Whatever your travel fancy – raucous nightclubs, ancient mountain hermitages, packed baseball stadiums, boundary-pushing art and design – the chances are you'll find it in South Korea. With so much to see and do, there’s never a bad time to visit the country, but a little planning can help you pick the best time to fit your tastes.
With terrain that ranges from alpine peaks to subtropical beaches, South Korea goes through four distinct seasons, so knowing what to expect and how to prepare will go a long way toward getting the best out of your trip. Here's our guide to the top times to come.
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Spring (March–May) is the time for mild weather and cherry blossoms
South Korea starts to shake off its winter frost in March – for the next three months, you can expect mild, pleasant weather, though by May, Seoul and other inland cities are already pushing for summer, with temperatures occasionally rising into the upper 20s Celsius. Naturally, folks start heading back outside – hikers start hiking, bikers start biking and Korea’s pro baseball and soccer leagues get underway.
The season’s undeniable highlight, however, is the annual return of the cherry blossoms. They begin appearing on Jeju-do Island and along the south coast in mid-March and work their way up the peninsula, arriving in Seoul and Gangwon-do Province in early April.
The one thing that can put a damper on the season is hwangsa, yellow dust that gets blown off the deserts of Mongolia and northern China. It combines with local air pollution to occasionally create some pretty grim air conditions. When that happens, it’s a good idea to wear a mask if you plan to spend significant amounts of time outdoors.
Head to the mountains or the beach to escape high temperatures and rain in Summer (June–August)
Summer in South Korea is long, hot and wet, particularly in the cities. The Korean rainy season – known as jangma – starts in the second half of June and can last through August. Temperatures stay stuck at close to 30ºC (86ºF), the humidity borders on the sadistic and it rains just about every day.
Fortunately, no matter where you are in South Korea, there are beaches or mountains (or both) close at hand for a summer escape. Get out of the city and explore Seoraksan National Park, the surfing town Yangyang or far-flung islands such as Jumun-do, off the Incheon coast.
The downside of this plan, of course, is that accommodation rates in top vacation spots are higher at this time of year. For a cheaper escape, partake in the traditional Korean pastime of packing a picnic and spending the day in a gyegok, a mountain valley with a cool stream – a good starting point is Woo-ii Gyegok on Seoul’s northeastern edge.
Summer also brings a wide range of festivals to the peninsula, and Korea’s two major pro sports leagues – the Korea Baseball Organization and the K League soccer tournament – are in full swing.
Fall (September–November) brings dry skies and golden ginkgoes to the Korean peninsula
Visiting South Korea in fall is pretty much a foolproof plan. Pleasant temperatures, crisp air and clear skies make this the ideal time for travel in the Land of the Morning Calm. And surprisingly, September is also South Korea’s best beach month.
Summer's heat – but fortunately not its humidity – is still hanging around, but the crowds have seriously thinned out. Instead, locals head into the mountains to take in the fiery foliage, which starts to get really good in late October and early November. Expect crowded mountain trails at this busy time of year. This is also the season when the leaves of Seoul’s innumerable ginkgo trees turn a stunning royal gold, making the sometimes drab cityscape undeniably beautiful.
Koreans call fall the “season for reading,” and it’s an ideal time to grab a book and spend some time enjoying the country’s terrific cafe scene, hopping from one impeccably designed coffee shop to the next. In fact, fall is the season for art all around, with the world-class Jarasum Jazz Festival and Busan International Film Festival taking place in Gapyeong and Busan respectively.
Pack warm clothes and an appetite for the Korean winter (December–February)
Travel to Korea in winter and you’ll quickly learn the expression “Choo-uh!” – meaning 'it’s cold!' – which Koreans utter pretty much nonstop for three months. The country can be frigid at this time of year, especially up north and in the mountains. Expect daily highs to reach just a few degrees above freezing, with the south coast and Jeju-do being slightly warmer.
Mountainous Gangwon-do Province gets the most snow. The 2018 Winter Olympics brought international attention to Korea’s winter sports venues, most of which are in Gangwon-do. While the crowds thin out elsewhere, as with any hub for recreation in this densely populated country, the ski slopes can get a lot more crowded than visitors from Europe or North America will be used to.
Winter brings celebrations for Christmas and New Year’s, a holiday so nice Koreans celebrate it twice – once on January 1 and once on the Lunar New Year, when families gather and share traditional foods. Foodies will also be rewarded for making an off-season visit – winter is when Korea’s hearty, soup-centric cuisine is at its most satisfying.
January is cold in Korea, but it's a good time for culture
January is a pretty low-key time of year in South Korea, with the possible exception of Seollal, Korea’s Lunar New Year, which sometimes falls in January but more often in February. Temperatures dip below freezing and cold winds blow, but you’ll find plenty of ways to warm up. Get lost in Seoul’s many superb museums (for example, the excellent National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), tuck into buchimgae (fried pancakes) in a cozy pub with traditional ondol floor heating, or seek out milder weather on the south coast.
Key events: Daegwallyeong Snow Festival
February gets busy as Koreans travel home for Seollal
Most years, Seollal falls in February. This three-day affair is one of Korea’s two major holidays, and many Koreans travel to their hometowns. If you think you’ll need to travel on these dates, book tickets far in advance. If you’re staying put, you’ll find that major cities such as Seoul and Busan are uncommonly peaceful with so many folks out of town. Many businesses remain open, but not museums and palaces.
