Bukchon Hanok Village

Exploring Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul

Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌) is a historic residential area north of central Seoul between the Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces. Today Bukchon contains almost 900 traditional Korean houses (hanoks) and is a great place to find traditional Korean architecture in modern Seoul.

A view of modern Seoul from Bukchon Hanok Village.

Over the rooftops of Bukchon is a view of modern Seoul, with the Seoul Tower on Namsan Mountain.

Bukchon (which means “North Town”) backs onto the mountains, giving it hilly streets and great views. It’s a wonderful place to wander through the narrow streets and alleys, appreciating the craftsmanship and simple beauty of the hanoks.

A very brief history of Bukchon

Bukchon Village was formed during the early Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910) and was originally home to noble families and high-ranking officials. During a housing shortage in the early 20th century, larger plots of land were filled in with smaller homes. These are called reformed hanoks, as they incorporate modern materials such as glass and western tiles. In the 1970s developers began tearing down hanoks to replace them with modern structures. But recently Seoul has recognized Bukchon for its cultural significance, and the hanoks are appreciated and preserved.

What is a hanok?

A hanok is a home built in a traditional Korean style of architecture. Han means Korea, and hanok literally means Korean house. Hanoks are similar in appearance to other Asian structures, but there are differences that make them uniquely Korean. Although palaces are highly decorated, hanoks are usually left natural. They blend in very well with natural surroundings, as they are constructed of wood, stone, and paper, with a tile roof.

Bukchon hanok

Hanoks are also characterized by deep eaves.

Girls in traditional Korean dress (Hanbok) for a special occasion.

Girls in traditional Korean dress (Hanbok) for a special occasion.

Ondol and Maru

A main feature of hanoks is the efficient combination of ondol and maru floors that keep the temperature comfortable in Seoul’s variable weather. Ondol is a heated stone floor that keeps the occupants warm in cold months and maru is a raised wooden floor that remain cool in hot weather. Rooms often surround an inner courtyard. The maru room is usually in the center of the home, and is like a living room, larger, and used for receiving guests. Its wooden floor is raised so air circulates keeping it cool in hot weather. Sliding doors and hinged doors are able to open for circulation or close for warmth and privacy. The ondol rooms are off the maru room and used for sleeping and eating.

Ondol floors have existed in Korea since prehistoric times, and are made up of large stones covered by clay. Under the floor are flues that carry hot air from a fireplace in the adjoining kitchen. The kitchen is slightly lower so the hot air rises through the flues to the chimney on the other side of the ondol floor, heating the large stones. These stones retain heat for hours heating the room and keeping the occupants cozy.

In Korea today, even modern high-rise apartments usually have heated floors. The floor may be heated with hot-water pipes heated by gas or electricity, but are inspired by the traditional ondol system. Warm floors are part of the reason Koreans often sit and sleep on cushions directly on the floor. Because they sit on the floor, Koreans always remove their shoes before entering a home.

Hanoks are constructed mainly with wood, stone, and clay.

Hanoks are constructed mainly with wood, stone, and clay.

Hanoks are also characterized by deep eaves, which create shade in the summer when the sun is high, but allows the sunlight to enter in the winter when it is lower on the horizon. Because of space limits, eaves in reformed hanoks are more compact.

In a traditional hanok, interior surfaces, windows and doors are covered with hanji, a strong, translucent paper made from the mulberry tree. It has the benefit of insulating the room while letting in sunlight. Today many hanoks have added modern materials such as glass in the outer windows.

If you really want to immerse yourself in Korean culture you can rent a room (often including breakfast) in a hanok. The lady who runs this soon-to-be-opened Bukchon guest house (below) let us take a peek inside. For myself I prefer western beds, but it would be fun to spend one night.

The inner courtyard of a Bukchon hanok.

The lady who runs this soon-to-be-opened Bukchon guesthouse let us take a peek inside.

Bukchon traditional tea house, with a mountain view.

We stopped for a break in this traditional tea house, which takes full advantage of the mountain view.

Bukchon is a living residential neighbourhood and most hanoks are people's homes.

Although they welcome visitors, Bukchon is a living residential neighbourhood and most hanoks are people’s homes.

Sometimes tourists are a problem in the area, so please respect peoples privacy and don’t make too much noise, especially if you are walking through in the evening. Although visitors are welcome, Bukchon is a living residential neighbourhood and most hanoks are people’s homes. 

Today in Bukchon there is a charming contrast between the old and new, and the galleries, restaurants and tea houses make it a popular spot for both Seoulites and visitors.

A modern art gallery in Bukchon.

A modern art gallery in Bukchon.

Folk art in Bukchon.

Folk art in Bukchon.

How to get to Bukchon Hanok Village

By subway:

  • Anguk Station (Line 3), Exit 2. (5-minute walk) About one block straight ahead is a tourist information center where you can pick up a Bukchon walking map.
  • Jongo Station (Line 1, 3 & 5), Exit 6. (10-minute walk)

Want to see more traditional Korean architecture?

Nearby you can also visit:

  • Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395, which was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty.
  • Changdeokgung Palace and Secret Garden (UNESCO World Heritage)
  • The Korean Furniture Museum
  • The Blue House, which is the executive office and official residence of the South Korean President.
  • Insadong: a trendy area with antiques shops, artisan goods, galleries, cafes and restaurants. The main street is Insadong-gil with smaller alleys and roads connecting to it.

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Things to do in Busan, South Korea

About 300 km southeast of Seoul is the South Korean port city of Busan (부산). The city has so much to offer with its beautiful South Sea coastline, sandy beaches, mountains, as well as the fun of Korean food and culture—yet the city is under the radar of most western travelers.

