South Korea is a fascinating, diverse country that seamlessly blends the old with the new.
Bustling modern-day metropolises sit neatly alongside traditional countryside, and three different seas lap at the nation’s shores. With so much variety, it’s no surprise that South Korea is a great destination for families.
Wander through Busan’s fish market, tour ancient tombs in Gyeonju or discover an underground network of lava tubes on Jeju. This is our experts’ guide on how to make the most of a family vacation.
For foodie families
Cook Korean classics
Korea is a distinctly up and coming destination, earning a well-deserved reputation for its delicious food. In Seoul, kimchi and bibimbap (warm white rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chilli pepper, fermented soybean paste and a raw egg) are top of the menu. Aside from these Korean staples, standout dish bulgogi – literally meaning ‘fire meat’ – is also worth adding to your repertoire.
Thin marinated strips of beef or pork are stir-fried with vegetables, making for a delicious delicacy. During a hands-on Korean cooking class, cooking enthusiasts are able to watch a demonstration before proceeding to make bulgogi themselves.The best part about this family cooking experience? You’ll be able to feast on your creations once you’ve finished making them.
Wander through Busan’s fish market
South Korea’s second city, Busan, is teeming with both cultural and foodie experiences. In this economic hub, gleaming high-rises fill the sky between lush green mountains, and impressive bridges stand tall over the water. A must-visit in Busan for any seafood lover is the Jagalchi Fish Market; located by the sea across from Yeongdo-gu Island, this a maze of stalls that sell fresh fish, and it’s quite a sight. Wandering through rows upon rows of exotic fish stalls is guaranteed to keep kids entertained for hours. Most of the fishmongers here are women, so they are locally known as Jagalchi Ajumma – often shortened to ‘ajumma’ – meaning middle-aged or married woman in Korean.
To discover South Korea’s history
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul
South Korea’s capital, Seoul, is divided into two halves – northern historic ‘Gangbuk’ and modern southern ‘Gangnam.’ The northern half of the city is filled with palaces, impressive temples and various museums. One such wonder is Gyeongbokgung Palace, dating from 1395 and once the main royal palace in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty.
The original building was tragically destroyed during the Japanese occupation in 1915 but later restored in 1990. Now, the impressive complex is made up of 330 buildings, including offices for royal and state officials, living quarters and gardens. The palace is a nod to the country’s history and looks distinctly South Korean. It’s a great inclusion on any itinerary for families wanting to learn more about the history of this fascinating land.
Tour tombs in Gyeongju
Once the capital of the Silla kingdom, which ruled much of the Korean peninsula between 57 BC and 935 AD, Gyeongju is one of South Korea’s ancient dynasties. Gyeongju is locally known as the ‘museum without walls,’ so there is plenty of history to uncover here. The Daereungwon Tomb Complex is an intriguing site, where large burial mounds reminiscent of rolling hills house the kings and noblemen of the bygone Silla kingdom. The most famous tomb here, Cheonmachong, was excavated in 1973 when over 11,000 artefacts were discovered surrounding a wooden coffin.
Despite being a burial ground, Daereungwon Tomb Complex is a surprisingly peaceful area to wander through as a family. The oldest existing astronomical observatory in the world is also here, and it’s a magical place for children to explore. Dating from the 7th century, Cheomseongdae Observatory was used to observe the stars and forecast the weather during Queen Seondeok’s reign.
For a cultural family exploration
Visit a Korean folk village
In the heart of Seoul, Bukchon Hanok Village brings a slice of old world culture to the modern capital. Surrounded by palaces and shrines, Bukchon Hanok Village is home to hundreds of traditional houses called hanoks, dating back to the Joseon dynasty. Today, many of these hanoks have been transformed into cultural centres, guesthouses, restaurants and tea rooms, so visitors can easily be transported to the Korea of 600 years ago.
Experience a hanok stay in Jeonju
Fairly off the beaten track Jeonju is a relatively small city, renowned across South Korea for its food, festivals and historic centre. Almost all of Jeonju’s points of interest can be found in its Hanok Village, where more than 800 preserved traditional houses line cobbled streets. To really experience how Koreans lived hundreds of years ago, adventurous families can opt to stay in a hanok overnight.
Although hanoks aren’t extravagant, they are pleasant places with in-floor heating, electronic modcons such as TVs and Western-style toilets. Staying in a hanok allows families to fully immerse themselves in Korean culture. During their stay, families can visit the Jeonju Hanji Museum (where you can learn about the traditional process of making paper), artisan boutiques, restaurants and tea shops.
The best of the rest
Meander through Jeju Island’s caves
Jeju Island is the largest island off the coast of the Korean peninsula and is a truly ethereal landscape. Dominated by Hallasan, a now dormant volcano, Jeju is characterised by villages built from volcanic rock and a mystical cave system. The Manjanggul Cave is a don’t miss natural wonder and the largest cave in Jeju’s underground system. Kids will love venturing down into the lava tube that stretches on for thousands of metres, as it feels like entering into another kingdom entirely.
Once you’re back on high ground, the Cheonjiyeon waterfall is a great spot for families. Meaning ‘sky connected with land,’ Cheonjiyeon’s blue falls blend seamlessly into the expansive sky. Families can cool off after a day exploring the underground cave system by walking along a path through subtropical forest before witnessing the impressive falls flow over a 22 metre (7 foot) drop. No matter where you go on Jeju, the whole island is a natural playground that is perfect for little adventurers.
Get creative on Insa-dong Art Street
Located in the centre of Seoul, Insa-dong is the capital’s creative heart. Once the ancient centre of culture during the 13th – 19th century Joseon Dynasty, the Insa-dong district still lives up to its reputation. Insa-dong art street, showcasing Korean creativity at its finest, is a must-visit street for anyone artistically inclined. Alleys to the side of the main street are brimming with galleries, traditional restaurants, tea houses and cafes. Winding streets filled with kitsch artistic objects are sure to inspire children and adults alike. International chain brands like Starbucks even change their usual signage from English to Korean Hangul, in order to stay in keeping with the quaint ambiance in this district.