Korea is a land of four beautiful seasons and winter is a time when Koreans embrace the low temperatures while indulging in some wonderful escapes from the cold. Temperatures can definitely dip below zero, but there are plenty of ways to enjoy the holidays with fun winter activities in Korea and maybe even experience a white Christmas if you’re lucky.
A classic Korean essential is indulging in hot street food like baked sweet potatoes and chestnuts, seasonal treats that only come around during the colder months. Love glittering light shows, snowy mountaintops, outdoor rinks, and twinkling palaces? Just try to find a place that does them better.
In so many ways, visiting Korea during the winter can offer a unique and wonderful experience. Below is a list of events, activities, and destinations that can feel especially cozy and merry when the thermostat drops.
1. Light Festivals: The Garden of Morning Calm, Seoul Light DDP, Cheonggyecheon Lantern Festival
One of the most popular winter events in Korea is the light and lantern exhibitions that take place in various outdoor locations across the country. The Garden of the Morning Calm is by far the largest and most popular light festival to visit in Korea. Located in Gapyeong, an area about an hour north of Seoul, the Garden of the Morning Calm is famously known as a filming location for many Korean drama series, including Moonlight Drawn by Clouds, with Park Bo-gum and Kim Yoo-jung. The garden becomes a winter wonderland when the light festival begins every year, becoming the perfect romantic date or family-friendly outing destination. This year, the festival will open on December 9th, 2022, and continue until mid-March of 2023.
If you wanted to stay closer to the city center, Seoul also offers beautiful light and lantern festivals. The first is the Cheonggyecheon Stream Lantern Festival, an outdoor exhibition of massive paper and LED lanterns that stretch across the mile-long promenade of the Cheonggyecheon River. Historically, the festival has featured a combination of both traditional Korean paper lanterns and more modern LED installations, often portraying images of Korean folklore and mythology.
A more contemporary alternative is Seoul Light DDP, an exhibition of lights and projections at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). From December 17th, 2022 to January 1, 2023, the surface of the exhibition building will be lit up with different forms of media art. Partnering with numerous contemporary artists, Seoul Light DDP offers beautiful projections to everyone passing by and is definitely worth a visit this winter.
Garden of Morning Calm: 432 Sumogwon-ro, Sang-myeon, Gapyeong-gun, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
Seoul Light DDP: 281 Eulji-ro, Euljiro 7(chil)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Cheonggyecheon Stream Lantern Festival: 1 Cheonggyecheon-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
What better way to spend the cold Korean winter than in a warm, indoor spa? And in Korea where people love to go to the public baths, a winter spa day is an ancient and elevated experience unrivaled anywhere in the world.
Jjimjilbangs are traditional Korean bathhouses and heated sauna areas, which also offer meals, napping rooms, and massage options. Most jjimjilbangs are separated into two areas– the bathing areas (or mokyoktang) that are same-sex only, and communal sauna rooms. Koreans traditionally heat their homes via radiant heat called ondol and this system of heat that emanates from the floor has created a nation of people who love to warm their bodies by lying on heated floors which you’ll find in abundance at a jjimjilbang.
Korean saunas might not be the ones you’re used to, as most traditional Korean jjimjilbangs are stone or clay kilns that are heated anywhere from 50°C (122°F) to 90°C (194°F), a perfect activity for the wintertime. It’s common etiquette to rinse before using the heated saunas, sweat it all out again, and return to the baths for a more thorough shower at the end. Korean jjimjilbangs will give you clothes, often a t-shirt and shorts, to wear while you are in the sauna and return when you leave. Most jjimjilbangs are open 24 hours, 7 days a week, so some people even stay overnight after a late evening of too much drinking.
While there are plenty of jjimjilbangs in the city, you’ll get an unmatched experience by going to the Aquafield Hanam Spa. Located inside a large mall, this sauna transforms traditional jjimjilbangs with a modern twist, containing specially curated rooms to elevate your experience. There is a media art room with an overhead visual experience, a cloud room with infusing aroma, massage chairs with a panoramic view of the Bukhansan Mountain, and more–all that you can experience for around $20 per person.
The Dragon Hill Spa in Yongsan is another popular option and has been featured in NY Times and CNN articles. This jjimjilbang is a closer representation of traditional Korean spas but still contains numerous amenities for you to enjoy. Make sure to grab a cold glass of sikhye (a traditional rice drink) that you can drink while sweating it out in the heated rooms and some maekbanseok eggs (eggs that have been steamed in the kilns) to snack on.
If you’re in the Busan area, Centum City Spa Land is also one of the most popular jjimjilbangs across the country. Located in the Shinsegae Centum City mall in Haeundae, Busan, this spa features over 22 different baths with naturally sourced spring water from 1,000 meters underground, as well as 13 unique heated rooms for people of all ages to enjoy. Spa Land also adds a creative and modern touch to traditional jjimjilbangs, making it more approachable for people that may never have experienced Korean spas before.
