Ohhhh, autumn in Korea. Hands down, when people ask me what the best time visit this country is, I tell them, without hesitation, to come between late September and mid-November. Here’s my guide to this magical season — what to do, where to go, and what to expect!
2020 UPDATE: As far as I know all festivals through October have been canceled to prevent the spread of COVID. You can probably still do some hiking, but as always wear a face mask, take precautions, and keep an eye on things before you go.
I grew up in the Philly suburbs, so I’m not unaccustomed to short but brilliant autumns. The leaves crunched under my shoes when I’d walk home from the bus stop, and I distinctly remember the most stunningly golden tree in a neighbor’s yard.
However, there’s just something about autumn in Korea that’s so different, it’s hard to explain. I remember being blown away by how beautiful Namwon was in October, and I found myself taking a long way home just to enjoy the colors more. Seriously, here’s one of the first photos I took:
Even in Suncheon, I’d walk an hour to get home because the weather was so crisp and the landscape so colorful.
Anyhow, here’s my attempt to explain why autumn is the best!
Why You Need to Experience Autumn in Korea
1. The Temperature is Perfect
Summer in Korea is pure torture. During the worst and longest days, you feel as though you’re constantly drenched in sweat. You could shower twice a day, and it probably wouldn’t make a difference. What makes it even more baffling is watching Koreans in skinny jeans and sneakers, walking around looking wholly unbothered by the heat. HOW?!
Winter in Korea is also pretty uninspiring. Unless it snows, you’re left with mountains of dull, bare branches, dead grass, and overall, a pretty gray atmosphere. It’s cold, and no one seems to have grasped the concept of centralized heating, so bathrooms are usually a freezing experience.
Autumn is that magical sweet spot right in the middle of the two seasons when the country is about as close to feeling like a storybook as it’s going to get. For travelers, it’s great because you can wander around the different palaces or outdoor villages without sweating or freezing to death!
2. Yes, It’s Better than Spring
Sometimes I go back and forth between which season I love the most, but when I think about it more, it’s definitely autumn. Spring in Korea is beautiful, and it’s even better because we’re coming out of winter and hungry for some nature.
However, if you come when it’s at its most unique, during the cherry blossom season, everything else around it is still pretty dead. Like you’ll love walking through the plum blossoms in Gwangyang, but it’s still to the backdrop of bare branches and dead grass.
Autumn, on the other hand, benefits from all the greenery of summer as its leaves start to change color, so the overall effect is much prettier.
3. The Temples Look Better with Fall Foliage
Korean temples are all painting and decorated according to dancheong (단청), which roughly translates to cinnabar and blue-green. They all have the same colors: blue, white, red, black, and yellow.
These temples look absolutely incredible in the fall when the crimson, gold, and orange of the leaves can complement them.
4. You’ll Want to Go Hiking
Nothing is more motivating on a hike than being surrounded by beauty, and even I, in my laziest states, managed to get off my bum and out into the woods nearly even weekend. Korea, as I’ve said many times but somehow many people still don’t realize, is mostly mountainous. There are easy to intense hiking trails in every city, town, and countryside village.
And with the weather so nice and the views so alive, you’ll want to go hiking!
5. Autumnal Dishes + Foods Are the Best
Don’t get me wrong, I have a number of favorite Korean foods I love each season, but autumnal dishes might just be the best. Because it does start to cool, you can finally start eating soups and dishes that are too hot to eat during the summer. If I’m on the go, I always like stopping at food stands that have hotteok, egg bread, chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and corn.
And, of course, don’t miss one of my favorite fruits — persimmons!
6. It’s Just…Magical
Do you remember when Anne Shirley experiences her first fall season at Green Gables? This is how LM Montgomery describes it:
“October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.
Anne reveled in the world of color about her.
“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs. I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill–several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”
This is exactly how I feel about fall in Korea.
Fall Foliage Forecast
Whoo, whoo! Looks like this year the leaves will start changing as early as late September up in Seoraksan! The last bit of peak season will be the first week of November around Jeollanamdo and Jeollabukdo.
Best Fall Foliage Tours
*2020 NOTE: These tours are most likely not running this year
While I have a list of places to visit for fall foliage in Korea if you want to visit on your own, here’s a quick rundown of the different tours and where they go.
Full Day Tours from Seoul
These tours will take you to four famous mountain parks for fall foliage in a day. They all start at 6 am and end between 4 and 8 pm depending on how far away the parks are.
Odaesan is in Gwangwon-do, so it’ll change colors pretty early. You might recognize it from the K-drama “Goblin.” Check the full itinerary here
I wrote a bit about Seoraksan, but I went after the best of the fall season was over! It was already winter-jacket season when I visited in November, so definitely plan to visit in October. Check the full itinerary here
Daedunsan is famous for its red suspension bridge, and it’s seriously stunning even if you get unlucky and have bad weather like I did. It might actually be the only place in Chungcheongnam-do that I’ve been… Check the full itinerary here
One of my favorite places! Naejangsan has actually gotten pretty popular and for good reason — it’s hands down one of, if not the, best place to go for fall colors. I’ve been to a lot of parks and towns between my three autumn seasons, and it’s still Number 1. Check full itinerary here
Right outside of Seoul, Nami Island is a super cute area that has been crazy popular ever since it was used the old K-Drama, “Winter Sonata.” The prettiest parts are the tree paths that turn yellow in the fall!
