tour continues through a scenic countryside to Gayasan national park to see a magnificent Haeinsa temple from the 9th century, housing world's oldest and a complete collection of the Buddhist sutras. Haeinsa is one of the most important temples in Korea. They are Tongdosa, Heinsa, and Songgwansa, each of which represents Buddha, Dharma, and the community of followers or "sangha." The gate to the entrance is the Iljumun Gate which means "single pillar gate". It is the first gate to the Buddha's world temple. The gate symbolizes a true path of enlightenment which leads to the world of Buddha. One has to climb 108 stairs to the last building in the compound from the Iljumun gate. On each step one can renounce each of 108 worldly desires of the mind.
Following the stairs up, you will reach the main hall courtyard in the middle of which stands stone carved lantern and weathered stone pagoda. Within the main worship hall (Hall of Great Peace and Light), you will see Vairocana Buddha who is flanked on the left by Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Perfect Wisdom, and on the right by Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Perfect Compassionate Action, along with other Bodhisattvas including Avalokitesvara, Virocana, Ksitigarbha and Dharmogata. Behind the statues are highly detailed and rather unusual wall paintings of the Buddha's life. And on the outside walls are a fair number of paintings portraying Buddhist stories.
At the back of this hall, another flight of steps will lead you up to a group of four depositories from the 15th century or Janggyeong Panjeon housing 81,258 wood-blocks of Tripitaka Koreana, an offering to the Buddha for national protection from the looming Mongol forces. The printing blocks are some 70cm wide, 24cm long and 2.8cm thick on the average. Each block has 23 lines of text, each with 14 characters, on each side. Each block thus has a total of 644 characters on both sides. Some 30 men carved the total of 52,382,960 characters in the clean and simple style. The characters are perfectly carved as if from the same hand. They were completed in 1251 after 16 years of work in Jeondeungsa temple on Ganghwado and were transported here for safekeeping. Two long depositories are designed to have natural ventilation by facing different size windows in the front and rear of the building.
The Mongol forces eventually took over the Goryeo Dynasty but the wooden blocks remain preserved today having survived other invasions, wars and fire. Even more amazing aspect is that neither birds built nests nor spiders make webs on these buildings. Tripitaka Koreana and Janggyeong Panjeon have been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage for their artistic as well as religious value.
Next, Goryeong tumuli museum located below the group of ancient tombs. Here, you will see a perfect replica of the Jisan-dong Tomb No. 44 itself, a large-scale living burial to be first discovered in Korea. Adjacent Daegaya history museum exhibits a huge collection of artifacts excavated in Goryeong. Late afternoon on to Gyeongju, an ancient capital of Silla (BC 57 - AD 935), often dubbed as Museum without Walls. Today, you are treated to one of the world's ten most historically significant sites with numerous relics of that era. Temple sites with weathered stone pagodas, royal tombs, Buddhist bas-reliefs, and fortress ruins are scattered throughout this ancient city.
Day 5 Gyeongju - Breakfast
Today, you will explore two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Seokguram grotto and Bulguksa temple which were both built during the glorious period of the Silla kingdom (BC57-AD935). After taking a twisting ride up around eastern side of Tohamsan and about 10 minute walk through a lovely wood brings you to Seokguram grotto, the home of the serene stone Buddha of the eighth century. The basic layout of the grotto includes an arched entrance which leads into a rectangular antechamber and then a narrow corridor, which is lined with bas-reliefs, and then finally leads into the main rotunda. Inside, a white statue of a seated Buddha, in a sublime state of enlightenment, is surrounded by 37 relief figures of Bodhisattvas, disciples, devas, and guardian kings. The Buddha image is sculptured in perfect proportion with stark simplicity while the garments were accomplished by shallow cuts. Curled knots of the head and the sacred jeweled spot on the forehead are evident but not conspicuous. The face is full and round with a comparatively small nose and clearly defined mouth. The eyes are half closed under long arching eyebrows while there is no hint of smile. The ears are long and stretching out. The hand mudra symbolizes witnessing the enlightenment. The grotto represents the magnificent harmony of religion, science and the arts of Buddhism, symbolizing the pure land in which Buddha resides.
