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9 Places to Make you Fall in Love with Seoul

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So I’ve held out on you. In the past 2 months, I’ve been to Seoul four times.  I was right– I don’t hate Korea, just banal suburban existence and a bad start.

Why do I know this?

Because I love Seoul!

What is the Korean formula for cities?

There’s something to the saying “If you’ve seen one Korean city, you’ve seen them all“.

Cities here make themselves pretty redundant by using a repetitive ‘urban formula’ .

The formula?

Apartment high-rise communities, which stand like graveyard tombstones, fresh markets with food hawkers grilling items for a standing crowd, cellphone shops blaring K-pop tunes, theme parks with cutesy bouquet statues and enough neon light signs to make your eyes go ga-ga.

But Korea can’t all be cherubs, K-pop and cute Hello Kitty cafes, can it?  At some point, you’ll wanna scream, “Gimme raw, gimme edge, gimme funk, gimmeDynamic !”

Well, how dynamic can Korea get in a city?

high school korean boys

high school korean boys

Seoul’s dazzling urban design makes it a city you’ll want to see.

As the international capital in Korea, Seoul certainly lays  distinction to more futuristic and modern urban design sensibilities.  Neighborhood themes vibe with their own influences of innovation, art and architecture, spanning the globe from European chic to Soho stylish, British punk and Tokyo Crazy.

This metropolis brings the color back to my cheeks and has me dreaming big city BIG, so much that I feel about it the way Carrie Bradshaw feels about shoes!  Life can feel crappy, until she walks into a shoe shop and if traveling Korea is my shoe shop, then Seoul is my Manolo Blahniks!

 

9 Places to Make you Fall in Love with Seoul

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 1.  Forbidden Itaewon

Some say avoid Itaewon, I say Go into it! According to resident guide and fellow expat, Raymond Hahn, Itaewon touts an infamous history- both rough and violent – as it is the foremost place to welcome foreigners and marginalized mainstream. With Hooker Hill, Homo Hill and Trans bars, Itaewon also boasts the largest mosque in Korea. Grit, grime and dirty foreigners. Upfront, Itaewon might appear trashy and ragged around the edges. Think of it as a Little Tangiers.

For expats living in an ethnocentric country, this neighborhood will burn the most color you’ll ever find in one spot in all of Korea. It boasts a grainy mix of foreigners- GI’s to Muslims, Africans, Indians, Russians, etc…

Inhale the spices from Indian and Muslim markets and kabob stands. Taste a whiff of Nag Champa incense or even nosh on some Mexican food up the block. Dine at one of the many ethnic restaurants here and check out the Indian, Muslim or African black markets for foods imported from home!

This is the neighborhood, where I finally gave into a Subway  sandwich. The moment I saw the Subway sandwich store from the bus, I knew it’d be like life-long lovers meeting up after years.

There was a hookup.

Several, in fact.

Where to stay in Itaewon: a decent breakdown of places to stay in Itaewon.

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Above: Itaewon sells products and large clothing sizes that foreigners & expats can’t find ; Below: foreigner restaurants and bars; Right: Hooker Hillitaewon foreign stores and clubs, foreigner stores in Seoul, foreign community in Seoul, foreigners in Korea, expats in Korea, Itaewon fashion seoul, foreign clothes in Korea, Itaewon shopping, top neighborhoods in seoul, where to visit in seoul, korea travel tips Itaewon: The foreign neighborhood  Itaewon fashion seoul, foreign clothes in Korea, Itaewon shopping, top neighborhoods in seoul, where to visit in seoul

2.  Posh Apgujeong

In Seoul, when someone walks by you in a face mask, you have to wonder if it’s the sign of an ailment or ‘procedure’. In Apgujeong the latter is your best bet!  A  hotspot for medical tourism, plastic surgery and the celebrity circuit (dans wannabes),  this neighborhood is the IT spot for those who want to see and be seen. Dubbed the Beverly Hills of Seoul , its streets flavor a bit of Parisian chic and houses small boutiques, cozy cafes, designer shops, wine bars and restaurants. The quietly quaint streets offer valet service to clients of top-tier luxury restaurants and clothing stores.

