South Korea is one of the world’s best destinations for culture and history. With a dazzling range of experiences, there’s no shortage of things to do. However, winter in South Korea is underrated compared to spring and summer. We’re not sure why because it’s truly spectacular. The country’s landscape transforms into a magical wonderland, straight from the pages of a fairy tale.
For those of you who want to ditch Tripadvisor for something more in keeping with local taste, we’ve created a list of the most popular local winter activities in South Korea. From traditional tea houses to hiking trails and winter sports, these festive activities give you an insight into why Koreans love wintertime — despite the brutally cold weather.
Eat winter street food
Koreans love and take pride in their food — and for a good reason; it’s delicious. As part of their culture, it’s common to eat together and share food with friends, family and colleagues. Their tables are famously covered with a variety of side dishes, stews and bowls of fluffy white rice.
However, they prefer to eat street food as a quick way to warm their stomachs during the winter. It’s easy and convenient because there are plenty of food tents and stalls in places like Myeongdong and Hongdae. The smell of piping hot baked goods fills the air and tempts every passer-by that craves a tasty treat.
The most popular winter street foods include:
Bungeoppang, a goldfish-shaped pastry stuffed with sweetened red bean paste. It’s a fun and tasty snack.
Gunbam, sweet and tender roasted chestnuts.
Kkochi Eomuk, fish cakes served on skewers and boiled in a radish and kelp broth. Perfect to keep warm on cold winter mornings.
Hotteok, flat pancakes made with dough from glutinous rice flour and filled with a mix of cinnamon, sugar and peanuts.
Since they are open until late, it’s common for locals to take shelter from the cold and enjoy a midnight snack before going home. If that’s not the perfect way to end the night, we don’t know what is.
Hiking is popular throughout the year and for most Koreans, it’s their preferred choice of sport to keep fit and healthy. It’s also a great way to escape from city stress and take a moment to admire the breathtaking scenery.
As the temperature drops, many people think hiking season is over but that’s not the case. Korea’s ever-changing landscape is at its finest during the transition from autumn to winter. Trees with leaves in shades of crimson and burnt orange are replaced with snowy mountaintops and frozen waterfalls. These are views you’ll never see during the summer.
With over five million visitors every year, Bukhansan National Park is one of Korea’s beloved hiking destinations. Also known as the “Lungs of Seoul”, Bukhansan has two main hiking trails to choose from: the Bogukmun and the Bukhansanseong. The Bogukmun is the most favourable hiking trail because it features crystal clear streams, a gorge, a waterfall and a fortress at the top of the peak. The hike usually takes up to an hour and a half to complete but the view is completely worth it.
Warm-up at a traditional tea house
Korea is known for its coffee-drinking culture and quirky themed-cafés such as Hello Kitty, Line Friends and Lego. However, traditional tea houses remain a key part of the country’s national identity. They are hidden gems, tucked away in places where few people go to. It’s only when you look closer that you’ll recognise the classic Korean architecture.
On a cold winter day, locals like to find comfort in traditional tea houses. They actively encourage Korea’s ancient tea traditions and offer customers the chance to experience an authentic tea house ceremony. Hot beverages like herbal, ginger and plum tea are served in handmade ceramic mugs.
There’s nothing better than relaxing with a cup of tea. Well, other than ondol flooring? This type of underfloor heating system is used throughout Korea in bathhouses, apartments and hotels. This allows customers to relax on the floor and keep warm and toasty even during the winter months.
Visit Nami Island
Seoul, the capital and largest metropolis in South Korea, is a bustling city full of life and energy. With a population of over 10 million people, it’s impossible to enjoy even a single moment of peace. Nami Island, located in Gangwon-do province, is the total opposite and provides tranquility for many Seoulites.
Nami Island is most visited during the winter months. The snow adds an enchanting touch to the storybook island. The tree-lined pathways like Metasequoia Road are one of the main reasons Koreans return every year. It’s one of those places that take your breath away.
The 2002 Korean drama Winter Sonata was filmed at Nami Island and has attracted fans to visit famous spots dedicated to the drama. Dotted around the island are various tributes including two life-size statues of Lee Min-Hyung and Jung Yoo-Jin and the “couple snowmen” they made together. Korean couples love to replicate iconic scenes from Winter Sonata and take photos to capture the moment. It’s a great idea for a romantic date to make the most of wintertime.
Winter sports like skiing and snowboarding have increased in popularity thanks to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Gangwon-do is the best province in South Korea to hit the slopes with its backdrop of Taebaek Mountains and snowy peaks. Many locals take advantage of the winter surroundings by visiting one of the many ski resorts during the holidays.
The most famous resort in Gangwon- do is Yongpyong, the largest ski and snowboard resort and the main venue of the Olympic alpine skiing events. Yongpyong caters for beginner and experienced skiers and boarders with a range of terrains to choose from.
After a long day on the slopes, locals like to enjoy the other benefits the resort has to offer. The Mt. Balwangsan Cable Car stretches over Korea’s longest course and overlooks the Balwangsan Mountain, providing a breathtaking view of the natural landscape.