Next, visit Bulguksa temple. Following the one-pillared gate and the four guardian's gate, you will reach two double level arched stone staircases - the symbolic bridges, leaving the world of sufferings behind and to enter Buddha's land. Up from the bridges on the terraced main courtyard stands the Hall of Great Enlightenment. The hall houses Sakyamuni Buddha who is flanked on the right by Kasyapa and Maitreya Bodhisattva and on the left by Dipankara and Ananda. Before this hall stands a stone carved lantern and two stone pagodas. Three-storied Seokgatap with its calm simplicity of lines and minimal decoration and Dabotap with highly ornate and the noted complexity of the universe stands blending well into the architectural harmony. While here, it is worth noting the carved wood fish and cloud shaped gong hanging from the beams and a large dharma drum resting on the back of a turtle. Behind the main hall stands lecture hall, Museoljeon literally Hall of No Words. The hall gets its name from the belief that Buddha's teachings cannot be taught by mere words alone. At the back of this hall is a steep flight of steps leading you up to the Gwaneumjeon housing an image of the Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of perfect compassion, and stands at the highest point of the complex. Below the Gwaneumjeon sits Birojeon and houses a gilded statue of Vairocana with the gesture of the first wisdom, a combined hand mudra formed with both hands positioned in front of the heart, with the raised forefinger of the clenched or 'vajra-fist' right hand encircled by the closed 'vajra-fist' of the left hand. Enshrined in the Nahanjeon hall is Sakyamuni attended by two bodhisattvas, and sixteen figures of Buddha's disciples sitting in deep meditation. Hall of Supreme Bliss, standing near the main compound, houses the gilt-bronze Amitabha Buddha, the ruler of the Western Paradise Sukhavati. You can hardly miss the boar in front of this hall where many are encouraged to hug and rub it. All sorts of pigs, for that matter, stand for good luck in Korean culture, as the chubbiness of the pig stood for prosperity. After all, only the rich could afford to eat and idle enough to get fat. The architectural design of Bulguksa is one of constrained dignity, peace, and harmony and the temple still remains one of the most remarkable achievements of the ancient Far East.
Stop off at Gwaereung, the tomb of the King Wonseong, which dates 798. The tomb is a 7.7 meters high circular ground mound made of piled-up soil with a bottom diameter of 21.9 meters. The stone fence and 12 animals of the zodiac carved around its base are excellent condition. What makes this tomb really significant and unique are the statues carved from granite along the promenades leading up to it - a two sets of lions, a couple of scholars, and a pair of military guards who are clearly Arabs in their clothing and the shape of their eyes.
Next, Gyeongju national museum featuring many thousands of priceless archaeological and historical artifacts including splendid craftworks such as gold crowns, earrings, belts, ornaments, glassware, potteries, clay figures, Buddha statues, tiles and a lot more. The Anapaji hall displays roughly 700 of the 30,000 artifacts dredged up from the Anapji pond including a royal barge. A gigantic Emille Bell from the eighth century is on display and you must certainly stand in awe before the bell with such artistic beauty of design.
Visit Cheomseongdae, known as the world's oldest existing astronomical observatory followed by Tumuli Park that encompasses 23 huge tomb mounds where Silla rulers were buried. One of the tombs, Cheonmachong, is opened to the public and you can go inside and see how the tombs were made and replicas of the treasures excavated in 1973.
You will stop off at Poseok bower, a summer pavilion where the later kings of Silla often forgot their loyal duties and spent most of their time with royal banquets. All that can be seen now is the abalone-shaped stone channel through which at one time a cool stream of water was directed into the banquet. The 55th King Gyeongae of Silla killed himself at the party here in 927 when Gyeonhwon, the king of the Later Baekje attacked Gyeongju. The elm, in large trunk and gnarled with age, may have witnessed the final day of Silla.
The tour also covers Bunhwangsa temple with 10 meter high three-storied rectangular pagoda, the main worship hall with Buddha of Medicine, and legendary well that is said to have saved the kingdom. The nearby open field was once occupied by Silla's largest temple Hwangyongsa. The 67 meters tall nine-storied pagoda made entirely of wood stood here until it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1238.