Many Koreans and Asian tourists come here to vacation, but the city is under the radar of most western travelers.

A Few Facts:

  • Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, with about 3.6 million residents.
  • Busan is the largest port in South Korea and the fifth busiest container port in the world.
  • Although Busan is a big city, it feels more laid back than Seoul
  • There are three major beaches in the city: Haeundae, Gwangalli and Songdo.
  • Busan hosts many popular festivals, such as the Haeundae Sand Festival, the Busan Sea Festival, and the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).
  • The quickest and easiest way to Busan from Seoul is by KTX train, which takes less than three hours.

We recently spent some time in Busan, and here are some of our best experiences.

Strolling along Haeundae Beach

Haeundae’s 1.5 km strip of golden sand is the most famous beach in South Korea. There are numerous hotels, guest houses and restaurants right across the street, and if you visit there’s a good chance you’ll be staying in this area.

Chuseok is an important family holiday, so many vacationers were families, and the beach quieter than usual.

During high season Haeundae’s sandy beach is covered with umbrellas, and has even achieved a Guiness World record in that category. We visited in the shoulder season near the end of September, during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), when it was much quieter. The weather was beautiful, and still warm enough to walk along the water’s edge. The beach is clean and safe to visit both day and in the evening.

▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Haeundae Station (Exit 5), then it’s about 500 metres to the beach.

Sea Life Busan Aquarium

Right on Haeundae beach is the Sea Life Busan Aquarium, which is much bigger than it looks and spread over 3 underground levels. It is home to more than 35,000 species of fish, algae, reptiles, and amphibians. The aquarium is known for its conservation work including the rescue and release of sea turtles. More information and discounts are available on their website.

Fireworks, Chicken and Beer

The magical night view of Haeundae Beach from our Airbnb apartment.

One of our favourite Busan experiences was our evening of fireworks and a picnic on Haeundae Beach. We purchased a pack of fireworks for a few dollars from a convenience store along with some beer, and some fried chicken from one of the many take-out places (try the spicy sauce). (Chicken and beer is a very popular Korean combo made even more so by the drama, “My Love from the Star” as it was the favorite food of the drama’s heroine.) (Yes, I’m a Korean drama fan)

We headed to the beach and ate our picnic watching others setting off fireworks towards the sea, then set off our own.  

Lunch at Haeundae market

A fun place for lunch just across the street from the beach is the Haeundae Market. Along with the fresh vegetables, seafood and kimchi are inexpensive restaurants and stalls selling street food. We had some excellent dumplings in a small restaurant.

Walk around Dongbaek Park

walkway around Dongbaek Park

The walkway around Dongbaek Park.

Dongbaek is a lovely park next to Haeundae beach on a rocky island forested with evergreens and camellia trees (dongbaek in Korean). Although it is still called an island, Dongbaek is connected to the mainland as the waterway was silted in many years ago. There is a walkway that circles the whole park with beautiful views up and down the coast. At the top of the island is a statue and a monument of Choe Chi-Won, a ninth century scholar and poet, who carved “Hae un dae” in the rock, thus naming the area (which means sea and clouds).

The view from APEC House to the Gwangandaegyo Bridge

The view from APEC House looking towards the Gwangandaegyo Bridge

The park is very popular in the morning with people out walking or using the exercise machines along the pathway. At the tip of the park is APEC House, a modern building which was used for the APEC Summit Meeting in 2005. It’s open to the public 9:00-18:00 and worth a quick look, but the main attractions are the awesome views and the park itself. 

▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Dongbaek Station (Exit 1) walk 800m towards the Busan Westin Chosun Hotel, which is at the start of the park.

Haedong Yonggunsa Seaside Temple

Haedong Yonggunsa Seaside Temple

Haedong Yonggunsa Seaside Temple

Haedong Yonggunsa is a beautiful temple first built in 1376 in a unique coastal setting. It’s a top tourist attraction in Busan, so there are lots of people, and lots of booths selling snacks and souveniers.

Haedong Yonggunsa Seaside Temple

Haedong Yonggunsa Seaside Temple

The beautiful temple and spectacular setting are worth the visit in spite of the crowds. Go early if you can and grab a piping hot Hoddeok (pancake) from a food stall to munch on as you take it all in (try not to burn your mouth on the delicious melted brown sugar filling). The temple area can all be seen in an hour or so.

▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Haeundae Station (Exit 7). Then take bus 181 and get off at Yonggungsa Temple. Or take a taxi about 15 minutes from Haeundae.

▶ Open Daily 04:00 – 19:00.

piping hot Hoddeok (pancake)

A delicious piping hot Hoddeok (pancake)

A Sunset Stroll at Gwangalli Beach

paper lanterns that rose over the sea into the night sky

Along with the Gwangan bridge lights several people also lit paper lanterns that rose over the sea into the night sky.

Gwangalli beach is famous for it’s fine sand, clean water and romantic night atmosphere. The focal point is the Gwangandaegyo Bridge (also called the Gwangan Bridge or Diamond Bridge), which stretches over 7.4 km and is the largest ocean bridge in South Korea. The bridge sparkles at night with 100,000 lights that change colors making it especially beautiful.

▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Gwangan Station (Exit 3 or 5). It’s about a 5-minute walk to the beach.

A Must Try: Busan’s Fresh Seafood

Gwangalli seafood BBQ

Gwangalli seafood BBQ (jogae gui) with pork belly.

