A trip up to N’Seoul tower at sunset is absolutely wonderful. On a clear night you can watch the entire city light up and
soak up the feeling of being part of the gigantic whole that is Seoul. There are a few options to get up Namsan Mountain: Taxi to the cable car, take a Namsan bus, or hike from one of the parking lots. It is not necessary to go up the tower for a fun experience, but to see the 360 views of the city it can’t be beat. For a very special date, a visit to N’Grill is incredible – make reservations for 20 minutes prior to sunset. Directions and varying costs at www.nseoultower.co.kr
Nandaemun or Dongdaemun (Seoul)
Shopping is not a favorite of mine, but this shopping is a cultural experience. Namdaemun is an incredible collection of buildings and underground spaces crammed with stall after stall of vendors selling everything under the sun. Dongdaemun has a gigantic fabric market nearly bursting with trendy fashion designer subordinates running around with lists; plus two more sections feature the fashions of the day (or night) with half open daily and half open nightly. Namdaemun is my pick. www.namdaemunmarket.co.kr
Korean War Memorial (Seoul)
Here is another sober reminder of what Korea has been through in its recent past. This well-done museum walks visitors through the entire history with many interactive exhibits and videos; all in multiple languages. The actual memorial at the center is simplistic and very symbolic. There is also an extensive outdoor section featuring vehicles and equipment, plus two very large wings with carved memorial names of the fallen. With some parental guidance and discretion, I find it appropriate for all ages. www.warmemo.or.kr
Magoksa is my absolute favorite regional temple to visit. It is situated along a stream near Gongju and has a very serene setting. Like all Korean Buddhist temples, the approach is part of the mindfulness involved in a visit. At Magoksa, you are treated to a nearly 1-kilometer forested walk along a stream. It is absolutely bursting with color in the fall. Unfortunately, public transport is not simple to most Korean temples as they are conventionally up in the mountains. Magoksa is no different, so driving by car is best. Go south on I-1 or 39 and choose a connector to 329. The parking lot is located at 36.556542, 127.020494. A close second choice for Korean temple is Guinsa, which has a steep mountainous approach, but accessible to everyone via ITT trips.
Seoraksan National Park truly is a gem in the northeastern part of the country. It features enormous granite outcroppings and durable pines perched precariously high. The main entrance to the park has a large temple complex and cable car up to a windswept outcropping. There are many hiking options, but our favorite is in the southern portion along the Heullimgol Valley boardwalk trail to the Yaksuteo Ranger Station, and then returning via a taxi. Note that the Seoraksan camp ground is outside the park and not ideal for trail access. I highly recommend visiting mid-week as it gets insanely crowded on weekends.
Eat Korean street food
This can be done anywhere! Walk out the main gate at Osan or trek to the Gwangjang market in Seoul, and try it all. Dip the eomuk fish cakes, sit at a metal barrel on the plastic stools and partake of soju and raw squid with old men. Have some fried corndog goodness or even go the distance and eat “pundaeggi” (silkworm larva).
See a Show (Seoul)
There is a lot of talent and creativity in Korea! Go to a concert, watch a play, see the symphony, or watch a non-verbal performance such as Bibop, Jump or Nanta. Seoul gets major acts and does excellent Broadway. Easy booking at ticket.interpark.com
So, now you are here! This is a real assignment, treat it as such, and find your niche. There is a lot to do in Korea that has nothing to do with the downtown scene, and a significant portion of it is nearby. All of these sites are worthwhile to visit and most of them can be seen via public transportation. Some are obviously kid-specific, but Korean attractions are typically both single and family friendly alike. I have taken my children to every one of these places. When traveling in Korea with kids, it’s generally easier to navigate without a stroller; if you must bring one, smaller is better.
Begin right outside Osan Air Base with a bike ride along the Jinwi river bike trail. Pedal out the Morin Gate, turn left and follow the road as it curves right out of town, turn left onto route 306 at a light; the trail access is at the next bridge over the river. You could even follow the trail northward to the Jinwi Community Campground and Pool.
