We just got back from a 10 day trip to Seoul, Korea, and we already can’t wait to go back! Most of my relatives live in Korea so it was my fourth time visiting, although I hadn’t been back in 12 years. It’s changed so much in that time and Seoul is now one of the cleanest, most technologically advanced, kid-friendly places in the world. Since moving to a remote island in the Philippines 7 months ago we have really missed Brooklyn, and Seoul reminded us of Brooklyn in so many ways. My city kids were in heaven!
The streets of Seoul are always bustling with people, bars stay open until the sun comes up, and music is playing everywhere. Seoul is the fourth biggest city in the world in terms of population (Tokyo is #1 and New York is #12). It may not be the first city that comes to mind on travel bucket lists, but it’s an ultra-modern city steeped in culture and tradition that has so much to offer. And because of the popularity of Korean dramas and K-pop, tourism is booming.
I partied hard in my visits to Seoul in my 20’s, hanging out with friends in neighborhoods like Itaewon, Apgujeongdong, Myeongdong and Hongdae/Sinchon experiencing local life. But this time around with my kids in tow, we hit a lot of tourist destinations. These are my tips on getting the most out of your trip to Seoul with kids!
Where to Stay
My mom came with us and booked the Lotte Hotel so that we could go to Lotte World (the world’s largest indoor amusement park). I wouldn’t recommend staying in that area (Jamsil) because it is on the eastern end of Seoul and Seoul is a big city. While the hotel was nice (especially the heated toilet seats!), the rooms were small and pricey.
We later moved to an Airbnb apartment in Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame). I always try to stay in an Airbnb if we can because it’s more affordable, and it’s hard to eat out every single meal when you have young kids. Having a kitchen and a washing machine is a huge convenience.
However I would recommend staying in the Myeongdong or Itaewon area for tourists because they are more centrally located neighborhoods. You’ll also find a wider variety of international cuisine in Itaewon because it’s where most expats live. There is a huge expat population because of the US military and the availability of English teaching jobs. I had several American waiters that spoke perfect Korean!
No matter where you stay in Seoul, the subway system is excellent and taxis are abundant, typically costing less than a cab would run you in New York. Traffic is pretty bad in Seoul though, especially during rush hour. You’ll be walking a lot so if you have young children, you’ll definitely need a stroller. Kids 4+ like mine however had no problem with all the walking.
What to Eat
Korean barbecue is a perennially favorite dish for locals and tourists alike. Koreans tend to favor galbi and samgyubsal while Westerners tend to favor bulgogi. Bibimbap, a spicy meat, vegetable and rice dish is also a favorite. I love almost all Korean food since it’s what I grew up with, but a lot of dishes are very spicy and can be more of an acquired taste. Other popular dishes to try include soondubu (spicy tofu stew), japchae (sweet potato noodle dish), dakgalbi, and Korean fried chicken.
There is no dearth of street food, and it is all usually cheap and good. Try the ddukboki (spicy rice cakes), potato spiral (pictured below), ho dduk (honey bread), ddong bbang (poop bread), and bindaedduk (mung bean pancake). Soondae (blood sausage) is a traditional Korean food that I love. Try it if you’re brave, but I promise it’s delicious!
left: odeng (fish cake), various sausages, soondae, ddukboki | right: potato spiral
A very small sampling of the food we ate!
What to Do
We had a lot of friends and relatives to meet and a wedding to attend, but we still squeezed in a lot of sightseeing. Over 8 days we saw:
- Lotte World (Jamsil)
- Lotte Aquarium (Jamsil)
- Children’s Grand Park (Gwangjin-gu)
- Hangang Park
- Gyeongbokgung Palace (Jongno-gu)
- Cheonggyechung Stream
- Namsan Tower (Yongsan-gu)
- Namdaemun Sijang (Jung-gu)
- Garosugil (Sinsadong)
- Coex (Gangnam)
Lotte World – Lotte World is the world’s largest indoor amusement park with four floors of rides as well as an outdoor area, however all the rides outdoors are for kids older than 6. The height restrictions were quite strict (most a minimum of 110 centimeters), considering Olive rode similar rides at Disneyland when she was even younger, and she had to sit out on a lot of rides.
