In Seoul, addresses are nearly meaningless and Google Maps doesn’t work very well – but that’s part of the charm. Admittedly, its neighbourhoods can all look the same at first glance – but you have to look behind the facades. What seems to be another endless line of barbecue restaurants and cellphone shops can hide a bevy of unique experiences.
About 25 years ago, Itaewon was home mostly to American soldiers. Today it’s all changed. In the alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, medium to high-end restaurants are stacked on top of each other. For a drink, Sam Ryan’s Sports Bar and Grill is a great old spot, and in the summer, Gaja Changgo, the rooftop above it, provides one of Seoul’s nicest (and most affordable) outdoor experiences. If you’re in search of something to read in the city’s countless cafes, What the Book has the best selection of new and pre-loved English books in Korea.
Around the hill and down from Noksapyeong Station, Gyeongridan is home to Korea’s craft beer revolution – check out Magpie Brewing Co or The Booth Brewing Co. Nearby Haebangchon has plenty of quirky shops and Casablanca Sandwicherie, a Moroccan sandwich shop that has achieved cult status in Korea.
Itaewon is good fun, but the best bands almost all play in Hongdae, at bars like Freebird Cosmic Live and Club SHARP. Hongdae is the place to get away from the manufactured K-pop prevalent throughout the rest of the city – it is the heart of Seoul indie culture.
Begin the night with a beer at Keg B. For dinner, you grab a slice at Monster Pizza. Evenings are particularly fun at Suzie Q (410-3 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu), one of the city’s last remaining record request bars. On summer nights, partiers gather in Hongdae Park to enjoy the warm weather. Hongdae in the daytime is a different kind of experience. The Hongdae Free Market runs Saturday, and craftspeople set up market stalls where you can pick up a unique piece of ropey jewellery or a funky postcard. Shops like Object Seoul, which sells handmade homeware and stationery, keep the indie spirit of Hongdae alive.
Jongno is right smack in the centre of the city, with a cross-section of skyscrapers above and street sellers at the bottom. You can shop for souvenirs in Namdaemun Market, or people watch at Gwanghwamun Square.
There are treasures to be found all around Insadong – part of the Jongno area – though the best are usually off the main street. Galleries are everywhere, and a lot of them feature independent Korean artists. Jongno’s soju tents can be found on many of the neighbourhood’s side streets – my favourites are under YBM building. This is the after-work haunt of the Korean salaryman, where you can sit on a plastic stool and tuck into a bottle of soju and a plate of chicken gizzards, pork sausage, spicy chicken, or fish cake soup.
Seoul’s most famous neighbourhood is sometimes described as Seoul’s Fifth Avenue. Hundreds of aesthetic clinics aside, you can also find chic foreign brands at places like Galleria Department Store and the shops of Garosu-gil.
For eating and drinking, there are some real gems in Gangnam – like Le Chamber (above), a high-end speakeasy, and Dosa, one of the most celebrated Korean restaurants in Seoul. This is also the place to spot popular K-pop stars – or get a feel of the phenomenon. SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment – two of K-pop’s heaviest-hitters – are located here, and gaggles of fans hang out outside the buildings to catch glimpses of their idols.
– TEXT BY DAVE HAZZAN
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PHOTOS: LE CHAMBER, FREEBIRD COSMIC LIVE, HONGDAE FREE MARKET FACEBOOK, NAMDAEMUN MARKET FACEBOOK, WHATTHEBOOK, 123RF.COM, ALAMY, INMAGINE, SUPPLIED
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.