Friday, February 15, 2013

Seoul, South Korea

Seoul is an incredibly kid-friendly city. Enter any restaurant with your screaming kids in tow and no one bats an eyelash  they just bring out the kiddy chopsticks. Complete strangers will casually help you carry a double stroller down the subway stairs. Plus, there are so many attractions oriented to kids that it would take weeks to see it all. We will definitely be back.

What to Do

One of our first stops in Seoul was the Bukchon Hanok Village. Visiting the village is like being transported back in time, except that you can still see the skyscrapers in the distance. There's a walking tour that you can take, or just explore the many cute little shops, restaurants and museums on your own. Halfway through, we stopped at a tea house to warm up.

There are many beautifully preserved palaces in Korea, and we chose to visit Changdeokgung out of convenience (it was close to our hotel). There are plenty of paths, steps and open space for the kids to explore at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, originally built in the late 1300s (!!!).

For an entirely different sort of Korean experience, check out Lotte World, a huge indoor amusement park and water park. It's sort of like Disney World in a dome. Other kid-centered attractions to visit in the city are the Seoul Grand Park, which features a zoo and botanical garden, and the Coex Aquarium, with its displays of fish in interesting places such as phone booths and TV sets. Don't miss the "Dr. Fish" tank, where you can dip your fingers in to let the fish nibble away your dead skin!

Namsan Park is like the Central Park of Seoul  except that there's a mountain in it, Mt. Namsan. The park consists of beautiful trees and designated hiking trails, and if you can make it to the top of the mountain you'll be rewarded by gorgeous views. If your kids can't make the climb, there's a cable car that will bring you to the top. From there, you could continue your journey upwards to the highest point of Seoul, at the top of N Seoul Tower.

One of my kids' favorite places in Seoul was the Trickeye Museum, an art gallery set up with trompe l'oeil paintings. Visitors pose in front of the paintings in a way that makes them appear to be a part of them. It's a fun (and kind of odd) way to spend an afternoon.

Where to Eat

For some legit street food, check out Dongdaemun Market for the Korean version of chicken noodle soup  dakhanmari (whole chicken) in a rich bowl of broth with kalguksu (handmade noodles). People come from all over the world for this savory dish, which can be found toward the back of the marketplace, on a small street called Mukja Golmok (eatery alley). Another place to sample kalguksu is at the super-popular Myeongdong Gyoja, a restaurant that has perfected the craft of handmade noodles.

If you're a fan of mandoo (Korean dumplings), stop by Koong (also known as Goong), in the touristy Insadong area, which serves up some truly delicious mandoo in soup. Korean dumplings are particularly large in size, so don't go overboard while ordering, as we did.

No matter where you're eating, when in doubt, order the bibimbap, a bowl of rice, marinated beef, egg, veggies and chili paste that you mix up yourself. It's on almost every menu and is invariably delicious.

What's Nearby

One of the attractions on my list that we simply didn't have time to get to is the Hanguk Minsokchon Korean Folk Village in nearby Gyeonggi (it's accessible from Seoul by subway and bus). The village was set up as a display of Korean history and culture from the late Joseon period, sort of like a Korean Colonial Williamsburg. Here you can experience everything from a period schoolhouse to martial arts demonstrations with horses to musical performances on traditional instruments.