Friends, I am absolutely blown away by today’s city guide (part of our series of travel guides for families- written by families that live in those cities!). I have to confess, I asked Jess to write this city guide knowing full well that we had a trip to Seoul in the works. I did not expect the most thorough travel guide in the history of travel guides, though. It makes me beyond excited for our trip. Also, I can’t really hand this post over to Jess before I tell you that she and I met on a bus in Hong Kong (for real!) and now are email/blog buddies. In fact, we’re hoping to hang out with their family in Seoul. I love the connections technology allows. Back to the Seoul City Guide- prepare to be amazed y’all. And be prepared to add “South Korea” to your travel wish list!
Greetings from South Korea! I’m Jessica of How We See Korea. Our family of 5 moved to Seoul, South Korea a little over three years ago. We anticipate enjoying a couple more years here before heading back to the US.
Seoul is one of the world’s largest cities. It’s modern, but has a rich, long history. Seeing the old right along side of the new is one of my favorite things about South Korea. We’ve seen a lot in the last 3+ years, but our bucket list is still a mile long. I hope this post will give you a little taste of what Korea is like.
When we plan our trips, we try to plan a wide variety of things. We usually pick 1 museum, 1 park, 1 cultural activity, 1 hike, 1 market, 1 cooking class, 1 historical site, etc. This gives us a broad view of what a city is like. In the spirit of that kind of planning, here we go!
Seoul is something of a gateway city. People going back and forth from the US often have to stop in Seoul. Layovers with kids aren’t generally the most fun part of traveling, but if you’re here just for a layover, you can have some fun at the airport or even see some of the city. Incheon Airport has been ranked as the world’s best. There are cafés, a bathhouse, a movie theater, children’s play room, and a skating rink. Many of these are outside of security and immigration. If you’re traveling on a US passport you can get a free 90 day visa at immigration, so it’s not a problem.
If you have a long layover and want to get out of the airport, take a look at transit tours. These are tours specifically for people on layovers and they are FREE. That’s right. FREE. Pick a tour based on how long your layover is and a bus picks you up and shows you around. Tours do fill up, so you can make a reservation online.
This museum is massive. They have a great kid’s area. For a couple thousand won, you can get an activity booklet that will help kids find and understand things in the museum. Admission is free.
Admission is free and it is a very large museum as well. My favorite part is outside. There are all kinds of ships, planes, and tanks to see. There’s a pretty large boat that you can climb into.
While admission is not free, it is extremely affordable. It cost our family a little less than $3 the last time we went. Yeah. You won’t break the bank visiting museums in Korea! English is somewhat limited here, but it’s worth the trip. My favorite part was learning about how to make kimchi and seeing a kimchi pot referred to as a “house of fermenting mold.” Oh Korea!
This is also a freebie, but would be more enjoyable with older kids. There are lots of dioramas here, but the best part is a huge 3D map of Seoul that you can walk over. It’s neat even to just pop in to see this.
I recommend this museum if you’re tired of your tourist activities and need a rest or if you need some rainy day relaxation. On the second floor, you can pick out a movie. The staff will turn it on in English for you on a personal tv. Take a break, Mom and Dad!
Parks and Green Spaces:
This area is fantastic. There is an area for kids to splash in the summer, a small zoo, parks galore, and a children’s museum. If you want a one stop shop for kid fun, it’s here.
Seoul’s largest zoo is here, along with several garden areas. This is also home to a theme park called Seoul Land, which is supposed to be the nicest amusement park for younger children. The dinosaur in the photo is actually a slide that is in the zoo.
This is a beautiful green space with a large park. If you visit in the fall it’s especially beautiful to see the gingko tree grove. Gorgeous! There is also a butterfly house, an area where you can feed deer, and a splash area. It’s a great place to snap a few shots of the kiddos too.
The Han River runs through the middle of Seoul. The parks on either side of the river stretch for miles. You can rent bikes or swan boats or just go for a nice walk along the river. There are several café’s on the bridges that go over the Han, making nice places to rest and see the view. In the summer, the Banpo Bridge has a lighted fountain show. On the weekends they do fireworks. There are also river cruises you can take. In the summer the city opens swimming pools and a water park that are along the river.
This 11km stream runs through the middle of downtown Seoul. It runs below street level and there is a lot of greenery, making it cooler than the rest of the city in the summer. It’s a fantastic place to take kids because they can hop back and forth on the stones in the stream and watch the fish.
If you only go to one market, it should be this one. It’s been in existence since the 1400’s and is apparently the largest market in Korea. If something exists, I’m pretty sure you can buy it here. It’s just a matter of finding it. Namdaemun is a great place for tourist trinkets. You’ll see all the same things in other markets for higher prices. You can also see one of the old city gates here.
