It’s a rite of passage for any expat living in Korea to be visited by one’s parents. I’ve been here long enough that I’ve been visited four times now, the most recent trip being just a month ago.
In order to let you know what to expect from a parental visit to Korea, I asked my parents a few questions about the trip, the places they visited, and their overall impression. So if you’re looking for travel ideas for your own parents, or if you’re coming to Korea to visit your son or daughter, this article might give you some ideas (although I do leave off some of the more obvious ones, like shopping in Insadong, going up Namsan Tower, or visiting Busan).
Arrival (Friday, June 22)
First, the most difficult part of coming to Korea has to be the long flight. My parents saved some money by flying from Canada to the US, and from there transferring to Korea.
Mom: There are many options for flights to Korea. Several airlines fly from Canada but we chose a flight through San Francisco as it was less expensive. It’s a long flight of almost 11 hours but with lots of movies to watch and a chance for a long nap, time goes by fairly quickly. We paid extra for bulkhead seats which gave us extra leg room and thought that was worth it for such a long flight. The arrival in Korea was efficient as the custom agents speak English. We had no trouble finding the location of our bus into Seoul.
Dad: The 10-1/2 hour flight was tiring, but we got over our jet lag by the following day. No problems at the airport or finding the right bus. The hotel was not too hard to find, but we took the most difficult walking route (up stairs).
Tip: early afternoon arrivals make it easier to find your hotel and get over jet lag.
Accommodation in Seoul — Sinchon
Booking a hotel in Seoul must be done well in advance, as there never seems to be enough vacancy. We finally booked a hotel near Sinchon, a busy area with a heavy nightlife and no shrtage of bars and restaurants. The hotel was cheap, but didn’t offer the amenities of a fancier hotel like a shuttle bus to the airport, English-speaking staff, or complimentary breakfast.
Mom: I loved the area. There was so much to do close to the hotel including shopping and restaurants. I enjoyed our walks to the market [at Ehwa Womans University]. It was also handy to have a subway stop close by and easy access to taxis. We spent a lot of time at some of the coffee shops. We like the way coffee shops are built with multiple stories. One rainy afternoon we sat at a window on the fourth floor of a Starbucks and just people-watched. It’s a lively area with lots of people and we always felt safe walking the streets.
Dad: We could have spent longer in the Sinchon area — lots of interesting shops, a market, trendy coffee shops, interesting architecture. Ewha Womans University campus is beautiful. Access is easy by bus, subway, and taxi.
Tip: familiarize yourself with the area of your hotel in advance using maps and streetviews from google and daum.net.
Danginri Cafe (Saturday, June 23)
I took my parents to Danginri Cafe, a cafe in the increasingly interesting neighbourhood wedged between Hongdae and the Hangang. We watched a slide show of photos from Iraq presented by Paul, an American soldier and punk musician who used to play in the Korean bands Rux and Suck Stuff. Afterwards, we took part in an acoustic concert featuring both my dad and Paul.
Cat Cafe (Sunday, June 24)
My parents love cats, so we went to a cat cafe on Sunday. The drinks are a bit expensive, but that’s because you’re paying for the company of hordes of curious and playful cats.
Mom: It isn’t something we’d ever see in Canada because of health regulations in restaurants. It was a unique experience for us to have cats wandering across the table as we sipped our drinks. Even our pet cats at home aren’t allowed to do that. All the cats were well-socialized and seemed to enjoy the attention. Not a place for someone with allergies as the room had a lot of cats in it. It was clean and odorless. I liked that we were made to take off our shoes and wear provided slippers to ensure we didn’t bring in any outside contaminats. Obviously there are rules in place to run such an establishment.
Dad: All I can say is that it was fun. Also nice to see some unusual-looking cats.
FC Seoul vs Ulsan
After that, we went to Sangam World Cup Stadium to see FC Seoul play against Ulsan to a 1-1 tie game.
Mom: For a mere 10,000 won we were entertained on the field and by the boisterous crowd. It was a lot of fun and worth a mention as something for tourist to attend. The stadium was easy to reach by subway.
Dad: It would have been a better game without the defensive lapse by FC Seoul. The stadium itself is very impressive, as was the enthusiasm of the fans.
Samcheonggak Premium Lunch Concert Jami (Monday, June 25)
On Monday, we went to Samcheonggak, a traditional-style structure up in the mountains north of downtown, for the premium lunch concert Jami. We saw a variety of performances ranging from gugak (traditional music) and fusion to traditional pansori, maskdance, and plate-spinning, followed by a multi-course meal of gourmet Korean food. A bilingual host introduced the traditional Korean instruments to us, and taught the audience “chuimsae,” the exclamations made by the audience during pansori.
