One of the most popular destinations in Asia, Seoul draws a constant crowd thanks to its incredible food, creative fashion and frenetic pace. Born in Korea but raised in Hong Kong, local expert Lena Oh recently moved back to Seoul to rediscover her roots and work at an English broadcast media company.
From the endless creativity of the Korean dining scene to late-night entertainment, Oh takes The Loop’s passionate travelers through her favorite insider spots and hidden gems for an authentic weekend in Seoul.
Get Acclimated: Just 3.5 hours away from Hong Kong, Seoul is a popular choice for Hongkongers who love the energetic pace of a mega Asia city. Energy is surely what you get in Seoul, as it’s a city that runs on coffee shops and streetside snacks: you’ll see locals clutching their second or third iced Americanos of the day and street stall ajummas calling attention to their delicious bites. One of the best spot is Paik’s Coffee — they give you a really big cup of coffee and it’s hella cheap.
Art and local handicrafts are also a huge part of the South Korean culture, and you’ll find meticulous attention to detail and excellent craftsmanship at every turn. While you’ll instantly feel the bustle of such a large, vibrant city, that’s not to say Koreans don’t know how to let lose – they work hard and play harder.
Don’t arrive without… A big appetite. There are countless hole-in-the-wall restaurants and streetside vendors to discover.
Bukhan Mountain is really famous in Korea for hiking, but you can also opt for a quick and easy morning stroll if you don’t have time to take on the entire mountain. Nearby, there’s a place nicknamed 419 Street which leads to the base of the mountain. A little slice of history: it’s named after a student protest that took place here on April 19, 1960, during the April uprising that overthrew the First Republic of South Korea under Syngman Rhee.
There are plenty of cafés for you to grab a pre-hike Americano (a daily essential) and dessert spots to devour a post-hike bingsoo or icy fruit parfait. For a great lunch, Ojang-dong Hamhung Cold Noodles (Suyu-dong, Gangbuk-gu, Seoul) serves up fantastic spicy naengmyeon cold noodles and galbi short ribs.
Hongdae, the popular university area, is teeming with tourists nowadays so head for Hapjeong instead. Right next to buzzing Hongdae, Hapjeong is quiet but full of pretty, boutique-lined streets, and more cafés and restaurants than you can count. Of course, if you’re after a crowd then a beer or soju in Hongdae won’t hurt.
We all know Itaewon, the clubbing/bar district of Korea, but it’s often full of tourists (and old-ass army dudes who are on the prowl). Gyeongnidan-gil is just a 10-15 minute walk from the heart of Itaewon area but a world away in terms of character.
It’s a quaint area up on a hill with a distinct western feel that’s chock-full of places to drink and eat, chill cafés, pop-up stores and boutiques. Check out a cafe called Take Out Drawing (637 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, (+82) 2-797-3139) — it’s an amazing book cafe with incredible dessert drinks. And come night time, Gyeongnidan offers breathtaking views of the city all lit up.
Tteuk-seom is a promenade just on the banks of the Han River. It’s a popular place for young people and is particularly attractive at night. People usually order fried chicken at one of the nearby restaurants and picnic on the grass. It’s equally as pretty in the winter, however the cold will likely keep you indoors.
You thought you knew Korean Fried Chicken, but Seoul has yet another local style that’s really popular. It’s called “old style” fried chicken but, trust us, the taste never gets old. It’s made by deep-frying the whole chicken with different flavored batters, resulting in a thinner, crisper skin and less oil.
Make sure to order your crispy chicken with beer at Isu Tongdakshop (aka “Completion Chicken,” Bangbae-2-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul, (+82) 2-581-8892). It’s a hidden gem that only people who live around the area know about. Even more convenient is popular chain Kyochon Chicken, which is among the best options.
After dinner, bar and club scene Itaewon may be a bit touristy, but there are several gems amid the muck. At the multi-story island themed bar the Bungalow (112-3 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, (+82) 2-793-2344), you can sink your toes in the sand in private rooms while sipping on massive colorful cocktails, or take advantage of the Jacuzzi bubbling on the outdoor terrace.
As the night rolls in deeper, hip hop fans will want to check out House Ming (116-14 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu), a Thai restaurant by day that turns into a club at night. The discerning clubber looking to do some serious dancing? Boom Bar‘s got the vibe and the unending stream of R&B and hip hop, spun by a host of DJs. It’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays.
Don’t leave without… Chilling anywhere along the Han River with store-bought booze and snacks.