To be honest, South Korea wasn’t at the top of our international list during our time in Japan. We (ignorantly) felt that it would be fairly similar to Japan and we had some other countries that we wanted to make sure we experienced first. However, it’s close proximity and extremely inexpensive airfare from Tokyo made it an irresistible way to see yet another country. There were definitely some similarities to what we saw in Japan, but what stuck out was how outgoing the South Korean people are. They were never afraid to come up, ask where we were from and strike up a conversation which was different from the friendly, yet reserved, Japanese we were used to. As we explored Seoul, we also discovered some of the most vibrant markets we’ve ever visited, stunning scenery, and beautiful architecture – all mere hours away from one of the most hostile and secretive countries on the planet. Seoul, we are Seoul in love with you!

DSC04975

DSC04435

Before we go further, it’s important to note that Google maps doesn’t work in South Korea. I repeat, Google maps DOES NOT WORK in South Korea. Instead, we relied on a combination of citymapper (which allows you to download maps to your phone) and Waze while we were there. We found that Waze was much easier to use. However, knowing that we had a GPS-able map of the city downloaded should we loose cell signal was a huge piece of mind. So now you know, download them before you go!

[ D A Y  • 1 ] Tokyo → Seoul: Bed

Always eager to get the adventure started as soon as possible, we elected for yet another red-eye flight on Friday, so by Saturday morning we would be in Seoul ready to seize the day. As we’ve mentioned before, we’ve found that red-eyes actually work well for us (If you’re thinking this sounds crazy, you aren’t alone, we thought it was crazy, too, at first.) as the kids generally pass out and sleep the whole flight. Yes, we are all a bit tired the next day, but it is much better than dealing with a potential meltdown on a daytime flight.

DSC04341

We arrived at Narita at about 1730, parked the car at our go to USA Parking, and checked in for our flight departing at 2000, arriving at Seoul Incheon at 2305. After passing through security we headed to the Korean Air Lounge for some snacks and drinks via our Priority Pass membership (if you don’t have Priority Pass, look into it, as we have found this little travel luxury to be a game-changer with our littles). After grabbing some snacks for the kids (and some drinks for us), we headed to the gate for the flight. Seoul excited to be headed to South Korea! Okay, promise I won’t keep the puns going the entire article (wink).

Once touching down in Seoul the process getting into the country was easy. Due to close U.S./South Korea relations, the customs process was incredibly simple and with it being fairly late at night, well, we were thankful. U.S. citizens do not need a visa, just have your arrival card filled out and ready to go. It was given to us on the plane, but you can also get them in the customs area, so don’t fret if you miss the attendant passing them out onboard because you’re passed out catching some zzzs. Like many Asian countries, the line moved quickly, but we were pulled to the front because of the young kids we had in tow and were through in no time. After collecting our bags, we found an ATM next to the bus transfer station and took out 200,000 won (about $160 USD) to have some cash on hand. Overall, South Korea is really credit card friendly and we really only used the cash to pay for taxis and street food at markets, so if you prefer to rack up credit card points and travel rewards like we do, be a bit conservative with how much you withdraw.

DSC04356

Our hotel was in Incheon, which is an island that is connected to Seoul by two bridges and is only a short drive from the airport. Our initial plan was to take the bus from the airport to our hotel. Bus stop 5 at the airport gets you on buss #6002 which would have taken us just a few blocks from the hotel. Total cost would be 10,000 won per adult while the kids were free. Unfortunately, while waiting for the ATM to get cash to pay for the bus; we missed the last bus (at 2340), and the next one wasn’t until 0530 the next morning. Consequently, we went to plan B which was to either get a taxi or take an Uber to the hotel. Cost wise this was most certainly not our first choice, but waiting 5+ hours for the next bus seemed insane. Sleep? Yes, please. Uber cost to our hotel was much more expensive than the bus (about 80,000 won, or $70 USD for the 40 min ride). Not gonna lie, it burned a little.

We arrived safely at Rian hotel at around 0100, checked in, quickly got cleaned up, and got everyone changed in time to crash for the night. It was a long day for sure, but as a reward we would wake the next morning in South Korea!