They have a great Pororo toddler section that you have to pay an additional fee to enter. Olive was a little old for it but she still had fun.
There are a number of activities that you have to pay extra for, like rock climbing.
Because we stayed at the Lotte Hotel, we were able to get tickets at 50% off, so search for coupons before your visit. Kids under 3 are free. Charlie and Olive had a blast at Lotte World, but they loved the Children’s Grand Park even better.
Lotte Aquarium – Lotte Aquarium is located across the street from Lotte World in the newly constructed Lotte World Tower, the tallest building in Korea at 123 stories. We wouldn’t have gone out of our way to go to this aquarium since the kids have been to many others before, but it was conveniently located beside our hotel and we did some shopping at the stores there as well.
There were some unique exhibits like beluga whales and an escalator that went through a 2 story aquarium. You can’t go wrong with an aquarium when it comes to kids. There is also an aquarium inside Coex and I don’t know which one is better, though the Lotte Aquarium is newer.
Children’s Grand Park – This was Charlie and Olive’s favorite place in Seoul. We ended up going twice, and they wanted to go a third time! This massive park houses a free zoo, amusement park, children’s museum, botanical garden, playground, and much more. It’s been around for over 40 years, and my mom even went as an adolescent!
The height restrictions on the rides here are more lax than they are at Lotte World, so the kids had much more fun. Charlie got to experience his first real rollercoaster, and even rode the massive Viking all by himself!
There is so much to do, you could easily spend 2 days here. The grounds are beautiful and well maintained, and remind me a lot of Central Park. When we went on a Saturday it was packed with locals, but when we returned on a Tuesday, Charlie and Olive were often the only ones on rides. We honestly could have spent a third day there checking out the children’s museum and botanical garden. One thing is for sure – I’ve created adrenaline junkies for life now!
Hangang Park – The Han River runs across the middle of Seoul, and a park runs along the entire length. You’ll find playgrounds, bike trails (with bike rentals), and a gorgeous view of the city and sunset. It really felt like I was back in New York with the river, bridges, city view, and plentiful mulberry trees, which grew in abundance in our neighborhood back in Brooklyn.
The playground we visited (Jamsil Hangang Park) had a zipline that kept Charlie entertained for hours. We also attended a wedding at a venue right on the river, and we got to see the fountain color show on the Banpodaegyo Bridge as well.
Gyeongbokgung Palace – I wanted to squeeze in some Korean culture and history for the kids. Gyeongbokgung Palace is over 500 years old and you can enter for free if you wear a hanbok (traditional Korean attire), which many tourists did. They even rent out hanboks on the grounds if you want to take pictures in them while touring the grounds.
Cheonggyecheong Stream – After Gyeongbokgung Palace, we stopped by Cheonggyecheong Stream, which is a below street level manmade stream and park. It very much reminded me of the Highline in New York and felt like an oasis in the middle of a metropolis. Charlie and Olive had so much fun running around here.
Insadong – Nearby Cheonggyecheong is Insadong, which is the place to go to buy Korean handicrafts and traditional art supplies like calligraphy brushes and handmade paper. Charlie and Olive had fun just walking around amongst the crowds and the energy of the city. Insadong also houses Ssamji-Gil which is a massive indoor mall.
Namsan Tower – Namsan Tower is the highest point in Seoul and this is a must visit for kids. We took a cable car up to the top, and there was so much to do there. We didn’t go to the zoo or playspace, but we did go to the top of the tower which offered 360 degree views of Seoul. There was also a free 3d movie that the kids adored. We opted to walk all the way down instead of taking the cable car, and even that was fun for the kids, though I ended up with very sore legs the next day!
