First big family journey: Korea

bukchon hanok village.jpg
Nukchon Hanok village.

"Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living."— Miriam Beard

Ever since spending my high school years living abroad, travel has been a huge part of who I am. My global experiences are not just about visiting fantastic places like Machu Picchu or the Galapagos Islands, the Parthenon or Versailles, but the much deeper impact learning about world history and cultures has on who I am as person. Travel is a life-long passion of mine, and one that I hope my children will embrace, too.

This summer we had our first big family journey abroad, a two-week trip to Seoul, South Korea. My sister and her family moved to Seoul in 2014, and this wonderful opportunity to spend 14 days exploring the sights, food, culture and history of South Korea with them became a reality.

Seoul is a very cosmopolitan city of roughly 10 million people, and it's incredibly tourist-friendly. It has a massive but manageable subway and bus transit system, so getting from place to place is relatively easy. There is an amazing amount of English in Seoul — everything from subway and street signs to menus and museum exhibits. Seoul also has a huge variety of child- and family-friendly activities, as well as fabulous experiences for adults. There is something for everyone in this city.

Towering beginning


We started our trip with a visit to Seoul Tower which offers wonderful 360-degree views, a chance to stand on the geographical center point of the city and a trick eye museum which is a very popular activity right now in Seoul. After a beautiful walk down the mountain from Seoul Tower, we experienced our first taste of Korean Barbecue — delicious — as well as our first lesson in eating an entire meal with chopsticks.

For experiencing South Korean culture and history, we visited Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was built in 1395 and is the largest of the five palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. We toured many of the palace buildings, which have been restored to their former glory.

Upon leaving the grandiose palace grounds, it was a short walk to the Bukchon Hanok Village, a cultural and architectural heritage neighborhood of Seoul that has preserved the myriad of narrow passageways (called "Hanok") typical of an urban neighborhood from the Joseon Dynasty from 600 years ago. The Bukchon Hanok village offers visitors a look into the past, opportunities to take part in traditional Korean crafting, as well as many shops and restaurants.

Kid loves

If you ask my kids what their favorite part of the trip to Seoul was, they will say Kidzania. Although Kidzania is not unique to Seoul (it has locations throughout the world, but is not in the U.S. yet), it was our first experience where the kids role-play real world jobs, earn Kidzania bucks, open a bank account, get a driver's license and more. They experienced a whole kid-sized city environment where they role-played careers from dentists to construction workers, firefighters to actors. They bottled fresh orange juice, arranged flowers, made Baskin-Robbins ice cream sundaes and cooked bulgogi burgers (bulgogi is traditional Korean marinated beef).

And the fun didn't stop with Kidzania. We visited the Seoul Land Amusement Park, the zoo at Seoul Children's Grand Park, Seoul Olympic Park and even an indoor environment where kids could ride down slides made of ice (warm jacket required!).

But far and away, my kids thoroughly enjoyed the variety of animal cafes in Seoul. Our first visit to one of these cafes resulted in bonding with baby raccoons while sipping deliciously refreshing blueberry lemonade. From there, we enjoyed waffles at a cafe that featured a pen full of soft, fluffy sheep. There is no shortage of interesting animal cafe experiences — we were disappointed to learn that shortly after returning home, my niece and nephew had a wonderful time at the brand new Galapagos Cafe, where they were able to hold sugar gliders while tortoises roamed free around them.

North vs. South


It's impossible to talk about South Korea's history without mentioning the Korean War, its aftermath and the relationship between North and South Korea. My husband and I were very lucky to have an opportunity to visit the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on the final day of our trip, since tours to the DMZ had been suspended for four weeks due to the MERS outbreak that affected South Korea.

Though I can't actually call our day at the DMZ "fun," it was certainly one of the most interesting, thought-provoking and chilling experiences I've ever had in my life. Children are not allowed on this tour, and for a good reason. We were up close and personal with North Korea, and it's an understatement to say you can feel the tension in the air. We were escorted by armed guards, a U.S. soldier and two Korean military policemen who were black belts in Tae Kwon Do.

With great trepidation, we stood on North Korean soil in one of the blue conference buildings that sit over the north/south border line in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ. After visiting the location where the ax murder incident happened in 1976 (which almost plunged us back into war with North Korea), we toured one of the four infiltration tunnels that North Korea had built under the DMZ that were supposedly built for invasion purposes. The tunnels are long and narrow. In some parts the tunnel ceiling is so low that we had to bend down in order to continue along the path.

'First station toward the North'

Many Koreans, from North and South alike, dream of reunification. This desire is clearly shown by propaganda in and around the South Korean area of the DMZ. They have built a train station and a bus depot that remain virtually unused but stand in symbolic testament that once unification happens, the borders will open and travel to the North will be possible.

There was a large sign at the train station that read, "Not the last train station from the South, but the first station toward the North." It is a lofty goal, and it will be interesting to see if or when it becomes reality. Certainly the tense situation at the DMZ doesn't offer much hope, especially with the recent exchanges of shell fire that occurred there in August of this year.

Despite the precarious nature of the North/South Korean relationship and the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ, Seoul is definitely an amazing place to visit. With endless activities, museums, entertainment, shopping, restaurants and more, Seoul can more than fill every day of a two-week stay. It will give you pause to consider the very real situation at the 38th parallel, surprise you with lighthearted joy and fun, fill your tummy with delicious (and sometimes spicy!) food, relax you with its beautiful gardens, ponds and pagodas, and make you want nothing more than to visit again in the near future.

I love that Seoul gripped us so tightly, and I hope we return one day. And I love that my kids are well on their way to living a life filled with travel.


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