Seoul is a sight to behold. The government sponsored Korean Wave (Hallyu), a juggernaut of popular culture that revolutionised the Asian entertainment industry and the nation’s economy, has transformed this once oppressed and dreary city into a sparkling cornucopia teeming with innovation, fashion, beauty, art and style. I fell in love with Seoul the very day that I arrived when our driver (a Seoul native who, having spent several years living and working in Texas, answered only to the delightful name of ‘Kimchi Cowboy’) deposited us at the The Designers Hotel in Jongno. This hotel was unlike any that I had stayed in before. Each room is uniquely themed and designed by a Korean artist with mesmerising effect. As soon as I walked through the door of The Hidden Card Of BFMIN suite designed by graffiti artist and Nike artwork designer Bum Min, I knew that Seoul was going to sweep me off my feet.
The city, much like Tokyo, London and New York, is divided into boroughs or neighbourhoods. The metro connects the entire city and is efficient, cheap and simple to use (buy a T-Money card to simplify things even further). Each neighbourhood has it’s own spirit, atmosphere and gems to be discovered. I will be doing some additional posts on certain neighbourhoods but the purpose of this piece is to highlight my favourite areas and to give a general overview of their punchy, vibrant charm.
Hongdae, located to the west of Jongno, is a creative and cultural nerve centre anchored by the Hongkik University, an institute that specialises in Fine Art Studies. This neighbourhood is awash with artists, musicians, energy and subculture. The aesthetic is a swirl of Tokyo’s Harajuku and Osaka’s American Town. Bookshops, vintage record stores, film houses, mandu (dumpling) restaurants and independent coffee shops line the streets. Coffee Libre on Yeonnam-Deong street is a former apothecary entered via a sleek hole in the concrete. The beans are hand-pressed and the smell is transporting. The Coffee Lab on Seog-yo Dong has gold leaf espresso cups, industrial lighting and black tie baristas. Every Saturday the Hongdae Free Market spills through the neighbourhood and the streets are flooded with passionate vendors selling affordable and innovative designs. When the sun goes down the area becomes one of the most popular nightlife districts in the city. The last Friday of every month is known as ‘Hongdae Club Day’ when a single wristband guarantees entry to every nightclub in the neighbourhood. On ‘Sound Day’, falling on the third Friday of every month, a single wristband guarantees entry to a variety of gigs and live music venues. According to the Seoul experts at Eat Your Kimchi, Hongdae is undergoing a process of gentrification, meaning that many of the independent retailers that give the area its quirky edge are being forced out by high rent increases and more chains are moving in. If this continues it will be a great loss to the city as this is a neighbourhood with true grit and flare.
Welcome to the world of midnight shopping! Dongdaemun is Seoul’s garment district where every clothing item sold in South Korea is bought wholesale. The shopping centres are open from 11am to 5am, although it is better to go at night after 11pm when the outdoor markets and street food stalls are also in full swing. The words ‘wholesale market’ typically conjure up a hellish image in my mind of tourist tat and elasticated waistbands but this area is something else entirely. Sharply dressed boutique owners and department store buyers with order books in their hands and business cards in their pockets are there to choose luxury, high quality stock. Independent designers set up beautifully styled display stands in addition to their sale stalls. Journalists and fashion bloggers stalk the area, taking pictures and keeping note of the upcoming trends. Seoul Fashion Week takes place each year in the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a curved metal structure of neofuturistic design. This area is so much more than just a shopping district; it is a networking function, a design factory and the beating heart of the South Korean fashion industry. The difference between Dongdaemun and any other such wholesale district in the world is that it is not reserved for fashion industry personnel; the public are welcome. There are cheap designs, mid-price designs, astronomically expensive designs. There are poor people, rich people, business people and tourists. The area is a true melting pot underpinned by one thing; a desire to engage in commerce. It is best to browse all of the shopping centres as each one offers something different but, if short on time, I recommend Hello apM for affordable shopping (don’t forget the handbag and accessories floor, the hard-shelled clutch bags with matching neck pieces are so dizzyingly delightful that I had to stop myself from falling to floor with excitement) and Doota for more luxurious pieces (think Linda Farrow sunglasses, Kenzo sweatshirts and MCM backpacks). Most travel guides recommend the neon neighbourhood of Myeongdong, a name that translates directly to English as ‘Bright Town’, for shopping and the area is extremely well stocked with an extensive mix of global brands, independent boutiques, pop-up stalls and cosmetic stores but, for me, Dongdaemun is infinitely more thrilling and offers the chance to shop in an environment that those working outside of the fashion industry seldom get to experience.