Apgujeong was once, historically known as a wealthy neighborhood, where families sent their children abroad for education. Those children came back, bringing their international designs and worldly sense with them to make this area what it is now. Today, it is one of the poshest and trendiest neighborhoods in Seoul.

Visit the Barbie store, to accessorize and dress like a real-life Barbie doll.  Or get mani and pedicures  at the Dashing Diva Nail Salon. Finally, just explore the area to see if you can find any Korean drama locations (photo below).

Getting to Apgujeong: Apgujeong Station, Exit 2 will land you near the busy section of plastic surgery clinics. The more trendy part of the area is about a 10 minute walk towards Cheongdam.

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3. Expensive and elegant Cheongdam

If a thirty-something elegance is your thing, then  Cheongdam is more your style.

The area patrons  galleries, cafes, designer stores,  bridal salons and some pretty cool and modern architectural designs. Turn off the surface street & you’ll find galleries and boutiques quietly tucked into the side and back streets!

Preening down Luxury Good Street, you’ll be shocked to see designer flagship stores and multi-shops taking up practically a block’s worth of real estate! Maybe you might even spot your favorite K-pop stars at SM Town, one of K-pop’s lead recruiting agencies. Walking or driving down this street, unless you have the proper sugar daddy funds, you’ll probably feel out of your league window shopping here. Still, its worth the spectacle!

Getting to Cheongdam: It’s about a 10 minute walk from either Apgujeong Station, Exit 2 or Cheongdam Station, Exit 8.  To get to SM Town, I’d take the Cheongdam Station.

Where to stay: Obviously not a cheap neighborhood and not known for hotels. You might find deals towards the Gangnam and Coex Mall area .

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Cheongdam’s flagship stores on Luxury Goods street.  Most flagship stores take an entire block. Behind the stores, the backstreets sometimes house art galleries, bridal stores, jazz bars and cozy restaurants.sm town korea building, where to see kpop stars in seoul, cheongdam style, apgujeong fashion, top places to visit in Seoul, expensive stores in Cheongdam, cool places in cheongdam, Seoul fashion and glamourK-pop’s  SM Town office cheongdam stores seoul, cheongdam style, apgujeong fashion, top places to visit in Seoul, expensive stores in Cheongdam, cool places in cheongdam, Seoul fashion and glamour, where to see kpop stars in SEoul

 

4. Romance traditional arts in Insadong

Insadong‘s main vein is the walking street, which consists of about five blocks, lined with art galleries and stores selling traditional and handmade crafts. Off-shoot alleys house traditionally-styled restaurants which strive towards the traditional Korean flavor.  Why not have a meal and give makeoli (Korean rice wine) a shot?

This folksy neighborhood has a very low-key and inviting vibe and makes for a great Sunday afternoon stroll. Shop for traditional crafts or eat at one of the many traditional restaurants.

Getting to Insadong: *Anguk Station, Exit 6* or Jonggak Station, Exit 3.

Read Top 5 souvenirs to bring home from Korea

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Insadong’s traditional side.     From left to right: Traditional candy making show (ingredients: flour, water, honey); traditional food restaurants; below: stone figureheads mark entrance to Insadong; bottom left: walking street.  insadong art style seoul, cool places to shop in seoul, where to eat in insadong seoul, restaurants in insadong, shopping in insadong, top places to visit in sEoul, where to go in Seoul, cool places to eat in seoul  The contemporary funk of Insadong; Shopping in Insadong; Taking your picture at a webcam kiosk with friends and emailing it to yourself (for free!); eating street snacks; graffiti


5. Going funky with contemporary art in Samcheongdong

Adjacent to Insadong and Gyeongbukgung Palace is Samcheondong, a sparkling jewel of a neighborhood I wouldn’t have discovered if I didn’t wander where the long row of galleries led me.  If you’re an art lover like me, you ‘ll have the opportunity to see what current exhibitions are surviving Seoul’s art scene! Seoul has a gallery walk of contemporary galleries and museums, located conveniently across the street of Gyeongbukgung Palace (photo below).