Dad: The location and facility were lovely as was the meal. The performers were very talented, presenting an interesting mixture of traditional and modern musical forms. The English explanations were very helpful.
Mom: What a beautiful location in the middle of Seoul. You’d thing you were miles out of the city. The concert was a lot of fun and explained the style of music which helped later. This began my appreciation for the unique style of Korean music. I liked that each instrument was individually played by the performers.
Traditional Tea (Tuesday, June 26)
My mom had expressed an interest in learning more about Korean tea, so I called up Brother Anthony of Taize, an expert in Korean tea ceremonies and president of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, whom I had recently interviewed for an article for Korea.net. I wish that our itinerary had given us time to attend an RASKB event, because it’s an ideal setting for *ahem* older people to socialise.
Mom: I discovered I was making green tea incorrectly. We were so impressed with Brother Anthony’s tea that we bought a beautiful tea set to bring home along with some yellow and green tea leaves. The RAS is worth looking into as they have weekend excursions to locations around Korea.
Later on Tuesday we took a train to Andong, where we caught a bus out into the countryside to reach Hahoe Village, a traditional Hanok village that is still inhabited. We stayed in Bukchondaek, one of the nicest houses in the area. It was built in 1862, and is still owned by descendants of the original inhabitants, the Pungsan Ryu clan. I had been worried that my mom would have back pains from sleeping on the floor.
Mom: Of course the first question everyone asks when they see that we slept on the floor was how sore were we in the morning. I was amazed at how comfortable the mats were. Once I covered up with the beautiful silk quilt, I had one of the best sleeps. Even the grain-filled pillow was comfortable. The village is beautifully preserved and winds around like a maze. Not to be missed is the trip on the ferry to the other side of the river. There is a hard way and an easy way up the hill for a view of the village.
Dad: Hahoe Village was charming and very well maintained. Considering its age, Bukchondaek was a very pleasant house to stay in. We even found the sleeping mats to be much more comfortable than we expected. [Owner] Mr. Ryu’s tour of the grounds and other buildings was very interesting.
Maskdance (Wednesday, June 27)
We visited the Mask Museum next to Hahoe Village to learn about Korean maskdance and see masks from all around the world. Afterwards, we returned to Hahoe Village for a maskdance performance.
Mom: Don’t miss the mask museum. It helps explain the maskdance performance. That was so much fun. I enjoyed the stylized dancing and the story being told was hilarious.
Dad: The Korean masks were interesting, but the museum was more impressive because it featured masks from other cultures.
Yeosu Expo (Friday, June 29)
Later that week we went to Yeosu for the Expo. We stayed in a hotel in Yeocheon, right down the street from where my uncle lived in 1996. We spent one whole day at the Expo, spending most of our time in the international pavilion, as well as visiting the Lotte Pavilion and the Aquarium.
Mom: I was absolutely blown away by how much there was to see. The building architecture was impressive. The evening show on the Big-O was probably my favourite but I was impressed with everything I saw and did. The aquarium was amazing and the LED display on the giant roof over the international pavilions was fun to watch. The street performers kept us entertained as we walked from one spot to another.
Dad: Favourite parts: the size, the architecture of the various buildings, the huge LCD (LED?) panel ceiling, the Aquarium, and the musical, dance, and athletic performances. The Swiss, German, and Danish pavilions were exceptionally good. My overall impression: it compared very favourably with the first Expo I attended in Montreal in 1967.
Nanta! (Sunday, July 1)
I booked tickets for my parents to see Nanta, the Korean musical.
Dad: An excellent production, equal to anything we have seen elsewhere. It was very easy to understand what was going on even without much in the way of speaking parts.
Mom: This is truly an international show. It’s played all over the world and has run for years in Seoul. While the performers talk it is mostly in gibberish so there no worry about missing the plot. It is hilarious and fun to attend. Be prepared to be hit by flying food or other objects if you sit near the front of the auditorium. This show is suitable for people of all ages. The kids in the audience were roaring with laughter.
Deoksugung Pungnyu (Thursday, July 5)
On our last night before my parents left for Canada, it was raining heavily. We went to Deoksugung for the Pungnyu performance (available every Thursday evening at 7pm). Unlike the Samcheonggak performance, this was considerably more traditional, featuring dancing, pansori, and soloists on daegeum and haegeum.
