I am sure who has visited Seoul have heard of (and been to) Myeong-dong, Gwanghwamun, Dongdaemun, Itaewon, and Gangnam, Apgujeong, and Sinsa. These districts are the main tourist districts in Seoul, and each of them takes up a chapter in any travel book. True, they have their own niche and character – Myeong-dong is the shopping paradise, Dongdaemun’s mall close late at night, Itaewon has exciting nightlife, Apgujeong is a high-end district, and Sinsa is a trending and hip area that is filled with fashion boutiques and fine-dining restaurants. If you visit Seoul for the first time, there are probably at least a week of things to see and do there, plus Lotte World, Seoul N Tower and so on.
If you visit Seoul the second time, you may cover Yeouido, Ewha Woman’s University, Hongik University.
For the third time, and much more time afterward, we dig deeper. We explore and discover some lesser-known and new districts for visitors. Some places that are less likely on your bucket list, but worth a visit because of its new restaurants, cafes, shops, galleries or attractions.
Sinseol-dong 신설동: Seoul Folk Flea Market
Sinseol-dong is located on subway Line 1 and 2 and part of the Dongdaemun-gu in Seoul. Two stations away from the hustle and bustle in Dongdaemun, the area is a rather quiet local neighborhood with a canal passing through from Hansung University to Cheonggyecheon.
To be honest, there’s not much to see in the area, but in case you stay nearby and have a thing about Korea barbecue, Gogiui, you simply must drop by Yukjeon Sikdang. This is a popular barbecue place among locals, and trust me, the restaurant is already crowded at 5 pm. I had to wait for about 30 minutes for a table (luckily, they have a waiting room upstairs of the restaurant and you could chill before getting a table), and it’s totally worth it. Choose 150g or 200g of 4 kinds of premium porks; the servers will handle the rest, I ordered 3 kinds of 150g pork so I could have a taste of everything.
The pork was so good (and I stayed nearby) that a local friend of mine brought me there again the other night. The restaurant closes at midnight and it’s still very crowded at 10 pm – so you know just how good it is.
Coffee Myungga is a famous cake shop from Daegu and it has a branch in Sinseol-dong. The strawberry cake is a signature dish with 4 layers of strawberry and cream sandwiched by sponge cake yet it’s incredibly light.
The Seoul Folk Flea Market is another highlight of the neighborhood. It’s a special market of its kind because it’s a true flea market. Many shops sold old clothes, second-hand records, toys, and home products that are basically useless to many. But if you look closely, you may find an antique or hard-to-find treasure that you love. If you have a thing for old toys, records, or furniture, this is the place for you. Photography is generally not allowed in the market, but it was fun to look around, and who knows, you may have an exciting find!
Ichon-dong 이촌동: “Little Tokyo”
Nickname “Little Tokyo”, Ichon 1-dong is home to many foreign residents, especially Japanese. So don’t be surprised that you hear passer-by talking to each other in Japanese, or the menu in restaurants are written in Japanese. Apart from that, the neighborhood is not as trendy as the Gangnam area, or as busy as Gangbuk. I visited there one afternoon and so there were many students running walking along the street, or playing in the nearby basketball court and playground. It was also the time for tea. 🙂 I sat down in the Tea house & Gallery, an intimate local cafe and enjoyed an earl grey sponge cake and grapefruit frappe before heading to my destination – Yongsan Park. Yongsan Park was part of the US military base Yongsan Garrison and then returned to public use in 1992. The park is a lush green space that is perfect for a leisurely walk around the man-made mirror pond. Another important landmark in the park is the National Museum of Korea. The museum is a 3-story modern building with an impressive collection of valuable items from Korea through time.
The first floor displays historic art and treasures from the Paltothic period when mankind began to live on the Peninsula through the Three Kingdoms period, visitors can examine Korean history and culture up to the period of North and South States, when the Unified Silla and Balhae Kingdoms co-existed. Following Prehistory and ancient time, the next gallery is dedicated to the history and culture of the Goryeo period through the Joseon dynasty and the later Korean Empire, divided into several themes. The most eye-catching piece is the Ten-story Stone Pagoda in the center of the exhibition hall.
