Seoul, exciting as it is, can be an overwhelming acquaintance at first. It takes some time to get one’s bearings in a city of 10 million people, especially if you, as I, come from a place with about half as many in the entire country.
But having spent a fun, if cold, December week and a bit here with Cat, exploring just a few of its neighbourhoods, I thought I would share some first impressions of Seoul – and the occasional second impression.
The city is divided into 25 gu (districts, similar to London’s boroughs), which are subdivided into several hundred dong (neighbourhoods). We had a look at these 7 delightful areas:
Let’s begin in Itaewon.
I thought we would be all happy-go-lucky this time, so I had only arranged flights, and sleeps for the first three nights. This would allow for the freedom to move around and check out different neighbourhoods; to see what we liked and where it might be interesting to stay.
Those first three nights were at Mondrian Seoul Itaewon, which I chose simply because the design looked fun and futuristic. Opened just a year ago, it is cool and contemporary – and also quiet, even though it’s only a few blocks away from the centre of Seoul’s most hustling, bustling neighbourhood.
Itaewon is lively during the day, and even more so at night. It is also Seoul’s most international neighbourhood. Walking along main street Itaewon-Ro, we see brass plaques in the pavement, welcoming us in many languages.
Never did find a Norwegian one; the Swedish greeting will have to do.
Lovely as the Mondrian is, though, it is a bit too quiet for me. Luxury hotels often are. So for the following two nights, I find us a room in G Guesthouse, also in Itaewon, in a word-covered building on top of snowy stairs.
I quite like these simpler forms of accommodations you see, and have lots of fun memories from hostels around the world. This is where you meet other travellers and locals, this is where you can exchange tips and recent experiences, plans for the next few days (or weeks or months), get new ideas, or find travel mates – if you want.
G Guesthouse gets great reviews, especially the fab roof terrace. Cat, however, is much less open to the hostel experience than I am. She is not impressed, roof terrace or not. And I suppose that isn’t very relevant in -10° C anyway. She simply books herself into nearby Hamilton Hotel instead (kids, eh? 🙄 😆).
Pleasant enough common area, but to be fair, our room is nothing to write home about.
Just around the corner is Seoul Central Mosque, and several Middle Eastern restaurants and supermarkets.
Mosque in snow
Itaewon is Seoul’s prime party turf, filled with bars and restaurants, local and international. The seemingly inescapable ones are here, and more interestingly, the rarer gems, especially in the area behind the Hamilton known as World Food Culture Street.
Unlimited free drinkies on weekends, gender dependent.
Somehow, we end up here twice, both times with the place practically to ourselves. But then, brekkie well past noon is probably not all that common.
On a more troublesome note, Hamilton Hotel – or rather, the narrow, sloping street on the left side of it – is also where a tragic crowd crush claimed 159 lives just before Halloween, most of them young girls. Hundreds of kids packed together in this 3-metre-wide alley, then falling, one after another, on top of each other. It is a sobering experience walking along here, seeing their memorials.
The 159 young people came from 15 different countries.
Time to get out of what is beginning to feel like temporary home grounds in Seoul. We cross over to Jung-Gu, the central district – and smallest district, only 9.96 km2. It is home to City Hall, Seoul Station (the main railway station), Namsan Tower, and Dongdaemun Design Plaza, as well as 15 dong, including charming and busy Myeong-dong. We enjoy this fun little neighbourhood so much, we come back, even with our limited time in town.
Myeong-dong offers shopping aplenty; in fact, it is the only place we are hustled into shops. I come out of one of the many, many skin care/beauty shops with some expensive eye patches that allegedly reduce wrinkles. Can’t really say whether they work; weeks later, true to form, I still haven’t opened the box. 😬
According to the Seoul Guide, a whopping 2 million people stop by, or walk through, this neighbourhood every day. Department stores, brand shops, bargain stores, street carts… seems everything is for sale in Myeong-dong.
There is also an underground shopping centre, connected to Myeong-dong metro station – and an easy way to cross a major road without having to brave Seoul traffic.
K-pop kitsch, anyone?
Myeong-dong is also street food heaven, with interesting things for sale. Now, in December, it hosts a Christmas market. One with a Korean flair, of course. Small stalls offer – not glühwein (at least I don’t spot any) – but skewered chicken, skewered strawberries, fried cheese (also skewered), lamb sticks (yep, you guessed it), Oreo churros, egg bread…
All kinds of food to be enjoyed, mostly on sticks. Very practical for on-the-go consumption.