This area is more modern, but still has many street vendors. I don’t advise taking kids here in the evening. It gets really, really crowded. You can go to the Seoul Global Cultural Center to try on Hanbok (traditional clothing) and take pictures. Bring your camera and you can use their tripods. They have adult clothes and children’s clothes. Get there when they open to sign up for a time slot because they fill up fast. If you need a locker to store things in for the day, you can get one there.
This is a bustling market that is great to get a bite to eat. It’s basically picking a stall and having your Korean grandmother cook for you. Take a walk along the Cheonggyecheon Stream afterward. From here it’s easy to walk through Bangsan Market, which we call “baker’s alley.” It’s not necessarily a hot place to hit with kids, but if you’re into baking, a new cookie cutter (squid shape, anyone?!) or something might be fun.
There are tons of vendors selling seafood here. Even if you don’t enjoy eating seafood, this is quite the place to see. If you pick something to buy, the vendors will bag it up for you and you can take it up to the second floor to have it prepared at one of the restaurants. It’s a little like going to an aquarium, but if you’re hungry you can eat the fish!
This might be the best smelling place in Korea. It’s a fun place to explore just for the novelty of seeing so many flowers in one place. Citizen’s Forest is right next door to the flower market and makes a great place for a picnic. There is a splash area for kids in the summer.
This area isn’t great for kids, but I’m putting it in here because it’s my happy place. If you love fabric like I do, this is the place you want to go. Fabric is cheap, cheap, cheap in Korea and there is a ton of it 4 buildings (4-5 stories each). $12/yard fabric becomes $3-4/yard fabric here. It’s an amazing place. Some vendors will only sell wholesale, but there are plenty who will sell to individuals.
Seoul was once a walled city. There were 4 main gates and 4 minor ones. It is possible to hike around the entire city and see them all. We’ve done portions of it and hope to have it all done before we move. Our favorite portion is Bugaksan Mountain. There is one gate that you can only see if you do this hike. Because the hike comes close to the presidential residence, you must check in and out of this hike with your passport. We’ve done this hike twice with friends and with our mountain goats … I mean children (now ages 11, 8, and 3 years), but it is challenging. A victory jump is absolutely necessary afterward!
There are 5 main palaces in Seoul. Gyeongbokgung Palace is the largest. The changing of the guard is worth catching. Their English tour is also very good. Deoksugung Palace also has a great changing of the guard ceremony. Sometimes they bring out the horses. It’s also a place where you can see the influence of colonial Japan.
A hanok is a traditional Korean house. There are a number of these hanok villages around Korea. They’re places where traditional houses have been moved to preserve them and to provide a place to learn about the history of Korea. My kids have taken drum classes there. They can do painting classes, learn traditional games, and all kinds of things. The drum class was less than $2. There are English tours as well and the tour guides can tell you about the families that used to live in these houses.
Seoul Tower is the iconic symbol of Seoul and it is the geographical center of the city on top of Namsan (nam = south, san = mountain). There is a cable car that goes almost all the way to the top or you can hike up. There are restaurants, traditional dance and music demonstrations, and you can buy a lock to sign and leave on the fence. The views are fantastic on clear days. You really get a good feel for just how big Seoul is from up there. Make sure you check out the view from the bathrooms!
Food is cheap and plentiful in Korea. Street food is everywhere. Look for kimbap (rice and seaweed roll), japchae (noodles with vegetables), and bibimbap (rice and vegetables). Many places have English menus or picture menus. I love Korean desserts. Look for hodduhk or patbingsoo. Watch this video to see the deliciousness. Many street vendors sell hodduhk, but we think the best ones are in Namdaemun. Patbingsoo is sold at almost any café you find. Mandu (dumplings) and just plain old bap (rice) are always a hit with my kids as well. Waffles stuffed with a whipped frosting from a street vendor are about the most delicious thing ever. Please split one. You’ll think you can eat the whole thing, but you’ll completely regret it. I promise.
There’s not just Korean food though. You can have everything from Indian to Mexican to Bulgarian.
There is a coffee shop on every corner and most likely a few in between the corners too! Seoul has more Starbucks than any city in the world, but there are tons of other coffee places too. Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, Seoul had you covered on this one!
You can take a cooking class through O’gno. I haven’t done this class, but have heard from friends with kids that it’s wonderful.
Outside of Seoul:
If you have the opportunity to explore other parts of Korea, our favorite trips outside of Seoul have been to …
PyeongChang, which is the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics. We went here in May one year. They have a lot of hotels and venues built and we got to go to the stop of the ski jump. I’m excited to watch the Olympics and be able to say that we’ve been there. There is an indoor water park there as well.
The Demilitarized Zone is the area that divides North and South Korea. I would highly recommend going, but you can only take children if they are 10 and older. There are many companies that offer tours, but try to get one that takes you to the JSA (Joint Security Area) like this one through the USO.