[ D A Y  • 2 ] Seoul: Insadong Market, Jogyesa Temple, Gyeongbokgung Palace, National Folk Museum, The Children’s Museum of National Folk Museum of Korea, Samcheongdong Street, Bukchon Hanok Village, Tosokchon Samgyetang, Myeongdong Market

DSC04359Even though we went to bed at 0200, we (well, really the kids) were up at 0730 ready to go. Breakfast wasn’t included in our room, but given the late night and relatively early morning we decided the convenience was worth the 7,500 won cost.  Breakfast was okay – definitely not spectacular, but worth it considering it enabled us to get out and start the day without searching for some place to fill our bellies. Our original South Korean itinerary had filled 9 days, so with only 4 full days in South Korea, we knew we needed to hit the ground running to make sure we saw most everything on our itinerary. Our first stop: Insadong Market.

Insadong is a neighborhood in Seoul that is known for its huge variety of shops and restaurants. In particular it’s a hot spot to experience some of the best street food South Korea has to offer. We set out exploring some of the small shops selling art and handmade crafts, but didn’t find anything that quite caught our eye. As we had just finished breakfast, we weren’t too hungry either, but couldn’t resist trying a few things anyway. Hey, it’s vacay and YOLO, right? So what was our first purchase? Well, a Korean pancake filled with chocolate filling…shaped like poop (duh.). Obviously most people’s first choice! Any guesses on whose pick that was?

DSC04380

Additionally, we wanted to stop to try a local delicacy, Khulna-at-Rae aka “Dragon’s Beard”. Thankfully, it’s not actually made of the beard of a dragon! Instead, it’s actually made of ripened honey and malt which is dusted with flour and pulled/folded until it is 16,000 strands thick. It was once given to the king and his important guests as the thousands of strands were thought to provide longevity, health, and good fortune. We bought a box of “cactus” flavored ones, but in reality it tasted a lot like blueberry. To be honest, I think we enjoyed watching the guy make it in front of us more than the taste of the treat itself.  Nevertheless, it was a cultural experience!

Insadong Market:

  • Hours: Daily (except the lunar new year), 0930 – 1830
  • Admission: Free

DSC04405

After leaving the market, our next stop was Jogyesa Temple. This is one of the most important Buddhist temples in Korea, and it is the center of Buddhism in the city of Seoul. It is located right in the middle of the city right next to Insadong, so it’s only a short walk from the market. The temple was first built in 1395 and has undergone multiple iterations over the next 600+ years. The current temple building was built in 1910 and it is beautiful. After the hustle and bustle of the market, the relative calm of the temple grounds was a welcomed change.

DSC04417

Jogyesa Temple:

  • Hours: Open year round
  • Admission: Free

DSC04487Continuing our walking tour of downtown Seoul, we next headed toward Gyeongbokgung Palace. Originally built in 1395, it is the largest of all the palaces in Seoul. Like too many other historical structures, it was destroyed during the Japanese invasions of the Imjin war in the late 1500s, but it was later rebuilt several hundred years later.

DSC04444

Although South Korean royalty no longer lives there, they still have a ceremonial changing of the guard which is very cool to see as well as guided tours through the rather large grounds. We strolled up right as what we assumed was the changing of the guard was starting, only to realize later that there are actually several military type exercises which occur on the palace grounds. In short, we actually watched the Sumungun (Gatekeepers) Military training exercises instead of the changing of the guard itself. Nevertheless, it was quite impressive and Miles in particular loved the elaborate uniforms and the precise military bearing of the guards. 

DSC04474Our schedule didn’t fit well with one of the guided tours, but we did hear good things about them.  They are free and start at 1100, 1330, and 1530. The meeting place is on your right as you pass through the imposing palace gate. If you end up going, drop us an email and let us know what you thought!