After your evening stroll, Gwangalli is a great place to try a seafood bbq called jogae gui (baked clam). There are many options at the east end of the beach. Like other Korean bbq places there are vents hanging down over the centre of the table above a grill. Red hot coals are placed under the grill and you cook your own meal. With the shellfish comes foil containers of enoki mushrooms, kimchi, and shredded cheese to cook over the grill with the shellfish. So good and a great Busan experience!

Shop at Shinsegae Centum City – the world’s largest department store

Shinsegae is the world’s largest department store according to the Guinness Book of World Records, so if the weather is poor or you are needing a shopping fix it’s worth a visit. Besides every kind of merchandise you can imagine, it has numerous restaurants, an indoor ice rink, golf range, movie theater and the famous Spaland. (Note: it’s the world’s largest department store, not the largest mall.)

▶ Check the Shinsegae website for more info.

▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Centum City Station (Exit 12)

Busan Museum of Art

Korea is a very creative place, with a lot of interesting architecture and design. If you enjoy art, the Busan Museum of Art is a great place to spend an hour or two, and near the Shinsegae department store. They have an interesting collection of Korean modern art as well as contemporary pieces from throughout Asia. We especially enjoyed an exhibit by Busan-born artist Kim Tae Ho.

▶ Check museum website for current exhibitions.

▶ Open 10:00-20:00, closed Mondays

▶ Admission free, except for special exhibitions.

▶ Getting there: Subway Line 2 to Busan Museum of Art Station (Exit 5), then walk about 100 metres to museum.

Tip for Getting Around

Taxis are reasonable for short distances in Korea, but don’t expect your driver to read or speak English. It will help your driver to have a map of your destination and the address in Korean.

Have you been? What are your favourite things to do in Busan?

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Busan things to do

elephant nature park

Before you ride an elephant in Thailand

Trekking through the jungle in Thailand perched high on an elephant, seemed both exciting and romantic to me. After researching this activity, I wasn’t so sure. Eventually we decided to visit Elephant Nature Park, and it was truly awesome!

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park initially caught my attention as it is ranked high on TripAdvisor. It is a sanctuary for abused and unwanted elephants, and we would have the opportunity to meet, feed, and spend time with these elephants. We wouldn’t be riding them, and the elephants would not be performing tricks. 

Elephant Nature Park

The park itself is in a beautiful setting, surrounded by mountains, and with a river the elephants can bathe in. A guide was with our group for the whole day, and he told us about the sanctuary, and a little about each elephant we met. It was really moving to hear the stories of family and friendship between the elephants.

meeting elephants

We were able to meet several of the resident elephants.

elephants after a mud bath

Happy elephants after a mud bath.

Life before the sanctuary

Some of the rescued elephants had formerly worked in the logging industry, some were kept to perform tricks and beg, others were used to give rides to tourists.  We met elephants who had their legs broken, who were blind, whose ears were scarred by abusive owners. Some elephants were abandoned because they were too old to work. Some are as old as 75-80, and at the sanctuary they can live out the remaining years of their lives with no more work or abuse.

Elephant with scar from a land mine

This elephant has a scar on his left foot from a land mine.

Rescued elephants often have physical as well as mental scars, and both take time to heal. Elephants naturally form family groups, and at the sanctuary they allow them to form the family groupings they choose. Some become aunties, some find best friends, and these family groups help them to heal emotionally.

They are treated well, and eventually begin to trust humans again that are caring for them. These elephants can’t be released into the wild, both because they don’t have the skills to survive, and there is a shortage of grazing land due to development.

bathing an elephant

Helping to bathe an elephant was awesome!

Best friends hanging out.

A couple of friends chilling out together. One of these elephants is blind.

Today there are around 4,000 to 5,000 elephants in Thailand, when there were 100,000 at the start of the 20th century. About half live in the wild, and half are privately owned or cared for. For centuries they have been used for labour and entertainment of people. Although using elephants in the logging industry has been banned in Thailand since 1989, many still have a life of labour carrying tourists. Asian elephants are much smaller than their African cousins, and carrying people long distances on their shoulders is a heavy burden.

While elephants are revered in Thailand, in the tourist industry they are often mistreated.

Wild baby elephants are taken from their mothers (who are often killed) and endure torturous training to control them through fear. They are harmed from the riding itself, from abusive owners, and they are often chained up when not on duty. Elephants performing in the street are often mistreated, and in an environment that is frightening and uncomfortable. 

Elephant rides are a very lucrative part of Thailand’s tourism industry, and it’s a controversial subject. The costs are high to feed and care for elephants, and there isn’t room in sanctuaries like this for approximately 2,000 elephants. Many owners need their elephants to work to cover costs, but as tourist dollars are supporting places like Elephant Nature Park, others in elephant tourism may adopt better practices.

We all have to choose for ourself how our travel choices impacts others, and how our travel dollars impact the places we visit. Initially I was searching for a place to ride elephants. What we found was an opportunity to interact with elephants without exploiting them. Our experience at Elephant Nature Park was inspirational, fun, and the highlight of our trip to Chiang Mai.

elephant looking for a snack

Elephant found a snack

This elephant was looking for a snack…and found one!

Elephant Nature Park

Watching elephants, and they are watching us too.

Before you ride an elephant in Thailand, check out Elephant Nature Park

Visit the Elephant Nature Park website to book and learn more. Besides time with the elephants, our day included pick-up and drop-off at our Chiang Mai Hotel, a drive through beautiful countryside to the Park, and a delicious vegetarian buffet lunch. There are more ways to visit and volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, and other projects in Thailand and Cambodia.