If you’re an adventurous family, you might want to head to a jimjilbang or, as we call it, the naked spa. That’s right. Naked spa. I said it. The men and women go to separate areas to bathe, soak, and if you’re really adventurous you can get scrubbed by someone who you’d swear wants to draw blood. You’ll be soft and pink as a newborn baby by the time you’re done though! When you’re all clean, you put on provided shorts and t-shirts and join the rest of your family. There are usually restaurants, sleeping rooms, rooms with different temperature settings, wood, minerals, stones, etc that are supposed to be good for various ailments. This whole thing had this westerner terrified, but I LOVE it now. Getting scrubbed is fast becoming a need! Honestly, it wasn’t weird like I thought it would be. What was weird was that it wasn’t weird! Weird, right?! My kids love it too. They hop from pool to pool, shrieking when they get in the really cold ones. Siloam Sauna is convenient because it is near Seoul Station (the main train and subway station) and it’s supposed to be very authentic. The Dragon Hill Spa is nice and more foreigner friendly. My friend Trish did a great blog post about her experience there. Honestly, you can’t really top this as far as cultural experiences go!
We took this tour when we had been living here for about a week. This is a fantastic way to see a lot of the city. It’s one of those hop on, hop off tours. It’s another way to get up to Seoul Tower without taking the stairs to the top of the mountain. I recommend the downtown palace course.
If you like amusement parks, there is Everland, Seoul Land, and Lotte World. Ask for foreigner discounts.
Korean baseball games are so much fun. You can get tickets at the stadium. You can take in your own food or buy food there (both outside and inside the stadium).
If you enjoy geocaching, Seoul is a great place to explore. There are mostly micro-caches here, but they’re still fun to find. My husband maintains one that is larger and great for dropping off travel bugs.
There is a festival for EVERYTHING in Korea. Cherry Blossom Festival? Of course. Tomato Festival? Absolutely. Kimchi Festival? Duh. A Google search for any kind of festival will likely turn up something. Give it a try!
Korea has 4 very definite seasons. Our favorites are spring and fall. Spring is beautiful with cherry blossom trees blooming everywhere. Fall is just plain gorgeous with the gingko trees turning bright yellow. Winter is cold and windy with a little snow and summer is hot, sticky, and sometimes very rainy.
South Korea uses the won. Generally 1,000 won = 1 US dollar. It goes up and down of course, but since we have lived here it’s stayed in that neighborhood.
I’ve been extremely pleased with Korea’s public transportation. The subway and busses go everywhere. They’re clean and inexpensive. Taxi’s are cheap as well. Make sure the taxi driver runs his meter and doesn’t try to get you to settle on a price ahead of time. You can go a long way for a few thousand won.
Closures and Holidays:
Many tourist sites are closed on Mondays, so be sure to check hours before going anywhere on a Monday. The two major holidays in Korea are Lunar New Year (in January or February) and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving, in September or October).
Tips and Apps:
Be prepared to get a lot of attention with kids, especially if they are blonde or have curly hair. People give my children little gifts often, everything from candy and balloons to cash. We’ve had 2 people fall down because they were staring at our kids and not watching where they were going. We’ve had people miss their trains and busses because they were too busy watching our kids. You may get a parenting lecture or two, especially if you come in the winter with small children who won’t keep their mittens on. I bet you can guess how I know!
You can call 1330 for tourist information or help with translation.
Korea is a very safe country. Assume that you’re on cctv if you’re outside of your hotel room. That being said, Korea is not crime free. Keep your tourist wits about you.
Restaurants that have high chairs are a rarity here. When our youngest was a baby the ladies working at restaurants would often hold her and play with her, but be prepared for holding your little ones for meals.
There is not really such a thing as personal space here. You’ll get bumped and jostled in the market. I’ve had people try to get through a space and just push me out of the way. That’s just the way it is.
Korea has some issue with air quality. Between Seoul’s pollution and the yellow dust blown over from China, we have some days that aren’t so nice. If the air is bad, you’ll see that everyone will be wearing a mask. Air quality has kept us indoors a only handful of days over 3 years. Still, it’s good to be aware.
Chopsticks and spoons are often found in drawers built into tables. Often there are buttons on tables to press if you need something from your waiter. We’ve had our kids push these without us knowing! Oops!
Subway Korea and Seoul Subway are very helpful apps for navigating Seoul. There is a lot of free wi-fi around.
There is also an app called Seoul Toilet that will tell you where bathrooms are! Speaking of bathrooms, pack a roll of toilet paper when you head out to sight see. While there is usually toilet paper at major tourist sites, it’s not pleasant to get suck without any! Also, be aware that sometimes the toilet paper it outside of the stalls. Most of the time we find western style toilets, but you may come across a squatty potty or two especially if you head outside of Seoul.
That wraps it up! Thank you for letting me share Seoul with you all. Things like this make me fall in love my adopted country all over again.