Festival season: seven celebrations to experience in Busan, South Korea

From centuries-old rituals to vibrant music celebrations, a festival in Busan is a life-changing experience. Here are seven to book on your next visit.

Fireworks fill the sky during Busan International Fireworks Festival in South Korea.

Photograph by Busan Tourism Organisation
By Chris Tharp
Published 28 Feb 2023, 10:00 GMT

Known for its expansive beaches, gleaming high-rises, fresh seafood and laid-back vibes, South Korea’s seaside city of Busan is also home to some of the most distinctive festivals in the country. Combining a trip to Busan with a festival is the perfect way to soak up the infectiously vibrant energy the place has to offer. Here are seven of the best local celebrations and festivities to book in 2023.

1. Joseon Tongsinsa Festival  
4-7 May

More than 1,000 participants take to the streets in a spirited ‘Peace Parade’, featuring placards, props, splashy period costumes and traditional music. This is both an acknowledgment of Korea’s desire for cooperation with Japan, as well a recognition of the resilience of a people. This historical re-enactment is inspired by a series of historic delegations sent over to Japan from Busan during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty period (1392-1910). It’s a glimpse into Korea’s past that also illuminates just how the country came to blossom into the place it is today. The Joseon Tongsinsa Festival also features rides on a traditional Korean ship, a drone show, joint programmes for Japanese and Korean children, as well as an international symposium focusing on efforts aimed at peace, cooperation and prosperity between the two nations.

2. Lotus Lantern Festival
27 May

Busan is an wonderful place to take in the national holiday 
of Buddha’s birthday, which is widely celebrated in Korea. One tradition observed all over the country is the stringing up of bright, multicoloured lanterns, and one of the best places to witness this is Samgwangsa Temple in the city’s Choeup neighbourhood. Situated at the base of Baekyangsan Mountain, this sprawling spiritual complex is lit up with tens of thousands of lotus lanterns on and around the enlightened one’s birthday, creating a magical world bathed in light. 

Other places to see the Lotus Lantern Festival include Song Sang Hyun Plaza next to Busan Citizens Park. This relatively new public space features a brilliant lantern display that takes on the forms of human figures, characters and animals. It also hosts a lantern procession on the big day itself, delivering a much-needed dose of colour and serenity to the city’s otherwise hectic streets. 

A group of people covered in foam enjoying the Busan Sea Festival.

A group of people covered in foam enjoying the Busan Sea Festival.

Photograph by Alamy

3. Haeundae Sand Festival 
Late May or early June

Haeundae Beach isn’t just the most famous seashore in Busan, but also the nation. This one-mile stretch of sand draws hordes of visitors in the summer looking to lie down under parasols between refreshing dips in the sea. It is, however, thankfully less busy during the rest of the year, making it the perfect spot for the Haeundae Sand Festival, which runs for four days in late May or early June. The festival features huge, intricately designed sand sculptures created by artists from around the world. These stretch all the way up and down the beach, and each year the works reflect the festival’s theme. In addition to the naturally made art, activities include sand baths, sand sledding, and a sand treasure hunt, along with a parade, musical performances and nightly fireworks show.

4. Busan Sea Festival 
29 July – 6 August 

During the height of Korea’s sweltering summer, people from all over the peninsula flock to the sands of Busan to escape the heat and plug into what becomes the nation’s biggest outdoor party. Celebrated across all five of the city’s main beaches — Songjeong, Haeundae, Gwangali, Songdo and Dadaepo — Busan Sea Festival highlights the city's proximity to the cooling ocean waters with wading pools, foam parties and music galore. The live acts include rock outfits, traditional Korean ensembles, classical musicians, rappers, jazz combos, ballad crooners, EDM spinners and enough hyperkinetic K-pop to power a small country.

5. Busan International Film Festival  
4-13 October

Since its launch in 1996, Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) has grown to become Asia’s largest film festival, and arguably its most culturally significant. The event offers a mix of art house and more commercial films shown at around 30 screens in six theatres, drawing cinephiles from around the world. What’s more, the festival grounds also feature event stages, cafes, interactive zones and food trucks.

The Busan International Film Festival takes place in Nuri Maru APEC House.

The Busan International Film Festival takes place in Nuri Maru APEC House.

Photograph by AFP Getty Images

6. Jagalchi Festival 
12-15 October

‘Oiso! Boiso! Saiso!’ (Come! See! Buy!) — this is the slogan of Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan’s storied centre of seafood commerce that’s been in operation for more than six hundred years. Jagalchi is a must-see destination when visiting Busan. For many, it’s the city’s beating heart 
— so much so that it’s got it’s very own festival. Food, of course, is the name of the game at the Jagalchi Festival, with a focus on the finned, scaled, shelled and tentacled. Vendors set up tents near the main concourse and along the side streets, where the ocean’s bounty is served up at little plastic tables and usually washed down with copious amounts of soju and beer. 

This is an exciting and often energetic festival is where the locals take to the streets and really enjoy themselves. As people tuck into plates of fresh sashimi, octopus, shellfish, coal-roasted squid and grilled eel, traditional street performers bang on drums, sing songs and clown it up to the delight of the lively crowd. The Jagalchi Festival is where old Busan comes out to play in all of its lovely, rough-and-tumble glory. It’s an unpretentious celebration of seafood and life.

7. Busan International Fireworks Festival 
25 November 

Originally created to mark Busan’s hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in the fall of 2005, the spectacular fireworks display proved so popular the city of Busan decided to make it an annual occasion. Ever since then, on the last Saturday of November, hundreds of thousands of spectators pack the sands and  seafront establishments of Gwangalli Beach to take in the dazzling show. Led by an international team of pyrotechnic experts, the Busan International Fireworks Festival is more than a demonstration of kaleidoscopic visuals: the multimedia display is a combination of music, lighting and storytelling. The entire spectacle takes place above Busan’s towering Gwangan Diamond Bridge, the multicoloured lights of which work in tandem with the explosives as the sparks shower down. People come from around the world to witness this thrilling event. 

Plan your trip

Festival dates are subject to change. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines both offer daily nonstop flights from Heathrow to Seoul’s Incheon Airport. From Incheon Airport, it’s just an hour flight south to Busan. 

For more information, visit visitbusan.net

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