Itaewon + Hannam-Dong
The outer walls are made from caged glass bottles. The windows are pointed and the exposed brick painted matte black. Glistening chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Whiskey sours are flowing and the sky-high spirits of the impossibly stylish crowd are infectious. Nestled behind The Hamilton Hotel, this is District, a late night bar unlike any other. Climb the stairs and the venue becomes Glam Lounge. Elsewhere on this pedestrianised street there are too many venues to mention; marble-floored, open-fronted bustling beehives of nightlife activity make up the entire row. Underground nightclubs such as Owl Lounge sprawl beneath the flagstones, customers entering via narrow doors at street level. Ice-cream parlours, dumpling stalls, Korean BBQ restaurants and american style diners are open 24/7. On the far side of the main street is Cake Shop, a late night bar and former brothel decorated in the style of an industrial space. I stumbled across one of my favourite venues, Southside Parlour, just outside the main hub. This roof-top bar serves custom cocktails with ingredients ranging from persimmon and ginger to green tea and chilli flakes. The food menu is a Texan-Korean fusion featuring steamed ninja buns, southern ribs and spicy prawn tacos. By day, the boutiques and cafes in this area are in a league of their own. Many of the shops feauture desks strewn with sketch pads, fabric swathes and sewing machines in the centre of the space where the owners sit amongst their customers, chatting, discussing ideas and designing their next collection.
I was not aware that I had been to Hannam-Dong , let alone eaten, drank and shopped there, until I sat down to write this post as I was previously under the impression that the entire area fell under the Itaewon umbrella. I’m not sure at what point one neighbourhood becomes the other, but on reflection the atmosphere was slightly different on these streets. This hill-top micro-town has a creative, beatnik feel, similar to Itaewon but with the addition of Russian-style art collectives and contemporary museums. Take Out Drawing is an art studio, exhibition space, bookshop and cafe that serves meringue topped espressos and black sesame foam cakes beneath one corrugated iron roof. Ways Of Seeing combines all of that with an alcohol license. The Samsung Art Museum is also here alongside The Public Music Library, glass structure home to over 10,000 vinyl records and every issue of Rolling Stone magazine published since 1967. For dinner in this neighbourhood try Dominic, the chrome and wood exterior is candlelit and the food is incredible.
The combined area of Itaewon and Hannan-dong has an energy that I have never encountered before. Together they embody the frantic glamour of West-End London, the hipster vibe of downtown New York, the street-style of Tokyo, the cafe culture of Paris, the creative hallmarks of San Francisco and the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere of Edinburgh in one small package. The spirit of this district is truly unique.
I went to Jamsil for one reason; brunch at Bill’s. With sleek marble table tops, emerald tiling, gilt mirrors, glass walls, spicy Bloody Marys, coconut bread, tiramisu french toast and avocado salsa, Bill’s did not disappoint. I spent a cheerful morning here, perusing the style magazines provided and happily debating the merits of white peach bellinis versus pineapple and kale smoothies (instant gratification versus long-term benefits, joyful decadence versus smug satisfaction, crippling heartburn versus a taste sensation akin to damp woodland leaves) before leaving to discover…not much else. I should clarify; there was not much else that interested me. Jamsil is home to the Lotte World Amusement Park, Citizen’s Park, Seokchon Lake, The Jamsil Baseball Stadium, the Olympic Park and several luxury shopping centres so, in truth, there is much here. For me, however, with the notable exception of my beloved Bill’s, there was not much in this neighbourhood that could help me to distinguish it from any other well heeled district in the world. It felt bland and lacked, for want of a better word, soul. Thankfully this was not an issue as the magical metro was on hand to whisk us away to a next-door neighbourhood that was positively brimming with vim, vigour and attitude; Gangnam.