About Save Elephant Foundation

Lek Chailert is the founder of Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park. She is from a small village north of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and understands the culture and challenges surrounding elephants. The Foundation’s approach involves local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism. Lek’s efforts have been recognized globally. Learn more at http://www.saveelephant.org/.

Korean soft tofu stew

Korean Home Cooking Class

As usual for us, many of our experiences during our visit to Seoul involve food. I like Korean food, but a lot of it is still unfamiliar to me, so I figured a Korean home cooking class would be a fun way to learn more about Korean cuisine and ingredients.

OME Cooking Lab in Seoul offers a Korean home cooking class, so I signed up, hoping to learn enough to make a couple of the most popular dishes myself.

Gyeongdong Market

Our class of six first toured the Gyeongdong market in the Dongdaemun District. Gyeongdong (or Kyungdong) is the largest wholesale food market in Seoul, and you can find every meat or produce imaginable, as well as herbal medicines and ginseng. 

Shredded peppers were one of the ingredients we would be using in our tofu stew.

The quality of the produce and other foods looked very high, and we also saw small manufacturers producing staples such as sesame oil and Korea’s famous red pepper flakes (gochugaru).

Time to cook!

After the market we went to cook and then eat together in a traditional style Korean house.

Our menu of traditional Korean foods consisted of mushroom soft-tofu stew, beef bulgogi, jeon (Korean pancake) and acorn jelly salad.

Beef Bulgogi

The first task was making the delicious sauce for the bulgogi, which includes soy sauce, garlic, green onion, sesame oil, sugar, and pepper. Thin sliced beef is first marinated in the sauce, then we pan-fried it with onions scallions, mushrooms and carrots.

Our chef/teacher Minseon explained that a well-planned Korean meal should include five colours (or close variations): green, white, red, black and yellow—representing the five basic elements wood, metal, fire, water and earth. As you can see we did so with the ingredients for the beef bulgogi.

Mushroom Soft-Tofu Stew

The soup is a flavourful and spicy combination of green onion, garlic, soft tofu, mushrooms, clams, and Korean red pepper. I was given the job of shredding mushrooms for the soup. I usually chop mushrooms with a knife but shredding them worked really well.

Pajeon (Korean Green Onion Pancake)

Jeon or Korean pancakes are a very popular food item. Making jeon is quite simple – mix the batter, then add the vegetable or seafood, and fry until crispy on each side. We made green onion jeon or pajeon, and also cute little zucchini jeon, but you can also make kimchi jeon, or seafood jeon. Jeon is often enjoyed together with Makgeolli, a milky, refreshing, rice wine.

Tip: Using ice-cold water in the batter helps make the pancake more crispy.

Acorn Jelly Salad

Lastly was the acorn jelly salad. The acorn jelly was already made, so we only had to make the salad dressing, then arrange the jelly on the plate first, topped with the salad. Since having it at the class I’ve noticed it is a fairly popular banchan item (Korean side dish), at least this time of year.

Dinner is served!

Time to eat our Korean feast, (left to right): soft-tofu stew with clams, beef bulgogi, acorn jelly salad, and Korean pancake (jeon).

The meal was delicious, and I’ll try making these dishes myself at home.

If you are interested in a fun, Korean cooking lesson, I would recommend OME Cooking Lab. Our chef/teacher Minseon was friendly and knowledgable, with lots of tips and information about the ingredients. She has even traveled to over 20 countries to experience and understand different cultures and foods.

You can find more information about the OME Cooking Lab at 5-tastes.com.

Have you tried eating or cooking Korean food?

(Note: we did not receive any compensation from OME Cooking Lab, and opinions are our own.)

Hong Kong Victoria Harbour

Highlights of our first visit to colourful Hong Kong

Our first trip to Hong Kong was only for a few days, but it is already one of my favourite cities in the world. It is a terrific blend of historic Chinese culture and modern soaring skyscrapers, colourful lights and green parks, bustling markets and beautiful Victoria Harbour. The city is compact so even in a short visit you can see and do a lot. At least enough to realize you will want to come back soon.

Browsing on Kowloon's Nathan Road

Nathan Road, Kowloon

Getting around is easy

Getting around Hong Kong is easy with the efficient Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system. The MTR covers all major districts in the territory, including the Airport Express, Disneyland Resort, and the boundary with Mainland China.

Purchase an Airport Express Travel Pass when you arrive for HK$300 (CDN$51 / US$39). Both include a refundable deposit of HK$50, and include one or two single journeys on the Airport Express, as well as three consecutive days of unlimited travel on the MTR.

English is everywhere on signs and is fairly widely spoken, at least in tourist areas. So finding your way around is easy.

Enjoy the ride on the Star Ferry

Hong Kong is an archipelago of 260 islands, and one of the best ways to view the city is from the water on the Star Ferry – one of the world’s biggest travel bargains. Splurge on an upper deck single ride ticket for about CDN$0.43 / US$0.32. A must-do when you visit Hong Kong.

Star Ferry

On the first clear day of your visit, go to The Peak!

Victoria Peak is a mountain on Hong Kong Island, a dominant feature of the city skyline, and the highest point in the area. You can reach the peak via the Peak Tram, a 125-year-old funicular railway (the Tram departs near the MTR: Central Station, Exit J2).

A view of Victoria Peak, from the Star Ferry.

Once at the top, there are spectacular views of the city and harbour, as well as nature walks through the mountainous landscape.

typhoon signal in Hong Kong

I would love to show you a beautiful photo of Hong Kong from the Peak. But we made the mistake of “saving this experience for last”, and instead experienced our first typhoon. On our return trip home from Asia we arrived for our last couple nights in Hong Kong, and saw this warning in our hotel lobby.

