South Korea's traditional festivals follow the lunar calendar, but modern festivals follow the solar/Gregorian calendar. For conversion to solar calendar dates, visit www.mandarintools.com/calconv_old.html, www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/CLunarCal1.htm, or www.est-direct.com/china/cncaps.php.
With festivals for everything from fireflies to pine mushrooms to swimming in icy-cold water, Koreans will most likely be celebrating something when you visit. Regional festivals are a great way to get a sense of just how varied Korean culture is while experiencing traditional costumes, performances, and music.
For an exhaustive list of events beyond those listed here, check http://events.frommers.com, where you'll find a searchable, up-to-the-minute roster of what's happening in cities all over the world.
Seol (Lunar New Year) is still one of the biggest holidays of the year. Koreans get up early, put on their best clothes (usually the traditional hanbok), and bow to their elders. Families celebrate with feasts of dduk guk (rice-cake soup) or mandu guk (dumpling soup), and the palaces in Seoul host special events.
Hwacheon Mountain Trout Festival (tel. 033/441-7575) is a charming festival celebrating the mountain trout (the "Queen of the Valleys"). Thousands of people descend upon this small town in Gangwon-do to catch this fish and enjoy a variety of winter sports. Through most of January.
Inje Ice Fishing Festival (tel. 033/460-2082) occurs every winter, when Soyang lake freezes over and hundreds of people flock to this mountain village in the inner Seoraksan area. Not only will you be able to ice fish, but you also can play ice soccer, go sledding, watch a dog sled competition, and enjoy a meal of freshly caught smelt. Late January through mid-February.
Jeongwol Daeboreum Fire Festival celebrates the first full moon of the lunar year. The celebrations involve both livestock -- there are duck and pig races -- and nods to the island's history. The festival arose from the island's ancient practice of burning grazing fields, which served the dual purpose of razing the land for new crops of grass and getting rid of pests. Don't miss the spectacular fireworks show. February or March on the 15th day of the first lunar month.
Gyeongju Traditional Drink & Rice Cake Festival (tel. 054/748-7721 or 2; www.fgf.or.kr) is held at Hwangseong Park in Gyeongju every March or April (dates vary wildly, so be sure to check ahead of time) and is the perfect place to sample everything from rice cakes to rice wine. You can also try your hand at pounding rice into cakes the old-fashioned way (it requires more upper-body strength than you might think), see traditional folk performers, and enjoy the marketlike atmosphere.
Gwangalli Eobang Festival (tel. 051/610-4062, ext. 4) celebrates the arrival of spring and was founded in 2001, when three smaller festivals (the Millak Live Fish Festival, the Gwangalli Beach Festival, and the Cherry Blossom Festival) were combined. The festivities are kicked off when hundreds of Busan residents parade in masks and costumes. The masks and costumes are a mix of old and new, and represent a traditional play called "Suyeong Yaryu," which originated from Suyeong-gu (an area in central Busan) and which mocks the yangban (noble class). Other events include the local custom of praying for the safe return of fishermen (with a big catch, of course). At night, you can enjoy the fireworks and the lights of the Jindu-eoha, where fishing boats are lit to reenact traditional torchlight fishing. Early April.
Jeonju International Film Festival (www.jiff.or.kr) is held in (where else?) Jeonju. You won't catch many blockbusters here -- the festival is more focused on short independent films -- but you may discover a new star on the rise. Late April to early May.
Hi Seoul Festival (tel. 02/3290-7150; www.hiseoulfest.org) highlights the history and culture of South Korea's capital. Most of this festival's events, including everything from classical music to rock music concerts, happen in the downtown area. Don't miss the spectacular lighted boat parade in the evenings in Yeoui-do. Lasts about a week, usually in early May.
Icheon Ceramic Festival (tel. 031/644-2944, ext. 4. Want to experience the history and craftsmanship of Korean pottery? Then head to Icheon for this festival, where you can buy even handmade ceramics from the artists themselves. Late April.