Gangnam is a Vogue editorial spread. The streets sing with style, elegance and affluence but with a vital undercurrent of something edgier. There is a Louis Vuitton flagship five paces from a vintage emporium. A pop-up shop selling first edition novels and hand-forged steel jewellery sits between MCM and Prada. This neighbourhood is the love child of Rodeo Drive and Covent Garden. The men are sharp-suited. The women glide past, gold cards in hand, wearing a single designer from head to toe. As one changing room sign declares; they’re collections for a reason. Everyone is stunning. As the plastic surgery capital of the world, Gangnam residents are chiselled to perfection. Chin implants elongate the faces, eyes are slit to create a western-style double crease, jaws and noses are narrowed and skin is lasered until impossibly translucent. The pressure to achieve beauty here is immense. Every corner hosts a billboard advising South Koreans to be the best version of themselves and to get surgery now, without delay, so that they don’t fall behind. In Apgujeong, known as Gangnam’s ‘improvement quarter’, bandaged faces hidden behind Chanel sunglasses move from chauffeur driven cars to hotel-style clinics and back. Beauty opens doors around the world, but in South Korea it is openly viewed as a means to get ahead and a vital component for career advancement. CVs are typically submitted with pictures. Airbrushing photo-booths are in operation around the city, helping to achieve the perfect shot. Plastic surgery is presented as a coming of age gift from ambitious parents to their children, almost as if an extension of their tuition. This trend is so prolific that a rise in mother-daughter surgeries has been reported, the idea being that it will help attribute any cosmetic improvements in a young woman trying progress in life to genetics rather than a surgeon’s scalpel. Welcome to the Beverly Hills of Seoul.
Outside of Apgujeong is Sinsa, my favourite part of Gangnam and the area where the best independent boutiques in the city can be found (I did, however, notice one or two items of stock from Dongdaemun). At night, the area is an explosion of restaurants, nightclubs and cocktail bars. I ate at the The Timber House, a dark, wood-panelled cigar-club style space atop the Park Hyatt with private booths and a live jazz band. The sushi and cocktails are incredible. Also widely recommended for food are Jungsik Dang and Rubrica in Cheongdam. Some of the late-night lounges and nightclubs, Bar Medical Team to name but one, have a minimum spend requirement but, although the area is expensive, there are also many places with more affordable prices and countless bars and restaurants to choose from. I found the bars around Sinsa, for example, to be much less expensive than those in Apgujeong. The luxury picture that I am painting of Gangnam, while true, might not communicate that there is real spirit and life in this area. The wealth, rather than ostentatious or obnoxious, is treated as silly and fun, a means to have a good time. The people are friendly and warm; there is no fear of a Pretty Woman ‘you can’t shop here’ scenario, the area feels welcoming and inclusive. To dismiss Gangnam was a monied district without much to offer except designer shopping and expensive cocktails would be a mistake. Explore the area and I guarantee the zest for enjoyment that hangs in the air will work its way under your skin.
1. The Designers group also have hotels in Samcheong, Incheon and Hongdae. It’s worth noting that, unlike in most capital city hotels around the world, the price difference between a suite and a double room in most Seoul hotels is extremely small but the increase in space is huge so, in my opinion, it is worth making the upgrade if the budget allows.
2. Try Seoul Selection article for alternative boutique hotel recommendations.