Gyeongbokgung Palace:

  • Hours:
    • January – February: 0900 – 1600 (hours of admission), 0900 – 1700 (opening hours)
    • March – May: 0900 – 1700 (hours of admission), 0900 – 1800 (opening hours)
    • June – August: 0900 – 1730 (hours of admission), 0900 – 1830 (opening hours)
    • September – October: 0900 – 1700 (hours of admission), 0900 – 1800 (opening hours)
    • November – December: 0900 – 1600 (hours of admission), 0900 – 1700 (opening hours)
  • Admission:
    • 3,000 won/Adult (19 – 64 yo), 1,500 won/Youth (7 – 18 yo)
    • Combination Ticket: 4 palaces & Jongmyo Shrine
      • Admission: 10,000 won/Adult (19 – 64 yo), 5,000 won/Youth (7 – 18yo)
      • We opted not to purchase this as we visited two palaces totaling 4,000 won in entrance fee

After enjoying the Palace grounds and taking in the changing of the guard ceremony, our next stop was to head to the National Folk Museum of Korea. It’s not a far walk at all because it’s actually part of the palace grounds itself (note that the National Palace Museum of Korea is also on the grounds, so don’t get the two confused!) The museum was a fantastic way to learn a little more about the history of the country and gain a deeper respect for the customs, religion, and culture of the people who live there.

DSC04585

There are three permanent exhibits, divided into three different exhibition halls. The first focuses on the people of Korea, the second on the Korean way of life, and the third is all about the life cycle of Koreans. Admittedly, after the palace grounds the kids were on the verge of atomic detonation, but by dangling our next stop over their heads we were able to squeeze out just enough reasonable behavior to allow us to take in a bit of this very cool museum.

National Folk Museum:

  • Hours:
    • Monday – Sunday
      • March – May, September, Oct: 0900 – 1800 (last admission 1700) 
      • July, August: 0900 – 1830 (last admission 1700)  
      • November – February: 0900 – 1700 (last admission 1600)  
      • * May – August (weekends, National Holidays): 0900 – 1900 (last admission 1800)
  • Admission: Free

After dragging the kids along through markets, temples, palaces, and museums it was well past time to reward them with some play time. Thankfully, the Children’s Folk Museum was right next door. I know what you are thinking…Childrens’ FOLK museum? How fun could that be? Turns out it was actually quite cool, and the kids had a blast. There are several interactive exhibits that allow kids to play and explore. To our delight, even for us non-Korean speakers there was a TON for the kids to do.

DSC04618

Their 6th permanent exhibition, “The Dog, the Cat, and The Magic Marble” was very cool in particular. It’s based on a Korean folk tale about a dog and cat that set out on a journey to find the Main Marble for a kind elderly couple. The kids loved watching the story play out. In the story, the dog and the cat, stereotypical antagonists, learn to resolve their differences through good deeds and working together. This is a message we feel cannot be stressed enough, no matter what your age.

DSC04594

The Children’s Museum of National Folk Museum of Korea:

  • Hours:
    • March – May: 0900 – 1800
    • June – August*: 0900 – 1900
    • September – October: 0900 –  1800
    • November – February: 0900 – 1700
      • *May-August (weekends and national holidays): 0900 – 1900
      • Admission: Free

After letting the kids play around for awhile at the Folk Museum, we decided to head towards Samcheongdong Street, and area well-known for quaint cafes and boutiques to grab a bite. On the recommendation of one of our friends, we grabbed a “Milkis” carbonated milk drink – only 1,700 won. (You can thank us later). Dom saw a place selling Toast Sandwiches (yes, I realize this is not the most Korean thing) and decided that he simply could not live a minute longer without one. While he begrudgingly shared one with the kids, I mapped our way up into Bukchon Hanok Village, an area filled with old traditional South Korean houses which are still occupied.

DSC04633Bukchon Hanok Village is a welcome respite from the touristy Samcheongdong Street below, and as an active residential area is much quieter and reserved. It is composed of hundreds of traditional Korean houses and has largely stayed the same for the past 600 years.  It’s fun to stroll the streets and imagine what Korean life must have been like in the 1400s, but please remember that people actually still live there!

DSC04659Bukchon means “North Villiage” as the neighborhood is located north of some of the most important cultural buildings. Take some time to head up to the Bukchon Observatory, which is perched up on the third floor allowing you a birds eye view of the sea of traditional rooftops.