This campground is open year round and it makes a fun mid-week campout when it is completely empty, though a faint sewage smell wells up with westerly winds. It’s also fun (and crazy loud) to watch the airplanes just overhead! The public pools are open during summer only. Korea has numerous bike paths along their rivers, including another close by in Osan City and the extensive peninsula-wide 4-rivers trail system
that includes biking along the Han river in Seoul. You could even bike all the way from Seoul into the mountains near Chuncheon
and take the subway back, or go the distance to Busan! Visit www.riverguide.or.kr
for further details.
If you would prefer using your own feet to get into nature, then the Songtan Buraksan Trail
system is perfect and so close. There are many access points, but the closest is via a connector trail near the city library. Exit the main gate, turn right and then left at the triangle, continue straight over the tracks and past the bus terminal. The trailhead is behind the city library on the right side of the road: 37.078602, 127.059540. Another great day trip is the Pyeongtaek City Tour
; this is a free day trip offered by the PIEF (Pyeongtaek International Exchange Foundation) six times a year to see the local sights and history in our area (www.pief.or.kr
A little further afield, up in Osan City, are many wonderful options for day trips (www.osan.go.kr
). You could take a hike around the cute ancient Doksanseong hilltop fortress
where views can extend down to Songtan on a clear day. Nearby is the location of a more recent military skirmish: the UN Forces First Battle Memorial
. This is the location of the first battle fought with UN soldiers, mostly American, as part of Task Force Smith during the Korean War.
There is a small, very informative and interactive museum, plus some outdoor static displays, a lower level remembrance park, and the new memorial itself. You can also (very cautiously) cross the street to see the original memorial erected in the 1955. I highly recommend seeing this place! For a different kind of family day out, visit the Osan Eco Park at the southern part of the city, where you can enjoy the outdoors or go inside the tower for exhibits on water life and views over the city. Another highlight is the Osan Arboretum; a huge formal garden with beautiful trails, labeled trees, ponds and greenhouses. It is right across the street from the Osan College train station and the nearby Super HomePlus with its extra-large kids play land. While most department stores have kid lands for cheap babysitting, this one takes the cake for sheer size and options. It costs more for these features and is a special treat for my kids. Even without children, this extra-large HomePlus is worth a wander or just to visit the food court for lunch.
Speaking of shopping, there are numerous options right outside the gate. First, of course, are all our friends and good neighbors who own businesses along Sinjang Shopping straight out the Osan Main Gate. This is the place to make personal friends with talented Koreans who can sew you a custom fitted dress or suit, create a painting you’ve always wanted, make that blanket, embroider that bag, engrave that award, or even find that special purse you’ve been longing for.
It’s also a great place to shop for gifts to send home and traditional Korean crafts. This is where you will go for lunch and the place to be in evenings. If you get to the end of the road, swing left and walk under the train tracks, you will be near the 4/9 Market, where the local shops are always fun to explore. On days that end in four or nine, the area gets crammed with the colorful umbrellas and seasonal produce from a local farmers market.
Buying seasonally is still very much a way of life here, and it doesn’t get much better than purchasing a bag of sweet potatoes from a little old ajuma at the 4/9 Market. In an utter contrast, a visit to a Korean Department store like Emart, Homeplus, or Lotte Mart is also a worthwhile venture to explore Korean groceries, see the modern appliances, and ride the moving sidewalk. Drop your kids in the playland and eat at the food court.
If you do have kids, there are certainly many options for them. Off base there are numerous playgrounds hidden along back alleys and tucked into apartment complexes; the Songtan International Community Center park is easy walking distance out the front gate, through Sinjang shopping, and left along the train tracks toward the Morin gate.
If it is too cold or too hot, then a Kid Café is a must! Not only are the local kid cafés fun for your children, but they all have free Wi-Fi for moms and dads, and minders to watch the kiddos play while you sit back and sip your coffee. In Songtan, my kids and I prefer Kizzly for a good price, trampolines, train table and decent food. If you have a kid who loves trains, then a quick trip up the subway to Uiwang Railroad Museum will be a highlight.