The second floor showcases calligraphy and painting where visitors can appreciate the beauty of Korean traditional art expressed with brush strokes and colors, exploring a variety of outstanding calligraphic works and the large Buddhist hanging scrolls used for outdoor rituals.
The top floor continues the display the essence of Korean Buddhist sculpture and crafts, including highlight pieces such as two Pensive Bodhisattvas registered as National Treasures, along with outstanding ceramic artifacts. The Asian Art gallery shows a tradition of diverse artworks from China, Japan, India, and Central Asia. The exhibits are impressive and I think it’s an underrated museum in Seoul
Beyond the museum is an open space that offers a great view of the site of US Army Garrison, Namsan, Namsan Seoul Tower, Bukhansan, and more.
In fact, the neighborhood has a lot more interesting cafes and restaurants to explore. Like Kevin’s Pie, featuring delicious raspberry cheesecake pie, apple cheesecake pie, marbled cream cheese brownie. Another place is Cafe Moss. They use ingredients imported from Japan and offer mochi, and hot spring steamed buns. Lastly, make a reservation at 초록 바구니 and taste their molecular cuisine!
Mangwon-dong망원동: Town of Selfies
A little further away from the popular and congested Ewha Woman’s University and Hongik University is an up-and-coming district called Mangwon-dong. While the two universities are already filled with unique cafes, dessert places, and restaurants, university students are expanding their footprints to their surroundings; experimental cafes and trendy shops could be found for the hip and young due to its lower property value and rent. Lots of media also set up offices in Mangwon-dong.
Mangwon Market is the centerpiece of the area – this is a traditional market where the locals could purchase fresh produce, Korean snacks, fruits, and groceries; the market is also filled with some fast-food chains and banks so you know it’s really a place where the locals are active. In fact, traditional markets are moving away in Seoul – thanks to urbanization – Mangwon Market is the few markets left. However, it’s a great place to visit because it’s location is great, it’s clean and neat, and lots of street food and local snacks are available; more, it’s a great place to buy kimchi and souvenirs!
There are community service events, band performance or movies playing occasionally. It is one of the top 20 markets in South Korea, selected by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. (Another one in Seoul is Namdaemun, which is also one of my favorites, for my favorite Jokkbal!)
One of the most photographed or featured locations in Mangwon-dong is Zapangi, together with adorable cartoon gelato at Gelateria Dangdo and bakery Oveny; Ugly Bakery makes a bold statement to its customers that an ugly bun can taste great. While many bakeries use preservatives and additives to the bun to make them look nicer, the baker in Ugly Bakery insists on using natural ingredients that give justice to the food. The bun may look less attractive, it’s cream and red bean bun went viral among netizens.
Have a seafood noodle at 또또칼국수 with a hint of pepper in the soup; another unique dish is cold soy milk noodles – only available during summer!
Seongsu-dong 성수동: “The Brooklyn of Seoul”
This area was filled with shoe-making workshops in the early 90s ad gradually faded out due to industrialization. Few years ago, a group of young and passionate design professionals renovated the warehouses and workshops and gave this place a new life, transforming them into eclectic cafes or art spaces that still have a trace of old-fashioned brick walls. More and more businesses operate in Seongsu-dong now and it’s nicknamed “The Brooklyn of Seoul”.
Mural paintings can be seen anywhere in Seongsu-dong, and Maxim’s (now closed) mural painting was the one that started it all – it was a place for a series of cafe “flash mob” events and the mural remained after the event was completed. More, the painting was featured in a Korea TV Show in 2016 and a lot of fans come to take photos of the wall until today!
The wall portrays three English writers: Hemingway, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.
