The blissful spring-time and summer weather in South Korea provides the perfect climate for the lavish parades of colors, and intriguing festivals that splash across the Korean Peninsula around this time every year. While it’s always fun to visit temples and explore museums, festivals are a unique way to learn about Korean culture. South Korea has many exciting festivals that offer a glimpse into a world that many would consider a journey down the “road less traveled.” Check out these five must-do festivals in South Korea this spring and summer.
5. Lotus Lantern Festival
When: Around Buddha’s Birthday (May) – The festival is one weekend, but the lantern exhibit is displayed for around two weeks.
Where: Seoul, various locations (Lantern Exhibit is along the Cheonggycheon Stream)
How to get there: Seoul Subway Jonggak Station (Line 1), Exit 2 to Joggyesa Temple. Or for the Lantern Exhibit, Gwanghwamun station (Line 5).
About: This festival is held in honor of Buddha’s birthday. There are many events throughout the festival, including a lantern display along the Cheonggycheon Stream as well as a lantern parade, cultural events (read: make your own lantern and Buddhist art!), and cultural performances. This is a Buddhist celebration, but everyone is welcome to come and enjoy the feel-good, family-friendly atmosphere.
Don’t Miss: The lantern parade is an awe-inspiring display of Buddhist artistry and elegance. Spectators line the streets, many holding their own lanterns, and watch as the elaborately-decorated floats pass by. You will probably see a traditional dragon float, the Lotus Flower Princess waving atop a lotus flower, and colorful paper-mache elephants heading down the avenues. Set your camera to night mode to capture the gorgeous lighting and colors.
4. Boryeong Mud Festival
When: July 18-27, 2014
Where: Boryeong, (or sometimes called Daecheon), South Chungcheong Province (200km from Seoul)
How to get there: This is a huge festival, so many people attend each year. Public buses might be full. You can buy bus tickets in advance by going to a bus terminal. Travel time varies from 2 hr 20 min to 3 hr. Prices are 8,000KRW – 10,000KRW each way. Alternatively, trains travel from Yongsan station approximately every hour. Prices are usually more expensive than the bus and take around the same amount of time. Websites like meetup.com take groups and can do the planning for you.
About: In an effort to market the unique mud that originates in Boryeong, which is mineral-rich and has many beneficial properties, the city created this festival in 1998. Participants can experience mud in many activities: wrestling, slides and rides, massages, and endless photo opportunities. Literally millions of visitors flock to this festival each year and help turn the otherwise sleepy seaside town into a huge party. Everyone is welcome, from toddlers to ajummas*, but students and expats make up the majority of the crowd.
Don’t Miss: The beauty of a festival like this is that there is literally something for everyone. If you’re looking for a more low-key experience, opt for a mud-massage or mud-facial. If you’ve been itching for a active and wild weekend, get mud-painted and head over to a mud slide or mud trampoline!
3. Jindo Seaparting Festival
When: April 24-27, 2014 (subject to change because nature is unpredictable!)
Where: Jindo Island and Modo Island, South Jeolla Province (350km from Seoul)
How to get there: There are several direct buses leaving from Express Bus Terminal every day (Central City wing, 25,000KRW each way). Once you’ve arrived, take a local bus to Hoedong Port. Because the bus can take between 6-7 hours, it is best to leave early in the morning. If you can’t do that, you can take the more expensive KTX (high speed train) from Yongsan Station, travel to Mokpo (3hr 15 min, 43,000KRW each way), then catch a bus to Jindo, and take the local bus from there to Hoedong Port. Whether you choose to take a bus or a train, it is best to book your tickets in advance due to the number of people who attend the festival.
About: There are a few varieties of Korean folktales about this phenomena, but whatever the origins, this festivals is not to be missed! The sea-parting festival celebrates nature’s mysteries when the tide goes out for around 60-90 minutes and allows visitors to walk to Modo island 2.8 km away. The festival celebrates the abundance of natural and healthy things in the southern coast of the country.
Don’t Miss: If you are able to catch a fish, crab, clams or even an octopus during your walk between islands, local restaurants will cook it up for you to enjoy that evening.
2. Muju Firefly Festival
When: June 1-9, 2014 (tentative)
Where: Muju, North Jeolla Province (180km from Seoul)
How to get there: Buses leave from several terminals in Seoul. Nambu Bus Terminal has several departures per day. It takes about 2 hr 30 minutes.
About: This environmental festival celebrates central South Korea’s beautiful fireflies that turn up each summer. In fact, the fireflies are so special, they are officially a Korean national treasure (#322 to be exact). While fireflies in nature are only visible at dusk and night, the festival is in full swing throughout the day. Visitors can watch many cultural performances, play in the stream that passes through the town, and even catch trout with their bare hands. The festival is a fun-filled day of exploring true Korean culture. Be warned though: the town is small, so affordable places to stay may be limited; try to make arrangements before arriving in town. (Sorry, no 24hr jjimjilbangs** here!) Have a Korean friend call to book you a room or you may be stuck sleeping under the (beautiful) starry sky.
Don’t Miss: In the evening of each day, buses transport festival-guests out into the countryside to witness the fireflies firsthand. You can buy a ticket the day-of (but do so early!), and spend 40-60 minutes away from the lights of the town getting to see the glow of nature.
1. Jinhae Gunhangje Cherry Blossom Festival
When: TBD (usually held in April)
Where: Jinhae district, Changwon City, South Gyeongsan Province (367km from Seoul)
How to get there: You can reach Jinhae by bus from Gangnam Bus Terminal in Seoul, and it will take you around 4 hours. Or, you could take a train to Jinhae station.
About: When spring comes to Korea, you know the cherry blossoms are sure to follow. You can find an abundance of cherry blossom festivals around the country, but the Jinhae Gunghangje festival is the biggest and best. Over 2 million people visit each year! At the festival you can literally see spring. The pink and white flowers that cover the tress line streets and rivers.
Don’t Miss: The “romance bridge” that crosses the Yeojwa stream. The bridge was made famous by a Korean drama, but it’s pretty magical in-and-of itself. Take as many photos with these beautiful trees as you can because they won’t last long! Most cherry blossoms only stick around for about one week.
No matter which festivals you choose to experience during your time in Korea, it will be well-worth your time. Let yourself focus on the culture and absorbing as much as you can. The memories will last a lifetime and its unlikely you’ll find anything to compare to your festival experience!
*ajumma is a common Korean word that means “old woman” (in a respectful way).
**jjimjilbang is a Korean word that refers to the all-hours bathhouses that allow you to sleep/bath/hang out the entire day or night (a cheap and easy place to stay in most towns).