A year of festivals in South Korea

A year of festivals in South Korea

South Korean's love to kick up their heels and celebrate, so it's little surprise that the country has full yearly calendar of festivals and events. This guide will take you through all the biggest, brightest and best South Korean festivals, offering you (almost!) one for each month of the year.

Inje Icefish Festival (January)

Ice Fishing has been a popular Korean past-time for centuries and there is no better place to learn all about it than the Inje Icefish Festival, which runs from late January to early February each year. As well as actually doing a bit of fishing yourself, you can also learn how best to prepare, cook and serve your catches. There's plenty of other activities on offer too, including ice soccer and sledding and a generally upbeat, fun atmosphere pervades.

Seollal (February)

This three day celebration marks the first day of the first lunar month every year in South Korea. The theme of the festival is that everybody in the country is now one year older and so a group celebration is in order. Most South Koreans like to spend this time with their families, and food is very much at the centre of the celebration. The most important dish of all is ‘birthday soup'.

The Cherry Blossom Festivals (March and April)

OK, we're cheating a little, as we're covering two months with the same festival, but bear with us a moment. You see when the countryside's trees bloom pink with cherry blossom, Koreans take it as a signal to start a party, with carnivals and fireworks aplenty. The thing is, the time this occurs will differ depending on where you are in Korea, though mostly it happens between these two months.

Lantern Festival (May)

Unsurprisingly, given the size of its Buddhist population, Buddha's birthday is celebrated every year in Korea with the Lantern Festival. A beguiling lantern parade usually takes place on the Sunday preceding the day itself, while people mark the actual date by visiting their local temple with a homemade lantern.

Firefly Festival (June)

This is one for all the eco-warriors out there, or, perhaps, just for anybody with an interest in green energy. Taking place in Muju each year, it is a celebration of all things natural, with attendees gathering to watch the fireflies, let off fireworks and discuss environmental issues.

Mud Festival (July)

One of the most attractive and popular Korean festivals for tourists is the Mud festival, held in Boryeong. During this rather raucous few days, the idyllic local beaches are turned to mud, and all manner of mud-related madness ensues, including mud wrestling, mud sliding and a Mud King contest.

Chuseok (August)

Chuseok is the time of year for all Koreans to celebrate their roots and give thanks for another good harvest. It takes place around midway through August each year, with huge feasts and celebrations across the nation. It is preceded by the Ginseng Festival, which takes place 10 days earlier. During this time, doctors from around the country advise citizens of all the various uses and benefits of ginseng.

Busan International Film Festival (October)

For culture vultures, the Busan Film Festival will be well worth marking in your calendar. Every year, many of Asian cinema's biggest and brightest flock to the city, where hundreds of movies are screened.

The Apple Festival (November)

The town of Yesan is well known for producing the tastiest apples Korea has to offer and, each year, it celebrates its most famous export with a one day festival. Events involve eating contests, picking contests and peeling contests, plus an Apple Queen Beauty Pageant.

Bong Joon-ho: South Korean film-maker

Bong Joon-ho: South Korean film-maker

One of 2014's most acclaimed worldwide cinema releases was Snowpiercer. A dystopian epic set upon a train that perpetually circles an earth whose surface has become uninhabitable due to frozen weather, it received praise for its uniquely crafted visual sensibility, remarkable performances and clear-eyed critique of modern social inequalities.

Its director is Bong Joon-ho who has, since his 2003 feature Memories of Murder, carved out a name as being one of South Korea's best film-makers. In fact, many critics believe him to be the best director the nation has ever produced, not to mention one of the most exciting artists working in the medium today.

Bong, grew up in an artistic family and knew he wanted to make movies from an early age. His debut movie, Barking Dogs Never Bite, came out in 2000. Dealing with the misadventures of a put-upon University lecturer who decides to abduct his neighbour's dog, it exhibited many of the features for which its auteur would later become recognised, most notably the sudden shifts in tone between farce and serious drama.

While Barking Dogs… garnered international critical plaudits, it wasn't until 2003's Memories of Murder that Bong truly reached a large audience. The true life story of a series of grisly murders that took place in rural Korea during the 1980s, at first it could be mistaken for a normal, run-of-the-mill procedural cop movie, with a rogue detective and his book-ish partner on the trail of a sadistic madman. As it unfolds, however, Memories of Murder becomes increasingly complicated and ambiguous, before building its audience up to an unexpectedly stark and powerful conclusion.

An instant success with both critics and audiences, it won its director plaudits and awards across the globe, including three awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Rather than immediately capitalise on his new found fame by rushing out another big name film, Bong decided to work on a few short film projects next, contributing to a couple of small-scale omnibus projects. He was already, however, formulating plans for what would become his biggest film to date and, until recently, the most successful Korean movie of all time.

The Host, released in 2006, deals with the story of a huge, mutated sea beast that suddenly emerges from Seoul's Han River to terrorise the locals. Boasting Bong's biggest budget to date ($12 million), it had all the traits of a big, FX-laden blockbuster. Yet, bubbling under the movie's surface, was level of powerful political subtext, a stern comment on Korean closeness to the United States during the war on terror and about the potential issues this might bring about.