The next morning the typhoon reached level 8, which pretty much shuts down the city. So, we spent most of that day in our hotel, until the typhoon passed through in the early evening and it was safe to venture out again.

Waiting out the typhoon

This view is from our second hotel in Hong Kong, the Harbour Grand Kowloon.

The typhoon was an experience in itself, and thankfully it didn’t bring any significant harm to the city or its residents. Next time we visit Hong Kong, taking the Peak Tram will be the first thing we do!

Swimming with a view

This is the view from the rooftop pool deck of the Harbour Grand Kowloon Hotel. The view was so spectacular, we went for a swim even though it was pouring rain at the tail end of the typhoon. The pool attendant didn’t say if he thought we were crazy!

View from the pool deck of the Grand Kowloon Hotel

Bring your appetite

You can check here for more about what to eat in Hong Kong, but if you love food you will find a lot to love. Definitely don’t miss Dim Sum with steamed pork buns and delicious dumplings!

Ride up the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator

A fun and free thing to do is a ride up the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, the world’s longest covered people mover. It is a series of escalators 800 metres (2,600 ft) long with a vertical climb of 135 metres (443 ft). You can hop off at one the exits such as the Soho district, for a drink or meal at one of the many restaurants lining the route, which we did.

The escalator system was built in 1993 to carry workers back up the hill to apartments at the end of workday. Daily traffic exceeds 55,000 people, including many tourists. The escalators daily run downhill from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. and uphill from 10:30am to midnight (so you will be walking one way). There isn’t really a viewing area at the top, as it leads to a residential area, but there are great views along the way.

Take a break in a green park

Hong Kong has a population of over 7 million, and is one of the world’s most densely populated areas. Most live in small spaces in high-rise apartments, but there are also many lovely parks to escape to such as Kowloon Park, or Victoria Park on Hong Kong Island.

Kowloon Park

Kowloon Park is a cool oasis after shopping on nearby Nathan Road.

Shop til you drop

From bustling markets to upscale boutiques – everything is available in Hong Kong: traditional Chinese tea and herbs, tailor-made suits, fresh produce, cheap electronics, and Gucci and Dior children’s boutiques for parents with an abundance of disposable income. We went to the Temple Street Night Market, but there are many more, including the Ladies Market and Stanley Market.

Temple Street Night Market

The Temple Street Night Market – One of the great markets in Hong Kong, with produce, electronics, and even Chinese opera singers. See here for more of our experiences in Hong Kong by Night.

Walk around and see what you find

Walking and exploring is one of our favourite things to do, and Hong Kong is a perfect place to do it!

Rosary Church - the oldest catholic church in Kowloon, completed in 1905.

Rosary Church – This colourful church is the oldest catholic church in Kowloon, completed in 1905.

bamboo scaffolding in Hong Kong

Bamboo scaffolding at construction sites. I’m fascinated by everyday things, done differently from how we do it at home.

Colourful Hong Kong

Finding shade on a hot day, with colourful lanterns from the mid-Autumn Lantern Festival.

Take a side trip to Lantau Island

One of the more popular side-trip options is the short hop to Lantau Island, where you can see the (very) Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery, as well as Tai O fishing village. We enjoyed both, although the cable car up to the Monastery area wasn’t operating due to wind, and I think we would have enjoyed it more than the bus ride.

Po Lin Monastery at Lantau Island

Big Buddha on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

We just scratched the surface on our first Hong Kong visit. But I’m already looking forward to our next trip.

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Tim Ho Wan

A Delicious Taste of Hong Kong

At about 8:30 am we took our place in line at Tim Ho Wan, famous as the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant. There’s a lot of food to try in Hong Kong, as we discovered, and this was a great place to start.

Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan, the World’s Cheapest Michelin Starred Restaurant

Dim sum is a style of Cantonese cuisine served in small or bite-sized portions, often steamed in baskets. It is most common at brunch and is served with tea. There are no reservations at Tim Ho Wan, so we arrived at its Wharf Road location about 30 minutes before opening, and were able to get in the first seating. The service inside is quick, so if you do have to wait the line should move fairly quickly.

Many dim sum restaurant have carts of food come by your table, and you can point to what looks good, but at Tim Ho Wan you submit your order on a menu form. We aren’t dim sum experts, so we asked a young man we met in line to help us choose what to order. He ordered a variety of their most popular items, including a variety of steamed dumplings and their famous BBQ park buns. It was more than we could eat, and came to about $15 US. The food is so affordable that you could almost try anything you want on the menu.

Between its reputation and price, Tim Ho Wan is a Hong Kong must, and a good benchmark for future dim sum sampling. We really enjoyed the fresh and tasty food, and that’s what it’s all about at Tim Ho Wan.  The decor is basic, servers are efficient, and once finished we moved on so others could have their turn. I can see us returning for more dim sum next time we are in Hong Kong.

Tim Ho Wan

Tim Ho Wan, Wharf Road location, North Point, Hong Kong

Dim Sum at Tim Ho Wan

(above) Must-try famous BBQ pork buns – the bun itself is sweet, delicate and crispy on the outside, with a sweet BBQ pork filling; and chicken and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf.

(below) The opened chicken and sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf; shrimp dumplings; delicious steamed pork dumplings with shrimp.

tim Ho Wan dim sum

Charlie Brown Café, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon

This kitschy cafe is completely Peanuts everywhere you look, from the Charlie Brown statues and lights, to the Peanuts art on your latte. We were only stopping for coffee and a smoothie, but they also serve a variety of breakfast and lunch items. It has a nice cafe atmosphere for grown up kids, but younger kids would love it too.

