Is Seoul worth visiting?
Yes, it can be a great destination. There are lots of things to do and it is incredibly easy to get around. Even if it takes quite a lot of time. And your toddlers will not be disappointed, although you have to be a bit careful with the food.
What is the weather like?
Korea is COLD. You have seen pictures from North Korea, and they are not photoshopped. But summers can be hot, and they start at the end of May.
How did we get there?
We took a flight from Tokyos Haneda airport to Gimpo, the second airport of Seoul that serves domestic flights and flights to Japan (and some to China).
Seoul has two airports, and the biggest one, Incheon, is huge. Korea is a freight hub and almost all freight passes through Incheon. The upside is that you can get anywhere from there. The disadvantage is that it is quite far from the city center, even if you take the airport express train. Another disadvantage is that the airport is big, so it takes quite a lot of time to navigate.
Gimpo is much smaller and closer to the city center. It is accessible with the city subway (although not as easily as you may wish), and with the airport express train. You can also take the bus or taxi. It will put you back about 8000 won and taxi is the easiest way to transport your luggage to the airport. You may want to put your family on the train, because the taxi may get full. They will get there a little later than you do, unless traffic snarls up. Which happens regularly at rush hour in Seoul.
Where did we stay?
We stayed in a hanok, a traditional Korean house. Seoul was ravaged by the Korean war, but most of the city survived. Not the boom that started in the 70's, though. Until then, Seoul was a very old and traditional city. After that, concrete towers started popping up like mushrooms, and in the process the face of Seoul was totally transformed.
Today, the remaining traditional buildings are treasured by locals and tourists alike. Too much by the locals, the old buildings are all turning into fancy shops and restaurants. So the neighborhoods are turning from quiet family areas to restaurant zones.
Where did we shop?
Seoul is famous for its markets, and the most accessible for the tourist is Namdaemun market. There are several others, although many - like Dongdaemun - is really built for professional buyers (of clothes and textiles in that case). But even though the prices are low at Namdaemun, it is hard to make a bargain. The quality of the merchandise is so-so, although if you can judge whether a T-shirt is good or a plate is useful then you should buy there.
Otherwise, although we went to all the fancy department stores, we bought all our souvenirs at eMart. Very similar to Walmart, this is a chain of stores that specializes in low prices and big packages. Our kids fell in love with Korean nori, which is very different from the nori you find wrapped around sushi. That kind of nori is air-dried on bamboo mats, and that is it for the preparation. When nori is taken from the ocean (the animals that constitute it are microscopic) it is a gooey, sticky paste. You can buy cans of it in Japan, and it is much more tasty on rice than the dried version. Koreans dry their nori on mats forming sheets, too.
But then they fry it. Deep-fry in oil. Put salt on it, occasionally some sesame seeds. Our kids could not get enough, and neither can Korean kids. And the best thing is that even though it is deep-fried, it is very healthy. More minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids than even fish.
So we filled one of our suitcases and a bunch of travel bags of the type you usually get in taxfree when you buy chocolate for Christmas, and it lasted all of two months. It actually keeps for a very long time and tastes great with rice (our kids love to roll up about a teaspoonful of cooked rice and stuff it in their mouths).
If you want some additional souvenirs you can buy in the supermarket, try the herbal or grain teas. Korea is so far north (and so cold) that tea does not grow very well. But Koreans are a resourceful people, and the herbal teas are also part of the traditional Korean medicine. You do not have to know about that or even care to appreciate them, though.
What should you eat?
Korean food is famous around the world for the fermented cabbage with red pepper paste known as kimchi, but in reality that is only one type of kimchi available in Korea. If you can get it out of the ground, the Koreans will make kimchi out of it.
In good restaurants, you get a number of small plates of assorted kimchi and other vegetables when you order (or even before you order). Beware! It is way too spicy for your kids!
Finding foods which are not spicy in Korea is a challenge. If you want them without garlic as well, it is even harder. But not impossible.
The grilled meat is often marinated in apple sauce (actually Asian pear sauce, which is not quite as sweet). That makes it tender, and Koreans do not use barbecue sauce either. So grilled meat is usually a good idea if you want something not spicy.
Another good bet is soup. The Korean kitchen is very big on soup, especially since that is how rice is traditionally served. You dunk it into the soup and eat it together. Just be sure you get a soup that is not spicy. The wonton or mandu soups are usually a safe bet.
Another good thing to eat is chichimi, a kind of pancake with filling. This can be herbs (usually nira, a kind of vegetable), seafood, or kimchi. Stay away from the kimchi and ask the cook to hold the chillies, because otherwise they will put it in and you have to carefully remove all of it unless you want a crying child on your hands. Or in your arms, rather.
Noodles are usually not spicy either. Koreans are not quite as big on different types of noodles as the Japanese, but there are several kinds you can try. Especially the chilled "remen" which are served in a vinegary broth with a boiled egg. Make sure you do not get any mustard though.
That said, there was one place where our kids ate so much that we had to roll them home. The best meal, definitely in terms of value and also the tastiest meals we had (and certainly the friendliest service) was in a restaurant that specialized in pigs trotters.
What? I can hear you ask. Don't they walk on those? Yes, and that is why they have so many small muscles in their feet. And the Koreans have turned it into a very tasty dish.
How did we get around?
Seoul has a fantastic subway system and as the city is quite big, you will not be able to walk everywhere. Be careful though, there are not elevators where you may want them.
Taking taxis is possible but better for short distances, as they normally are family cars. The trick is finding the right exit, especially on rainy days. Or snow days.
What is there to do for toddlers?
Apart from the changing of the guards at Gyeongbokgung palace, the Korean royal palaces are quite interesting, although the reenactment of the ancient royal ceremonies can be quite tedious. And no fun if it rains.
Lotte World, on the other hand, is one of the biggest, if not the biggest indoor amusement parks in the world. It is a masterful piece of pleasure ride origami, one ride stacked on top of the next. It is sort of a copy of Disneyland but with its own character (and characters). You should take exit 4 from the subway station, by the way. There is an outdoor amusement park too where many Korean telenovelas are shot.
Apart from the amusement parks the shopping street of Insadong works really well for toddlers. Try one of the places that sells happins, the Korean dessert of shaved ice, cereal, and jam. Or other Korean desserts. Much better than the Turkish ice cream salesmen.
If you feel an urge to go shopping, try the Coex mall. You can borrow strollers for your kids and there are restaurants for lunch or dinner. Seoul actually has plenty of underground shopping malls where you can get just about everything. If not from the permanent stores, from the sellers who operate out of their suitcases.
One thing to be careful about: if your kids are not in diapers, you can have a hard time finding public toilets, even in the underground shopping malls and subway stations.
Do we recommend a vacation in Seoul?
Yes, absolutely. You have to plan ahead and bring a cheat sheet with the names of food your kids can eat, but if you do it is a fantastic way of exposing your kids to a really different culture.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.