Korean food is delicious. There’s no question about that for me. So when I heard about the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival, held every fall (October) in Jeollabuk-do, I decided I had to check it out.
Jeonju is a city which is famous for two main things: Hanok Village, and bibimbap. Hanok Village (한옥 마을) is a small area of Jeonju where traditional styled homes of the Joseon Dynasty’s (1392–1897) upper class can be seen. Another such village exists in Seoul in Bukchon. I think both of them are pretty lame. I mean, I think they are about as authentic as the “German Beer Garden” at your local amusement park. Nevertheless, both of these villages draw tourists in droves.
Actually, I would avoid going to Jeonju altogether. That sounds really critical, but the two main attractions, Hanok Village and bibimbap, just aren’t worth the time or effort. You are better off heading to Andong Hahoe Folk Village (UNESCO), or Yangdong Folk Village (UNESCO) to see beautiful traditional homes.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) is a Korean dish of rice and vegetables mixed with a spicy sauce. I’m not really sure how Jeonju came to be known for bibimbap. Now, it is a dish that can be found everywhere in Korea and may be considered a representative Korean food. I’ve eaten the less famous Jinju bibimbap, and bibimbap at local diners all across the country, and I can say that the diner down the street from my apartment in Daegu has the best bibimbap I’ve ever eaten. So if you are considering a trip to Jeonju so you can try Jeonju Bibimbap, I would like to encourage you to look no further than your local diners. Just remember, not every bibimbap is created equal. But a bibimbap done well, is an amazing dining experience.
But what about the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival? Is it worth going to? I don’t think so. Let me tell you why.
The first reason why you should not go to the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival is if you want to eat bibimbap, as I already mentioned, do it locally. This festival is held in Hanok Village, and from what I gathered, bibimbap diners are scattered around and difficult to located. So the main option for visitors in Hanok Village who want to eat bibimbap is to eat a cafeteria style “make your own bibimbap” kind of thing at the main convention hall. This should not be your bibimbap experience.
The second reason why you should not go to the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival is the lack of English language service. To fully enjoy any of the workshops on cooking or to get any detailed information on the food displays, you would have to understand Korean. If you can’t speak or understand Korean, you are limited to walking around a looking at food. If English language guides were on site and ready to give short “tours” of the bibimbap displays, that would make things better, but not so much that it would justify you taking a trip across the country to participate in.
Was it all bad? Not really. The convention hall was a little interesting. There was a display of 101 kinds of bibimbap, a display of a number of local restaurants’ variations of bibimbap, and a competition for making health foods and traditional wedding foods of which were also on display. On top of that, there were some demonstrations on how to prepare certain health foods. The real problem for me is that this just wasn’t a lot of fun.
The best thing to come from the event was in the (Korean language) event guide. In it there are 18 Jeonju Bibimbap restaurants with a small map for each listed. If one wanted to, they could play Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, select one of the restaurants and show the map to a taxi driver so they could try bibimbap at a specialty restaurant. Yeah, that’s the best thing to come out of the festival. Too bad it’s only in Korean.
Sitting at my desk and looking back, the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival was not a satisfying travel experience for me. I suggest passing up this city, let alone festival, when you make your Korean travel plans. Korea has so much better to offer for enjoying the beautiful fall weather. I can easily recommend visiting places like Seoraksan National Park to see the gorgeous fall colors and landscape, or Upo Marsh and Sinbulsan Mountain to see the golden reed grass.