DSC04637

Issac Toast & Coffee (the Toast Sandwich Place Dom insisted on):

  • Hours:
    • Monday – Saturday, 0900 – 2100 and Sunday, 1000 – 2100
  • Cost:
    • Toast Sandwiches 2,600 – 4,400 won/each
      • Bacon & Potato Pizza: 4,400 won
      • Ham & Cheese: 2,600 won
      • Spicy Cutlet: 3,900 won
      • Coffee: 2,500 – 3,500 won
      • Tea: 2,500 – 3,000 won
      • Fruit Juice: 3,000 – 3,500 won
      • Milk Shake: 3,500 won

DSC04664

Bukchon Hanok Village:

  • Hours:
    • Daily (alleyways are closed on Sunday), 1000 – 1700

Bukchon Observatory:

  • Hours:
    • 0900 – 2000
  • Admission:
    • 3,000 won/Adult, 2,000 won/Minor

By this time, Dom’s toast sandwich had long worn off and let me tell you very little can ruin a great travel day faster than hangry Dom (kidding!). After a less than traditional snack, we had our sights set on some very traditional South Korean cuisine. We had heard about Tosokchon Samgyetang on a few foodie blogs, but heard the wait could get a little long. Hoping to avoid the crowds, we headed over relatively eary (around 1630) and were happy to see there wasn’t much of a crowd outside.

DSC04714Even if there is a crowd when you arrive, however, we recommend grabbing a sochu from a neighboring convienience store and waiting it out. The line moves fast and it was delicious. We ordered the Tosokchon Sansam Baeyanggeyn Samgyetang (Tosokchon Ginseng Chicken soup with Wild Ginseng Adventitious Roots). Yeah for Adventitious Roots!

The kids, not being as fond of adventitious roots as we are, decided to go for the Tosokchon Otgyetang (Tosokchon Chicken Soup with Korean Lacquer Tree). Nothing, I mean nothing, says delicious more than a lacquer tree. All joking aside, the it was very good and did a fantastic job in warming us up after spending the afternoon out in the chilly weather. Just be prepared to pick out some chicken bones…it’s part of the experience!

DSC04712

Tosokchon Samgyetang:

  • Hours:
    • 1000-2200 Everyday
  • Admission:
    • We ordered Tosokchon Sansam Baeyanggeun Samgyetang (Tosokchon Ginseng Chicken Soup with Wild Ginseng Adventitious Roots – 24,000 won) and for the kids we ordered, Tosokchon Otgyetang (Tosokchon Chicken Soup with Korean Lacquer Tree – 1,700 won).

We had some pretty ambitious hiking plans for the next day, so didn’t want to stay out too late. However, we really wanted to check out Myeongdong Market – a shopping area great for for clothing, Korean beauty products, and (of course) street food. We didn’t try much as we were still pretty full from dinner, but would recommend you give the tteokbokki (rice cakes with veggies and sweet chili sauce), bulgogi (grilled beef sirloin) or perhaps soondae (a blood sausage stuffed with bean sprouts, noodles, and mushrooms) a go. We did try one of the irresistible looking egg breads, which was just as delicious as it smelled. Miles was rewarded with a HUGE ice-cream cone for being such a trooper on a day filled with lots of stops. Plus, we needed to fuel him up for our planned outing the next day – tacking the Baegundae, the highest peak in Bukhansan National Park. Despite the ice cream, it only took about 10 minutes (including a quick bath) for both kids to be fast asleep back at the Rian Hotel.

Myeongdong Market:

  • Hours:
    • Varies, but most places open around 1100 and close around 2200

[ D A Y  • 3 ] Bukhansan National Park

The alarm went off bright and early at 0630, and we begrudgingly crawled out of bed with plan get out of the city and see another side of South Korea. Bukhansan National Park is the single most popular hiking destination in all of South Korea. And when I tell you these people taking their hiking seriously, I mean it. We were used to seeing large groups of adults heading out for hikes in Japan, but South Koreans turn this up to 11.