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10 cool things to do in seoul, 10 must-see places in seoul, seoul travel guide, korea travel guide, contemporary art galleries in seoulTaking in the contemporary art gallery scene of Seoul
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Continuing on this street, you’ll hit Samcheondong-gil, the heart vein of Samcheondong. Here, contemporary art knocks up against  funky graphic design fonts, chic galleries and designer boutiques to make its own fun statement. What gives this neighborhood both, a unique retro and urban electric charm is the traditional hanok houses in the backdrop, reminding you of a distant time! Into Samcheondong’s hilly climb sits the Bukchon Hanok Village (constructed in the 1930’s during the Joseon Era) where you can feel the old world charm cohabit with the youthful urban scene nearby.

My recommendation: Grab a waffle at one of the trendy waffle cafes to see what the Korean rage is all about! Then explore the side streets or climb into the hilly or hanok areas. You’ll see art murals, daily Korean culture and tucked away coffee houses, which might just be a neighborhood’s best kept secret.

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10 cool things to do in seoul, 10 must-see places in seoul, seoul travel guide, korea travel guide, contemporary art seoulMural art on neighborhood walls  . Guard gate at the base of the street of the “Blue House” (Korea’s version of the U.S.’s White House”).Korean waffle desserts, what to eat in seoul

 

6.  Youthful, fun and cafe-fresh in Hongdae

Hongdae, feels a tad like the bar and club scenes of New York’s East Village. The Hongik University fortress is an impressive rainbow crown to the end of the main drag. The area feeds a young alternative, night club crowd that might bring your best Tim Burton impressions into life.  There’s thematic restaurants from hip, funky and fun! Go club-hopping at the bars and clubs of Hongdae or hit the quirky café themes of the likes of Hello Kitty, The Coffee Prince Cafe (aka Tirimisu Cafe)Charlie Brown and the Bau Haus Dog Cafe, where dogs mingle with their own bow-wow crowd.

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Perhaps you’d like to rent out your own private two-level norae-bang room for you and your friends to belt your karaoke lungs out loud, in living room fashion.  See: Hello Kitty Cafe or The Coffee Prince Cafe

Getting to Hongdae:  Hongik University Station

Where to stay: Tons of options in Hongdae for anyone’s budget. This neighborhood has hotels to hostels/guesthouses, starting in the mid $20s range. I stayed at a hostel in this area, but didn’t love it enough to recommend it.


7. Fuel your love to shop at Myeongdong

Myeongdong is  a vast and overwhelming maze of stores, Korean restaurants, cafes and street vendors selling street food like dried squid and clothing accessories. Situated in the cosmopolitan shade of Seoul it tows enough wattage and electric signs to stand proud as the queen bee shoppers fashion catwalk.  Tons of skin care product and makeup stores to light up your fancy and if the girl from the shop offers you a basket, take one. Usually there’s some nice welcome freebies inside them. Go during the day and find the shop which sells ice cream on a cone that’s almost a foot in height.

Getting to Myeongdong: Myeongdong station

Where to stay in Myeongdong: Understandably, a lot of shoppers want to stay in this area. My family enjoyed staying at the PJ Hotel (my review here). It was a little distant from the main shopping arena and required a taxi, but it had free shuttle service to certain hotel locations in Seoul.  Here’s other nearby options.

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Shopping in Myeongdong: All this walking and shopping can build up a Korean appetite. Duck into one of the many Korean restaurants and order up a Soon doobu jigae (a spicy soft tofu soup)

8. Performing Arts in Dehangno

Energetic, youthful and theatrical. There are live street performance acts put on by university kids in the park and a flurry of posters advertise black box venues in Korean drama, comedy and improv.

Like Hongdae, Dehangno is another college area, with stores to shop in and cafes to eat at.  Looking for something different to do, there’s a Lock Museum (it’s filled with the history of locks) or check out Inhwa Mural Village (photos here). If you’re a fan of Korean drama, you’ve probably seen it in Rooftop Prince. It’s a village that college students decided to paint murals in to beautify it. Murals and paintings are tucked away in the parts of the village. See how many you can find.

Getting to Dehangno: Hyewha station

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Daehangno, the youthful area for drama and theater area in Seoul
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9.   Fall in Love at Namsan Seoul Tower

If you want to know the exact spot I fell in love with Seoul, it’s Namsan Seoul Tower. Day or night, it feels magical. The highest point in Seoul with the best view of the city, you’ll reflect on what the city itself, offers in possibility.  It’s not far from Myeongdong and catch the cable car up.