To make the most of their visit to Yongpyong, locals like to check-in at its impeccable Dragon Valley Hotel. It’s ideal for a winter weekend getaway for couples and families.
Visit the Garden of Morning Calm Lighting Festival
One of the best and most beautiful gardens in South Korea is the Garden of Morning Calm. Located two hours from Seoul’s city centre, the Garden of Morning Calm showcases floral arrangements and landscaped gardens. It embraces the natural beauty and spirit of Korea.
The Garden of Morning Calm Lighting Festival is the most anticipated event of the year. The main gardens such as Hakyung, Moonlight and Garden of Eden are illuminated with over 30,000 colourful lights. There are also artworks like a horse-drawn carriage that add charm and allure, inviting visitors to wander around in awe and amazement.
The best time to visit to experience the festival at its best is after dusk when the lights begin to glow. The garden turns into a different world, almost dream-like. Locals can easily spend most of their night gazing at the dazzling lights until closing time.
Go sledding at Everland
Korea’s largest theme park Everland is the ultimate day out for families, couples and groups of friends. During the winter months, the park offers a range of festive activities at no extra cost. Their one-day ticket not only covers admission and regular attractions but also seasonal entertainment.
Located in Yongin, Everland has a huge sledding hill called Snow Buster and provides hours of laughter and fun. There are three slopes according to difficulty and caters for all ages, from young children to adults who are young at heart. There is also an indoor lounge with fan heaters and benches to recharge before going for another ride.
When sledding takes a toll on your body, Everland has an alternative to celebrate the festivities. The park hosts its own Winter Wonderland throughout November and December which includes the Moonlight Parade and impressive performances with lasers and snow machines. It’s a chance to relax and enjoy the show after a tiring sledding session.
Relax at a jjimjilbang
Traditional bathhouses or jjimjilbang play a significant part in contemporary Korean culture. Jjimjilbang features indoor soaking pools, saunas and communal sleeping rooms. It’s a popular place to unwind and hang out especially after a long day at school or work.
It’s very common for Koreans to visit a jjimjilbang every week during winter. The cold weather and heavy snowfall can harm the body. Due to their hectic schedules, Koreans like to take care of themselves by relaxing at a bathhouse. They consider it as a natural remedy to maintain good health and well being, and they’re not wrong. Bathing in a hot and humid environment can reduce stress, pain and the symptoms of the flu.
What excites Koreans the most about traditional bathhouses is scrubbing away dead skin. They are mad about exfoliation and keeping their skin smooth and soft. Wintertime in Korea can play havoc on the skin that not even Laneige Water Bank Moisture Cream can fix. Most bathhouses will offer a professional scrub at an extra cost; this is usually by ajumma (aunties) armed with scrubbing mitts. They show no mercy, but locals love the result and leave the bathhouse as a brand new person.
Traditional bathhouses are home away from home and ideal for a cheap getaway. Many Koreans, young and old, stay overnight as they are open 24 hours. They make the most of the facilities available and once they’ve had a good soak and scrub, they head to the sleeping rooms. There are wooden blocks to use as a headrest and blankets for extra comfort and warmth.
Go ice skating at an outdoor rink
There’s something festive about ice skating. The glistening snow and ice. The twinking lights. The sound of Christmas music in the background. Ice skating is a universal winter activity and can be enjoyed by beginner and experienced skaters. There are plenty of indoor and outdoor skating rinks in Korea such as the Seoul Plaza.
Located by Seoul City Hall, the Seoul Plaza transforms into an outdoor skating rink every winter. It’s a popular attraction for many Seoulites to visit even on the weekdays without travelling afar. The facilities include skate rental, training programs and outdoor standing areas for both skaters and spectators.
What makes Seoul Plaza special is the atmosphere. There is a real buzz of excitement; young children taking their first steps on the ice, families creating fond memories and lots of laughter. Couples also love to go ice skating for a date because it’s fun and romantic. They find it the perfect way to cosy up to a loved one, skating hand in hand.
Participate in the Pyeongchang Trout Festival
While this may seem like an unusual choice for a winter activity, locals love to take part in the famous Pyeongchang Trout Festival. Trout farming first started in Pyeongchang due to its cold waters and the most appropriate place to host the annual festival.
The main attraction at the festival is, of course, ice fishing. The bizarre traditional sport allows participants to catch fresh trout from a hole drilled into the ice. Despite the cold winds and possible frostbite, ice fishing is popular with locals. There are no age restrictions so young children can join in who are eager with excitement for the trout to take the bait.
The best part of ice fishing is if you’re lucky and catch a fish or two, it can be prepared straight away at a nearby restaurant. Served either as sashimi or grilled over firewood, eating fresh trout is a quick way to restore energy before returning to the festival.
The Pyeongchang Trout Festival also offers a variety of recreational activities such as snow tubing, rafting, sleigh trains and traditional folk games. It’s fun for the whole family and the perfect day-trip away from the city.
And that completes the list of the top winter activities in South Korea most favoured by locals. This list comes just in time before the cold creeps in and before the landscape changes into a winter delight.