DSC04775Now, at the time we are finally getting this write up completed we are nearly a year out from the trip itself. We now live in Southern California and have steadily begun to spend more and more time in the outdoors. After all, its easy when you have a national park in your backyard. We now are slightly better equipped, but at the time of our South Korea trip we were fairly limited with our outdoor gear. 

We stopped by Starbucks for a quick breakfast and made the last minute decision to pick up a few snacks at Bread and Company to bring along for the hike. We walked a few short minutes to Wonnam-dong Sageori Bus Stop to and caught bus #162. We could have caught bus #140 much closer to hotel Rian, but decided it was easier to walk than to deal with the transfer.  Bus 162 takes you from Insadong pretty much to the park entrance. It was 1,300 won/Adult, 1,000 won/teenager, and 450 won/child. To pay, you either drop money in the slot by the driver (who will give you change), or pay with credit card.

Before you head out, note that there is more than one park entrance. We originally planned to do a much shorter hike called the “Golden Buddha Hike”, but a mile or so after departing the  Bukhansan National Park Vistors Center we realized that the turn-by-turn directions we had saved previously didn’t match up. Hmmm…weird. After a few minutes of investigation, we realized that we had started from a different entrance than our directions. Big oops. Since we were already a few miles into the hike we switched plans and decided to go big, aka the summit. I mean honestly, I wasn’t about to turn around and complete nothing for the day, so we went big instead of going home. Looking back, it was a pretty lofty goal with both kids considering we didn’t really have the best gear or as much food as we likely would have brought otherwise. Essentially, we were completely unprepared. Additionally, we hadn’t budgeted the time to get to the top and back, so we knew we would have to hustle in order to bet back before it got too dark.

HIKING IN BUKHANSAN NATIONAL PARK - 06 - 40*Now that we are a bit more experienced and have researched outdoor equipment like crazy we would  pack a bit different for the day. Below is a list of some of the gear we would recommend that (if you have it or something like it) will make the hike much easier. BUT, with that being said, we made it with both kids not being prepared at all so, it’s doable regardless!

DSC04793If you decide to head to the top as well (the view is well worth it), our route left from Bukhansan National Park Vistors Center and headed up the trail to Cheongsu Falls towards Yongchusa Temple. They were having a free lunchon at the temple with seaweed soup and dumplings along with honey sweetened hot tea. It was a very welcomed stop and helped keep the chill from the early spring wind at bay. The kindness we were showed here we saw repeated over and over in our short trip. The people of South Korea were genuinly kind, helpful, and ever so welcoming.

After leaving the temple we headed up to Ilsenona Temple to Daeseomgum Gate, then to Dongjangdae, Bukhansan Shelter, Yongammun Gate, and then to the peak. Yes, it all seems like random letters strung together but once you get a map it will make perfect sense. As you head up to to summit, the grade kicks up and you really start to feel how high you are. Even with Miles and Penny, there were plenty of hand rails bolted into the rock and foot holds that had been carved out that made it manageable. Miles got a bit scared of the height, but once focused on the summit he was a champ.

DSC04869The summit is just that, a small peak with only room for about 10 people or so. There is a small plaque to snap a picture of and some extremely nice people offered to take a family picture, but we were really only up there for 10 min or so before heading back down…after all this wasn’t our original plan it it was going to start getting dark shortly.

Once we descended a bit we stopped for a snack and an extremely nice Korean man, realizing we were a bit unprepared, offered to help out. Being stubborn Americans, we generally refuse help (sign of weakness, right?) but this guy had a way of gently persuading us and not taking no for an answer. By this time Miles was spent, so Britt had him in the Tula carrier on her back with our spare backpack on the front. This is ok for the ascent, but going back down is another story completely. Our guardian angel took the bag, gave Britt a hiking pole, and helped to guide us down. In all probability we would have made it down just fine, but it was SO nice to have a local help us along the way and to this day I am so grateful for the kindness he showed us.