Myeong-dong by pre-Christmassy night
New day, new neighbourhood. Although… Gangnam is not a neighbourhood, but an entire district, the third largest in Seoul, almost 40 km2, and with more than half a million inhabitants. Gangnam means ‘south of the river’, the river being the Han – and it perfectly matches my preconceived idea of Seoul.
After my attempt to settle us into a hostel (shall we say failed attempt? I think we shall), we move back into the hotel world, this time to Gangnam, the ritziest district in all of Korea. The Beverly Hills of Seoul, where real estate is twice the price pr m² than the rest of the city. Cat, taking it upon herself to sort out accoms for the final two nights, has booked us into L7 Gangnam by Lotte on Tehran-Ro (Tehran Boulevard). We’re on the 12th floor of a snazzy skyscraper. Nice and a bit pricey, but not ridiculous. Maybe just leave it to her from now on.
My favourite feature at L7
Along Tehran Boulevard in Gangnam. Interestingly, there is a corresponding Seoul Boulevard in Tehran.
Tehran Boulevard is known as Tehran Valley because of all the Internet companies. According to the city’s metropolitan government, more than half of Seoul’s venture capital is invested here. High-rises and enormous luxurious shopping malls line the street, including COEX, with the massive Starlight Library.
How could one not love a mall with a library, where people – kids included – sit and read print.
The boulevard turns into a cool neon kaleidoscope at night. I feel very much I’m in a city. Very cutting edge. Just around the corner, however, is a little forest, where you can wander around grave mounds of emperors past. More on the UNESCO-listed ancient royal Joseon graves at Seolleung in this post.
Moving right along, from the future to the past, we are now in a dong resembling a traditional Korean village from the 1920s.
Charming Ikseon-dong is an unusual neighbourhood, with labyrinthine narrow alleys hiding hanok, traditional Korean houses.
Hidden in the small lanes are heaps of little art and crafts shops and innovative cafes with very unique vibes, many of them of in hanok.
Seoul Coffee, for example, is a whimsical place serving squid ink bread with huge slabs of butter and oddly delicious red bean buns and sweet potato buns.
You can’t believe it’s butter?
Practically next door to Ikseon-dong is Insa-dong.
This is the place to go if you want to check out traditional Korean tea houses, and more arts and crafts, lots more, both in shops and galleries.
Wintry colours in Seoul
6. Downtown Seoul
Downtown Seoul is home to some of Seoul’s most impressive historical buildings, including several palaces and shrines.
More on Changdeokgung Palace and the Jongmyo Shrine in this post.
For our final day and our final dong, we have moved to Mapo-Gu (Gu = district, remember), specifically to Hongdae. This is one neighbourhood I am particularly eager to see more of next time in Seoul. And there will be a next time, albeit in warmer temps.
Hongdae has several universities in the area, which means plenty of life and buzz and energy. I can definitely feel the student vibe here. It makes me think of Princeton, with a very Korean flair.
Fashion, lifestyle and beauty shops, abound. As do book shops (many, many), stationary shops, printing shops(!), and a Saturday Free Market with all kinds of homemade and handmade goods for sale, and murals galore. An all round creative and artsy place Hongdae.
Bars, clubs, pubs and cafes also seem to flourish, including a sheep cafe.
Bonus 1: Four Korean quirks
As a bonus, here are a few curious discoveries. Could be a post in itself, but I’m here, so…
Koreans love a photo op, with opportunities aplenty.
When in Rome…
Double zebra crossings
Cannot just wander across all willy-nilly, you know.
Public security messages by text
Several times a day!
Fans and phone chargers in taxis
Bonus 2: chicken & beer
Before travelling to Korea, we watched the lovely Crash Landing On You, and learnt that chicken & beer, or chimaek, as it is called locally, is a Korean favourite. We have to try it, of course. Not only that, but we want to find the specific place where the cheerful North Korean soldiers in the series had this ubiquitous meal; BBQ Olive Chicken.
chi = chikin (chicken), maek = maekju (beer)
And so we walk and walk, and walk some more, only to find that that particular chicken & beer place no longer exists. But we do find another branch of the same company, and decide that counts.
Bonus 3: Incheon airport pros and cons
Granted, the cons are limited to Terminal 1. Might not be where the golf course, spa, skating rink, casino, museum and indoor gardens are located. Or maybe they were closed, like all the shops.