When it comes to South Korea, most people have only ever heard of the country’s futuristic capital. But about 200 miles south of Seoul is the sprawling city of Busan, tucked prettily between towering mountains and the sparkling East Sea. While Busan is mainly known for its miles of white sand beaches, it’s also renowned for its collection of beautiful Buddhist temples.
From Haedong Yonggungsa Temple perched on jagged rocks along the coast to Beomeosa Temple located on a forested mountain slope, here are seven of our favorite temples to get your Zen on in Busan.
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
Possibly one of the world’s most picturesque temples, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple was built directly into the rocky outcroppings lining the East Sea. Reached via a delicate-looking wooden bridge, the elaborate temple was originally constructed in the 14th century, subsequently destroyed during the 16th century Imjin War with the Japanese, and then rebuilt in its current form in the 1970s.
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is unique in both its geographic location (it’s one of the few Korean temples built on the seaside) and its provenance. The temple was founded by Naong Hyegeun, a royal consultant who dreamed a sea god spoke to him and instructed him to build the temple to save the people of Korea from hardship.
Since then, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple has become both a popular tourist attraction and a place of spiritual pilgrimage, featuring the Yacksayeorae Healing Buddha statue that is believed to cure the suffering.
Set on the leafy slopes of Mount Geumjeongsan, Beomeosa Temple is one of Korea’s three major temples and an important center of Korean Buddhism. Originally founded by a monk in the year 678 during the ancient Silla Kingdom, most of this picturesque temple was destroyed during the Imjin War. The current building was restored in 1613, and the main temple hall is considered one of the best examples of Joseon era architecture.
A visit to this exquisite site makes for a great day trip from Busan, as the temple complex is surrounded by hiking trails and tranquil woodland. For the most Instagrammable experience possible, visit during Buddha’s birthday (which falls in April or May depending on the cycles of the moon) when the temple is decorated with thousands of colorful paper lanterns.
Overnight temple stays at Beomeosa Temple are possible and include activities like chanting, meditation, and tea ceremonies.
Nestled against one of Busan’s many towering mountains, Samgwangsa is a colorful gem of a temple. Reached via a stone staircase flanked by manicured rock gardens, the main temple hall features the gently sloping tile roofs and elegantly painted wood rafters that Joseon dynasty-era architecture is famous for.
Samgwangsa Temple is most visited in the spring when the annual lantern festival is held for Buddha’s birthday. The event draws thousands of visitors eager to behold more than 40,000 colorful paper lanterns strung up to honor the deity.
One of the city’s most unique and secluded temples, Seokbulsa is built into the sandstone cliffs of Mount Geumjeong, Busan’s highest mountain. Reached via a three or four-hour hike from the base, the views of the city, the sea, and the surrounding mountains from this tiny temple are superb. But the temple is really famous for the intricate assortment of Buddha reliefs carved directly into the cliff face.
Built during the Japanese Colonial period in Korea, which lasted from 1910 through the end of World War II, compact Daegaksa Temple is one of the only temples in Busan that’s set in the city limits (most are dotted in the foothills of the mountains). Stepping off the chaotic streets of the bustling Gwangbok-dong neighborhood into the temple’s tranquil courtyard makes for a peaceful retreat, and the serenity continues as you climb the stairs leading to a glistening golden-hued statue of a smiling, reclining Buddha.
Despite its small size Daegaksa Temple is known for retaining some of its Japanese elements, including a stone pagoda in the courtyard.
Set amid woodland on the slopes of Mount Baekyang is the quaint Seonamsa Temple (not to be confused with the UNESCO World Heritage temple of the same name which lies to the west in the city of Suncheon). This little temple’s charm lies in its relatively remote location, and the fact that it’s harder to reach than many of Busan’s more touristed temples. Take the narrow staircase to the first of the temple’s three levels, which are set against a dramatic stone backdrop. Then find a bench under the trees and contemplate life as you listen to the trickle of the small stream running adjacent.
The temple can be reached via taxi, but you may need a local to help you explain to the taxi driver as this Seonamsa Temple is not well known.
In the countryside just north of Busan lies Hongbeopsa, home to the largest seated Buddha statue in all of South Korea. The 69-foot-tall (21 meters) statue sits atop a 148-foot-tall (45 meters) building, making this bronze statue a glowing beacon of Buddhism for miles around.
This beautiful, rural temple is also home to a variety of plant and flower species which vary by season, and the park-like grounds are dotted with dozens of stone Buddha statues, kimchi jars, and lotus ponds making it a perfect spot for a walk, a picnic, or even an afternoon meditation session.
For those looking to dive deeper into the tranquility, Hongbeopsa offers a temple stay program, which provides participants a closer look into Buddhist monastic life.