Seoul is a big, vivid, overwhelming city. The language, the customs, the cuisine, the architecture, the sounds and the smells relentlessly bombard new arrivals.
Disorientation is an inevitable symptom (and one of the joys) of international travel. But come to Seoul with your family, and you will discover culture shock is not simply a geographical phenomenon. There is a generational element.
Take your children into Samsung d’light, the three-floor showcase for the latest products of Samsung Electronics at the company’s headquarters in the Gangnam district, and you’ll soon feel the generational divide. Korean and Western teenagers are united in a common understanding of the shiny new technology, while many of their parents flounder.
Similarly, those of us raised on M*A*S*H have an inherent background knowledge of Korea’s 20th-century history that our children (and even some young Koreans) probably lack. On a visit to the War Memorial of Korea, the impressive museum built on the site of the former Army headquarters in Seoul, the older generations of Koreans and Westerners unite in common appreciation, while their children struggle to make contextual sense of exhibits shrouded by the mists of time.
The legacy of the Korean War continues to split the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel. Now that Kim Jong-Un established himself as the North Korean despot for the social media generation, all members of the family are likely to be well-aware of the stark contrast and enduring animosity between the two Koreas.
A visit to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries is a powerful experience; it’s one of the few places in the world in which you get a genuine sense of being on the frontline of history.
DMZ Tours is one of several companies offering daily tours to the border, which Bill Clinton called “the scariest place on Earth.” Children under the age of 11 are not permitted on the tours, and all participants must adhere to strict regulations during their visit. This is not a place for selfies or for showing off the latest fashions. Photography is restricted, and everyone is required to dress conservatively.
The compromises are worthwhile. This is the kind of shared experience that instantly becomes part of family folklore. The sight of impassive North Korean army guards gazing blindly at them will equally haunt parents and children. It offers a rare opportunity to come face to face with one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
While North Korea’s unyielding ideology left that country frozen in time, South Korea thrives at the forefront of the developed world’s advance into the future. Seoul embraces the latest trends — and often starts them.
One of the city’s latest developments, inaugurated in 2014, is the $460 million Dongdaemun Design Plaza, or DDP, a breathtakingly cutting-edge building designed by superstar architect Zaha Hadid. If Star Trek’s Starfleet Command built a spaceport in downtown Seoul, this is what it would look like.
The DDP is a multi-use exhibition venue, already established as an attraction in its own right. The sculptured grounds incorporate parts of the old Seoul Fortress, which was rediscovered during initial construction work in 2008.
Seoul has always juxtaposed old and new. In this thoroughly modern city you can travel between centuries simply by passing through a gate. One of the most dramatic transitions takes place when you enter Gyeongbok Palace immediately north of downtown.
There are no generational advantages here. All members of the family will be equally awestruck. In an instant, you leave the high-rises and traffic behind and enter a 98-acre walled garden scattered with ancient buildings, some of which date back to the 14th century.
While Gyeongbok Palace provides a window into the royal dynasties of Korea’s past, the adjacent district of Bukchon, immediately beyond the palace walls, offers a glimpse of how the ordinary folk lived. This residential district of narrow alleys and traditional houses dates back more than six centuries and is one of the last remaining urban fragments of old Seoul.
Endlessly photogenic, Bukchon offers a wonderful place for an aimless ramble. But in common with, say, Boston’s Beacon Hill, it can feel rather tame and gentrified. The buildings have been meticulously restored, and an abundance of cafés, art galleries and craft shops line the streets.
For a much more immersive experience, visit Gwangjang Market in all its noisy, frenetic, pungent glory. As you negotiate the labyrinthine tangle of passageways between densely packed stalls, there is no doubt where you are — this could only be Korea — but less certainty about when. As with all good markets, Gwangjang feels timeless, allowing you to tap into the historical lifeblood of Seoul.
In the evening, it provides one of the best places to sample street food. The alleys become clogged with people, the whole place fogged with aromatic steam and smoke. Gwangjang is an easy place in which to get lost or separated, so make contingency plans before plunging in with your family. The main entrance at the market’s northwestern corner makes a useful meeting spot.
In Itaewon district, south of downtown on the other side of Namsan Mountain, you can shop and eat in a much more familiar, Westernized environment. For decades, Itaewon served as a popular gathering place for U.S. servicemen stationed at the nearby Yongsan army base, and during my teenage years I came here to buy the latest clothes and music and to play arcade games.
Since then, a lot of Seoul’s youth culture has moved away from the streets into rentable rooms known as bangs. In these private dens, teenagers can hang out, play video games and sing karaoke. Once again, the divide becomes more generational than cultural. It’s cool for Western kids to visit a bang with their Korean contemporaries, not so cool to go there with their parents.
Seoul Info to Go
Most international flights arrive at Incheon International Airport (ICN), approximately 30 miles west of Seoul. Access to the city is by express train (40 minutes to downtown Seoul), bus or taxi (expect to pay $43–53). Seoul’s former gateway, Gimpo International Airport (GMP), nine miles west of downtown, remains in use, primarily handling domestic and regional flights to Japan, China and Taiwan.
Where to Stay in Seoul
Fraser Suites Insadong A great family option: fully serviced, spacious apartments located in Insadong, the antique-store district, in the northeast of downtown. 18 Insadong 4-Gil, Jongno-gu $$$$
Lotte Hotel Seoul With an excellent downtown location and legendary luxury, Lotte is well-established as a favorite for business travelers and ideal for families, too. The famous Lotte Department Store is next door. 30 Eulji-ro, Jung-gu $$$$
Yoo’s Family Guesthouse Yoo’s Family boasts two hanoks, traditional Korean guesthouses, east of downtown. Dedicated family rooms are available. 126-1 Gwonnong, Jongno-gu $$$
Restaurants in Seoul
Daedo Sikdang Although many local restaurants offer cook-at-the-table Korean barbecue, Daedo Sikdang is a barbecue specialist. There are several branches, but the original, east of downtown, is worth seeking out. Seungdong-gu Hongik-dong 431 $$
Phil Kyung Jae Enjoy authentic Korean food in the authentically historic setting of a 600-year-old restored home and gardens located on the southern edge of trendy Gangnam. 739-1 Suseo-dong, 205 Gwangpyeong-ro, Gangnam $$$$
NeNe Chicken Korean fried chicken (which, in contrast to the American variety, is fried twice) is a relatively new addition to local cuisine and uniquely delicious. NeNe is one of several popular chains. Outlets throughout Seoul $
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