Flight duration: 2 hours
Best months to visit: March to May and September to October
Recommended for: All ages
Itching to get out of China? Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is closer to Beijing than most domestic destinations. You’re just two hours’ flight away from a cosmopolitan powerhouse full of history, culture, playing, shopping, and dining.
Stroll along Cheongyecheon, a man-made stream that runs through downtown Seoul between Cheongye Plaza and the Hangang River. Part of an urban renewal project, the 11km waterway is flanked by a variety of attractions – including 22 bridges, a “tunnel” made up of fountain jets, a bird sanctuary, and a museum dedicated to the stream. Guided tours are available in Korean, English, and Japanese.
For a dose of culture, head to Insadong. Originally a residential district for government officials, the area became an antiques trading zone after the Japanese occupation forced wealthy Koreans to move and sell their belongings. Now 500 years old, Insadong features a mix of cafes, restaurants, handicraft shops, art galleries, and street food stalls. Catch one of the daily calligraphy demonstrations or pansori performances (a form of traditional Korean storytelling), or take a spin through Tongmungwan and Kyung-in Art Gallery – the oldest bookstore and tea house in Seoul respectively.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Seoul only has urban activities to offer, but it would be a shame to miss out on the easily-accessible mountains. Perhaps the greatest of the city’s seven peaks is Bukhansan, which tops out at 836m. The hike up takes around three hours and is best-suited to families with kids above age 10.
If you want the views without any of the hard work, hitch a ride up the N Seoul Tower (more commonly known as the Namsam Tower). At 479.7m, the tower marks the highest point in the city and is accessible through a cable car. There’s a gift shop and
restaurants on the ground floor, as well as four observation decks and a revolving restaurant at the top.
Need a rainy day activity? Head to the 85,000sqm COEX Mall, otherwise known as Asia’s largest underground shopping center. The mall boasts hundreds of shops, two food courts, Megabox movie theaters, a kimchi museum, and the COEX Aquarium. The latter is home to 650 marine species, including otters, sharks, manatees, turtles, jellyfish, and leopard seals.
There’s also Lotte World, the world’s largest indoor theme park. The massive complex features a man-made island, a monorail, shopping malls, a hotel, a Korean folk museum, sports facilities, and movie theaters.
Did we mention the food? Korean cuisines is healthy, delicious, and kid-friendly. Even picky eaters should like japchae – cold, slightly sweet glass noodles with julienned carrots, spinach, and beef. Other safe bets include bulgogi (grilled slices of beef rib eye marinated in a sweet soy sauce), pajeon (scallion pancakes), mandu (essentially pot stickers), and ddeokbokki (glutinous rice cakes stir-fried in chili sauce). Popular with locals, Gwangjang Market has lots of classic street snacks like mung bean pancakes.
China Eastern, China Southern, Korean Air, and Asiana Airlines operate frequent direct flights between Beijing International Capital Airport and Seoul’s two airports, Incheon and Gimpo.
Flight duration: 3.5 hours
Best months to visit: March to May and September to November
Recommended for: All ages
Ultramodern Tokyo is a breeze for families. Picnic under the cherry trees at Ueno Park or Yoyogi Park, meet Mickey and Cinderella at Tokyo Disneyland, go shopping in Ginza, get lost in the crowd at Shibuya crossing, or say hello to the robot receptionist at the Science Museum – the choices are infinite.
Delve into the traditional side of Tokyo at Meiji Shrine, located just north of Shibuya. Covering an area of 700,000sqm, this Shinto shrine features beautiful forest paths stretching beneath traditional wooden archways (torii). One of the most famous temples is Senso-ji in Asakusa, but it tends to get very crowded and can be harder to navigate with young children.
If your family likes Hayao Miyazaki movies, be sure to stop by the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. Designed by the revered animator himself, the museum is easily recognizable by the huge Totoro standing in the window. Tickets are made from real 35mm film prints; holding them up to the light reveals a scene from a Studio Ghibli film. At the Saturn Theater, visitors can watch an exclusive animated short and see into the transparent projectionist’s booth.