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For friends and lovers,  take a pair of lockets to the Locks of Love and renew your vows of loyalty, as all of Seoul looks on.  Take a bus to the top, take the cable car or hike. Take the cable car up and re-live that K-drama’s Boys Before Flowers scene, when Gu Jun Pyo and Jan Di are trapped overnight in a cable car!

Additional resources for Seoul Travel:


Top 5 Tips for Seoul Travel

Top 5 Travel Tips about Korean Culture

Related Posts:
Download a pdf of the Seoul Metro map
Need to rent a phone or use yours in Korea, read here.

10 Cool things to do in Seoul
5 Travel Essentials for Seoul
5 Travel Essentials for Navigating Korean Culture

How to make your own Korean drama film tour
Top 8 Things to Do in Jeju Island

 

47 Comments

  1. Jesse says:

    Hey, there, thanks for all your good response and keep it up.

  2. I found your blog when looking up information about travelling to Asia as a solo female traveller. I found your information ahead of time very useful! Samcheong-dong and Bukchon Hanok Village would be where I fell in love with Seoul. That and Hangang River Park.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @DayTripper: So glad you found the information helpful and that you had fun! Samcheong-dong is such a distinct and wonderfully artsy area. I felt like I was in a Korean Paris.

  3. Nick Lee says:

    When i was in Seoul last year, I took two half-day tours with a private tour guide company. It was wonderful because I got to see and experience all the great places in Seoul like a native.

    You would probably want to explore the following places:

    Insadong, Ssamzi-gil (Culture)
    Myeong-dong (Shopping)
    Itaewon (Bars & Good Eats)
    City Hall (History)
    Seoul Palace (History)
    Nonhyeon-dong Young-dong Market (Local Korean Food)
    The guys I work for is company called Seoul Tour Guide. They are helpful and will customize an itinerary just for you.

    If i had to choose one place, I would recommend that you visit Nonhyeon-dong Young-dong Market because you can truly feel the local Korean vibe.

    Hope this list helps others.

    Cheers!
    Nick

  4. Carly Kabel says:

    Christine! I think you have sold me on Seoul 🙂 If someone applies through SMOE do they get to pick the area of Seoul that they would like to teach in? Or is it a small enough city that they just choose an area for you? Is there any part of Seoul that you liked best? I would want to be closer to more nature scenes or able to get to them easily. Does Seoul have that?

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Carly Kabel: There’s not much to sell. From a traveler perspective, I’d recommend Seoul. From a getting into Korea quickly perspective, I’d say it were great if you could get it, but competition is high. Practically everyone wants to teach there and the SMOE standard is higher. Although Korea’s just getting more competitive to get into all around. My recommendation is to go for the regions around Seoul. Some are just an hour from the main city. Korea can be traveled fairly quickly (Living in Daegu, Seoul was just 4 hours away by bus. About 2 hours by train.). As for better access to nature scenes, you might want a different city, as Korea’s nature is beautiful and hiking is the national pasttime and it’s got great hiking spots… outside of Seoul.

  5. nandini says:

    Oh seoul is indeed a beautiful place to be in and live. Loving the culture, the extremely organised urban set up and the warm people! Shopping is a real pleasure. Also must see is the TRICK EYE MUSEUM. Amazing place

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Nandini: Yes, Seoul is a wonderful city! I’ve *not* visited the Trick Eye Museums yet. OMG, is there one is Seoul and I’ve been missing it?

  6. geraldine says:

    I visited korea for 5 times within 2 consecutive years 2010-2012. And the result of my traveling alone to different Asia is far compared to Korea. See my video on youtube why “I love korea…”

  7. Debbie says:

    After reading your post. I have indeed fallen in love with Seoul. I think I’m going to go visit if not live there for a few years. Your pictures are amazing and the way you described it with your words is inspiring. Thank you for posting!

  8. Rochell May Sulit says:

    love it

  9. megan says:

    Have just found your blog and I’m so glad! I’ve been thinking about doing some teaching in Korea sometime in the next 12 months and your posts and stunning photos have definitely piqued my interest even further. I will be back 🙂

  10. Jo-Z says:

    Thanks for this – we’ll be there later this month and you’ve helped me make my list of must see places.

