Jun 14, 2012|
South Korea’s capital is a hard nut to crack, travel-wise. For visitors, it can be difficult to gain insider-level intel on the city’s ultra-hip world of trendy cafés, boutiques and artsy spaces—not to mention hard-to-find restaurants with un-translated menus. (OpenRice’s counterparts, for example, Wingspoon and Naver, are virtually entirely in Korean.) Luckily, during my visit in April, which also happened to be a reunion with two college roommates, one of them—Angela, the Korean-American and fluent one who has lived there for six years—served as our tour guide. And with the way she showed us her town, it was impossible for us not to fall in love. So, a bit belatedly, I’ve decided to share our itinerary with all you readers. If it helps you pass the hours just a little bit more like a local when you’re there next, then I’ve done my job.
Upon arrival, we made a beeline for Sigol Babsang (549-9 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, (+82) 2-546-1567), a restaurant serving traditional Korean fare just off of Garosu-gil, a trendy street that by day is great for shopping, people-watching and latte-sipping. We relaxed atop cushions on a raised platform against walls lined with old newspapers and devoured a feast of bulgogi, kimchi pancakes, bean-paste soup, egg soufflé (less weird and more yummy than it sounds) and an army of banchan (little side dishes). For dessert, we headed across the street to 5CIJUNG Cafe (1F, 525-11 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, (+82) 2-512-6508, www.5cijung.com), a homey little spot that specializes in cakes, homemade scones and delicious banana jam (that they also sell). Their liquid concoctions are unique and delicious, like the soothing banana ginger tea and the tangy iced blueberry vinegar-ade.
The next morning we (that is, three twenty-something girls) decided to be adventurous, and made our way south of the city center to Namhansanseong, a state park just outside Seoul (563 Sanseong-ri, Jungbu-myeon, Gwangju-si, Gyeonggi-do, (+82) 31-777-7514, www.ggnhss.or.kr). It’s a mountain fortress dating back to about 60 AD that served as a protective city wall of sorts, and it's surrounded by picturesque cultural relics like temples, shrines and pavilions. We trekked up to the wall and took in the views, giggling at our fellow hikers—hardcore Korean men and women who’d donned intense outdoor gear and accessories for the little climb.
By the time we got back to the city, we were famished—and what better way to build up strength than with some authentic Korean steak, barbecued simply with garlic and cabbage on a burner right in the center of our table. At Daedo Sikdang (150-7 Samseong 1-dong, Gangnam-gu, (+82) 2-561-2283-4), the high-quality rib-eye (from cows raised in Korea, of course) was the star of the show. True, it wasn't cheap. But it was delicious—even more so when a waiter swooped in to make kkakdugi (a white-radish kimchi) fried rice in the same pan that held the dregs of the beef we'd just devoured.
The last stop of the day was late-night shopping in Dongdaemun, the wholesale district. We opted to patronize APM Luxe (199-17 Sindang-dong, Jung-gu, (+82) 2-2231-0936)—which is open from 8:30pm until 9am and sells the kinds of clothing and accessories stocked by boutiques across Seoul, except at bargain prices—we perused floor after floor of merchandise until we were ready to collapse.
Refreshed the next morning, we went to an area called Samcheongdong for lunch and a stroll amid the old-fashioned, refurbished Korean houses, too-cute-for-words boutiques and cozy cafés. The Korean specialty du jour was wang mandoo guk—literally, giant dumpling soup. And those dumplings were especially enormous at Bukchon Kalguksu (84 Sogyeok-dong, Jongro-gu, (+82) 2-739-6334), where at the front of the restaurant a team of veteran chefs with hands like lightning kept stuffing, folding and creasing more and more doughy pockets of goodness. Our best shopping find? Le Bunny Bleu (18 Sogyeok-dong, Jongro-gu, (+82) 70-8812-8102, www.lebunnybleu.com) which sells hipster-esque shoes that look a lot like Toms.
We then ventured on to the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art (747-18 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, (+82) 2-2014-6900, www.leeum.org). This eight-year-old museum is a special spot located a few minutes’ walk from the subway station in Itaewon, a neighborhood traditionally viewed as little more than an expat haven. The museum is divided into two parts; one displays more indigenous, traditional art, while the other is devoted to showcasing international works from the likes of Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko, as well as providing a platform for both established and up-and-coming Korean contemporary artists. There’s also a striking outdoor installation area defined by giant sculptures of spiders by the late French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. It’s not just the pieces themselves that are beautiful to look at—the museum itself is architecturally stunning as well.
Saturday morning took us to Hongdae, the trendy area around Hongik University that has a charming weekend market (564-35 Yeonnam-dong, Mapo-gu, (+82) 2-325-8553, www.freemarket.or.kr). Amid throngs of students and creative types, local artisans sell crafty goods from cutesy jewelry to hand-drawn postcards to sophisticated leather credit-card holders. Seoulites seem to have similar pastimes to Hongkongers—that is, shopping and eating—so next we headed to Hongdae Kaljok (407-30 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, (+82) 2-3143-0166), which specializes in noodles and pork knuckles. The meal was followed by frozen yogurt with DIY toppings and innovative ice cream sandwiches at Snow Spoon (1F, 364-15 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, (+82) 2-3256-7890, www.snowspoon.co.kr).
We made but two concessions to Insadong, the touristy stretch of souvenir shops and overpriced art galleries. First, a tea house and shop, O'Sulloc (170, Gwanhoon-dong, Jongro-gu, (+82) 2-732-6427, www.osulloc.com), a 33-year-old brand that harvests its leaves from fields on Jeju, a much-loved island off the country's south shore. Second, a small restaurant called Yubyulnan (75-1 Taeyoung Building #102, Insa-dong, Jongro-gu) that serves up delicious ddeokbokki, a favorite spicy street food made of sliced rice cakes, noodles and egg. The food fest continued with a stop at Kkanbu Chicken (809-6 Yeoksam-song, Gangnam-gu, (+82) 2-557-6460, www.kkanbu.co.kr) for the quintessential Korean late-night meal of fried chicken, fries and beer.
Our last evening was full of nonstop laughter over soju and BBQ pork belly at Bulzip Samgyeopsal (817-28 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu, (+82) 2-3452-7273, www.bulzip.co.kr), followed by karaoke and high-tech sticker pictures—yes, the kind you can Photoshop and bedazzle with stars and hearts and all things ridiculous (You & I Digital Photo Sticker Shop, 1F, 1308-13 Seocho-gu, Seocho-dong, (+82) 2-3481-1531, www.blzzang.com). The next day, our final stop before heading to the airport was to stock up on lovely Korean stationery products at top-notch bookstore Kyobo (B1-B2/F, 1303-22 Seocho 4-dong, Seocho-gu, (+82) 2-1544-1900, www.kyobobook.co.kr). Thanks to our local-in-the-know Angela (who also helped me out with this column by translating every single restaurant name and address into English), we packed a lot into a few short days—and now we can't wait to go back for more.