Best 10 things to do in South Korea’s colorful capital city
Seoul is known for its night life, strange food (live octopus anyone?), and K-Pop, but it's also filled with beautiful architecture and history. When planning our trip, my high schooler told me that he wanted "to get slapped in the face with culture,” and Seoul gave him exactly what he asked for, plus a hefty dose of fun.
KidTripster Tip: When in Korea, do as the Koreans do. Don’t say “cheese” when smiling for a photo; instead say “kimchi” like the locals. Also, turn your hand palm-side down when gesturing for someone to come to you. It’s considered rude to call someone over with your palm facing up; that's how Koreans call their dogs.
Photo courtesy: Visit Seoul
1/Go back in time to Joseon Dynasty at Gyeongbokgung
This palace is the number one tourist attraction in Seoul for good reason. First built in 1395, the palace now faces skyscrapers, yet it’s still set against a backdrop of round-peaked mountains. Of the five palaces in the city, Gyeongbokgung is the oldest, largest, and most beautiful and was the main residence for the Joseon Dynasty. The royal guard-changing ceremony takes place several times a day, which my kids thought was “awesome.” Afterwards, you can try on one of the guard’s colorful uniforms (for a small fee). Skip the National Folk Museum, which we thought was dull, but be sure to enter the museum grounds to visit the zodiac sculpture garden. (You’ll need to show and keep your palace admission ticket to re-enter the palace grounds.) My sons loved finding their animals and bought replica statuettes inside the museum gift shop.
2/Hanbok and the “super cool” neighborhood of Samcheongdong
Hanbok (traditional Korean dress) used to be reserved for weddings and other special occasions, but in the last few years, wearing hanbok has become a trend among Korean youth (and tourists), especially when visiting the palaces. These beautiful costumes can be rented by the hour from shops in Samcheongdong, walking distance from Gyeongbokgung. This popular area is filled with cafés and shops, but the main attraction is Bukchon Hanok Village, streets lined with traditional Korean houses that people still live in.
KidTripster Tip: If you need directions or advice, just look for one of the friendly, English-speaking, i-Seoul volunteers, wearing red shirts and cowboy hats. They’re a mobile tourist information center, out on the streets helping foreigners navigate top destinations.
3/Insadong-gil and Jogyesa Temple
Insadong-gil is a well-known shopping street, also near Gyeongbokgung. Here my boys practiced their bartering skills, each buying a beautiful painting directly from the artist. Don’t miss the gorgeous metal sculptures at the entrance to the peaceful grounds of the Korean Buddhist temple of Jogyesa.
KidTripster Tip: While in Seoul, take the subway to get around. It’s extremely clean, efficient, and safe. There's a glass wall between the platform and tracks with sliding doors that open only when the train has come to a complete stop. Pink seats are reserved for pregnant women, those holding babies, and the disabled.
At the southern end of Insadong-gil, you’re just steps from Cheonggyecheon, a revitalized stream that was once covered by an elevated freeway. Now a big urban renewal success story, Cheonggyecheon is a refreshing place to beat the summer heat and take a break from the busy city streets. Below street level and stretching for miles, it’s lined with artwork and home to wildlife. After a long day of sightseeing, we enjoyed a stroll along the stream and sat on the bank with a small crowd of locals, watching a crane fish for its dinner.
5/Namdaemun Gate and Market
Built in 1398, Namdaemun (officially referred to as Sungnyemun), the southern gate of the once-walled city of Seoul, was named as one of Korea’s national treasures. It had survived numerous invasions and wars over the centuries, only to be destroyed by arson in 2008. It has now been fully restored. While we visited, we witnessed an unadvertised changing of the guard ceremony dress rehearsal. Namdaemun Market, the largest in the city and a great place to buy low-priced souvenirs, is a block from the gate. We shopped a bit and then tried chapssal (fried glutinous rice buns) filled with sweet red bean paste. Delicious!
6/Day trip to Suwon
An hour south of Seoul, the city of Suwon is home to Hwaseong Fortress, the only remaining walled city in South Korea. We popped into the visitors center in front of the palace and were treated to a free, private history lesson from one of the volunteers. If you decide to tour the palace, bring a few sheets of paper along, so your kids can stamp them with images from the Banchado, sketches depicting King Jeongjo’s spectacular procession to Hwaseong in 1795. (The Banchado was replicated in color on thousands of ceramic tiles that line the banks of the western end of Cheonggyecheon, the stream mentioned previously.) Arrive at the palace before 11 a.m., so you won’t miss the performance by martial artists in period dress (daily except Mondays). Afterwards, you’ll need several hours to visit the palace, hike to the top of the fortress wall, and make your way along the wall through all the picturesque pavilions and gates to the end of the line, where you and your kids can pay to put your archery skills to the test.
