With more than 23 million people living in the Seoul area, the Korean capital city proves itself as a thriving and electric megalopolis.
Seoul is comprised of several distinct districts, ranging from the traditional to bohemian, each allowing travelers to experience the city’s complexity and offering a glimpse into the lives of local “Seoulites.”
TEMPLES AND TEA: INSADONG
Those seeking a more cultural experience will find Insadong to be a proper fit. The district consists of several Buddhist temples and multiple teahouses, which offers an insight into both the culture and habits of Korean individuals. Although Insadong is a fairly popular place among locals, it is largely overlooked by visitors in favor of other districts.
Observe or even participate in a Buddhist worship ceremony, Jogyesa (www.jogyesa.org), Seoul’s largest Buddhist shrine, has services from 4 a.m.-6:30 a.m., 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m., 2 p.m.-3 p.m., and 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Tourists tend to shy away from services, but you can easily enter The Hall of the Great Hero unnoticed, absorbing as much of the ceremony as you wish.
If you feel inclined to join in, bring fruit or water to place on the altar. The Hall has three large Buddha in the center, and the ceiling is decorated with colorful lanterns used in the annual Lotus Lantern Festival (which occurs around Buddha’s birthday in the spring). After exiting, be sure to light a candle, make a wish, and walk around the seven-tiered Pagoda, believed to contain the sarira (sacred relics) of Shakyamuni, the supreme Buddha.
Not far from this temple lies Insadong-gil, a street full of teahouses, ceramic shops and art galleries. While searching for trinkets to bring home, make it a point to enjoy the selection of teas such as persimmon leaf, plum or chrysanthemum. Twinkle Twinkle has a modern and lounge-like atmosphere that speaks to Seoul’s trendy side.
More traditional teahouses include Ye Chat Jip and Moon Bird Thinks Only of the Moon, two houses that provide a more authentic and Korean atmosphere. In fact, both are decorated with various wooden carvings, and, in the case of Ye Chat Jip, all the tables and seats are made out of wood, where patrons are invited to carve personal messages.
Several art galleries surround Dawon, a teahouse that includes an exterior courtyard where you can enjoy your tea leaves and take in the surrounding art. Weekends tend to get busy in Insadong, but you can avoid the crowds during the week.
(Locations to the teahouses can be found by visiting the Tourist Information shop in the center of Insadong-gil.)
LATE-NIGHT APPEAL – HONGDAE
When it comes to the Korean nightlife, Hongdae (short for Hongik Daehakgyo) is the place to be. Filled with clubs, bars, and street vendors, this district lets you experience Seoul’s vibrant nightlife alongside Korean natives, ex-pats and visitors, alike.
The last Friday of every month is designated “Club Day” in which a fee of 25,000 Won (about $18) grants you a wristband and entry into Hongdae’s clubs.
If you’re on a budget, Bar Boom offers free drinks from 9-10 p.m. and 12-1 a.m. Club Oi (www.ooooooi.com), which is designed like a snow-covered cavern, makes you remove your footwear, so put your best sock forward.
Hotspot Museum (www.clubmuseum.co.kr) attracts DJs and club-goers from around the world, making it a true international club experience
Additionally, Hongdae consists of a variety of bars that cater to all whims. Go-Gos and Rocky Mountain Tavern (www.rockymountaintavern.com) are popular among foreigners living in Seoul, complete with pool tables and darts. Jane’s Groove, a rock bar beneath Rocky Mountain Tavern, hosts local (including expat) rock bands every Saturday night.
Unless you’re looking for a brawl, avoid Tin-Pan and its sister bar across the street Tin-Pan 2, since they tend to attract rowdier crowds.
If a quieter evening is your thing, a round of hookah (flavored tobacco) at Bricx (www.bricx.com) will suit you just fine.
While Hongdae’s nightlife is a must, be sure not to overlook the district’s daytime activities. Hongdae is replete with trendy and hipster art galleries, as well as street musicians, modern interpretations of traditional Korean art, and avant-garde works.
SHOPPING LOW, SHOPPING HIGH – DONGDAEMUN and APGUJEONG
If there’s one thing Seoulites are concerned with, it’s fashion. That said, the philosophy here is, “To each his own,” which means that Korean style isn’t necessarily on par with that of the rest of the world. But if there’s something you can take advantage of, it’s cheap prices.
Dongdaemun Market (www.donami.or.kr/English), located in the Dongdaemun district, is home to more than 30,000 specialty shops ranging from handbags to traditional Korean garb. Comprised of four main shopping malls (Doota, Cheongdaemun, Migilore, and Hello apM), Dongdaemun Market is Korea’s largest shopping center, where you can find pretty much everything you need at affordable prices.
If that’s not enough to satisfy your shopping needs, Dongdaemun Stadium is home to its own huge flea market. The question then shifts from “Where can I find it?” to “How cheap can I get it?”
While crowds are unavoidable, the experience and shopping is worth it. Check out the night market as well, which is a lively, bustling experience that brings together young locals after dark.
On the other end of the spectrum is Apgujeong, a trendy district that prides itself on its high-priced items. In fact, with so many of the Korean elite shopping here, many consider Apgujeong the “Beverly Hills of Seoul,” complete with its own Rodeo Drive. Flagship stores line the streets from the likes of Prada, Hugo Boss, and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. Dining here is also in stark contrast to the rest of Seoul, with expensive restaura