Charlie Brown Café

Pie & Tart Specialists

After lots of walking around exploring Hong Kong, you might be looking for dessert or a cheap and tasty snack. Pie & Tart Specialists is a Hong Kong style bakery chain selling sweet and savory pies, and of course they caught my eye. I chose the cheese milk tart, with a delicious still warm custard for HK$8, which is about $1.30 CDN ($1 US). They have counters facing the street, so it’s easy to pick up something to take away.


More Delicious Food

Like most destinations if you just wander around a block or so off the main streets, you can find great food.  If the place is busy, that is usually a good sign. We had one miss on our trip, as happens, but overall we loved the food in Hong Kong. It is such an international city that you can really find any kind of food here, but it’s more fun to eat as the locals do.

Noodle soups are a delicious and inexpensive option. We ducked into this little soup place when it was pouring rain and it was perfect.

It was fun to try Hong Kong versions of menu items we commonly order when we get Chinese take-out at home. (left) Singapore noodles are my favourite, with stir-fried rice vermicelli, curry, bean sprouts, peppers, bbq pork, and shrimp. Despite the name, it’s not a dish common in Singapore. (right) The spicy ribs with peppers were also delicious.

Street Food

There are numerous options available from street food venders all over Hong Kong. Depending on how adventurous you are feeling, there are all kinds of grilled and fried meats on a stick. You can also find desserts such as freshly-made waffles. Look for crowds to ensure the food is tasty and fresh.

I’m looking forward to our next visit for another delicious taste of Hong Kong. Do you have a favourite Hong Kong food?


First Impressions of Glittering Hong Kong by Night

Of course I have seen photos and movies of Hong Kong, but I still had that “pinch me, I’m really here” feeling. It’s always a thrill visiting somewhere new, and this is one of those places I had wanted to visit for a long time. Arriving at night, Hong Kong made a glittering first impression with its soaring skyscrapers, colourful signs and dazzling harbour.

The Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival

The night we arrived, the Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival was taking place in Victoria Park, just a couple blocks from our hotel on Hong Kong Island. This festival is held throughout the region, and Victoria Park’s celebration is the biggest. Along with dragon lanterns, there was a multitude of others representing everything from flowers and toys to fairytale characters.

Hong Kong lantern festival

It was a fun atmosphere with families and friends taking photos with the beautiful lanterns.

lantern festival Hong Kong

Hong Kong lantern festival panda

Lantern Festival Hong Kong
dragon at Hong Kong Lantern Festival

Hong Kong is a big festival city, so there is a good chance there will be one taking place during your visit. I would suggest checking online for Discover Hong Kong’s list of festivals throughout the year.

And then there’s that Hong Kong skyline

Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour is especially beautiful at night. This particular night was just after the city was shut down for a typhoon, but as soon as it had passed the shops opened up and people were out again. There is also a nightly sound and light show called A Symphony of Lights, which involves more than 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour.

Hong Kong Skyline

Avenue of Stars

A popular spot for viewing the harbour on the Kowloon side is the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade and the Avenue of Stars, similar to Hollywood’s Walk of FameThe statue below of action hero Bruce Lee is a highlight.

Bruce Lee

A couple local characters we came across.

Shopping at night

If you still aren’t tired, don’t worry, Hong Kong is open late! It’s is a great time to wander around and take in the activity and lights.

shopping for traditional Chinese items

Hong Kong is a shoppers paradise, with everything from traditional shops selling Chinese tea and herbs, to fun markets and luxury brands. We picked up some cheap electronics at the Temple Street Night Market, where you can buy all kinds of items, snacks and even hear opera singers.

Getting hungry? As you are touring Hong Kong by night, try some yummy street food. Anything on a stick! Of course this is the tip of the foodie iceberg in Hong Kong, and if you want more food in Hong Kong, click here.

Our visit to Hong Kong reminded me of New York City, in that it’s a great place for a short break, as it is quite compact. But like New York, it’s a place I can imagine visiting again and again, and never see it all. Next post I’ll tell you what we saw in Hong Kong by day!

Butterfly on Victoria Hotel

All nights come to an end, and if you are looking for affordable accommodations, we really enjoyed our stay at the Butterfly on Victoria Hotel. It’s a small, clean, modern hotel, with helpful staff and free wifi.  The room is small, but nicely decorated, and the bed was comfortable. It’s located a couple blocks from Victoria Park, and only a couple blocks from the Tin Hau MTR subway station.

Butterfly Hotel

Have you visited Hong Kong yet?

The Tsuu T’ina Indian Rodeo and Pow Wow

If you enjoyed the Calgary Stampede, here’s your chance to see top level rodeo up close at the Tsuu T’ina Nation Indian Rodeo and Pow Wow, held each year in July. This is one of North America’s top Indian rodeos, combined with First Nations culture and the excitement of a traditional pow wow.

This event is held in the scenic Tsuu T’ina Nation, at the Redwood Fairgrounds near Bragg Creek, Alberta (about 30 minutes from Calgary). We had the opportunity to attend both the rodeo and pow wow, and highly recommend it for the whole family.

Rodeo…up close and personal

The Tsuu T’ina’s annual rodeo and pow wow has been held for more than 40 years. Top native cowboys and cowgirls from across Canada and the U.S. compete for cash and prizes in excess of $100,000 in added prize money.

At this rodeo you are so close to the action you can see the determination on the cowboy’s face as he tries to stay on top of a bucking bronco. The announcers are entertaining and a big screen lets you see the action complete with replays. Their are more than 300 competitors in events including: bull riding, calf roping, barrel racing, saddle bronc, and bareback riding.

