These are the South Korea Festivals You Absolutely Must Attend
South Korea is often seen as an industrial powerhouse with skyscrapers and the latest technology, but that’s not all there is to it. This stunning country in East Asia also has a distinct cultural legacy that’s worth experiencing through a mix of traditional and modern festivities.
Here are the best South Korea festivals and Korean holidays you cannot afford to miss. They give an insider’s view into the country’s history, heritage, and—of course—its people.
Something to remember: The lunar calendar is used to observe some traditional festivals.
What Are the Most Famous Cultural Festivals in South Korea?
Korea is unique, and just as I enjoyed many of these festivals, this is my selection of the ones you definitely can’t miss.
1. Seollal (Lunar New Year)
Date: January or February, exact date TBA
Seollal, also called Seolnal, commemorates the first day of the Korean lunar calendar. It coincides with the second new moon and is celebrated in North and South Korea, with the centerpiece being “charye”—ancestral rites and worship. During the celebration, locals don traditional clothing (hanbok), enjoy great food, and play folk games. It’s such a major festival that there are services that style you in the traditional costume, complete with hairstyling and opportunities to take pictures against gorgeous backdrops!
Because people reunite with their families to exchange wishes, gifts, and blessings, the once bustling cities become ghost towns during this 3-day holiday.
2. Seongsan Sunrise Festival
Date: 31st December – 1st January
Every year, locals make a 40-minute round-trip to the fortress-like Seongsan Ilchulbong, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They make the trip to welcome the Korean New Year on a good note. You can also go on a trek at dawn to enjoy the first rays of the sun and jaw-dropping views for just 2,000 won.
Its central themes are fulfillment, prosperity, and health, making it THE place to go to bid the misfortunes of the previous year goodbye. Do that while enjoying fireworks, dance and music contests, and a countdown to welcome the New Year.
3. Hwacheon Sancheoneo — Ice Festival
Date: January to February, exact date TBA
This exciting 3-week festival is celebrated with such pomp and show that CNN recognized it as one of the “7 Wonders of Winter” back in 2011!
People flock to the quiet town of Hwacheon in Gangwon Province for an opportunity to catch trout in a frozen river that’s covered in 40 centimeters of ice! As if braving sub-zero temperatures wasn’t enough, thousands of people will even break the ice and catch the elusive fish with their bare hands!
You can also indulge in activities like ice soccer, snowman building, ice sledding, etc.
4. Jeju Fire Festival
Date: March, exact date TBA
Celebrated over three days, this popular festival marks the end of the winter season.
During the Jeju Fire Festival, locals light large bonfires to welcome health, happiness, and harvest for the coming year. They honor the ancient traditions of Jeju Island by burning old grass to wipe out pests and start the next farming season on a high note.
Visitors can also enjoy a captivating spectacle as locals engage in folk dances, tribal games, firework displays, and more.
5. Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival
The Seoul Lotus Lantern Festival is the beginning of Buddha’s birthday celebrations.
Registered on UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” this event takes place over a week. During the event, temples and streets throughout the country are decorated with colorful lanterns and floats to represent the Buddhist religion.
If you aren’t Buddhist, you’ll enjoy getting an insider’s view by visiting the Suguksa, Bongeunsa, Bongwonsa, Gilsangsa, and Jingwansa temples.
Date: March to April
Enjoy seeing delicate blush-pink cherry blossoms that grace over 360,000 trees in the city. It’s an ecstatically beautiful celebration of change and a bucket list-worthy experience that attracts over 2 million people every year. With plenty of shops nearby, you can tantalize your tastebuds with seasonal fare as you take in the beauty that sweeps the street during the week-long festivities.
It’s the perfect event to bid the gloom of winter goodbye. So, if you’re fortunate enough to be visiting during March or April, snap a picture of the romantic views that will bring you back to the memorable cherry blossom festival.
Date: April or May, held for free on Buddha’s birthday.
Haman Nakhwa Nori is a traditional Korean Fireworks Festival that is guaranteed to transport you to a world of fantasy. The much-loved pyrotechnic event is a spectacular display of color and light typically accompanied by unforgettable Korean music and dance performances.
