I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: No matter how long I live in Korea, something new will always pop up and surprise me. Since I’ve spent my last two New Year’s Eves out of the country, I only learned about “Korean-style” New Year’s celebrations very recently. Koreans follow both the solar and the lunar calendars, so just to be clear I’m talking about December 31st and January 1st and not Seollal (설날), or the Lunar New Year, but you can read about that holiday here.
Of course there are New Year’s parties and people like to go out to dinner or dancing, as they do everywhere else in the world, but watching the first sunrise and sunset of the New Year is something that is uniquely Korean. Watching the sunrise is not exclusive to Korea, but the emphasis on the event surely is. There are many festivals around the peninsula, but of those several are quite famous for this event. Since the sun rises in the east, Korea’s east coast is the place to go to watch the most beautiful sunrise but you’ve got to start early. The sun rises at approximately 7:30 a.m. and you’d hate to miss it! The festivals I share here all list their start times between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m., so set your alarms!
Busan Sunrise Festival (부산해맞이축제) and Diamond Bridge Walk (광안대교)
Since I live in the southeastern coastal city of Busan, I’ll start here. On New Year’s Day, celebrants can head to Yongdusan Park to enjoy the sunrise over a panoramic view of the city. It’s especially popular with young couples who come here to write their love wishes on small padlocks that they attach to a fence surrounding the landmark Busan Tower. Popular with families young and old, the beautiful Haeundae Beach also offers a spectacular view and it is the kick-off point for the bridge walk. Visitors can stroll over Busan’s iconic Gwangan or Diamond Bridge and enjoy the view of the sun rising over the sea, but from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. only! If you really want to experience Busan, you must walk the Diamond Bridge at least once! But if braving the cold without caffeine isn’t your thing, indoor-types can head to Dalmaji Hill, where dozens of fancy cafés will open their doors for your sunrise-viewing and coffee-sipping pleasure. All of these events are free of charge and run from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. For more info, click here.
Ulsan Ganjeolgot Sunrise Festival (울산 간절곶 해맞이축제)
The neighbouring city of Ulsan hosts its own festivities, at Ganjeolgot Cape. The cape boasts the earliest sunrise on the peninsula, but the far-flung island of Ulleungdo (울릉도) can claim the first sunrise in Korea. The festival will host a concert and other events, and will offer free tteokguk (떡국) or Korean rice cake soup, a traditional New Year’s food. To be honest though, the main reason I’d trek out here is so that I can go see the giant “Hope Mailbox”! It’s a huge postbox, and you can actually mail letters from here, too! The prospect of writing my New Year’s wish at a comically over-sized mailbox fills me with more joy than can be put into words. For more info about the sunrise festival, go here.
Pohang Homigot Sunrise Festival (포항 호미곶 한민족 해맞이축전)
Another eastern port city, Pohang’s Homigot Square hosts all of the festival events, and is best known its pair of giant hand statues, one on land, the other rising from the sea, Since I love all things that are over-sized, I’d recommend going here solely for this, but everybody else has the same idea and the hand statues are the desired subject of everyone’s sunrise photos, so you’ll have some competition. At this festival, you can also enjoy kite-flying and sending off “hope balloons” bearing your New Year’s wish. Click here for more info.
Jeju Seongsan Sunrise Festival (제주성산일출축제)
Perhaps the most famous of the sunrise festivals, this one is held at Ilchubong (일출봉) or Sunrise Peak on Jejudo, which you’d surely recognize since it was recently named one of the world’s New Seven Wonders of Nature. At dawn, all of the ships in port will turn on their lights and blow their whistles for a totally immersive sunrise experience. To learn more, visit this site.
Yeosu Hyangiram Sunrise Festival (여수향일암일출제)
While the east coast is certainly lovely for viewing the sunrise, it is not the only coast, and the west coast offers plenty of options too. This festival in Yeosu look particularly appealing since it runs all night, so you can stretch out your fun from New Year’s Eve at sunset till New Year’s Day at dawn! For more info, please go here.
Jeongdongjin Sunrise Festival (정동진 해돋이축제)
If it weren’t for this article I’d never have discovered that there is a gigantic, hourglass waiting for me in Gangwondo! At the Jeongdongjin Sunrise Festival, thousands of visitors flock to this picturesque pine tree-lined beach to watch the New Year’s Day hourglass-turning ceremony. Standing at eight metres in diameter, this hourglass holds eight tons of sand, and it takes one year for the sand to move from the top to bottom! To learn more, go here.
Take a Hike! New Year’s Sunrise Hikes
Any mountain will do for this particular event, but Taebaek Mountain (태백산) and its tallest peak Seoraksan (설악산) is the most popular. Korean people looooove hiking, and so this is the quintessentially Korean way to celebrate the New Year. Winter hiking is a serious endeavor, and not one to be taken lightly. You must be adequately prepared with the right equipment and hiking plan since conditions can be change in an instant. You wouldn’t be alone though, as lines of hikers will march alongside you to see that first sunrise from the top, and to shout their New Year’s wish. As my friend who is an avid hiker told me, “There are so many people shouting, it makes the mountain shake!” He also tells me that the air feels freshest in the winter and that the crunch of snow under your boots is very satisfying, but I’ll have to take his word on that one. For info on Taebaek, go here.
Haeundae Polar Bear Swim (북극곰 수영대회) and Geoje-do Penguin Swim (거제도국제펭귄수영축제) Festivals
If early mornings and uphill hikes don’t appeal to you, then perhaps a swim will! If mid-January rolls around and you’re still looking for a way to re-affirm your existence and signal the start of the New Year, then I assure you there is no better way than by jumping into the freezing cold ocean! Nothing says “new start” like sub-zero temperatures! In Busan, the Haeundae Polar Swim festival attracts 2,000 thrill-seekers while on Geoje Island the Penguin Swim Festival welcomes another 1,300 participants. I attended both events last year and swam at the Geoje-do event, and believe it or not, but it was ridiculously fun! Like every festival in Korea, it’s over-the-top, noisy, and action-packed, and you’ll find yourself swept away in the momentum in no time! Both events require pre-registration and offer souvenirs with your entry. Find the Haeundae Polar Swim here and info about Geoje-do here.
So if you’re looking for something different or searching for a meaningful way to welcome the New Year, I’d suggest celebrating New Year’s Day the Korean way with a little sunshine and some friends. So set your alarm, bundle up and don’t forget your camera! It’ll be a New Year you’ll never forget. Happy holidays, everyone!
Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly three years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.