The Pow Wow – a feast for the senses

The pow wow is both a competition and a celebration of native culture, with hundreds of the best traditional dancers, singers and drummers from across North America participating.

As the pow wow begins, it’s a thrill to hear the steady beat of the drums, the voices singing, bells ringing. And then it’s time for the grand entry of native dancers from across North America in beautiful and elaborate traditional garments.

pow wow ladies

More keep filing in, joining the rest in the centre of the building, until the room is a swirl of colour and dancing.

When you go:

  • There are rodeo events daily, with the top finishers in each category competing in the finals on Sunday
  • Pow wow gets underway at 7pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday
  • Fireworks each evening
  • Plenty of food concessions are on the grounds, with everything from hot dogs and mini donuts, to very tasty Indian tacos
  • There are also booths selling traditional crafts, jewelry and clothing, and more
  • Location: Redwood Meadows Arena, 12 km northeast of Bragg Creek, Alberta on Highway 22

For more information check the event Facebook page.

This post is part of the Travel Photo Monday linkup.

Kowloon, Hong Kong

Travel More With These Money Saving Travel Tips

If I won the lottery…the first thing I would do is travel.

We’ve all said this or heard this. It’s true that travel can be expensive, but it isn’t necessarily as costly as you might think. Not only that, but spending more money doesn’t necessarily mean you will have a better time. Thankfully there are a lot of money-saving steps you can take to help lower your travel costs. Here are some of my best money saving travel tips to help you realize your travel dreams, without the lottery.

Walking in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Walking in Kowloon, Hong Kong. One of our favorite free things to do is just wander around and just take in the unique surroundings.

Saving on accommodations

vacation rental in Spain with pool

Our inexpensive vacation rental in Spain included this pool to cool off in. Plus it was pet-friendly.

Generally, if you stay in major luxury hotel chains, you will be surrounded by other tourists.The service will be efficient but impersonal. There will be lots of amenities in the hotel you may or may not need, and you won’t need to leave the premises to eat or shop. Sometimes we enjoy these hotels for a couple days, and some are destination-worthy in themselves. But the places most memorable to us are the smaller family-run hotels or independent vacation rentals. I remember the tea and greeting we received upon arrival at the small inn where we stayed in Istanbul,“Come in, sit down, you are at home now.”

  • Before booking a hotel, check for additional fees such as resort fee” or wifi fee. You are much more likely to be charged these fees at a luxury hotel than at budget or independent accommodations. We had a dispute at our hotel in Hong Kong at check-out, because we didn’t see the fine print that we would be charged wifi fees per device. With two phones and two laptops that would have come to $40/day! Luckily it was waived after a discussion with the manager.
  • If breakfast is included in your accommodations, it will save both time and money.
  • Traveling off-season, or even adjusting your dates by a few days can make a big difference in the price of flights and hotels.
  • Spend a week or more at each location to get a weekly/monthly rate. By spending more time at fewer locations you will have more time to relax and get to know the area, plus lower your transportation costs.
  • Consider booking a vacation home or apartment, especially if you are staying a week or more. It is often more spacious, and you can save more if it includes a kitchen. Try Airbnb, VRBO, or booking.com. Also try specialty sites focused on the region you are visiting (always read the reviews).
  • Stay part of the time in smaller towns or villages instead of only the major cities. You will have a great experience plus save money on accommodations. The culture of a place is often much more apparent in the smaller towns than the big cities.
  • For longer stays try house-sitting. We haven’t tried this yet, but many love it. In exchange for taking care of a home (and often a pet) while the owners are away, you get free accommodations. TrustedHousesitters.com and Housecarers.com are two popular sites if you are interested.

Saving on things to do

You’ve come all this way, so make sure to allow money for activities. But there are often deals if you look for them.

  • Visit museums that are free or offer free days, such as MoMA’s free Friday nights in New York City. In London, some of the best museums such as the National Gallery and British Museum are always free.
  • Event tickets: Sometimes tickets are available from more that one source. I was looking for tickets to Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil, and first checked Ticketmaster where the price was $223 each plus service charge, but I got better seats for only $132 each by calling Cirque du Soleil directly.
  • Check online for coupons or promo codes for attractions you want to visit.
  • Look for local free things to do, such as markets and festivals.
  • Check out city passes for your destination to see if what they offer is a good value for you. A bonus with these can be skipping the long ticket lines.
  • Spend time in the great outdoors! Visiting city parks or hiking in natural areas is usually free.
Near Windermere, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada.

Near Windermere, in beautiful British Columbia, Canada.

Transportation savings

Small cars are better for navigating narrow streets in Europe.

Small cars are better for navigating narrow streets in Europe.

  • If you’re traveling outside of North America, renting a smaller car will not only save you money on the rental and fuel; but will make parking and driving on narrow old streets much easier.
  • Car rental reservations usually have free cancellation, and prices fluctuate, so use this to your advantage. We recently reserved a car in Toronto for $325. When I checked a couple weeks later, it was going for $183 at the same rental location. So I cancelled and rebooked my reservation.
  • Walk or bike when you can, instead of always taking a taxi. You will see so much more, save money, and work off that extra croissant.
  • Saving money on flights is a big topic in itself. Here are some tips to save money on flights.
  • Avoid checked baggage fees by traveling light with a carry-on instead–but be aware of airline size and weight restrictions.
  • Don’t automatically rule out a farther destination because of the higher airfare. If the cost-of-living is lower, savings on accommodations and food might still make it a bargain.