Key events: Seollal (Lunar New Year), Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival
March brings spring weather, sport and cherry blossom
Korea’s long winter finally starts to break, and suddenly there’s a lot more going on. The country’s pro soccer and baseball leagues get underway, designers show off next season’s fall and winter looks at Seoul Fashion Week, and locals start cracking beers and slurping instant ramen noodles at tables outside convenience stores. Best of all, cherry blossoms start to appear in the southern half of the country.
Key events: Independence Movement Day, Seoul Fashion Week, Jeju Fire Festival, cherry blossom festivals begin
April fills South Korea with cherry blossoms
By the second week of April, the cherry blossoms have reached the rest of the country, filling the streets, riverbanks and hillsides with joyful pops of white and pink. In odd-numbered years, the highlight of Korea’s artistic calendar, the Gwangju Biennale, kicks off in the southwestern city of Gwangju, showcasing groundbreaking work by artists from across the globe.
Key events: Gwangju Biennale (odd-numbered years), Jindo Miracle Sea Road Festival, cherry blossom festivals continue
May sees the start of summery weather and some big festivals
The weather in May can alternate between springlike and summery. Koreans celebrate Children’s Day on May 5 and Parents’ Day on May 8, and amusement parks and any sights that are vaguely kid-related fill up with families. Buddha’s birthday in May is celebrated in Seoul by the Lotus Lantern Festival, when brightly colored lanterns light the avenues and a parade of giant glowing floats proceeds through downtown.
Key events: Lotus Lantern Festival, Children’s Day, Boseong Aromatic Tea Festival, Gwangju Biennale continues (odd-numbered years)
The hot, wet summer arrives in June
June is Korea’s Jekyll and Hyde month. The first half is often rather lovely, but by the third week, the humidity and rain have set in and the muggy conditions won’t let up for weeks. The traditional holiday of Dano typically falls in June, marked by one of Korea’s most remarkable festivals – the Unesco-listed Gangneung Danoje. During this multi-day event, celebrants conduct traditional shamanic rituals, perform mask dramas and pray to the mountain spirits. Visiting at this time offers a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of Korea’s traditional shamanic practices.
Key events: Gangneung Danoje
July is the time to head to the beach
In July, lots of Koreans do the sensible thing and head to the beach or rent accommodation in the mountains. While prices are higher at this time of year, you’ll find this is a fair trade-off for escaping the heat and humidity in the cities. On the coast, Busan’s famed Haeundae Beach is packed, while young Koreans and expats head to the west coast town of Boryeong to party at its Mud Festival. It would seem madness to travel to Daegu, Korea’s hottest and most humid city, at this time of year, but they host a lively Korean-style fried chicken and beer festival, so think about it!
Key events: Boryeong Mud Festival, Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, Daegu Chimac Festival
August sees the rains slow and big festivals come to Seoul
Korea celebrates Liberation Day, commemorating the end of Japanese colonial rule, on August 15. The rain finally starts to let up, though the weather remains hot and humid. Alternative art has its moment, with the Seoul Fringe Festival taking place in the artsy university neighborhood of Hongdae, and both domestic and international rock, pop and metal acts turning up the volume at Incheon’s Pentaport Rock Festival.
Key events: Liberation Day, Seoul Fringe Festival, Boryeong Mud Festival continues, Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival
Summer gives way to fall in September
September starts like summer and ends like fall, though climate change seems to push that transition back further every year. This month is a great time to get outside and hike some of Korea’s majestic mountains. For less strenuous effort, walk the Jeju Olle Trail linking 135 villages in Jeju, or just bike along Seoul’s Hangang River. Korea’s second major holiday, Chuseok, the fall harvest festival, usually falls in September. The same travel complications that apply to Seollal apply here; either plan your travel well in advance or stay in one place for the duration of the holiday.
Key events: Chuseok
October is a great time for festivals and good weather
With impeccable weather and a jam-packed artistic calendar, October is probably the best month to visit South Korea. The Busan International Film Festival, Seoul Fashion Week, Andong Mask Dance Festival, Jarasum Jazz Festival and Gwangju World Kimchi Festival would all be reasons enough to buy a plane ticket, but to have all of them in the same month? And then you’ve got golden ginkgoes and fall foliage on top of all that? It doesn’t get any better.
Key events: Busan International Film Festival, Seoul Fashion Week, Andong Mask Dance Festival, Gwangju World Kimchi Festival, Jarasum Jazz Festival
November sees things quieten down as Koreans get ready for winter
After October’s frenzy of events, South Korea seems to exhale in November, and the calendar is relatively empty. Traditionally, November was a time when Koreans would prepare for the coming cold season, a vestige of which remains in the act of kimjang, preparing kimchi for the winter, which many families continue to perform together. For travelers, November’s cool, clear weather creates great conditions for hiking in Korea’s national parks and sipping a latte or local craft beer in a renovated hanok (traditional Korean house).
Key events: Kimjang gatherings
South Korea gears up for Christmas in December
By December, winter has returned to most of the peninsula, though areas such as Busan and Jeju-do remain mild. In the mountains, ski resorts open up, while in cities, winter street food favorites such as hotteok (sweet pancakes with a brown sugar filling) and bungeoppang (fish-shaped waffles with red bean filling) are back. Christmas is a major event on the calendar, but for Koreans the holiday is all about hanging out with friends, which makes it easy for travelers to get involved with the festivities.
Key events: Christmas