Day 6 Gyeongju - Yangsan - Busan - Breakfast
Travel to Busan, a Korea's second largest city surrounded by the ocean on one side, and mountains on the other. Its deep harbor and gentle tides have allowed it to grow into the largest port in Korea and the fifth largest in the world. It is also a center of industry and commerce, a thriving metropolis formed unusually long in shape along its coastal line. En route, visit famous Tongdosa temple, literally 'pass through to enlightenment.' The approach to the temple is completely entrancing. Magnificently set by a lane of pine trees dancing in the wind and beside which a mountain stream sings a babbling song a distinctive and exalting place.
Tongdosa was founded in AD 646 and it is comprised of 35 buildings. The main hall is unique in that it has no statue of the Buddha, only a window looking out onto the Diamond Precepts Altar which leads up to a platform containing the bell shaped stupa housing the cremated remains of the Buddha himself, thus earning a name the temple of the Buddha. The Diamond Precept Altar is a unique and elaborately-built artifact.
A short break at Haeundae, a world-class beach resort blessed by beautiful water. The soft sand stretches 1.5km along the beautifully curved coastline, which culminates in the summer. There is a Dongbaek Island off Haeundae. This tiny island became more popular after holding the 13th APEC summit conference here at Nurimaru in 2005. It offers a stunning view of ocean vista on one side and that of skyscrapers on the other. A scenic trail is well established around, making it a great venue for walking tour.
Then, onto the UN Memorial Cemetery where 2,300 deceased soldiers from sixteen Korean War allies rest in honored serenity. During the period of 1951-1954, remains of approximately 11,000 fallen of the UN Forces were buried here. Thereafter, most were repatriated to their home countries. It is the permanent home of war heroes of the following nations. Australia (281), Canada (378), France (44), Netherlands (117), New Zealand (34), Norway (1), South Africa (11), Republic of Korea (36), Turkey (462), United Kingdom (885), USA (36), Unknown soldiers (4), Non-belligerents (11).
Next, explore the fascinating and bustling Jagalchi fish market located right off the downtown docks. The market offers a wide variety of fish including sea bream, sea bass, snapper, saury, pollack, halibut, corvina, cutlass fish, mackerel, octopus, sea squirt, cuttlefish, frogfish, flounder, abalone, crab, shells, to name just a few. One big draw of this market is its flexible pricing system. Since a wide array of foods from the sea sold here do not have fixed prices, visitors are free to haggle over what they expect to pay. There are also many restaurants selling raw fish at reasonable prices. Trying them here in the market is really a visual and culinary treat.
Across the street from the market is BIFF square, packed with trendy shops movie theaters and even a walk of fame where famous stars and directors have pressed their handprints into the sidewalk. Neighboring block is Gukjesijang, the largest traditional market in Busan, where a variety of items that included cosmetics, accessories, folk art crafts, hats, belts, stationery, bags, clothes, food, kitchen utensils, and more are available at very reasonable and affordable prices. Here, you will discover all that local merchants have to offer, at the same time, enjoying the ambiance of this massive market with exceptional offerings.
Lastly, visit Yongdusan park located at the head of a steep slope that looks over the city and harbor in a breathtaking view. The most conspicuous is the 120m high Busan tower topped by an observatory dominating the most of the area of the city, and the harbor views spreading below are spectacular. And smack dab in the middle of the park stands the statue of Yi Sunsin, the Korea's greatest naval hero who is credited with the perfection of the first iron-clad warship in history. In the park's octagonal pavilion, you cannot help but appreciate the collection of countless musical instruments from basically every part of the world: The instruments included the accordion, organ, guitar, viola, flute, violin, clarinet, drums, ivory horn, balafon, marimbas, and several others.
Day 7 Departure - Breakfast
Transfer to Gimhae international airport or Busan International Ferry Terminal for your onward destination.
National Folklore Museum
Antique Shop Street
Goryeong Tumuli Museum
Gyeongju National Museum
UN Memorial Cemetery
Jagalchi Fish Market
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