A guide to some of my favourite neighbourhoods in Seoul, South Korea.
When I visited Seoul, South Korea, I was pleasantly surprised by how diverse the neighbourhoods were. From culture, history, shopping to nightlife, each has its own vibe and definitely worth your time to explore.
Myeongdong is an area that’s supremely touristy… but it was one of my favourite neighbourhoods to explore. This area is always bustling and the energy is intoxicating. The shops open early in the day, and at night time the place livens up as street peddlers come out with street food. Shopping is the main activity here, and it can get insane – but I loved every moment of it. The massive Lotte Mall is here, and there’s an underground mall at Myeondong metro station as well.
For the non-shoppers, you’d appreciate the amount of food options here aside from street food, which can be annoyingly expensive. My first Odeng, or Korean fishcake, here cost me twice the price here than it would at any other areas.
There are also so many sit-down restaurants and cafes here that made lasting impressions. Pop into any one of the shops along a street of Chi-Macs, which are fried chicken and beer concept restaurants. A must-try is Yoogane for Dak Galbi or spicy chicken stir-fry on a huge grill. A surprising café find was the Innisfree Café, located above the Innisfree shop, which had the fluffiest, most jiggly soufflé pancakes.
A special mention is this coffee shop which served the best coffee I’ve had in Korea, called Coffee & Ni. I was recommended this café by a friend and can’t seem to find any information on this place online, but it was located right opposite Metro Hotel and Starbucks in Myeongdong. It’s a tiny café with this cool barista who make amazing coffee bean recommendations based on what taste you prefer. My coffee was crazy good.
Metro: Myeongdong or Euljiro 1-ga.
Insadong was another favourite street market to walk through. You’ll find a lot of traditional souvenirs here, such as ceramics, calligraphy, fans, chopsticks, bookmarks and fun magnets here. The traditional souvenir shops are interestingly set alongside modern ones like K-beauty brands and random accessories shops. There’s a mini shopping mall called Ssamziegil at Insadong which housed unique handcraft and jewellery shops that’s worth a visit.
Want a hanbok experience, but without the solo awkwardness? On the top floors of Ssamziegil, there’s a photo booth shop that lets you don their hanboks and accompanying accessories for free. Well, not free technically. The photo stickers, aka neoprint or purikura were 8,000 Korean Won, inclusive of the hanboks. The stickers were fun souvenir, but most importantly, I could get some photos of myself in a hanbok on my own camera. I can’t find any official information on this store on Google, but the shop was on the third floor of Ssamziegil, towards the café. Can’t miss it.
This neighbourhood was a current favourite of my local friend, and I could easily tell why. It has a quieter, artistic feel with lots of chic cafes and boutiques. I also spotted a lot of craft workshops going on. If Bukchon Hanok Village sounds crowded to you, visit Seochon Hanok Village instead.
Visit the traditional Tongin Market while you’re there. This market is a famous spot for politicians to do a walking meet-and-greet suring election time. For a unique twist to your lunch, head to Dosirak Café first and purchase some brass coins. These coins will be used as currency throughout Tongin Market. Sounds fun, but since we just came from lunch, we only grabbed some traditional Korean rice cake snacks – paid by Korean Won cash.
There’s a highly recommended coffee establishment in this neighbourhood as well, called ep 3.black essence. We skipped as it was too late for caffeine, and time for a hearty dinner at Tosokchon Samgyetang. This restaurant serves a good Samgyetang, or Ginseng Chicken. It seems popular amongst locals and tourists alike, as there are English instructions on the menus on how to eat Samgyetang. I think they might have tamed down on the ginseng, so this would be a good introduction to the dish. The chicken was flavourful and succulent. I wish there was a punchier herby ginseng taste, but you’re talking to someone who finds bitter Chineser herbal medicine tasty.
Hongdae (Hongik University)
Hongdae is a very youth-oriented place – this is where you go for all things trendy and hip. There’s a good mixture of shops, restaurants, cafes and bars here, making it a good all-in-one stop. The nightlife here is happening, with night clubs, soju bars and noraebangs or karaoke places, all open through the PM. In the weekend, there’s an open street market with students from the nearby art university selling unique items.
Location: Hongik University Metro Station, Exit 9
One neighbourhood away from Hongdae, is Hapjeong-dong. This neighbourhood is on the up-and-coming. As rent gets higher at the more popular Hongdae area, some vendors are moving to Hapjeong. This area had a more alternative, chilled-out vibe to it, as we walked past indie cafes and bars. Since it’s relatively still off the tourist radar, Hapjeong is considered the new “hip” location by locals.
And yet another neighbourhood on the rise thanks to increasing rental prices, is Sangsu-dong. This area is located right after Hapjeong. Unquestionably more obscure, Sangsu has an even more laidback vibe to it. Apparently, this will be the next hipster Hapjeong. We ended our little exploration at Tarr Tarr – a cute café famous for its tarts.
It’s hard not to include Gangnam in this post, as everyone and their mothers would know Gangnam thanks to Psy. Gangnam has true city vibes with its skyscrapers, modern architecture and designer malls. I like this neighbourhood for its shopping, but of course, and also for people watching. If you want to see plastic surgery gone very, very right, check out the well-dressed ladies up here.
The main street to head to at Sinsadong would be Garosugil, which literally translates to “tree-lined street”. The streets are lined with, well, Gingko trees alongside boutique shops and exquisite cafes. The stores here are a lot more orderly compared to the chaos of Myeongdong, and slightly more upscale. Serosugil is a somewhat new area to explore. Basically, Garosugil would be the main horizontal street, Serosugil would be the smaller street which cuts vertically across Garosugil. While Garosugil has an equal amount of retail stores and restaurants, Serosugil appeared to have more eating places.
We had a fabulous Korean BBQ dinner at one of the restaurants there – one of the best Korean BBQs I’ve had in life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a website for it, this seems like a common theme with some places here in Seoul. This restaurant didn’t even have a Romanized name anywhere on the menu or the signboards, but the restaurant was called Gamsung. Hunt it down.