  11. anna says:

    I love Seoul to the soul!
    Still feel the moments I had last January although the cold I felt right to the bone!
    Not much words to describe, but reading this article, really expressing what I thought about Insadong where the magic act can be found almost along the street and Myeongdong for the window shopping area, hehehe..
    Gosh! I need to go back there and experience it all over again, sometime not in cold 😀

    • @anna: glad you had a blast in Seoul. It’s pretty awesome and dynamic. I know you did Jeju but did you get to see any place else in Korea that you liked?

  12. Hannah says:

    Great post, Christine! I really love Insa-dong and Samcheong-dong, too, especially because they’re both near my office.
    P.S. How gaudy was the jewelry in the Macos Adamas store? The staff is so weird, too — they insist on following you throughout the store because they’re afraid you’ll steal some of their weird, mid-priced jewelry!

    • @Hannah: Thanks and wow, nice office location! Macos Adamas store– MID-PRICED Jewelry?! Really?! You wouldn’t think it from that macabre castle design and velvet rope you hit you take 3 steps in. I didn’t know if it was a museum or a store at first… no salesperson came.

  13. Jennie says:

    I am a transwoman who will be in Seoul for a weekend this fall and want to find out more on the trans-friendly atmospheres/nightclubs. Can you make a suggestion?

    • @Jennie: All I know of is there’s a small selection at Itaewon, which has to be the most “foreign- friendly” and liberal that Korea seems to get. But the nightclubs there in total are limited. It’s not like San Fran. You have Homo Hill which spans about a block + & it’s right next to Hooker Hill. You might have to dig a bit and maybe there are more places tucked away, but unfortunately, I’ve not been to them so I wouldn’t know. If you find more information, feel free to report your findings here. Good luck! 😉

  14. Derek Morgan says:

    Great post. I really appreciate the information. You have done great work communicating your message. Keep up the good writing.

  15. Malou says:

    Amazing photos! I like your list. Better than most tourist publications, I think. You do go to Seoul pretty often. Maybe one of these days we’ll bump into each other in Seoul!

    • @Kelsey: Thanks for the offer! Def. want to get to Jindo, esp the places you’d recommend seeing. Was out in the Jeollabuk-do region (Syeonudo) this past weekend & loved it! Lucky you for having lived on that side– how was the Moses Sea Parting?
      @Malou: Thanks lady! It would be cool to meet up in Seoul. And hey, if we bumped into each other in Busan, a bump in Seoul is likely. 😉

  16. Kelsey says:

    If you do eventually want to go down to Jindo (I recommend heading to Mokpo or Gwangju and taking the bus from there, as that’s the easiest), let me know and I’ll give you all the spots to see and the spots to miss, and I may be able to hook you up with a free place to stay.

  17. Joel says:

    Christine,
    Do you think 5 days in Seoul would be a wise use of our Chuseok vacation, compared to something like Jeju?

  18. Kelsey says:

    I was definitely impressed with Seoul on the few occasions I visited. I was 7-8hrs away, so I only visited 3 or 4 times during my entire stint in Korea.

    • @Joel: Chuseok vacation? Depends. Personally, i’ve not been to Jeju yet (& really dying to go) and Jeju requires air travel planning… I might stock up my vaca days for that trek. From Daegu, Seoul is only 1-4hrs away –you can visit every weekend if you really wanted to.
      @Kelsey: That’s too bad you were so far away. But, I also imagine you found some pretty fascinating places in your neck of the woods. You also know how it goes here– many cities and towns are so temperate they almost feel beautiful but bland. The fact you were in a more rural area probably meant you had much “character” in your surroundings to keep you entertained. Your old stomping area is certainly on my list of To Dos!

  19. Hugh says:

    Wow, this is the best Korea blog I’ve seen so far. Your work is inspiring. Keep it up!
    Thanks!

  20. Laura Cancun says:

    Thanks for the tour!! Amazing pictures. I love these posts 🙂

    Insadong was my fave, I think.

  21. Gray says:

    I LOVE this article, Christine! You bring Seoul to life in a way nothing ever has for me. Now it looks like a place I’d want to visit. Terrific photos, too.

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