Boseong Green Tea (Da Hyang) Festival (tel. 061/852-1330; www.boseong.go.kr) is held in South Korea's most important tea-producing region. This is a great way to enjoy Jeollanam-do (Jeollanam province) and to taste some of the finest nokcha (green tea) in the world. You can also try foods made with green tea, try a tea facial, and participate in traditional tea ceremonies. Early May, in odd-numbered years (2011, 2013, and so on).
Lotus Lantern Festival (tel. 02/2011-1744, ext. 7; www.llf.or.kr) coincides with Buddha's Birthday (also known as "The Day the Buddha Came"), and it is not to be missed. Hundreds of thousands of people parade along the Han River with lanterns. The opening ceremony for the parade starts at Dongdaemun Stadium. Other events happen at Jogyesa Temple in Seoul and throughout the country in mid-May.
Gangneung Danoje Festival (http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_2_1.jsp?cid=293063) celebrates Dano (the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar year) with brewing of sacred wine. Although there are month-long events, the main festivities happen in the 3 to 4 days surrounding Dano. Highlights include the Gwanno mask drama -- a pantomime combining Korea's ancient shamanistic beliefs with traditional dance and mask play that was performed and handed down by government servants during the Joseon Dynasty -- and daily shamanistic rituals. The festivities have been deemed an important, intangible cultural property by UNESCO. Late May through June in Gangwon-do.
Muju Firefly Festival (tel. 063/322-1330; firstname.lastname@example.org) honors the local ecosystem. This is the only place in South Korea where fireflies are found, and the people of Muju use the insect's annual appearance as an excuse to celebrate. The festival also includes tae kwon do demonstrations, since Muju is the site of the World Taekwondo Park. Early June in Jeollabuk-do.
Boryeong Mud Festival (tel. 011/438-4865; www.mudfestival.or.kr) is all about rolling around in the mud. Supposedly very good for your skin, mud from this region is used in cosmetics and massages. Great fun for kids, events include mud wrestling, mud slides, and making mud soap. For 1 week in mid-July in Chungcheongnam-do.
Busan International Rock Festival (www.rockfestival.co.kr) turns Dadaepo Beach into an open-air concert venue. This free festival attracts over 150,000 fans to see musicians from South Korea and all over the world. Early August.
Muan White Lotus Festival (tel. http://tour.muan.go.kr) is held at Asia's largest field of the rare white lotus. Other than walking trough the gardens, you can take a boat ride to see the blooms up close, enjoy contemporary and traditional performances, and eat a variety of foods made from lotuses. Try the lotus ice cream and the lotus noodles. Mid-August in Muan-geun in Jeollanam-do.
Chuseok (Harvest Festival) is another important traditional holiday and is held on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Also called Korean Thanksgiving, this holiday celebrates the bountiful harvest and hopes for another good year to come. Although most Koreans will be traveling to their ancestral homes, festivities are held at the palaces and at the National Folk Museum in Seoul. Usually sometime in September.
Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF; www.piff.org) is one of the largest showcases for new films in Asia. The festival attracts over 200 films from dozens of different countries (with an emphasis on Asian films, of course). Just to confuse matters, it is held in Busan, which used to be known as Pusan (hence the name of the festival). Usually happening in mid-October.
Jagalchi Festival (tel. 051/243-9363; www.ijagalchi.co.kr) is South Korea's largest seafood festival. Celebrating the sea, traditional fishing rituals are performed and you can enjoy raw fish and discounts on pretty much everything that's sold at the Jagalchi Market. Mid-October in Busan.
Icheon Rice Cultural Festival (tel. 031/644-4121; www.ricefestival.or.kr) celebrates the agriculture (particularly rice) from the plains of Icheon, which once grew the rice served to royalty. Held at Icheon Seolbong Park; stop in at a neighborhood restaurant for rice and vegetables in a dolsotbap (hot stone pot). Late October.
Gwangju Kimchi Festival (tel. 062/613-3641 or 2; http://kimchi.gwangju.kr) highlights this 5,000-year-old Korean food tradition. Taste the variety of the region's kimchi (the most popular type being made from fermented napa cabbage), or make some of your own. Mid-November.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.