Planning a trip to Seoul? Before even thinking about what to pack (or what to bring back home in your luggage), learn what to keep in mind when choosing your vacation dates. Weather, national calendar, natural attractions, and over 10 million people are important factors to consider when going to the city. Good news is we give you all the shortcuts for the best experience possible!
When to go: the TL;DR version
Let’s get specific—even down to the actual day of the week: The best time to visit Seoul is from Wednesday through Sunday in mid-September to early-October (but not during Chuseok). Still not specific enough? Choose the first week of October—and enjoy some K-beauty deals as a bonus. I’ll elaborate below.
Times to Avoid
If you hate heat, humidity and crowds
Most of August. There are multiple factors at play to make this an unfavorable time to visit. Never mind the heat (ask any Seoulite how much they paid for electricity this past August); August is also summer vacation month for most employees at most Korean companies. Schools and colleges are officially on summer break, so all the young people are out and about, too. What to expect: Busier restaurants, with people lining up at popular businesses even during the day. Crowded shopping and cultural complexes, as people escape the heat and boredom. With a national love for staycations, hotels are also at full occupancy and certain amenities are scarce. Some start enforcing a two-hour, reservation-only policy for use of their pools. Smaller businesses also take a few days to a week off. While there is a certain welcome quiet and calm, it’s no fun vacationing in a city that’s on break.
If you want to experience Seoul in its typical bustling glory
Avoid Korea’s autumn harvest festival, Chuseok. This is one of the most important holidays on the Korean lunar calendar. Because so many people leave the city to travel to their hometowns or relatives, there are considerably less cars and people in the city during that time. While this is a welcome pace from the usual hustle and bustle, it’s will also make Seoul feel less like Seoul. On the other hand, this can be a great reason to visit Seoul, especially if you’re 1) hailing from another Asian country that observes the holiday 2) it’s not your first time here or 3) you have several days to spare for visiting attractions. In fact, the palaces and other traditional attractions are usually open and free to the public on Chuseok. Because the holiday is based on the lunar calendar, the dates change every year. The government designates at least three days off as the official holiday, but it can span as much as five days. Over the next three years, Chuseok falls on: September 15, 2016; October 4, 2017; September 24, 2018.
If you can’t handle the cold
Summers are hot and humid, and winters can be just as extreme on the opposite end. January and February are especially brutal. Not only is it cold, but extremely dry here in Seoul. I’ve known people with eczema who only get flares ups during Seoul winters. Also noteworthy: more people drive or take taxis when it’s cold, and thus, streets are more congested at night and on weekends. Unless it’s so cold that people refuse to leave the house. In either case, it’s no way to spend a vacation.
Time to go
And the winner is… October!
The best time to visit may be subjective, but given the climate, crowds and comfort of visiting attractions, this is your month.
The time between early September to mid October—barring Chuseok—is actually a great choice, just remember to keep in mind other holidays like National Foundation Day (October 3) and Hangul Day (October 9) too. These lone-standing holidays are too short to leave town, which means most Seoulites will be eating out and visiting overcrowded local attractions just like you.
Schedule your trip to enjoy the changing of the leaves, a national pastime that the locals endearing refer to as “foliage play.” The city of Seoul anticipates this year’s foliage to peak between October 19 through 30, a forecast based on Bukhansan, the mountain that overlooks Seoul’s palaces and presidential Blue House.
Silver medal: First week of April
Spring is a beautiful season throughout East Asia and a worth a visit, especially if you’re coming from afar and planning to couple your visit to Korea with Japan like many visitors. Japan’s cherry blossoms may be legendary, but Korea’s own blossoms are a sight to behold. Multiple cherry blossom festivals happen during the first and second week of April as streams, paths and parks go into full bloom. Go view the blossoms on a weekday afternoon or be prepared to get hit by couples wielding selfie sticks. The caveat: spring is also when the notorious yellow dust from the Gobi Desert blankets the Korean peninsula. Be prepared for some haze and dustiness. Bring masks.
For those who don’t mind the cold, Christmas and New Year’s is also a fun time to visit. There’s the cold, but there’s also snow, festive decor and lots of merrymaking. While businesses shut down for Christmas in many cities, businesses in Seoul boom with festivities throughout December. Christmas and New Year’s Day are a couple’s holiday in modern Korea, with many young people opting to spend the day with their lovers rather than their loved ones. This also means that many restaurants are at full capacity and operating on a reservation-only basis on these days. Keep in mind that only Christmas Day and New Year’s Day are public holidays in Korea. People still go into work on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The perk to visiting Seoul in the winter? It’s the perfect season to squeeze in some beachside R&R in Southeast Asia. Incheon International Airport is great hub to scope out the rest of Asia, and reputable local budget carriers like Jin Air and Jeju Air offer low-cost flights to Phuket (a perennial favorite) and more recently, Danang (an increasingly popular babymoon destination).
Absolute best days to visit
If your trip to Seoul is going to be complemented by a weekend, does it matter which end? Why yes, it does. If you can only take a few working days off, I recommend arriving before the weekend. The optimal span for the average tourist to visit Seoul is Wednesday through Sunday (as opposed to Saturday to Wednesday). Why? Let me count the reasons. Museums and theater performances are generally closed on Mondays. Palaces are closed on Tuesdays. Some delicious but small restaurants—both western and Korean—rest on Mondays or Tuesdays. Plus, if you are a K-beauty fan, you’ll definitely want to be in town from Thursday to Saturday (more on that below).
If you’re a K-beauty fan
Don’t be afraid to admit it if K-beauty is the main or only motivator for your trip to Seoul. A few brands offer “Big Sales,” which are store-wide sales. Innisfree usually holds their Big Sales on Thursday through Saturday on the second or third week of February, May, August and November. Skinfood usually holds their sales Thursday through Saturday on the first or second week of January, April, July and October. Missha holds a big sale twice annually in June and December.
Note: Big Sales are different from the “membership day” sales hosted regularly by top K-beauty brands. Membership sales happen more frequently, but they require proof of membership, and the discount rate is usually tiered to your membership level. It’s another option if, say, your locally-based host/friend is also a registered member, but not very helpful if you’re a one-time visitor.
A final word
There you have it. The absolute best time to visit Seoul, down to the optimal days for enjoying attractions, avoiding lines and snagging K-beauty deals. With this said, we all know there is no such thing as a perfect vacation. Try as you might, you just can’t plan for some things, like yellow dust or rain, during your trip to Seoul. While this guide is designed to help you avoid attractions at peak times, keep in mind that it’s written from the perspective of a local who battles the masses on a daily basis. There is something about the crowds and the chaos that makes Seoul—well, Seoul. So take heed, but don’t always take to heart, and use these recommendations as a starting place. Seoul will be here in all seasons, and K-beauty is accessible and affordable anytime of the week.