KidTripster Tip: No matter how funny it sounds, skip Mr. Toilet House, a much-hyped toilet history museum on the outskirts of town. My kids thought the flower-filled urinals and statues of poop and people going to the bathroom were “disgusting.”
7/Day trip to Everland
As diehard Disneyland fans, we thought Everland would be a let down, but we had a great time at this Korean amusement park. We started the day in Zootopia, where we went on two different safari bus tours. Safari World included white tigers and a huge pride of lions, while the open-window Lost World tour had us face to face - literally - with a hungry giraffe who was hand fed by our on-board guide. Our favorite rides (Thunder Falls and Amazon Express) posted warnings that we “may experience significant splashing of water,” but we didn’t mind. Korean summers are hot and humid, and we needed to cool off. Koreans, however, do not like getting wet, so there are signs posted in the queues with warnings like, “Do not put up an umbrella while riding.” Park employees dry off your seat before you get in, and there are giant fans at drying stations as you exit the rides. Brilliant! The T-Express (the second tallest wooden roller coaster in the world) was closed the day of our visit, but my boys got their thrills on the Rolling X-Train instead. Don’t skip the beautiful flower gardens and Moonlight Parade, similar to Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade, but without crowds of people saving their seats hours in advance. We sat down to front row spots just ten minutes before the parade started.
KidTripster Tip: If you know the exact date you’ll be visiting, take advantage of the 40%-discount for foreigners only, when you buy your tickets online at least two days in advance. You may need to show your passport at the gate. And avoid the summer crowds by visiting on a weekday.
8/N Seoul Tower and international district of Itaewon
N Seoul Tower is like Seattle’s Space Needle, if the Space Needle was at the top of Namsan Mountain. On a clear day, you’ll get great views of the city, even if you don’t pay to take the elevator to the top of the tower. You’ll also see about a million love locks attached to the fences with post boxes, where people are encouraged to deposit their lock keys instead of throwing them over the edge of the mountain. To reach the top of the mountain, you’ll have to take the cable car or hoof it, as taxis and most cars are not permitted. Popular with ex-pats, nearby Itaewon is filled with shops, restaurants, bars, American fast food chains, and Korean stores like Line Friends (cute animal emojis that have their own line of toys and accessories). Get a selfie in front of the giant “You Only Live Once” sculpture and look down at the sidewalk as you wander; you’ll find plaques showing how to say hello in different countries.
9/Touring the DMZ… or not
You can take an organized tour of the border between North and South Korea, known as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. Only a few government-approved companies have permission to visit the heavily-guarded Joint Security Area (JSA), where North and South Korean soldiers stare each other down all day; you can actually step into North Korea inside one of the blue buildings used for official talks. Note: By law, children under 11 aren’t allowed in the JSA. On a previous trip without my children, I took the USO tour, which is said to be the best and includes a trip into the JSA. It was fascinating, a little scary, and very moving. This time around, the USO tour was sold out, and we had my four year-old nephew with us, so we skipped the DMZ altogether. If you decide to take your kids, note that it's an all-day excursion, and there are strict rules to follow in the JSA.
The War Memorial of Korea is an excellent alternative to the DMZ tour. The museum is said to be top-notch, but we never made it inside, because we spent all our energy exploring the grounds filled with tanks, jets, and even a battleship. I love the sculptures, especially the Statue of Brothers, depicting an emotional battlefield embrace between two brothers fighting for opposing sides. With four million casualties and ten million families displaced, this and other memorials weighed heavily on my heart.
10/Banpo Bridge and the Floating Islands during a typhoon
If you can, visit Korea in September or May, when the weather is most comfortable. We visited in late June, when monsoon season had just begun. Lucky for us, it only rained the last full day of our trip, but what rain! In the evening, we ventured out to Banpo Bridge and the Floating Islands. This lengthy bridge performs a spectacular water and light show every half hour most evenings, but we missed it because of the bad weather. We did, however, get to stomp around in six inches of water that flooded the parking lot, and we took a walk around the Floating Islands, where the buildings were illuminated in ever-changing colors.
Photo courtesy: Visit Seoul
Elizabeth Ely Moreno lived in Seoul as a small child and has returned as an adult to visit family members who live here. Her latest trip was with her two teenaged boys.