DSC04833The only downside was that we ended up at a very different location than our starting point once back at the bottom. Looking back at it, we ended up exactly where we THOUGHT we were going to start, and our entire problem was that we started at a secondary entrance to the park instead of the main hiking area that our new local friend had lead us back down to. Thankfully, that meant we knew exactly what bus to hop on (#34) to head back to Gupabal Station. It near dark by this time and any normal familly would have headed back to the hotel, grabbing some takeout at a local restaurant and some sochu from a convenience store.  However, we don’t fancy ourselves a normal family.

DSC04911We were all starving by now and had heard of a popular restaurant, Vatos Urban Tacos, that was roughly on our way home. Common sense would have been to grab something quick and do Vatos another time,  yet the thought of some delicious Korean Tacos a few drinks proved too much! We set out to find the place, but after a few wrong turns and WAY too much walking after hiking an entire mountain, we figured out that the restaurant had moved to another location. Utterly defeated, with a cranky 2 year old and a VERY upset 5 year old we decided to let Miles pick whatever he wanted for dinner. Of course, he decided on Danke Schon Deutschen, a burger and hot dog place with a sign/logo that is a huge hot dog on a bun. Mies got one glimpse and the rest was history.

The entire day ended up a little bit different than planned, but it was still pretty amazing. There we were, sitting at a German Hot Dog restaurant in Seoul South Korea, discussing the haphazard turn of events over a beer while the kids scarfed down some hot dogs. Oh, and Miles had over 40,000 steps on his Garmin. 40,000 steps. If I could do it all over I wouldn’t change a thing. It was amazing. Traveling and adventure is so good.

Bukhansan National Park:

  • Hours:
    • Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission
    • Free to the park
    • Parking ranges from 2000-7000won if you drive

[ D A Y  • 4 ] Namsan Mountain Park, Namdaemun Market, Vatos Urban Tacos, Nata Show, Gwangjang Market, Cheonggyecheon restored stream

DSC04927After a day for the record books the day before, we had planned for a somewhat more relaxed day to follow. We initially had planned on sleeping in, but alas, the children had a different idea. Our first stop was to be Deoksugung Palace, a huge palace built in 1400s that is located on one of the busiest intersections in Seoul. However, upon arriving to the huge Daehanmun entrance gate we realized that it was closed on Mondays. Undeterred, we shifted the visit to the next day and made a bee-line for the adjacent Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee (don’t judge us, please).  After treating the kids to a VERY rare morning sweet, we headed out to our next stop, Namsan Mountain Park.

DSC04970Yes, we were a little wary to take on yet more steps after the previous day’s hike, but the lure of seeing Baegundae Peak (as well as birdseye view of Seoul) from afar was too good pass up. Namsan Park is the largest park in Seoul and has miles of walking trails if you are looking to escape the urban bustle below. If you end up visting in spring, make sure to check out the Cherry Blossom Path, as it is the longest trail of cherry trees anywhere in Seoul. It’s got to be unbelievable when the trees are all in full bloom. All of us pretty sore from the day before, we elected to skip many of the walking trails and spend most of our time hanging out at the Jamdoobong Photo point, relishing in the beautiful view of the mountain we were at the top of the day before.

Namsan Mouintain Park:

  • Hours: Open 24 Hours
  • Admission: Free

DSC05009From there, we decided to head to Namdaemun Market, the largest traditional market in all of South Korea. We were hoping to find a souvineer to bring back home with use, but again nothing quite caught our eye. I’m not sure how, as there were a TON of shops selling everything from art to toys to glasswear, and (of course) food. Even if you aren’t in the shopping mood, the people watching alone is enough reason to stop by.

DSC05023

Namdaemun Market:

  • Hours:
    • Varies by store but generally 1000 – 2200 daily

Given our failure the previous night to find Vatos Urban Tacos, post market we decided it was the perfect time to catch a cab to one we KNEW was open to see what all the fuss was about. As previous natives of Texas, we love some good Mexican food. Japan does a TON of things really well, but sadly Mexican cuisine is not one of them. We made ourselves at home at the large outdoor seating area, ordering some bacon and blue cheese guacamole, a couple carnitas fajita burrito’s, and la piece de resistance…a large classic makgeolita! What is that, you may ask? Well, it is a delicious Korean take on the margarita, with a mix of tequila and makgeolli a traditional Korean rice alcohol. It was love at first sip, and even before we finished we were pretty sure we were going to have to make another stop at Vatos before heading back to Japan.