There are numerous outdoor static displays of full size locomotives, plus an indoor museum with a large model. Then there is the KidZania
. Whew – this indoor theme park up in Seoul is a mini kid-centric city where your children can try their hand at numerous occupations. It’s a wild place and gets crowded, but a favorite for special occasions. Visit www.kidzania.co.kr
When it’s time to take the children out and about, though, you simply can’t beat Everland
! It is our favorite amusement park in Korea, and the season passes were well worth
our investment during the years we have lived here. If you can go mid-week, you will have dramatically fewer crowds. Of course, it’s not just for kids and has the absolute best wooden coaster I’ve ridden: the T-Express!
If you are ready to venture further north, then the Seoul Grand Park Zoo is a great place to take the kids and has easy access via public transportation. This place is large and hilly, so bring the stroller. It can be done on a tight budget by walking to the gate, or take the little tram, which is cheaper than the chairlift. Even deeper into the city is the Children’s Grand Park and Zoo – where the small zoo is free, the animal show hysterical, the playgrounds large, and the amusement rides pricey (but avoidable).
A final kid-specific place in Seoul that we found worthwhile was the National Museum’s Children’s Museum. There are many children’s museums in Korea, but this one was uniquely done and focused on Korean art and architecture; on actual items found in the adjacent National Museum. We loved it.
Seoul is chock full of places to visit and things to do. You could easily take a day trip to Seoul for something new each weekend and occupy a year-long tour with fun outings. There are the museums: The National Museum, Seodaemun Natural History Museum, the Trick Eye Museum, Gwacheon Science Museum, and many more.
There are outdoor options like the Seoul Forest and hiking Bukhansan. There is also shopping: The Flower Market, Namdaemun, Dongdaemun, the Christmas Market, Insadong, Itaewon, Myeongdong, and the Antinque Market. Do it all!
There are plenty of other worthwhile day trips in the vicinity. Suwon’s Hwaseong Fortress is a UNESCO heritage sight, and a fun way to spend a day walking along the walls within the city. Instead of roughing it, how about visit the nearby Asan Spa? The spa is huge and rivals the famous Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul.
Though Asan Spavis doesn’t have an accompanying jjimjilbang (co-ed relaxation space) it makes up for that with a full outdoor waterpark – the hot springs sections of which is open year round. But, if a huge waterpark is what you are after, you have come to the right peninsula; a quick search on visitkorea.or.kr will give you many results. Some are even indoors!
Woongjin Playdoci even has an accompanying indoor ski hill. So, in the heat of summer you can be cool or lounge in the pool. Always be sure to bring your swim cap to Korean pools; and suits tend to be conservative.
Now, let’s talk road trips. Korea is small, but so big on culture and sights that it’s incredible how a little weekend or weeklong road trip away from base will reward you. Always travel with an open mind and be ready to pop into any information booth for a map to find the funky attractions off the beaten track. Nearly every province, county and even town has their own tourist sites. With an open schedule and a little practice finding lodging, you will be ready for adventure.
Remember, there are tourist hotels (expensive and Western), motels / love motels (cheaper and themed), “minbak” (cheap homestays) and “hanok” (traditional homestays that range wildly in price). Pack up, plan little, and be ready for fun. All of these places can be reached by public transportation, but the further reaches will need taxi access to and from the nearest bus or train station. Remember, the KTO 1330 phone number can help with those details! Driving is easiest.
The western portion of Korea is perfect for a first venture away from base. Though not as scenic as the rest of the country, it is close and features some of the most family-friendly beaches in the area. Follow route 34/32 westward to the Taeanhaean National Park where you can camp along the beach, swim in the gentle West Sea waters, and watch the tide go out – way way out.
The western coast has tidal flats like nowhere else, which makes warmer shallow waters and gentle waves for splashing and play. You will also see Koreans digging for clams. The Gurypo campground is a perfect spot with a nice beach edged by scenic cliffs where you can hike the coastal trail to visit other beaches and the large sand dunes at Sinduri.
Further south, near Gunsan, is the Byeonsanbando National Park and more beaches like Gosapo to camp on. You can even drive along the 33-k.m. seawall on the way! For inland adventures, an easy drive on I-1 will get you to Daejeon. The city has some great museums like the National Science Museum and the Expo Park Exhibits, and the Yuesong Hot Springs area on the west side of town, where you can dip your feet in the hot water at the roadside park, or visit a sauna for a full dip.