Mom: This was close to being the highlight of the trip for me. The setting was beautiful, make even more charming with the rain falling outside the open walls. We sat on pillows on the floor but there were benches for those who needed them. It was highly professional, colorful, and entertaining. While no English was spoken by the emcee, that didn’t matter because the performances were in no need of explaining. I enjoyed the reaction of the audience to the pansori which had been explained to us at the Samcheonggak.
Dad: The performances were reminiscent of those at Samcheunggak, but different. The forms were quite different from what we are used to, although the Pansori presentation reminded me a lot of a certain style of American blues in terms of the emotions portrayed.
On previous visits, my parents have seen Insadong, Namdaemun, and Dongdaemun, so I wanted to show them some of the other markets. We had lunch in Tongin Market near Gyeongbokgung, and supper in Gwangjang Market which is closer to Dongdaemun.
Dad: Both seemed less oriented to tourists than markets such as Insadong which made them all the more interesting to us.
Mom: While we went only for food (which was delicious) to the Tongin and Gwangjang markets, they would probably be worth visiting for traditional clothing and bedding. These markets are like a step back in time. They may not be tourist-oriented but they are a tourist attraction if you want to see the real Seoul.
There are many street stands across Korea that sell a wide selection of novelty socks, some that are humorous, some that are cute, and some that are very decorative. My mom bought a particularly large amount of these.
Mom: I bought almost 30 pairs of socks from a stall at the market near Ehwa Womans University. I’ve never seen such an assortment of socks. And the price was just 1000 won each. The best part is that I saw some of the same socks in dress shops for 6000 won. I just couldn’t stop buying them as I kept finding ones that were perfect for each of my friends.
Travelling by Train
We traveled by Mugunghwa train to and from Andong, and we used the KTX to get to Yeosu. In Canada, travel by train is no longer very common, which is too bad because I enjoy it and prefer it to buses, airplanes, and cars.
Dad: Train travel is more comfortable than air travel because the seats are larger and it is easier to walk around. You can also see more of the countryside on the way. Trains generally run on time, which simplifies travel planning.
Mom: Train travel in Korea is so civilized. It’s exciting to see the speed of the KTX train posted. At one point we were going over 300 km/hr. Train cars are clean and washrooms are available at the ends of most cars. We were surprised to see some of the services such as massage and singing booths on the Mugunghwa train. Food and drinks are available.
We had a wide variety of meals here, ranging from traditional Korean food and street food to more foreigner-friendly foods like fried chicken and burgers. I asked my parents what their three favourite meals were, but neither of them could limit their choices.
Mom: It is difficult to list the top three meals because each one was so different. I guess I could say I’m an adventurous eater because there was nothing I didn’t like. I enjoy the bowls of marinated vegetables that are brought to the table when you order the meal. I think Korean food is very healthy and that’s why you don’t see many overweight people.
Both of them chose dakgalbi (spicy chicken stew) and duck bulgogi among their favourites. Both restaurants were in Sinchon near their hotels. The duck bulgogi restaurant turned out to be owned by the author Yang Buwon, who was very welcoming.
My mom also enjoyed jjimdak (Andong-style chicken stew) which we had in Andong near Hahoe Village. She also had good things to say about bindaetteok (mung bean pancake) which we had in Gwangjang Market.
My dad’s list was considerably longer. He liked the traditional Korean food which was served to us in Hahoe Village. He also chose galmaegi (pork skirt meat) which we had two times, both in Hongdae and in Yeosu, each which was considerably different. I’m sure at some point we had galbi and samgyeopsal, the two best-known types of Korean barbecue meat, but I’ve since become a bigger fan of galmaegi.
My dad also liked the Korean-style fried chicken which we ate at This is Chicken, a skinhead-themed chicken hof in Hongdae, as well as the chili dog he ordered at Burger B’s, a popular Korean-owned restaurant in Hongdae. I think he was a bit sheepish to include a foreign meal in his choices, but it goes to show that Korean businesses are getting better and better at making foreign food.
With this trip over with, that probably means they won’t be back for a couple of years, but they’re already both looking forward to their next time here.
Mom: My strongest impression of Korea is that it is a country with strong traditions but is also a modern and cosmopolitan place to visit. It’s hard to point out the favourite part of the trip as there are so many highlights. I enjoyed the food, the kindness of the people, the bustling big city of Seoul and all there is to do there and the quieter countryside.
Dad: The Koreans we encountered were friendly towards obvious tourists like us. We always felt safe on the streets, and were never cheated by taxi drivers or shop keepers, as we have been in other countries.