A lot of tours will mix Nami with Petite France and the Garden of the Morning Calm. I did a tour with all three and the Gangchon Rail Bike. It was a long day, but it’s pretty doable. If you want a slower pace, though, I’d do the tour with only the Garden of the Morning Calm and Nami Island.
Why not check out Jeonju with all its fall foliage glory? From Seoul, you’ll head down and have plenty of time in the hanok village as well as stop by Baegyangsa to really see the fall colors. Check the fully itinerary here
Day Tour within and near Seoul
Between October 29 and November 7, you can do a day tour around Seoul, Incheon, and some spots in Gyeonggi-do:
- In Seoul: Seokchon Lake, Olympic Park, World Cup Park, Bongsudae Park, Ttukseom Hangang Park, Seoul Forest, Namsan Park, Garuso-gil, Seoul Grand Park, Yeouido Hangang Park, Yangjae Park, Jeongdang Observatory, Bugak Skyway, Bukhansan Dulle-gil, Gwanaksan, Dobongsan, Maebongsan Sarak-gil
- In Incheon: Wolmi Park, Incheon Grand Park
- In Gyeonggi: Islan Lake Park, Namhansanseong Fortress, Yongmunsa Temple, Yuldong Park, Suwon Fortress, Gwanggyo Lake Park
Depending on which day you go, they’ll pick 2-3 spots that are in peak condition. Check here for more details and prices
Full Day Tours from Busan
Overall Fall Foliage Tour
With this tour, you’ll visit a few different spots close to Busan! There are actually a whole list of places and your tour will pick 3 to 4 of the best spots for the day you choose. Check here to see more information
Jirisan! This mountain is actually the tallest mountain in mainland Korea (overall is Hallasan in Jeju). The tour actually takes you to the same trail I hiked, Baemsagol Valley, but with four hours you definitely won’t have time to hike as far up as we did. Check here for full itinerary
Part of the Taebaek mountains, Juwangsan is in Gyeongsangbuk-do and actually quite tricky to reach on your own. Check here for full itinerary
Gayasan and Cheongdo Bike Rail
Gayasan is home to Haeinsa, a Buddhist temple famous for its 80,000+ wooden blocks of Buddhist scripture. It’s also considered one of the Three Jewel Temples with Songgwangsa near Suncheon and Tongdosa near Yangsan. Check full itinerary here
While you’ll see a lot of architecture and history from the Joseon Dynasty(1392 -1897), Gyeongju is where you can find a treasure trove of Silla Dynasty (BC 57 – 935 AD) landmarks.
From Seoul, you can do a day tour or a 2D1N tour. The Day tour goes to Bulguksa, Bomun Lake, and Tongiljeon Hall Gingko Tree Road. If you do the 2D1N tour, you’ll also go to Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond on Day 1, and then on Day 2, you’ll go to Gyochon Village and Woljeonggyo, the Gyeognangbuk-do Forest Environment Research Institute, and Ungok Seowon Academy. Check full itinerary, details, and prices here
You could also do a day tour from Busan, which will take you to the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, Tumuli Park, Panwolsong Fortress, and Bomun Lake Resort. Check full itinerary, details, and prices here
It’s festival season! There are so many cool events and festivals all over the country — this list doesn’t even begin to cover it.
- When: September 30 – October 1 (most events will be cancelled)
Chuseok literally translates to “Autumn’s Eve,” and it’s one of the two most important holidays in Korea with Lunar New Year. Most Koreans head to their hometowns to be with family, so Seoul can be pretty empty comparatively (it’s still a city though). If you’re visiting during Chuseok, see if there are any events for foreigners, especially if it includes songpyeon!
Andong Mask Dance Festival
- When: Cancelled for 2020
The Andong Hahoe Folk Village has been on my list for ages as it preserves a lot of history and culture from the Joseon dynasty. Andong’s big event each year is the Mask Festival (which is not in the village itself but in a different park).
Jinju Lantern Festival
- When: Cancelled
The origins of the Jinju Lantern Festival go all the way back to 1592 when the Korean army lit up the river with lanterns to prevent the Japanese from invading the town. It’s a huge event with light shows and, of course, lanterns. Check here for a tour + shuttle bus
Busan International Film Festival
- When: October 12-14 online
BIFF is one of the biggest film festivals in Asia and has been held for over 20 years. Check their site for more info.
- When: Cancelled
So down in Namhae, there’s a little German village, and I guess they celebrate Oktoberfest there! They also have exhibitions on the nurses and miners who went to Germany in the 60s and 70s.
Jeonju Bibimbap Festival
- When: October 8-11 online
What’s Korea’s national food? Bibimbap. Which city is the most famous for it? Jeonju. The festival takes place around the hanok village and is great for any foodies! Check their site for more info
And there you have it! A full guide to autumn in Korea. Let me know if you know of any places I’m missing!
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