Nearby Gyeryongsan National Park has hiking trails, a campground, and a pretty temple to enjoy, plus there are ice climbing waterfalls in the winter. If you would rather see cultural sights, travel down to Gongju, where the fortress walls surround a natural hilltop overlooking the river. You can hike around the entire fortress and see traditional pavilions in the interior.
There is also an excellent Korean restaurant opposite the entry. While you are down south, the provincial forest of Chilgapsan offers some great hiking and an astronomical observatory where you can spot stars and constellations on clear evenings.
Branching out and heading northeast in Korea means instant mountains-steep, tall, precipitous and beautifully remote. If you follow I-50 eastward, you can visit the highlights of a well-touristed area with easy access via Seoul. This area can get very crowded on weekends, especially during Korean holidays and in the summer.
Our go-to spot for a long weekend has been, for a long time, the small recreation area of Ganhyeon. This is a canyon with rock climbing, camping, a river to explore, and an old railroad to walk along or pedal a rail bike. Rock climbing in Korea is crowded on weekends and sometimes the Koreans’ safety is a bit sketchy, but the opportunities are amazing in such a mountainous country. So bring your own gear, a buddy to belay, and enjoy the rock.
Continue along I-50 to the coast and find the rough and wild East Sea, where the mountains drop into the ocean and surfers find their waves. The beaches of the east coast are small and scenic, camp-able, and chilly. Be sure to bring a wetsuit if you plan to surf. From here, it’s a quick jaunt up to Seoraksan National Park and beyond it into the wilds of the north.
This is where people brave the whitewater of the Naerincheon River; ITT has a flawless trip that is a blast! Further off the beaten track is the town of Hwacheon, which has quickly become a favorite of ours for nearby camping, river activities, and a great bike trail along the scenic waterway. Even in the winter, it is a fun place to be with its famous ice fishing festival and a great ice climbing wall.
There are lots of outdoor activities in Korea and ice climbing is really taking off. In fact, my husband has said his only regret in leaving here is not starting ice climbing earlier!
To get deeper into the mountains, travel east along I-40, and subsequently route 38, toward the mountain town that made us fall in love with Korean mountains even in slushy weather. This is Taebaek, a cute old mining town nestled in a crescent shaped valley surrounded by mountains and things to do.
There are caves to visit (the best being Hwanseolgul,) there are hikes to hike (like along the Dakpoong valley,) and there are museums to see (the Taebaek Paleozoic Museum or Coal Museum). In addition, this is home to the 02 and High1 ski resorts! On the way east you will pass picturesque Guinsa temple; a unique branch of Korean Buddhism crafted this temple built along the edges of a steep valley.
If scenery is what you are after, a ride on Korea’s O-train can’t be missed. Take two days and ride through the tiny mountain towns, along old curvy tracks, and through tunnels galore. Stop and hike straight from the train to any of the tiny villages, including Taebaek. Stay at a minbak and hop back on the train the next day.
It makes a loop from Jecheon with an access link from Seoul and Pyeongtaek. It can be booked, with a bit of difficulty, from the Korail English website (www.letskorail.com
); have a Korean friend help or call the Korail number for phone booking (1599-7777). For a faster way to travel, try the Jeongseon ZipRider
at Arii Hills resort (the O-train stops here, too). This zipline goes 60 mph and 3,900 feet!
Going southeast along I-1 can get you to the other major city in Korea: Busan. But there is so much more, with a little diversion. Choosing to go south along I-45 can get you to the UNESCO World Heritage site at Haeinsa Temple. The Tripitaka Koreana, a full copy of Buddhist texts carved onto wooden printing blocks in the 1200s, is contained within this complex.
Not far from Haeinsa is the old Gaya capital; during the Three Kingdoms Period of Korean history, a tiny fourth kingdom made its unique stamp on this central part of the country. The largest funeral mounds, and one left open and excavated, are found at the Daegaya Museum. It is fascinating to learn about, and picturesque to hike around, the ancient tombs.
