For some reason, I thought Seoul was a city on par with a place like Shanghai. A huge, glittering metropolis with every imaginable diversion, and around 20 million people. It turns out Seoul is less than 10 million people, but probably equal to Shanghai in its breadth of culture, food, and fun. (Also, good but not expensive international food.) (Guys, I miss bagels a lot.)
Seoul also somehow manages to be completely modern and international yet somehow unmistakably Korean. Even though it doesn’t have an Old Town like most European cities (almost all traditionally Korean buildings and landmarks were destroyed during one of the wars of the 20th century), there’s something distinct about the city. Even with the faceless modern skyscrapers, you still know exactly where you are. It’s not London or New York or Beijing: it’s Seoul.
My chosen diversions for Seoul seemed to highlight this for me. No, I didn’t spend much time in old palaces or temples, but I felt like I experienced what is somehow international yet uniquely Korean.
After arriving in Korea on Saturday afternoon, I decided to find a place to go swing dancing, as Seoul is probably the best city in the world for lindy hop. You can literally find multiple venues on any night of the week, all packed with amazing dancers. Lindy hop is most definitely not Korean (it’s an African American jazz dance from New York City, after all), but the popularity and devotion of Korean dancers is unlike any other city I’ve danced in. I went to Happy Bar and as the only non-Korean, I was never wanting for a dance partner.
Once I got back from Busan, I took a market tour with Matt from It’s Seoul Good, which was everything you could want in a food tour: absolutely top-notch food, knowledge of everything local, and all within walking distance. Matt will take you to every important food stop in Jongno-gu and give you an opportunity to try every type of Korean street food you could ever want. He knows all the best vendors and calls them eemo (aunt in Korean). He’ll also teach you Korean drinking manners and drinking games, if you ask nicely. The tour starts at Gwangjang Market and winds through back alleys and street stalls with everything from the classics (kimchi, mungbean pancakes, topoki, hand-pulled noodles), to the adventurous (still squirming octopus with beef tartare, chicken sphincters, etc).
The day after staying out too late and drinking way too much soju on that food tour, I went on a walking tour with a local artist around Makercity Sewoon, which was built as a state-of-the-art shopping complex after the Korean war. It’s located right in the middle of the oldest part of Seoul, where old tenants with specialized workshops have held out in their one-story, tin-roofed sprawling complex against the tide of skyscraper gentrification. Makercity is part an mid-century style mall, where the shops are all grouped together by products (electronics, photography, sounds systems, etc) and part what used to be luxury apartments but is now mostly engineering firms, start-ups, and artist studios.
Of course, what would the run-down business district be without a smattering of hipster coffee shops cleverly hidden inside studios? There are a bunch in the second building of Makercity and in the surrounding business districts. 4F Coffee blends right in to the surrounding metal-working district, but of course serves an amazing flat white and scone.
The rest of my time was spent in Hongdae, the trendy neighborhood around Hongik University. I try not to shop (I’m trying to do that whole no-buy thing; not working so well for me), but Korean boutiques are pretty hard to resist if you love clothes. The style and dressmaking is so unique to Korea, and while the sizes run on the small size, they often construct pieces in a one-size-fits-all that has a bit of flexibility. (Genuinely not friendly to anyone over a size 12/14 US.)
And of course Hongdae (and Seoul in general, really) as an overabundance of cafes and restaurants. Everything from Korean to brunch to amazing ramen (the ramen in China is particularly subpar, so I take it whenever I can get it), and amazing cafes of every stripe, like Dessert Lab where I had an aesthetically pleasing but also delicious cookies ‘n’ cream mousse shaped like a cactus, or Bau House Dog Cafe, where the price of a drink gets you as much time as you want pups of all shapes and sizes and fluffiness. (Mostly just really fluffy.)
Three days is nowhere near enough to get any definitive grasp on the best of Seoul, but is there any amount of time that will make you a definitive authority on Seoul? That’s what makes it so alluring and enjoyable, after all.