Eat, drink, and be merry by saving on dining

menu del dias (set menu of the day) in Spain

The first courses of our menu del dias (set menu of the day) in Spain. This is a full meal, usually including beverage, that is meant to be affordable for the average worker.

  • Go to that fancy restaurant you wanted to try, but save by eating at lunch time instead of dinner.
  • Walk a couple blocks off the main tourist strip and you will find restaurants that are cheaper, and with better food and service.
  • Eat like a local – because eating the same foods you do at home can cost a premium. And this is part of the adventure!
  • Shop at the local market or grocery store for a great picnic.
  • Ask for tap water in restaurants, unless the water quality is questionable. Also save by bringing a refillable water bottle.
  • Look for happy hours, pre-theatre or prix fix menus for great dining deals.

Saving money on money

  • Use a credit card with no foreign exchange fees. (We use a Chase Marriott Visa for this)
  • Check into your banking options before you go. See if they have international partners, or a plan that will allow you to reduce ATM fees.
  • Pay in local currency. Some larger stores will ask if you would like to pay in Canadian dollars or US dollars, and then charge higher than average exchange fees.

More ways to save

  • Bring proper ID for senior, student and member discounts (such as AAA).
  • Sign up for a travel rewards credit card, or two or three…
  • Choose a less pricey destination with a favorable exchange rate.
  • Cell phone – check before you go. You can adjust your plan to include long distance or data, rent a local cell phone, or stick to wifi and Skype or FaceTime.

Do you have any money saving travel tips to share?

Simmons Building Calgary East Village

The Simmons Building – Calgary’s Cool New Dining Destination

The historic Simmons Building just opened as a unique dining destination in Calgary’s East Village. It brings together three of Calgary’s food favourites: Charbar (an offspring of Charcut), Sidewalk Citizen Bakery, and Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters.

The Simmons Building is right next to the Bow River Pathway, and we just happened to be riding our bikes past and noticed it had opened. Time for some research!

A great East Village location next to the Bow River Pathway

With the development along the Bow River Pathway and the opening of the Simmons Building, the vision for Calgary’s East Village is beginning to take shape.

Before entering we noticed Charbar’s outdoor seating area, and others sitting on the nearby benches with food and drinks from Sidewalk Citizen and Phil & Sebastion.

Simmons building in Calgary East Village

Inside, it is a beautiful building with an industrial modern feel, and the restaurants flow easily within the open space. It is an upscale casual place, but as it was a warm Saturday afternoon we saw several others in their biking clothes like us.


Although it was opening day, service was good, with only a few minor hiccups. Charbar is a Canadian/Argentinian inspired restaurant with a large dining space on the main floor as well as a raw bar for seafood. There is more dining space on the second floor including space for private dining. Since we were there they received their liquor license, and so their rooftop terrace should be open too. It will no doubt be a popular nice weather destination, with its great views of downtown and the river.

It was Saturday noon and Charbar was serving their weekend brunch. We already had our eggs earlier in the morning, so we decided to try their famous burger. We were sharing as we planned to have dessert and still had to bike home.  The server offered us a choice of still or sparkling water, and it is FREE!! 🙂   Yay!!  The trend of upscale restaurants charging for water is a pet peeve of ours, as Calgary has excellent tap water.

Charbar burger and fries

This is their Gaucho Burger, with provoleta (an Argentinean cheese), crushed avocado, and chorizo bacon. It was delicious, with two beef patties and a generous amount of avocado. We would normally ask for ketchup with our fries, but once we tried them we didn’t even ask because they were so tasty! We asked our server the secret of the fries, and he told us when they cook their beef, they reserve the drippings, and use a little to flavor them after they’ve been fried.

The burger was $18, which is not cheap, but Charbar uses top quality ingredients and the portion is generous. (and they don’t charge for water!)

We planned to have their peach bourbon sundae for dessert, but sadly it wasn’t yet available. So we each had a cappuccino and decided to pop over to Sidewalk Citizen Bakery for a sweet fix.

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery features fresh-baked croissants, decadent desserts, and more. They also have a full menu of sandwiches, savory pastries, salads and pizza. The items can be packed up to go, or eaten at their lunch counter or tables. We picked up a couple dessert items to go.

Sidewalk Citizen Savarin Cake

This is savarin, a brioche cake soaked with rum syrup, and topped with creme chantilly.  It was light, fresh and delicious.


Rosetta & Pistachio Cheesecake from Sidewalk Citizen

Rosetta & Pistachio Cheesecake

Next we tried the Rosetta & Pistachio Cheesecake, with whipped cream & almond syrup. I’m actually not sure what Rosetta is (should have asked), but I can assure you it was delicious and quickly devoured.


Old School soft drinks at Sidewalk Citizen

Old school soft drinks at Sidewalk Citizen to go with your picnic sandwiches

With its location next to the Bow River, Sidewalk Citizen Bakery is bound to be a popular place to pick up picnic items to enjoy in the nearby parks.

Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters

Phil & Sebastion Coffee

Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters was started by two engineers turned coffee nerds. I’ve been a fan since they started up at the Calgary Farmer’s Market in 2007, and they’ve had a lot of success since then. In 2012 they brought together the people of Charcut and Sidewalk Citizen to check out the East Village Simmons building. They all immediately saw the potential of creating a unique culinary experience with collaboration between all three partners. As an example of this, Charbar uses Phil & Sebastian to supply their coffees, and Sidewalk Citizen Bakery to provide fresh bread.

Coffee from Phil & Sebastion

The cappuccinos we ordered at Charbar were provided by Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters.

The historic Simmons Building is a great location and concept. When you are in town I recommend checking out Calgary’s cool new dining destination.