For camping and outdoors, the eastern side of Jirisan National Park has trail access and a wonderful campground called Somakgol near a creek to play. It is so colorful in the fall. Continuing your southerly drive will drop you into Goseong county – dinosaur country they call it – and the very informative and entertaining Sangjokam County Park and Dinosaur Museum.
Here is where you can, quite literally, walk in the dinosaur footprints along the edge of the sea cliffs, or even camp out along the shore. It’s a dino dream! A bit further east along the seashore is the port town of Tongyeong, where you can board one of the famous Korean turtle boats and ride a ferry out to the island of Hansando. There you can explore (by car) the islands, stay in a minbak along a pebble beach, and learn about Admiral Yi, the famous Korean naval innovator.
BUSAN & BEYOND
From this south area, it’s a straight shot along route 2 to Busan. This alternate to Seoul is known for its beach and the nightlife in that area. Haeundae Beach is pretty, uniquely smack-dab in the city, and has a great park along the western edge; summertime it is insanely wall-to-wall crowded. There are better beaches in this country, so what else is in Busan?
Well, a walk along the old city wall at Mt. Geumseong is certainly worthwhile for the views, and a visit to the Haedong Yonggungsa seaside temple is interesting. My favorite thing in Busan, however, was the immense Hurshimchung sauna with its themed pools, relaxing rooms and cave swimming. If you visit only one Korean sauna, this could be it!
The associated jjimjilbang is, however, small and easily outdone by others. Busan is just another big city, so head north for some culture! Near Ulsan, there are ancient Korean petroglyphs in the Daegok Valley if you find that as fascinating as I do. Korean cavemen carved these fish and whales into the rock thousands of years ago, and you can still walk up and see them today!
A super museum makes a good introduction before driving out on country roads to the sights. Back north along I-1 is the culture capital of Korea: Gyeongju. Here is where you will find a one-stop town for ancient Korea. With and old fortress, cute town center, royal tombs from the Silla Kingdom and a formal garden, you could spend a full day wandering the ancient sites in this pretty UNESCO heritage town. Visit the museum on the way in to know what you are looking at!
Venturing to the southwestern portion of the Korean peninsula nearly brings you back in time, and certainly takes you to places rarely visited by western tourists. This area is mostly flat farmland tilting westward into the sea, but still has some steep mountains. Heading south along I-25 can get you to the Juknokwang Bamboo Forest in the small town of Damyang.
This grove of bamboo has numerous trails, a playground, and even a small traditional village and is well worth a stopover. Even further south is Wolchulsan National Park, a mountain oasis, where you can actually backpack into a campground. It’s only 500 meters from the parking lot, but the Gyeongpo campground feels remote without the excessive tents found in typical Korean camping.
Not far from here is Dehean Green Tea Plantation, where the tea bushes are lined row after row up the steep hillsides. You can walk along the trails, up and down the hills, and even visit a small bamboo grove. The drive along route 18 south from the tourist plantation is quite scenic with other hills covered in green tea rows.
Further west you will be approaching Jindo Island, famous for its special breed of dogs. But along the way, be sure to stop at the Uhangri Dinosaur Fossil Site. This is the best fossil site and dinosaur museum Korea has to offer, with gigantic fossilized footprints preserved in situ under climate-controlled buildings. There is also a sculpture park, big playground, huge and high tech museum, and gardens with a very large lotus pond.
This place is a dino lover’s dream. From Jindo, Mokpo or Wando, you can board ferries of all kinds to the southern islands that make up the Dadohaehaesang National Park. It is the largest park in Korea and spans the vast seaside, islands and marine area on the southwestern coast of the country. You must ferry to an island to truly appreciate and experience the park; my suggestion is a trek out to Gwanmae-do.
Leave the car at the dock, pack up camping supplies on a cart or backpack, and take the 2 ½-hour ride ferry as it hops into ports on other islands along the way. On Gwanmaedo, you can camp in the pines along the large beach to the left of the port, explore tide pools and cliff caves, wander the tiny roads through the village and hike trails along cliff edges to beaches unused. This is relaxation and a Korea rarely seen!