Aquafield Hanam Starfield: 750 Misa-daero, Hanam-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
Dragon Hill Spa: 40 Hangang-daero 21na-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Spa Land Centum City: 35, Centumnam-daero, Haeundae-gu, Busan, South Korea
3. Ski Resorts: Yongpyong Ski Resort and Daemyung Vivaldi Park
Yongpyong Resort, located in Pyeongchang, is the largest ski resort in Korea featuring 28 different ski slopes and the longest gondola course in Asia. This is also where the 2018 Winter Olympics were held but offers terrain for people at all skill levels. For children or adults who do not ski or snowboard, the resort also features a 200m long sledding area that visitors can enjoy. At the bottom of the slopes, there are many warm, cozy restaurants selling traditional Korean street food to warm up. There is also a bowling alley, swimming pool, souvenir shop, and karaoke bar inside the resort area. Regardless of whether you’re a winter sports enthusiast or not, this resort is a great destination for friends and families to have fun in the snow.
Another ski resort option is the Daemyung Vivaldi Park Ski Resort located about an hour and a half away from Seoul. With 12 unique slopes and 10 ski lifts, Vivaldi Park is another top choice for those who want to engage in winter sports. Each slope has a different music genre as a theme, with large speakers playing music for your entire trip down the mountain—the faster the beat of the song, the more advanced the slope will be. Similar to Yongpyong, Vivaldi also has alternative activities such as sledding, bumper cars, a game arcade, and bowling.
Yongpyong Ski Resort: 715 Olympic-ro, Daegwalnyeong-myeon, Pyeongchang-gun, Gangwon-do, South Korea
Daemyung Vivaldi Park: 262 Hanchigol-gil, Seo-myeon, Hongcheon-gun, Gangwon-do, South Korea
4. Ice Skating: Grand Hyatt, Olympic Park, or Seoul Plaza
If you want to find a romantic ice rink overlooking Seoul city, the outdoor skating rink at the Grand Hyatt is the perfect place when looking for fun winter activities in Korea. From November to February every year, the outdoor pool of the hotel transforms into a large ice rink that visitors can enjoy. You don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to skate, although tickets need to be purchased in advance for around $45 per person. This rink is especially popular for proposal events around the holidays as the lights and music create a magical ambiance. Despite its popularity, if you want to avoid the truly pressing crowds, the Grand Hyatt may be a more private option for your skating experience.
If you’re looking for less spendy alternatives, however, both Olympic Park and the Seoul Plaza open public skating rinks during the winter. The ice rink at Olympic Park is set up beneath the famous Olympic arch that was constructed during the 1988 Summer Olympics. Seoul Plaza is located in front of City Hall and is another popular area amongst families because they also offer winter activities like sledding and snowboarding for children.
Grant Hyatt Seoul: 322 Sowol-Ro Hannam-Dong, Gu, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Olympic Park: 424 Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Seoul Plaza: 110 Sejong-daero, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
5. Seoraksan National Park
If you’re a nature person, the snowcapped peaks of Seoraksan are the ideal place to visit. While the national park is about two hours from Seoul, the views from the mountaintop are worth the trip. As the third-highest peak in South Korea, Seoraksan is known to be a challenging hike that can take anywhere from 6 to 9 hours to complete. For those who want to skip the trek, there are also cable cars that will take you to the top and back.
But even at the foothills of the mountains, the walking paths at the bottom offer breathtaking sights of the wilderness and feature a picturesque Buddhist temple, making this a must-do item on any list of winter activities in Korea.
Seoraksan National Park: South Korea, Gangwon-do, Sokcho-si, Seoraksan-ro, 833 KR
6. Gyeongbokgung Palace
The famous royal palace is a must-visit tourist destination all year long, but going to Gyeongbokgung in the winter is spectacular. For those who want to walk around the traditional palace grounds, the scenery is a wonderland. The palace is also lit up at night during the holiday season and becomes a magical backdrop for photographers and couples. There are also numerous hanbok stores around the area where you can rent traditional attire for the day. They even offer “winter hanboks” and coats that offer more warmth for the chilly season.
Gyeongbokgung: 161 Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
7. Nami Island
Nami Island is located in the middle of the Bukhangang River, about an hour away from Seoul. Typically, visitors ride the ferry to get to the island. While the river frequently freezes over, there are special ice-breaker ships to safely transport you to the island. Nami Island is best known for its towering Metasequoia Tree lanes that you can walk or bike through, this stunning path may look familiar to fans of the classic K-drama Winter Sonata.
The Cheongsam Lantern Lane, the Hut Bridge that spans across the frozen river, and the Hyeonhorim (White Birch Tree) Woods are all additional places to visit on Nami Island. A Winter Wonder Playground is a special zone that opens annually for children, featuring curling, bobsleighs, snow sleds, and other activities for the whole family to enjoy. Visiting Nami after a snowy day will offer a wonderous experience straight out of a fairytale.