Namdaemun Sijang (Market) – Although Dongdaemun Sijang (and the adjacent Gwangjang Sijang for lunch) is probably more popular because it’s larger and open all night, Namdaemun Sijang is more fun to walk around because it’s outdoors. Glasses are very inexpensive in Korea (I bought several pairs with lenses here for $40). This is also a great place to buy hair accessories, undergarments/pajamas, and the children’s clothes were ridiculously adorable. This is a place where you can haggle with vendors.
Myeongdong used to be one of the most popular spots for locals to hang out, but now it’s just all tourists. Though you’ll find makeup stores everywhere around Seoul, they are particularly concentrated in this area. This is not a must stop, but it’s lots of fun to walk around (and buy socks!) close to other popular attractions like Insadong and Namdaemun Sijang.
Garosugil – Located in the famed Gangnam neighborhood of Seoul, this is considered the Soho of Korea with its charming shops, art galleries, and boutiques. Food and drinks cost more here, but it’s a nice place to stroll along, shop, and grab a drink.
There are many more places we would have visited if we had more time including:
- Everland (an amusement park and zoo about an hour outside Seoul that’s better than Lotte World)
- Museums including Trickeye Museum, 3D Blackart Museum, National Museum of Korea, War Memorial of Korea
- Hongik University Street in Hongdae (the university/bohemian area)
- Nanta (I saw this in New York but thought my kids would enjoy it)
- Itaewon (where the expats live) and have dinner there.
- Bukchon (traditional Korean village)
- Minsokchon (traditional Korean village 1 hour outside Seoul)
- Noryangjin Fish Market
- Yeouido Park
- Seoul Forest
- Olympic Park
- Norang Artcafe (my kids are arts and crafts obsessed)
- Eland Cruise
- Jamsil Baseball Stadium (watch a baseball game)
– Korea is very female/kid/elderly friendly. At the airport we were running a little late and were able to bypass the long check-in line by going to the family window. We breezed through in 5 minutes. Bathrooms at children’s attractions have large stalls with both an adult sized and child sized toilet beside each other. Olive thought it was the coolest thing ever.
– There is no tipping in Korea.
– The weather is similar to New York so spring and fall has the best weather. Summers are hot and humid (and plane tickets are typically expensive when everyone travels) and winters are cold and snowy.
– Many places like amusement parks, department stores and food courts offer free filtered water and cups so you don’t have to purchase beverages.
– Most department stores offer free stroller rentals.
– Korean Airlines tickets are typically pricier, but they have the best service, especially when you’re traveling with young children. They will also give you bulkhead seats if you’re traveling with an infant.
– Popular attractions are typically much busier on weekends when locals don’t work, so save things like Lotte World and Children’s Grand Park for the weekdays.
– Street signs are always in Korean and English, and for popular destinations they are in Chinese and Japanese as well. If you need directions, there are information kiosks in popular tourist areas. Younger Koreans also tend to speak better English.
– Korean makeup and skincare is the bomb with many affordable, high quality lines. Stock up! The duty-free stores in the airport are also a great place to buy things like skincare products before you board your flight.
– If you have an early morning departing flight, spend the night at a hotel in Incheon as the airport is a good distance away from Seoul and traffic is typically bad. This is what we ended up doing because we had an 8am flight. The free shuttle service got us to the airport in 10 minutes.
It’s really important to me that Charlie and Olive know about their Korean backgrounds because it’s such a big part of my identity. Charlie and Olive attended Korean school in New York and they eat a lot of Korean food — I think you always identify with a culture if you grow up eating the food. During this trip Charlie even started calling me “umma,” which means mom in Korean!
Seoul is undoubtedly one of my favorite cities in the whole world, and I will never tire of visiting. And now it is also one of my kids’ favorite destinations in the world as well. Please feel free to ask me any questions if you’re planning a visit to Seoul!