If I am quite honest, most Korean festivals are two steps short of being great or even good for that matter. They are either too crowded (Seoul’s International Fireworks Festival), completely lost objectivity (Boseong Green Tea Festival), or a foreign drunk-fest (Boryeong Mud Festival). If you’re looking for something worthy of traveling half way across the world, the following festivals will not disappoint.
1) Cherry Blossom Festivals (March)
Early spring is one of the best times to visit Korea and I think that everyone agrees that cherry blossom season is a big part of it. Cherry blossoms are beautiful flowers that bloom for only about 2 weeks around March and you have to follow the season carefully to know exactly when is the best time to visit and where.
Jinhae’s Cherry Blossom festival is the most famous in the country with trees lined up along the stream near old Jinhae Station. This also coincides with the yearly opening of the Naval Academy in Jinhae which, pro tip, is probably the best place to see the blossoms without the crowds. These beautiful flowers are totally worth a look, and if you catch a good gust of wind towards the end of their lifespan, you might be caught in a wonderful petal rain.
If Jinhae is too far, there are blossoms in Jeju, Busan, Daejeon, and even Seoul. One of my favorite places closer to home is actually Changdeok Palace where the palace background really sets the perfect spring scene.
2) Buddha’s Birthday / Lantern Festival (May / November)
While these are actually two completely different festivals, the highlight of both are the lanterns. Magnificent paper lanterns are made months in advanced and displayed all over the country for a few weeks. You can see lanterns in pretty much any Buddhist temple and the bigger the temple the bigger the lanterns. However, the highlight in Seoul is along the Cheonggyecheon Stream. There are two unique things about each festival if you can’t decide on which of the two to see.
During Buddha’s Birthday celebration in May, there is a parade along Jong-no which is a must see, complete with dragons shooting fire (pictured) and kids being cute with baby lanterns. The parade ends in Joggye-sa Temple, the head of the Joggye Order and Seoul’s most important temple.
The Lantern Festival in Jinju is the most important in the country with dozens of massive lanterns displayed along the main river. Jinju is specifically known for this festival with hundreds of thousands of domestic visitors, so you must make accommodation reservations in advanced if visiting on a busy weekend.
3) Andong Mask Festival (October)
For hundreds of years, the people of Hahoe Folk Village (a UNESCO WHS) in Andong grew tired of the corruption of the Joseon dynasty and of Buddhist monks before that. They used the pretext of a play to satire everything they hated about the powers that be. To this day, the same Hahoe villager families put on a performance reminiscent of the centuries old tradition. The performances in the fairgrounds are the only part that require special tickets to enter but feature professional mask teams from all over Asia and are absolutely worth the entrance fees. The highlight is the traditional fireworks performance in Hahoe Village on the last Saturday and if you want a truly unforgettable memory, stay the night in the village. Nothing really prepares you for the tranquility after all the crowds have gone home. This is by far, my favorite festival and I try to visit every year.
4) Jongmyo Jerye (May)
Jongmyo Jerye is a festival in Seoul’s Jongmyo complex, celebrating the spirits of the entire Joseon Dynasty. The ritual starts around Gyeongbokgung with a parade that you can follow or wait for in Jongmyo. As the hundreds of performers enter the complex, they go on to offer food and read out the accomplishment of every Joseon King for the entire 6 century history. There is lots of bowing and bells ringing going on, but for me, the serenity of it all is fascinating. This usually lands on the same weekend as Children’s Day, so there are usually lots of family and pretty good for visiting families too.
5) Jeonju International Film Festival (April-May)
The last festival I visited (last month) also happens to be one of the best. Jeonju successfully capitalized on the local fame of its Hanok Village and redesigned itself as one of the two film capitals of Korea (the other being Busan). Jeonju hosts the International Film Festival every year around May and has done a great job at concentrating a good number of theaters all within walking distance from each other. This year, they added a 1000+ capacity outdoor theater known as the Jeonju Dome, which was the location of the main films shown every day of the festival. All the films we watched were great, but the closing film, Survival Family (Japan), is easily one of best films I’ve ever seen.
Honorable Mention: Jindo Miracle Sea Festival
Ever see the ocean table fall low enough to walk to the nearest island? Check it out here.