It reached huge international acclaim upon its premier at the Cannes Film Festivals, lauded by critics across the globe. Strangely enough, it received a colder reaction from critics in Bong's home country, who felt it lacked the subtlety of his previous work. Audiences, however, did not agree and made The Host the most watched Korean movie of all time, with over 13 million tickets sold domestically.

Bong's next feature, Mother, was similarly successful, winning critical and commercial success upon its release in 2009, particularly for its superb acting. Then, with Snowpiercer, Bong released his first ever film in the English language. Who would bet against Korea's best known film-maker becoming a global household name in the near-future?

City to city in South Korea

City to city in South Korea

If you want to make the most of your visit to South Korea, then it is worth boning up on the various modes of transportation available to you in the country. It's a large country with several big cities so, if you are planning on moving around, you will need some information to guide you. Here we look at the most crucial aspects of getting around in South Korea.

Flying in South Korea

The South Korean airline industry is a busy one, with more than ten major local airlines all offering domestic flights. In fact, flights between cities are so common in South Korea that it is estimated a plane takes off on the busiest air route in the country, that between Jeju Island and Seoul Gimpo, every thirty minutes. Though you would think this makes life easy for the airline customer, unfortunately this is not the case. Finding and booking the right flight for you can be tricky, as no websites will show all the available flights you can take. This means shopping around is essential if you want the cheapest ticket or the best flight time.

Price-wise, the tickets will vary massively between the low cost companies (Jeju Air, Air Busan, Easter Jet and Jin Air) and the big name airlines (Asiana, Korea Air Lines). For the former, expect a tiny baggage allowance and a minimum of frills. For the latter, you can expect full service. If you want to book a domestic flight in South Korea before you arrive in the country, you will require a credit card with an ‘approved by Visa' accreditation.

Taking the train

Unlike intercity flights, a Korean rail journey can be booked from overseas without a specific card. However, you can only book routes 30 days before travelling. Again, the Korail website can be a little tricky to navigate and it takes a long search to be sure you definitely are getting the best possible deal. Seating is generally allocated to each ticket holder.

Driving and renting a car

If you are moving around quite a bit in South Korea, it is quite possible that renting a car will be the most cost effective and comfortable way to do it. Generally speaking, the prices are very competitive, particularly when compared with the west, and South Korean roads are quite safe. The two main companies offering car rental services are AJ and KTKumho. These two run a large network of rental shops all over the nation. Once again, however, you should be warned: booking through their websites can be a bit of a struggle. If you are travelling to a major airport like Jeju, it might be best to sort out your rental upon arrival.

In order to drive legally in South Korea you will need an International Driver's Permit, but helpfully all road signs are printed in both Korean and English. You will also notice, pretty quickly, just how much CCTV is in place on Korean roads. That means careful driving is essential.

Expat essentials

Expat essentials

Expat essentials: A simple guide to South Korea life for new arrivals

Are you moving to South Korea? If so, then this guide is all you need to prepare yourself. Here we list the most important things to keep in mind before you set off.

Choosing a place to live

One of the key issues you will have to take into account if you work in any major Korean city is traffic. Every large road in Korea is jam packed, bumper to bumper, pretty much non-stop leading up to business hours. If you want to avoid 2 hours trapped in your car at the beginning or end of every working day, then find an apartment close to your place of business. Though this might cost you a little extra, the effect on your quality of life is well worth it.

You should not expect to find a house in Korea for anything other than top dollar. The vast majority of accommodation is apartment-based, though you can find very nice, fairly spacious flats without burning your budget. Condos are also available, which are somewhere between an apartment and a house, for a little extra.

How to get around

As we've mentioned already, traffic makes driving in big cities a trek, so reliance on public transport is a general fact of life. The subways are cheap and the one in Seoul is very large and very reliable. It can take a long time to get from one place to another, but this is something you will have to get used to regardless of how you travel. We would recommend leaving the bus system alone until you have settled in properly and know your way around (which might take a while!). The bus routes are very complicated and figuring out which bus goes where and when is not so easy unless you are familiar with the entire city. Taxis are very, very cheap, though finding a driver who speaks English is not likely.


The South Koreans are very sociable people and love nightlife, food and getting out. There are, however, a few subtle rules to drinking and eating in Korean company that are worth knowing before you hit the bars and restaurants. Hierarchy is important: the older you are, the more important you are at the table. The eldest person in the party always begins eating first, so don't dig in as soon as the food is placed under your nose. When Koreans offer a drink, they mean it. It is very impolite to refuse when your host goes to fill up your glass. Also, if you are out with business friends, talking about work is the biggest faux pas you can make. When Koreans are drinking, the last thing they want to do is chat about business. When the bill comes if the senior member of the party offers to pay do not counter-offer or suggest splitting it. If it is your turn to pay, tipping is, generally, not done and no waiter will expect a tip.