Seoul is a big city. And, just like any big city, a little inside knowledge goes a long way. If you want to break free from the norm and find a more authentic place to hang out in the Korean capital, here are five great places to start.
New York is widely known as the city that never sleeps. Well, if that old cliché is said to be true, then the fast-paced South Korean metropolis of Seoul is the city that never settles. Seoul is changing rapidly and Seoulites are always obsessed with the latest of everything, changing their favorite hangout spots almost as regularly as they change their impeccably styled wardrobes.
With that in mind, here’s a whirlwind guide to five of the most interesting districts in Seoul right now.
You might have heard of Hapjeong, Apgujeong, Sinsa, Noksapyeong — these are a few of the areas in Seoul full of captivating cafes, lovely shops and stylish restaurants. But have you heard about Yeonnam-dong?
Yeonnam-dong has many small shops with personality set in unlikely locations. Here you’ll find scores of unique cafes, shops and restaurants, with only a few franchises to remind you of the world outside its borders. What’s more, the area has an undeniable sense of harmony to it. It’s a mix of urban and nature, the old and young, children and parents, trails and parks, picnics and boutiques — all existing happily alongside one another.
Yeonnam-dong is one of very few places where you’ll find genuine peace in the middle of Seoul. And that is something worth savoring.
Rusty, Artsy Mullae
Mullae is an interesting combination of modern and forgotten Seoul — an adventurous maze that evokes a feeling of adventure wherever you go. Here you’ll find a continual stream of buildings, homes, shops, cafes and art galleries so time-worn that it’s difficult to identify one from the other.
Iron and steel factories occupied the area back in the ’70s. However, many of these were forced to leave in the ’90s after the Korean steel industry was hit by crippling financial crisis. In the following years the area became overcrowded and consequently the larger factories moved to better facilities in the outskirts of Seoul, freeing up Mullae for the remaining residents.
While numerous high-rise buildings and apartment complexes dwarf many parts of the area, it wasn’t long before artists looking for low rents moved to Mullae and started to beautify the neighborhood. Nowadays you can still run into rusty iron cutting machines and old industrial machinery, yet still experience cutting-edge art, dance, theater and film at the same time.
Once Abandoned Hannam-dong
“As salaam Alaikum” is the greeting you are most likely to hear when walking the streets of Hannam-dong.
In this district you’ll run into vintage fashion shops, art galleries, design studios, creative agencies, coffee roasteries, Muslim bookshops, tattoo parlors, churches and halal restaurants, all within the space of a few hundred meters. You’ll see people in Supreme 5-panels, fedoras, burkas, Harleys, NY Yankee caps, kippahs and bike helmets, and you’re just as likely to hear K-Pop as you are to hear people singing reggae from a car passing by.
While a section of Hannam-dong hosts one of the wealthiest estate housing communities in Seoul — an extreme rarity in apartment-laden South Korea — the neighborhood was practically deserted just a few years ago. Today, it is probably Seoul’s most racially integrated community.
Hustling, Bustling Dongdaemun
Dongdaemun is now probably best known for Zaha Hadid’s fluid Dongdaemun Design Plaza — Korea’s newest landmark that acts as design museum, shopping center and multifunctional cultural space all in one. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The roots of Korean fashion, commerce and even the national mentality can all be found walking deeper into the Dongdaemun area. The sheer number of 24-hour malls, cafes, themed halls of resale, street-food carts, delivery services and assorted vendors of practically everything under the sun is almost too much to handle. It is most certainly guaranteed to surprise at every turn.
Every budding entrepreneur should visit Dongdaemun to experience it and be inspired by its relentless pace. But remember, Koreans are there to hustle. Shoppers should haggle prices aggressively, or be prepared to get stung with a scam ($50 for a pair of socks, anyone?).
Seongsu-dong was once the center of the shoe industry in Korea, and as such is littered with shoe factories and warehouses. Nowadays it’s a mix of rugged, industrial buildings, lovely art galleries and quaint cafes.
Koreans love monochrome colors, and reportedly nearly 90% of all cars in the country are black, white or silver. Despite this, in Seongsu-dong you are sure to be surrounded by the full spectrum, despite the many car repair shops you’ll find here. Seonsgu-dong is a place full of Pantone-hued buildings, soulful street art and flashy bicycle wheels. The bohemian, artistic and rebellious vibe can be sensed everywhere you walk here.
For a further taste of Korean culture, check out our latest street style report from Seoul Fashion Week.
Words and Images by Timo Kiuru for Highsnobiety.com