Vatos Urban Tacos:

  • Hours:
    • Daily, 1000 – 2300

Wtih full bellies, we headed to our next stop, the Nanta Show. It’s kind of hard to put into words, but picture a chef themed Korean take on the Blue Man group. No need to know Korean, its a largely music based show with equal mixes of comedy, acrobatics, and knife tricks. We looked at bunch of places and ended up finding the best deals on Klook, cashing in some Klook credits we had been saving along the way. While we enjoyed the show, to be completely honest it wasnt quite as impressive as the reviews we had read made it sound. It definitely falls into the category of “we’re glad we did it, but not sure if we would go back next time. “

DSC05088

NANTA Show:

  • Admission:
    • 32,000 won (about 26 USD) per ticket (3 and under free)

*Make sure to check Klook/Groupon and other discount sites as its pretty easy to find a better deal. We paid about 71,000 won (about $58) for three tickets

After the show, we set out Gwangjang Market for some authentic Korean market food (think of it as resetting the cosmic balance for our hot dog spurge the prior night). Gwangjang was Seoul (and South Korea’s) first market and was full of stalls manned by older Korean women who obviously knew their way around the kitchen.

DSC05186It reminded me a lot of Japanese Yati, where you sit down as much for conversation as you do for the food. Channelling our inner Anthony Bourdain (rest in peace), it’s amazing how food can transcend cultural barriers. Everyone loves to eat, and nothing brings us together like a good meal.

DSC05226Heading home from the market with full bellies, we stopped for some Korean Sochu at a convienece store and strolled along the very peaceful Chonggyechon, a restored stream, back to the hotel.

DSC05230

The recently restored stream is 11km long and was part of an urban restoration project, recreating a stream that ran through the city during the Joseon Dynasty. After the Korean War it was covered by an elevated highway as part of an economic stimulus project. Thankfully, in 2003 the highway was removed and the stream was restored. Today, it is well lit and makes for a very peaceful stroll to end a busy day.

[ D A Y  • 5 ] DMZ Tour, Korean War Memorial Museum, Children’s Museum, Itaewon Market, Deoksugung Palace, Insadong Hanjeungmak

Taking your kids to the DMZ is one of those situations that makes you sit back and formally think through your priorities and perspective on parenting. Like our visit to the killing fields in Cambodia, we had to evaluate how to present the information to our kids in a age appropriate manner where they could learn something from it yet not come away overly frightened or worried about the world. During the time of our visit (early 2019) tensions were particularly high between the United States and North Korea, making these conversations even more pertinent.

In the end, our take on it is to not to shelter our kids, but try to use them as examples of how humankind can put aside their differences and steadily (albiet slowly) march forward towards progress and enlightenment. Monday – Saturday)By remembering the genocide in Cambodia, the devastation of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the division and tension of the DMZ we hope they grow to accept others rather than push them away.

DSC05290

Looking across the border into North Korea…the most secretive and oppressive regime in the world.

DSC05350So there we were, setting the alarm at 0600 to catch the subway to the Koridoor tour office. Their DMZ tour leaves at 0750 (no tours on Mondays!) and takes about 6 hours, visiting the DMZ and third tunnel before dropping you back off about 1400. It’s hard to put into words what its like to visit the world’s most militarized border, peering into one of the most secretive countries in the world. We enjoyed the tour as we felt that we had an appropriate amount of time at each location without either feeling rushed or that we had way too much time.