There are tons of other islands in Korea; most famously, Jeju, and it is worth the visit! Jeju island has a whole other feel to it than mainland Korea, and while there are kitschy attractions out the wazoo, there are also some legitimate sites to see. There is a lava tube cave system and the Manjanggul cave, the mini-crater at Seongsan, peak bagging at Hallasan, orange groves, waterfalls and the unique southern cliff pillars along the coast.
There is even a walking trail around the entire island if you have that kind of time. (www.jejuolle.org
) It is essential to have a car here, but cheap rentals can be found online to book at the airport. Not as easy as Jeju is Ulleungdo
(pronounced woo-loong-doh). This island far out in the East Sea, is another volcanic sight to behold and a beauty of nature; unlike Jeju, Ulleungdo does not have the mark of tourism on it.
Instead of hundreds of overdone attractions, you will find an incredible coastal trail perched along the edge of the island’s cliffs, and a central valley surrounded by the ancient volcano’s crater. Getting there is a challenge, as you need to take a long ferry ride from the port at Mukho just north of Donghae town.
You need to book ahead of time, so call the Daea Ferry Lines (033) 531-5891 via the KTO 1330 helpline. Once on Ulleungdo, the bus system is easy to navigate, but most sites and the trailhead are right in the port town. There are lots of minbak available, so booking ahead isn’t necessary or possible. Just go!
There are many things in Korea that have no location, but truly give you the Korean experience. Here is a list of things you must do, and they can really be done anywhere on any excursion – from just outside the gate, to Seoul, to the farthest reaches of the islands. Don’t stay on base!
• Stay in a minbak and a love motel. They are so very different, but require the same skills at booking on the spot. A minbak is a room in someone’s home, while a love motel is a super-themed motel that will have all the essentials for a ‘spontaneous’ visit. I’ve taken my whole family to both; preview rooms and be wary of TV channels in love motels.
• Go to a sauna and jjimjilbang. The gender-segregated saunas range in fanciness from small local bathhouses to gigantic super trendy spas. A jjimjilbang is an additional co-ed area, often affiliated with a sauna, where you relax in different themed rooms in a shorts and shirt uniform. Relaxation to the maximum is a family event!
• Buy food at the market. Whether produce grown by a little old lady squatting on the ground or live fish from a tank, there is nothing more Korean than getting super fresh in-season food. Even better: buy it from a roaming blue truck!
• Eat Korean food. Cook your own “bulgogi” or “galbi,” have some regional cuisine like “dolsat bibimbap,” and come to love all the hundreds of kimchi.
• Stop at a highway rest stop. Experience the incredible service. These places have cafeterias, clean toilets, gas stations, shops of all kinds, coffee shops, and often massage chairs and kids playgrounds. They are rest stops of the future.
• Space-A off the ROK for a break. Hawaii, Japan and even Singapore are reasonable destinations.
• Do something outdoors! This country is insane with its mountains, and the activities are often considered upper-class – as those folks have spare time. Get out and ski, rock climb, hike, raft, camp, or ice climb.
• Get involved locally with the PIEF
(Pyeongtaek International Exchange Foundation). Take Korean language classes, join a talk group, go on the free tour and encourage your child to attend the Korean-American Summer School for amazing memories. www.pief.or.kr
• Go to a cat or dog café. This is Asia at its quirkiest. There are a couple in Myeongdong in Seoul and there’s a cat café across from the train station in Pyeongtaek.
• Join a temple stay. Try either of these: a day visit at the Jogyesa in Seoul or a weekend retreat at one of the numerous mountain temples in Korea. eng.templestay.com
• Have clothes custom made. This is the place! For reasonable cost, vendors in Itaewon and along Songtan shopping road can create a special mess dress shirt, entire suit, or evening gown. It will fit like a glove.
• Join a meetup group in Seoul for fun
. Get to know some people outside the military base bubble and find some new activities at the same time. www.meetup.com
• Go to a festival. My favorite by far is the Lotus Lantern Festival in Seoul. The Hwacheon Ice Fishing festival or Boryeong Mud Fest are fun regional events, while the U.S.-ROK Friendship Festival in Songtan is an absolute must-do just outside the gate. For a crazy time, New Year’s Eve in Seoul is wild!
Enjoy all this little country has to offer; get off base and don’t let the time go by too quickly. Pilsung!