“Seoul is ‘beyond’ – on the leading edge of technology, music, fashion, cosmetics, and food – it’s THE spot guaranteed to entertain even the most discriminating of adolescents.”
If your family contains one or more opinionated teenagers, the South Korean capital of Seoul might be the perfect destination to appease the most discerning members of your clan. Seoul has just the right mix of cool and culture to captivate your teen’s attention, and it’s likely one of the safest places on earth for avoiding Covid-19. The South Korean government’s response at virus containment has been lauded as a blueprint for efficiency, its Coronavirus death rate is among the world’s lowest, and proper hand hygiene and face masks have long been de rigueur.
Planning vacations, especially ones overseas, might seem like an exercise in futility with the many unknowns surrounding the current pandemic. However, airline prices are at an all-time low and many travel vendors are offering free cancellation options, so it’s potentially a good time to dust off that vacation planner!
Seoul is the consummate destination for those seeking “off-the-hook” travel experiences. Alas, the screaming of the Furies can’t hold a torch to the whining of a ticked-off teen. Fortunately, Seoul is “beyond” – on the leading edge of technology, music, fashion, cosmetics, and food – it’s THE spot guaranteed to entertain even the most discriminating of adolescents. Below are the top 10 suggestions of things to see and do in Seoul with your fickle teen(s):
#1 Yongma Land
This is a small abandoned theme park with an old-style carousel, crumbling rides, and fading images of 80’s era pop icons. But unlike most amusement parks that have gone idle, this one has become an instagram paradise and invites the public to share in its slow crumble and revel in the poignant charm of its decay. The park has been featured in numerous music videos and album covers for K-pop singers including EXO, BTS and GOT7, as well as a shooting location for dramas and films.
You will find that most locals have never heard of Yongma Land, as most Seoullites prefer the large and modern theme parks which are numerous within the city vicinity. However, foreigners love this place, especially teenagers who enjoy capturing moments which are difficult to replicate back home. Yongma Land is a half day commitment as the park is located towards the edge of Seoul where subways are less frequent.
Pro Tip #1: consider hiring a private photographer, most of whom are very reasonable compared to the US, or going with a private tour group as the guides know all the best angles to get your money shot. Your snapshots will be treasured for a lifetime!
Make it fun and memorable by renting hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) and creating some instagrammable memories. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a non-negotiable must-see! Don’t miss the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony or the Gwanghwamun Gate Guard-on-Duty Performance. Either one happens every hour between 10am to 4pm at the Palace Main gate, every day except Tuesdays.
Admission is free to visitors in hanbok which can easily be rented for about $10 outside the Palace entrances. Looking for something special? Studio KJD rents higher-end hanboks and will even do hair and make-up.
Pro Tip #2: Hire a private photographer, many of whom are extremely reasonable in price and speak English. Author recommendation: Martin Kim, 070.9014.0273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Myeong-dong is a shopaholic’s and cosmetic-lover’s paradise. You can find all the popular Korean cosmetic brands here from Innisfree and Etude House to Tony Moly and MISSHA. Your teen will enjoy collecting the free samples, as well as sampling the fun street food.
Pro Tip #3: Bring a large carrying bag!
Check out Style Nanda Hotel, which stands out as a five story powder pink “hotel” located in Myeong-Dong. While not actually a hotel, Style Nanda was created more for shoppers and coffee drinkers. Each floor brings the distinct feeling of a dreamy film with lots of instagram-worthy backdrops that will delight your teen. Stop for a quick bite to eat at Myeongdong Kyoja, famous for their kalguksu (knife cut noodles) and mandu (steamed dumplings). No reservations accepted or needed.
If you have a K-Pop fan, another extremely touristy place is Star Avenue at the Lotte Department Store in Myeong-dong. Don’t miss Myeongdong Underground Shopping Center for all your various K-pop paraphernalia, which is directly connected to the underground passageway of Star Avenue.
#4 Hongdae and the Trick Eye Museum
The Trick Eye Museum is located in the Seoul district of Hongdae. Both young and old will enjoy the one-of-a kind optical illusions at the Trick Eye Museum. There are plenty of hilarious exhibits that will make you rub your eyes, and there is a special free app guests can download to take the most extraordinary pictures. The museum is located in the Hongdae neighborhood so it’s easy to spend several hours (or longer) in this area. Hongdae is known for its urban arts, indie music culture, and street entertainment. Because it is located near several large universities, there are endless fashion retailers, school supply/stationary shops and restaurants that cater to the young at heart. At night, this area turns electric with innumerable bars and clubs.
Pro Tip #4: There are many hair and beauty salons all over Seoul, but many salons in Hongdae cater to foreigners with English speaking stylists. Your teen may enjoy getting a hip haircut, Asian perm (check out a digital perm) or hair conditioning treatment (try out a hair manicure). Because it’s a college town, the prices are also among the best in the city. The author suggests Hair and Joy Salon which accepts reservations.
#5 Namsan Tower
Also known as the N Seoul Tower, Namsan Tower is an iconic part of the Seoul skyline. Many famous movie and drama scenes have been filmed here, and kids will enjoy the fantastic sweeping city views.
Go during “Golden Hour” to catch the sunset over the city, or if pollution is bad, go at night to see the city lights. You will find the usual viewing points with viewfinders to look through. The peak is only 240 meters, and there is a fun cable car if the kids are not willing to climb the hill. Entrance fees are reasonable, and the lines are not usually too long. Like the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris, lovers can lock their “padlock of love” onto the railing and pray their love will last forever. There is also a gift shop, coffee cafe and restaurant on site.
Created as part of an urban renewal project, this man-made river is a restoration of a stream which originally existed in the Joseon Dynasty. The stream was covered with an elevated highway after the Korean War, but in 2003 the elevated highway was removed to restore the stream to its present form. The stream starts from Cheonggye Plaza, a popular cultural arts venue, and flows through the heart of the city. It passes under a total of 22 bridges before flowing into the Han River, with many attractions along its length.
On hot summer days, locals gather under the bridges to enjoy the shade and dip their feet. There are pedestrian-friendly walkways along the stream, which spans about 11km. Along the way, there are numerous recreational areas to hang out. You can even order Korean fried chicken or kimbap delivered to you at various picnic spots along the stream. Folks of all ages will enjoy the calm vibe and unparalleled people watching.
It’s hard to be in Seoul and not get pulled into the world of Korean pop music. K-pop has been all over the media these past few years, with many Korean music groups winning awards and breaking records. There are many K-pop related places to go in Seoul, but one stand-out is K-star Road, located in the upscale neighborhood of Apgujeong-dong in Gangnam. The route is dotted with “GangnamDols” or large bear statues holding the names and logos of many K-pop groups and K-actors on them. The route also shows you many restaurants and cafes frequented by K-pop idols.
If you or your teen is a fan of K-pop, also consider heading over to SMTOWN. Not only can you buy unique K-pop merchandise, but you can also visit the museum, theater, and hologram shows for live performances. You can even be an artist for a day at SMTOWN STUDIO, which offers vocal lessons, photo-shoots and even music video making sessions. Another option is to visit SMTOWN Stardium in Dongdaemun Design Plaza or SMTOWN Pop Up Store at Young Plaza Myeong-dong.
#8 Lotte World
Considered the world’s largest indoor theme park, Lotte World is one of South Korea’s most famous recreation complexes.
It also boasts an outdoor amusement area known as Magic Island, which includes a man-made island inside a lake linked by a monorail, shopping mall, luxury hotel, folk museum, sports facilities, and movie theaters. You can watch parades, numerous films, laser shows, and even taste a variety of international cuisines year-round. This park is ideal for families with both younger and older kids. Lotte World is not your typical theme park and is a must-see for first time visitors to South Korea.
Pro Tip #5: Go with a night-time admissions ticket to save money and avoid the summer heat and crowds.
Nearby is Lotte World Tower, a 123 story skyscraper that is currently the tallest building in South Korea (6th tallest building in the world.) The view floor has prominent views of the city, as well as a glass floor and telescope. This is the highest glass floor viewing platform in the world.
Considered the Soho of Seoul, Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong was where aspiring Korean artists used to set up their studios. Now it has become lined with Asian and European fusion restaurants and cafes, trendy designer clothing and accessory boutiques, and art galleries. The main boulevard is lined with gingko trees and is especially pleasant for a stroll in the fall, as the gingko leaves turn golden-orange. There are many fun backdrops to take cool selfies as well. Contrary to some of the bustling shopping districts like Myeongdong, Garosu-gil offers a slower and quieter change of pace. Your teens will enjoy browsing the numerous boutiques, pop-up accessory shops and quaint restaurants. It is also not uncommon to spot famous musicians and artists as this is a top spot for the most fashionable of Seoul locals.
Pro Tip #6: Grab a quick bite at Dosan Bunshik, just off the main road. Bunsik means a type of street food/snack which many Koreans enjoy, especially after school as teenagers. The interior is instagram worthy and reminiscent of old-fashioned Korean eateries. Warning, there is usually a line and there are no advance reservations.
Seoul is literally a city where you can shop till you drop! Generally merchants in Seoul will not heavily discount – at most 10-20%. For cheaper priced items or goods sold at larger retailers, there is no bargaining. Nonetheless, there are no shortages of spending opportunities in Seoul. In fact, virtually every subway stop within a 10-mile radius of the city center is heavily merchandised.
Pro Tip #7: Consider traveling to South Korea with an empty suitcase (or two) if you’re planning on doing some serious shopping.
Here are a few top shopping spots for teens (listed in order of pubescent appeal) :
Dongdaemun Market is a series of shopping malls housing over 500 shops which are all clustered in the same neighborhood. If your teen is looking for knock-offs, this is your spot. Some of the most popular mall buildings include Doota, Migliore, Hello apM and Good Morning City (all are quite similar). This market also has a night market and is conveniently located near Shake Shack making it a teen home run.
From Dongdaemun, also consider taking a short walk to Gwangjang Market, a traditional food market where you can find all manner of Korean snacks. Suggested foods include tteokboki (sweet and spicy rice cakes), bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes), and mayak gimbap (seaweed rolls))
Express Bus Terminal Underground Shopping or Goto Mall is another extensive underground shopping area, conveniently located under…you guessed it, the bus terminal. Scour the labyrinthine alleys of over 600 shops, and you’re guaranteed to find amazing bargains including everything from trendy clothing, accessories, cosmetics, paintings, and household goods. It’s the author’s opinion that both Goto Mall and Dongdaemun sell almost identical items, largely merchandised to suit foreigners’ tastes.
Gangnam Station Shopping Mall is another subterranean mega-mall with over 200 stores carrying everything from trendy Asian fashions to cosmetics and electronics. Most of the shops feature low to mid-priced brands which are geared towards a more youthful demographic. Unlike Goto and Dongdaemun, this shopping area seems to have more local shoppers, though of course there are still plenty of foreigners.
Insadong is a different type of shopping experience where traditional goods are on display. There is one main road with many small alleys which house galleries, restaurants, teahouses, and cafes.If your teen(s) is willing to take the time to stroll around the twisting alleyways, the window shopping can be pretty entertaining and unusual artisan-crafted souvenirs can be found. On weekends, the main street is blocked off from traffic, stores set up booths outside and Korean candy stalls abound. There are also traditional street performances and exhibits. Suggested street foods include Korean taffy, pajeon (green onion pancake) and hotteok (dessert filled with nuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon.)
Last but not least is Namdaemun Market,the largest traditional market in Korea with over 10,000 retailers and wholesalers. It’s listed last on the shopping list as it’s typically more challenging to navigate for many foreigners and the items are generally less appealing to teens. However, innumerable treasures and bargains can be found among the dense maze of stalls and restaurants if you have the patience and fortitude. Because it’s known as the wholesale market, prices are generally cheaper than other shopping areas, but items which interest tourists tend to be more spread out. There is also a children’s market, focused on kids under 12. If you want to bargain hard, cash is king.
*Here are a few additional Pro Tips:
- The best time of year to visit Seoul is late spring or early autumn as winters tend to be quite chilly and summers are right in the middle of monsoon season.
- Purchase a local SIM card or rent a portable Wi-Fi hotspot at the airport right after landing.
- Hold onto shop receipts over 30,000 Korean won as you’re eligible for a VAT refund, which can be procured at the airport. Some of the larger retailers will provide a VAT refund at the point of sale, but you need to show your physical passport.
- Bring copies of your eyeglass prescriptions as Seoul has an abundance of inexpensive eyeglass shops, many of which can turn your glasses around in a few hours.
- Download the Naver Maps app. It works in English and is far superior to Google Maps for Seoul.
Seoul is a happening city with activities and attractions suited to appease the most fickle teen’s palate. It is also currently the most technologically advanced city in the world and hands-down one of the coolest. The city is the heart and soul of South Korea and is guaranteed to leave unparalleled, lasting memories for all your family members, young and old alike. Bon Voyage!
Grace Yang resides in California and is a busy mom of two opinionated teenagers. When not planning cool vacations, she works as a financial consultant and assiduously endeavors to avoid becoming an ajumma.
Summary of Itinerary for Seoul Searching with Teens (with links)
#1 Yongma Land
#4 Hongdae and the Trick Eye Museum
#5 Namsan Tower
#8 Lotte World