If you have time, head outside the city for a side trip to the coastal town of Kamakura, the lake resort at the base of Mount Fuji, or the hot springs in the national park of Hakone. Available only to foreigners, the JR Pass makes train travel easy and affordable. It offers unlimited use of any Japan Railways train for a period of one, two, or three weeks. The JR Pass must be bought before arriving in Japan, as it is not available for sale within the country.
Japanese food is generally healthy and kid-friendly. Small noodle restaurants located within subway stations or on the street are cheap and convenient, while most department stores have huge food courts in the basement. Be sure to visit an izakaya, a casual restaurant associated with after-work drinking. The food is designed to be shared and includes staples like sashimi, edamame, yakitori (chicken skewers), karaage (bite-sized pieces of fried chicken), and agedashi tofu (fried tofu in broth).
Tokyo is a splurge; a bottle of water can cost between RMB 10 and 20 and taxis start at around RMB 70 for the first 2km. The extensive subway system is your best bet for transportation, but the experience can be a bit disorienting at first. But don’t worry; the locals tend to be unfailingly polite and go out of their way to help.
Air China, China Eastern, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, ANA, and JAL operate frequent direct flights between Beijing and Narita International Airport.
Flight duration: 1 hour
Best months to visit: July to September
Recommended for: Ages 7+
Leave the city behind on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, where heaven and earth converge in a union of epic proportions. The province borders Russia and Mongolia, and is home to a large number of ethnic Mongols who have their own language and written script.
Most people set off from Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. There are three grassland areas accessible from the city: Xilarumen (80km), Gegentala (150km), and Huitengxile (120km). Gegentala is geared towards Chinese tourists and best avoided unless you actually want hokey performances, luxury ger, and night clubs. Xilarumen is the only one that can be visited without a tour group; staying with a host family is easy, but be prepared for a relatively no-frills experience.
A popular way to experience the grasslands is to stay in a ger (yurt), a semi-permanent structure made of felted wool. During the day, you can explore the vast plains on horseback, try your hand at archery, hang out with a local family, or watch a rodeo competition. Evenings can get a bit rowdy, with copious baijiu drinking and traditional performances. Many tour operators offer multi-day packages that include a day in Hohhot, horseback riding, overnight camping, a visit to a lamasery, 4×4 transportation, and more.
The most important event of the year is Naadam, a festival featuring displays of archery, horse racing, and Mongolian wrestling. The archers wear colorful traditional deel (kaftans) while the wrestlers don only a zodog (similar to a bolero) and shorts. Children (aged 5-13) serve as jockeys in the horse racing event, which is meant to test the horse’s abilities rather than the rider’s. Naadam usually takes place in late August to early September.
Alternatively, you can book your own van or minibus and drive to Inner Mongolia. The Huluinbur Grasslands near the Russian border are arguably the best-preserved and contain one of the largest freshwater lakes in China – Hulun Lake, also known as Dalai nuur. Families with older kids can consider camping on the plains, but be sure to pack a few extra layers; nights can get pretty chilly even in summer and some places don’t allow campfires.
Vegetarians and lactose-intolerant travelers should take note: local cuisine is heavy on meat and dairy, especially lamb. Typical dishes include stewed mutton (手抓羊肉), mutton hotpot (涮羊肉), whole roast lamb (烤全羊), and yak butter tea (酥油茶).
Air China, Hainan Airlines, and China United Airlines operate
direct flights from Beijing to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. From there, you can take a long-distance bus to the grasslands.
Photos courtesy of SnippyHollow, Travel Oriented, Christian.Senger, Anja_Johnson(Flickr);Mrmin123, Geoff Peters 604, Dick Thomas, Luka Ma, Kalleboo, Kevin Poh(Flickr);Paulo Fassina(Flickr), Mooney47, K3nna, Matthieudreo, Preston.Rhea(FLickr).
This article originally appeared on p66-69 of the beijingkids April 2014 issue. Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com