Koridoor DMZ Tour:

  • Hours: Full day and Half Day tours available Tuesday – Sunday.
  • Admission: Half Day tours start at about 46,000 won, Full Day 96,000 won

DSC05397

Upon returning back, we walked the 15 minute stroll to the nearby Korean War Memorial Museum. Upon strolling up to the front, it’s impossible not to be struck by just how massive this place is. The long stairway leading up to the building combine with the imposing facade surrounded by flags make for a very impressive structure. After the DMZ tour, we knew we the kids would more than ready to get some energy out, so we ended up buying tickets to the adjacent childrens museum (you get a specific time slot) and used the time waiting for our time to explore the main museum as well.  Yes, I know it sounds absurd (and it is) to only spend 45min there, but with two hyper kids it’s all we could do.

Despite our paltry effort, the war memorial is really worth a much bigger allotment of time. You could easily spend the better part of a day there learning about the conflict, and maybe one day will go back to do so. This time, however, we are really glad we got to enjoy some of it before the kids totally lost it.

DSC05467

The War Memorial of Korea:

  • Hours:
    • 0930-1800 (last admission is 30 minutes prior to closing)
  • Admission:
    • Free!

DSC05437Once our time slot was up, we headed over to the adjacent Childrens Museum. The walkway to the museum is lined with decommissioned Korean War era planes, from both U.S. and the Korean side. This was probably Miles’ favorite part, as some of them allow you to climb up into the cockpit and take the controls.

DSC05535Once entering the museum, there were several exhibits dedicated to Korean children’s tails, some with interactive games and others largely screen based. We were a bit disappointed that many of them didn’t have English translation so the language barrier was larger than expected. However, there were still several places for the kids to climb, play, and get out some of their HUGE extra energy stores.

The Children’s Museum at the War Memorial of Korea:

  • Hours:
    • 0900 – 1800 everyday (not open on holidays)

After finishing up at the museum, we hopped on subway to Itaewon for lunch back at Vatos (I told you we would be back!). This time was just as good as the first visit, leaving us absolutely no shame that we didn’t pick a more traditional fare. From there we set out to (finally) see Deoksugung Palace, which was closed on the Monday when we initially planned on visiting before realizing it was closed. One of Seouls five grand palaces, it first served as a palace in 1593, the traditional architecture of the building is even more striking against the backdrop of western buildings.

DSC05587If you visit, make sure not to miss the changing of the guard ceremony which occurs at 1100, 1400, and 1530 every day. Make sure to get there a little early, as it definitely drew a crown when we were there. Even so, it is definitely worth checking out as the traditional dress of the guards as well as the ceremony itself is starkly different than western (or even traditional Japanese) guards. After spending some time exploring the large grounds and main Junghwajeon throne hall, we reluctantly headed out back to the hotel to get things packed up for our early flight out the next morning.

Deoksungung Palace:

  • Hours:
    • Daily (closed Mondays), 0900-2100
  • Admission: 1000 won

As we packet up our things, Britt mentioned she was a bit dissapointed she didn’t get to experience one of the last things on her South Korean bucket list, a traditional beauty treatment. She is never one to leave something on the table, and I can’t say I was surprised when she asked if it would be crazy for squeezing it in last minute after we finally got the kids down. So there she was, heading out into Seoul on foot for a “beauty parlor” at like 2200….arriving back at the hotel just after midnight. To this day I don’t exactly know what was going through her head (or mine) to let her head out so late by herself. However, I suspect it was because we always felt safe walking around Seoul, no matter what time of the day or night. Upon her return, she described an ordeal where she was “stuffed into a wood burning oven, scrubbed of dead skin by two ladies with a bristle brushes, and then deep tissue massaged (read: gently beaten) by some old Korean women – all while wearing nothing but her birthday suit. Despite this, she seamed to genuinely enjoy the cultural experience . . . weird, I know.  South Korea, that’s a wrap!

DSC05638

[ D A Y  • 6 ] Seoul → Tokyo:

Despite Brittany’s ordeal the night before, we had an early morning to catch our 0715 flight out. We dragged ourselves out of bed at 0320 to catch a taxi, arriving to the airport at 0500. Despite our flight being about 20 minutes delayed, we still found ourselves back at Narita at 0945. Familiar with the routine, we called USA parking to get us, grabbed our bag and hopped in the car to head back to Yokosuka. Before we even got home, Britt had already started planning our next trip…no surprise there!

pin it below

south korea