Nami Island: 1 Namisum-gil, Namsan-myeon, Chuncheon-si, Gangwon-do, South Korea
8. Clubbing in the city
For younger tourists who want to experience the nightlife, there are plenty of trendy clubs to hit in the city. Going out with thick winter coats may seem like a hassle, but most Korean clubs have coat-check services so can get your groove on unencumbered. The area for clubs will depend on what kind of vibe you’re looking for—if you want the full EDM club experience, the Gangnam/Sinsa area is perfect, while Hongdae clubs tend to be more chill and hip-hop oriented. The largest clubs in Gangnam are typically split into an EDM zone and hip-hop zone for those who want to enjoy both.
Here is a list of the hottest clubs in Seoul right now:
Club Race (Sinsadong): 597 Gangnam-daero, Seocho-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Jack Livin (Gangnam): 588 Gangnam-daero, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Club Face x Body (Gangnam): Gangnam-daero 69-gil, 8 KI Tower B1, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Club XX (Hongdae): Jandari-ro 9-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Club Aura (Hongdae): 364-24, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
The entry fee for most clubs in Gangnam can range anywhere from $10 – $25, with some places charging less for female guests. A lot of Hongdae clubs don’t have entrance fees and allow you to walk in. Likewise, reserving a table with bottle service will typically be a lot pricer in Gangnam than in any other area of Seoul. Tables and bottle service minimums can range anywhere from around $250 – $3000, depending on the day (holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Eve tend to be the most expensive) and the relative proximity of the table to the DJ booth/main stage. Tables must be reserved in advance, so make sure to check out individual club websites to contact the promoter and book your exciting night!
Walking around the streets of Gangnam or Hongdae, you’ll probably be able to identify a popular club by the long lines outside the entrance. It’s best to avoid clubbing on national holidays like New Year’s Eve, as the lines may be significantly longer than usual. Getting a table on these days might actually be worth your money since you’ll receive VIP access to private entranceways without having to wait in line outside. The legal drinking age in Korea is 19! If you’re a foreigner, make sure to bring your passport as identification as most Korean clubs don’t accept other forms of foreign IDs such as US driver’s licenses.
9. Shopping for Winter Clothes in Korea
Shopping in Korea during the wintertime is a great chance to get trendy puffer jackets or Korea’s signature warm long underwear. Available in all price ranges from expensive designer options or very inexpensive generic brands, these puffer jackets are frequently considered to be a “winter essential”. Having one of these will ensure that you are properly insulated from the cold winds and snow, whether it be while skating outdoors or shopping through the streets of Gangnam. Top Ten Mall is a popular fast fashion retailer where you can snag a super warm down puffer jacket for under $100.
Another must-have item for Korean winters is thick undergarments, or naebok, that many Koreans use to layer for the winter. The appearance of these sometimes quilted long-sleeved undergarments may seem odd to Western cultures, but there is nothing that will keep you warmer than these pieces. Traditionally, naebok is a popular gifting item for parents or the elderly. Naebok is both layered under outside clothes or worn as pajamas at home.
Any department store or market during the winter will sell thick winter jackets and naeboks from various different brands and price points, but these are some of the best indoor malls to check out in Seoul:
Lotte World Mall: 300 Olympic-ro, Songpa-gu, Seoul, South Korea
The Hyundai: 108 Yeoui-daero, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Coex Starfield Mall: 513 Yeongdong-daero, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Dongdaemun Market: 272 Jong-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
10. Last but Definitely Not Least: Korean Winter Foods You Cannot Miss
Winter in Korea calls for warm, authentic street food that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. By December, vendors will roll out to Seoul’s most popular areas and sell street food that is only available in the winter. The best part is that all of these street snacks are typically only $1-2! Myeongdong is a convenient spot to visit for these street snacks, as they usually have dozens of street stalls with a wide variety of food and snacks.
If you want to visit a more traditional market, Gwangjangshijang (Market) is another area where you’ll find all of these authentic Korean snacks. Here is a list of the best winter street snacks that will warm your soul on a cold winter day:
Hotteok (Korean Sweet Pancakes) – Fried sticky dough filled with sweet syrup, cinnamon, and different nuts
Bungeoppang (Goldfish Bread) – Baked pastry in the shape of a goldfish with red-bean paste
Tteokbokki and Eomuk (Fish cakes) – Spicy Rice Cakes and Fish cake skewers on a wooden stick, served with a cup of broth
Gunbam (Roasted chestnuts) – Vendors bring out a hot drum oven to cook the chestnuts and serve around 10-15 in a bag
Gungoguma (Roasted sweet potatoes) – Similar to roasted chestnuts, you can buy a freshly roasted sweet potato to carry around with you
Myeongdong: Myeongdong-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Gwangjang Market: 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea