What To Expect
Touching down at Incheon International Airport places you in the heart of Korea. After you clear Passport and Customs control, your tour guide will greet you at the main passenger terminal and transport you to your hotel.
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, Insa-dong. It is 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 5.8km-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.
You will take a pleasant two hours journey on a speed train across the picturesque countryside to Gyeongju, an ancient capital of the Silla dynasty (BC57-AD935), often dubbed as Museum without Walls. As leisurely make your way to Gyeongju, you will see Korea's fertile farmland, glistening brooks, sheltered ginseng farms, apple plantations and lovely rice paddies that together forming a patchwork of colors and ever-changing textures of the rural Korean life. Today, you are treated to one of the world's ten most historically significant sites with numerous relics from that era. Temple sites with weathered stone pagodas, royal tombs, Buddhist bas-reliefs, and fortress ruins are scattered throughout this ancient city.
You will begin with Bunhwangsa temple with 10m-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 67m tall nine-storied pagoda made entirely of wood stood here until it was destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1238.
Next, Gulbulsa site. Although the temple does not exist anymore, the site is more dominated with a rock carved with four sides of bodhisattavas and Buddhas. One single rock with its four sides of the 8th century sculptures is well preserved here. Medicine Buddha is in the east, Sakyamony in the south, Amitah in the west, and Avalokitesvara bodhisattva in the north.
Explore UNESCO world heritage site, Yangdongmaeul. It is a traditional village embracing a simple and unadorned natural beauty. Sheltered by forested mountains and facing out onto rivers and open agricultural fields, rustic tile-roof and thatch-roof homes line the hillsides and valleys in perfect harmony with the natural topography. Yangdong is a clan village which used to be a middle upper-class town during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). Over 150 small and large houses and two shrines which were built according to the harmonious theory of Yin and Yang have been handed down from generation to generation in their original and elegant forms. They include the residences of the head families, pavilions, study halls, Confucian academies for learning, and clusters of mud-walled, thatched-roofed houses, formerly for commoners. Most of the houses are still occupied by villagers but some are empty, making it more comfortable for you to examine them. A walk through Yangdong will help you imagine the life of noblemen during the Joseon dynasty.
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.
Onto 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.
Near museum is Anapji, a pleasure garden built to commemorate the victory of Silla, and later used as the recreational area for the Silla's royal family. Then, followed by a relaxed walking tour exploring the ruins of Banwolseong or half-moon fortress where Silla palace and eight fortress gates stood. There is a Seokbinggo, a freezer made of stones. Half of the structure is underground while the other half is above ground with three air vents on top. You can feel the cold oozing out of this simple structure. You will see Cheomseongdae, known as the world's oldest existing astronomical observatory. Near sits 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.
With leisurely time to pack, visit Gwaereung, the tomb of the King Wonseong, which dates 798. The tomb is a 7.7 meter high circular ground mound made of piled-up soil with a bottom diameter of 21.9m. 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, visit 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. You will return on a speed train to Seoul.
After this wonderful trip exploring Korea and with time to reflect on your surprise in your experience, you will return to the airport in time for your flight. By boarding, you are already high above Incheon heading for home.
National Folklore Museum
Antique Shop Street
Gyeongju National Museum
Half Moon Fortress
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