It’s a great event to jumpstart your experience with the country’s culture and tradition.
Date: 5th day of the 5th month of the Korean lunar calendar, typically in June.
Also called Surit-nal, this major traditional festival is on UNESCO’s list of “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”
Referred to as “God’s Day,” this festival of pleasant chaos calls for worshiping the guardian spirit that protects the town from evil spirits. Women wash their hair with iris leaves while locals burn sacred wood, eat traditional food like ssuk (mugwort), perform walk dances, and enjoy satirical but heartwarming dramas.
9. Boryeong Mud Festival
Date: July to August, exact date TBA
This festival attracts the biggest number of international visitors.
It highlights the therapeutic benefits of Boryeong mud, a mineral-rich mixture of soil and water. It’s so popular that it’s often included in Korean cosmetic products. Visitors can enjoy dancing, swimming, and wrestling in mud. Once evening sets in, you can indulge in good music and fireworks at the beach.
This lively event has something to offer to everyone. Make it a point to visit during summer so you can experience it.
10. Gwangju World Culture Kimchi Festival
Dubbed Korea’s soul food, this food festival revolves around all things kimchi. From kimchi-making competitions to educational exhibitions, get a taste of this quintessential Korean ingredient wherever you go.
And, while you’re there, don’t forget to pick exotic varieties of this beloved fermented food from markets to bring home.
Want to learn more about kimchi? You don’t have to attend the culture kimchi festival in Gwangju. There are a lot of kimchi making classes available in Seoul. You can check them here.
11. Andong Mask Dance Festival
Date: Varies but typically held in October.
The Mask Dance Festival is an ancient tradition that dates back to the Joseon Dynasty. It celebrates the tradition of wearing a Hahoe tal (mask) to mock the ruling class of that time and provoke laughter. The city of Andong and some villages in the eastern parts of the country have since continued the tradition.
This week-long shamanistic event includes performances like “fire-rain” and other fun activities that the audience can partake in.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, satiate your hunger with affordable vegetarian and nonvegetarian fare at one of the many food stalls.
Date: September or October, exact date TBA
Also known as “Korean Thanksgiving” or “The Korean Harvest Festival,” this major three-day holiday is one of the biggest in South Korea—and has remained so for around 2,000 years! As such, locals tend to celebrate it in their hometowns with their families—bringing gifts, visiting ancestral graves, eating delicious food like galbi and songpyeon, and playing traditional games like tug-of-war and see-saw.
13. Jinju Lantern Festival
Date: October, exact date TBA
Popularly known as the Jinju Namgang Lantern Festival, this annual festival that features thousands of lanterns is quite a spectacle. If you look beneath the glittering lanterns, you’ll discover that it commemorates the Korean military who sacrificed their lives for the nation.
Here, you can witness traditional dances and music performances, eat local street food, gaze at mesmerizing fireworks displays, and many other fantastic activities.
How To Properly Participate in Festivals as a Tourist
As a tourist, it can be embarrassing not to mention insulting if you were to behave in ways that might disrespect the local community. To prevent this from happening and ensure that everyone has a good time, mind these practical tips:
- Research, research, research: Understand the significance of the festivals you’ll be attending.
- Familiarize yourself with South Korean customs and etiquette. This will allow you to be respectful of their history, culture, legacy, and way of life. It can also protect you from culture shock.
- Dress modestly: South Korea is pretty conservative, so try to avoid wearing tight or revealing clothing, particularly when visiting religious sites.
Finally, make your fashion choices fit the weather. Otherwise, you may be too uncomfortable to enjoy yourself to the fullest.
Now you’re ready to attend these festivals!
If you’re thinking of heading to South Korea, make it a point to schedule your trip so it coincides with these South Korean festivals. They’ll give you the full experience of culture and tradition, including a food scene that’s bursting with delightful flavors. While you’re planning your itinerary, combine your visit with other exciting activities you can do to make the most of your trip.
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