Lonely Planet Local Hahna Yoon was born in Seoul, lived in New York for 17 years and came back to South Korea eight years ago. She believes that Seoul is undoubtedly one of the best cities in Asia to explore, eat and drink.
Hahna recommends going beyond Seoul's major tourist destinations and navigating to the city’s lesser-known neighbourhoods in search of a quaint hole-in-the-wall restaurant or hidden bar.
When I have friends in town… I make sure that they visit Ikseon-dong. Located in the heart of downtown Seoul, it’s tucked between a couple of old Seoul cinemas, Tapgol Park (the site of the beginning of the Korean independence movement and haunt for war veterans) and Jongno-3ga (a popular nightlife spot for the old-school local LGBT community). Ikseon-dong is made up of small alleyways lined with hanoks (traditional Korean houses) that have been converted into trendy bars, cafes and eateries. It’s particularly captivating at night when the soft light from the hanoks makes the neighbourhood glow.
I know I’m a Seoulite because… I don't tell a cab driver my destination unless they let me in first, and I never stay out to the wee hours on a Thursday because it’s impossible to find a cab home at that time.
If I had to recommend one venue... I'd suggest one run by my favourite bartender, Robin, who opened up a bar named Cobbler in a hanok in Naeja-dong. There is no menu – you let the bartenders know what flavours you enjoy and they whip up something delicious. I have my favourites down: the Porma Dulce (made with Grey Goose and orange juice, topped with mascarpone cheese and celery! It's delicious!), the alcoholic ginger beer and the watermelon nomimono (a Japanese word for 'drink'). Robin rebuilt the hanok himself from scraps and collected antiques for all the vintage furniture, and serves a small cobbler pie when you walk in!
For cheap eats… Try gimbap (Korean seaweed rice rolls, similar to a Japanese maki roll). Never over ₩5000 (US$4.50), these veggie-filled rolls are quick and filling. Be on the lookout for the premium gimbap brand “Kim Teacher” – the spicy pork flavour is particularly delicious.
When I get homesick… The Itaewon area is known as Seoul’s ‘international neighbourhood’ and these days it’s teeming with American-style pizza and burgers. When I get homesick for New York, I head to Itaewon to get a greasy slice of pepperoni, pair it with some craft beer and pick up some bagels on my way home.
My favourite place to see the sunset… Every Seoulite has his or her favourite part of Hangang Park. Dividing the city like a jagged smile, the park stretches through twelve districts, and my go-to sunset spot is the last curve on the northwest region – Mangwon. Spring is a beautiful time to take photos here, and during autumn, I like to head to Haneul Park (a smaller park within Hangang) to watch the sun gently pat its hand over thousands of strands of silver grass.
On a typical weekday, you’ll find me… Writing in one of the independent cafes near my house in Sangsu-dong. Hello Stranger for their ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee) if I head out early, and Yri Cafe for their Vin Chaud if I head out late.
When I want to get out of the city… I buy a cheap flight to Jeju-do – South Korea's largest island – and spend the weekend there. It’s best known as a summer beach destination, but driving along the coast during the wintertime is supremely beautiful. Make sure to stop by Anthracite, a café built in an abandoned factory, for some of the best coffee in South Korea.
One thing I hate about Seoul is… All the cosmetic surgery ads on the buses and subways. I get it: my eyes could be bigger, my nose could be sharper and my bra size could go up another cup, but can I have one train ride where I don’t have to worry about my image, please?
My best tip for Seoul exploration… Look up the most recommended neighbourhoods and then check out the neighbourhood right next to it. Since Seoul evolves so quickly, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with where's hot right now. For instance, next to the well-known student nightlife district Hongdae are Yeonnam-dong and Sangsu-dong – where all the twenty-somethings are hanging out. Seoul’s elite no longer shop in Garosu-gil but in Saerosu-gil, one street over, where designer brands and boutiques reign. The coolest hidden bars are in Euljiro, just a few minutes away from more famous Myeongdong.
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