Last Updated on December 30, 2019 by Christine Kaaloa
Seoul is a city with neighborhoods of changing character. Here are the 9 best neighborhoods in Seoul.
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’ . 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, gimme… Dynamic !” Well, how dynamic can Korea get in a city?
I love Seoul! Seoul’s dazzling urban design makes it a must see city.
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. It’s not got the laidback beaches of Busan or the charming artisan vibe of Jeonju
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 traveling Seoul is my Manolo Blahniks!
9 Best Neighborhoods in Seoul
1. Forbidden Itaewon
As far as neighborhoods in Seoul goes, 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.
2. Posh Apgujeong
Traveling 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.
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 .
4. 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.
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Travel Tip : Take a 4-7 day trip through South Korea? Check this out: South Korea Multi-Day discovery Travel
5. 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).
Taking in the contemporary art gallery scene of Seoul
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.
Samcheongdong’s public mural arts on walls in the neighborhood
Mural 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”).
6. Young, 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.
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. \
Getting to Hongdae: Hongik University Station
Where to stay: Tons of budget options in Hongdae. 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. Shopping 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 Myeongdong options.
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
9. Find romance 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. 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!
Finding Seoul: Lockets of Love Seoul
Additional resources for Seoul Travel
Download a pdf of the Seoul Metro map
Rent a phone or use yours in Korea, read here.
10 Cool things to do in Seoul
5 Travel Essentials for Seoul
8 Things to Do in Jeju Island
Things to Buy in Korea
Navigating Korean Culture
Hey, there, thanks for all your good response and keep it up.
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.
@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.
[…] have often been heard raving about the shopping scene in Seoul with its popular areas and astounding customer satisfaction. The city’s not just for high-rollers […]
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)
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.
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?
@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.
[…] heat as much as possible, it was time to break for cooler weather. Up to Korea we flew, using some Grrrl Traveler recommendations, for what turned into a perfect itinerary of what to do in Seoul in a day. The juxtaposition of the […]
[…] about to read was suggested by those two (check out Christine’s articles on Seoul, especially 9 Places to Make You Fall in Love with Seoul, for more […]
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
@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?
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…”
@Geraldine: Very nice video. =)
8 Places to Make you Fall in Love with Seoul http://t.co/ofEi6KfP via @grrrltraveler
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!