Cafe Onion is another “must-see” in Seongsu-dong. The building was a former goldsmith with a history of over 40 years. The cafe was mindfully renovated and kept its original interior, rusty doors, and peeling tiles on the wall – and it’s a hit among youngsters on Instagram. The cafe is divided into different sections: the cake shop offers a few kinds of home-made buns and cakes, and indoor seats are available at the back of the shop. The outdoor space between the cake shop and the seating area is a great photo-taking spot. The second floor is the baking kitchen, also a terrace with lots of tables and chairs with a view of Seongsu-dong.
Zagmachi, on the other hand, was a printing company with an eye-catching “Z” painting at its front gate. The entire space is designed with a concrete and industrial vibe, creating an open and spacious area for customers to have a relaxing time with a cup of coffee. The owner kept some old elements of the printing company and give the place a new life. At the entrance, there’s a tiny area that showcases dry flowers, print works, and art that was created by local artists; the cafe also plays movies and host small art exhibitions. More, BIGBANG’s captain shot a TV commercial and an MV here and as a result, attracted a lot of fans to come here!
CO:LUMN is actually my favorite of the three. The shop is a recreation of an old warehouse and it is a cafe/art gallery. The warehouse has a tall ceiling and it’s incredibly spacious, the incredible has made CO:LUMN a recognizable landmark in Seongsu-dong. The cafe has an open window at the end of the warehouse that allows natural light coming in during the day. Inside, a bunch of old and original fixtures or items were just left there in the warehouse and it was interesting to walk around and maybe you will find something interesting, or you are interested in.
To CO:LUMN it has a more diverse menu from coffee and snacks to pasta, rice, pizza, and salad. However, this is a featured art space and entrance on the weekends and holidays may require a fee. Avoid visiting there at peak hours if you want to avoid the crowd.
Hannam-dong 한남동: “Mini Global Village”
If you find cafes and art spaces in Seongsu-dong exciting, continue your exploration in Hannam-dong. The area is a “Global Village” in Itaewon, central Seoul, and popular among foreign residents. At night, Itaewon is lit up with bars and exciting nightlife. It looks different during the day. Instead, the rather narrow streets are filled with unique bakeries and cake shops – and many of them gained attention from the cake lovers. Like the rainbow cakes and mint chocolate cream cakes at Frank’s, Halloween themed lemonade, grapefruit ade and cupcakes at Monster Cupcakes, and fluffy pancakes at Pancake Original Story. There is always a new shop popping up somewhere in Hannam-dong and I was excited to see something new every time I visited there.
Have a full meal at Bicena, or shop at designer stores like 2Dello, you could easily spend half a day in the neighborhood with a satisfied and fulfilling memory.
Banpo-dong 반포동: The Montmartre of Seoul
Moving to Gangnam, Banpo-dong, or Seorae Village is a coffee street in Seoul that’s basically a coffee-lover paradise. This is an area close to Express Bus Terminal station and it’s an old residential neighborhood. The area is the home of Seorae Village, a small French enclave, with its large concentration of French residents and European-style restaurants, dessert cafes, as well as wineries and cafes stand along its main street. So it is also nicknamed “Montmartre” due to its hilltop location. Another highlight of the area is to see the Bangpo Moonlight Rainbow Fountain in the evening at the Bangpo Bridge across the Han River. The fountain only works from April to October and opens only a few shows daily. The fountain is a dynamic water jet coordinated with colorful lightings. Check the showtime before visiting.
Chang-dong 창동: Platform Chang Dong 61
The success of cargo malls has them replicated basically in many other places in the city. Like Common Ground is a popular spot for youngsters to eat, drink, shop and to take pictures – I have included it in one of my favorite Instagram moments. Some others like Boxquare are a huge failure that I would not recommend to fellow travelers unless you have time to explore the shopping areas at Ewha Woman’s University. It has a cargo look but they are incredibly small and most of the shops are closed or not exciting. I would rather have a coffee @ Waffle it up. Moving a little farther away from the city. Take the subway and visit the Platform Chang-dong 61.
It is yet another cargo mall right next to the subway station – Honestly, it doesn’t have much to except for the gallery. It gets more exciting when it’s open to an event. The cargo mall has open space for music or short term exhibitions. Check out the schedule online before heading to Chang-dong.