When I was a child in Virginia, the only people who knew where Seoul was were my history teacher or Korean War veterans who inevitably had had Korean girlfriends who taught them to say “I love you” in Korean. “Sarang-hae….” Now, it astonishes me that I have non-Korean friends who are learning Korean so they can understand the Korean TV series they are hooked on. Some of these friends know more about Korean pop music than I will ever know. Korean ingredients are showing up on menus around the world, and more and more people are choosing Seoul for a city break.
People planning visits to Seoul ask me all the time what they should do and see. Having never lived in Seoul, honestly, I’m still discovering the city myself. I’m lucky to have the best family and friends who take me around to eat delicious food, have a decent cup of coffee, see art that I find exciting, and buy lots of ceramics that don’t fit in my cupboard.
So, I may be completely biased but I think Seoul is one of the most exciting and important cities in Asia to visit right now. If you live in Asia and haven’t been to Seoul, stop whatever you’re doing and go now. If you don’t live in Asia, you are excused but I don’t want to have this conversation in a year or two and find that you still haven’t been.
Here is a list of my bonnes addresses in Seoul, which is by no means meant to be comprehensive. You will see it’s mostly made up of restaurants, galleries and museums and design and ceramics shops…It’s a mishmash of local dives and some more swanky spots. This is how I travel when I’m in Seoul or really anywhere. If I’ve missed out on any spots that you think should be here, please let me know. I’ll update this list as I discover more, but in the meantime…
Seoul is a sprawling city separated in two halves by the Han River (or Han-gang). North of the river is known as Gangbuk, and south of the river is called Gangnam (yes, that Gangnam). Given the city’s size and snarled traffic that rivals LA and Jakarta, it’s important to think about where exactly you’ll stay and plan your days by neighbourhoods. I usually stay in Gangbuk, near the Palace, because it’s walking distance to the galleries, museums and traditional homes that I like to wander around. Many people stay in Gangnam because they want to be in the shopping districts like Apgujeong-dong, Myeong-dong and Cheongdam-dong. I’ve noted which side of the river each place is so you can have a sense of the geography.
FOOD AND DRINK
Balwoo - This is the higher-end restaurant at the Jogyesa Temple in Central Seoul. They offer tasting menus of Korean Buddhist temple cuisine. Seasonal, contemplative vegan fare that has inspired me to delve into this type of Korean cuisine more and more. Insa-dong, Gangbuk.
Ilhochic - This is the place where I would eat lunch most days if I lived in Seoul. Super clean, fresh and simple Korean lunch sets in a very casual, minimalist setting. Hannam-dong, Gangbuk.
Bicena - A delicious modern Korean restaurant near the Leeum Museum. Itaewon, Gangbuk.
Mingles - High-end modern Korean fusion but with a Spanish twist. Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam.
Poom - One of the more established modern Korean restaurants, popular with the ladies who lunch and focused on seasonal ingredients. Namsan, Gangbuk.
Charles H. - The bar at the Four Seasons is branded as a speakeasy, which is a stretch given it's in a Four Seasons. But it's beautiful and has great cocktails and service. Gwanghwamun, Gangbuk.
PARC - A cosy, casual place serving fresh, home-style Korean set menus. Itaewon, Gangbuk.
Local and Lovely (okay, maybe not the loveliest, but the food is so good, who cares)
The best Korean restaurants are local, far from Kinfolk ready and specialise in one dish. Try to avoid places with sprawling menus attempting to please the palate of the general public…. It’s hard to find English information on some of the places I love, so keep an eye on this as I’ll be updating this list when I can.
Gwangjang Market - The oldest market in Seoul is famous for their mungbean pancakes but there are stalls upon stalls serving other Korean dishes. Have a wander and have a bite of everything! More on my favourite Seoul market in a previous blog post.
Ojangdong Heungnam-jip - So many people I know are obsessed with Pyongyang naengmyun – those thin, translucent sweet potato noodles with a little bite. I never understood until I had the noodles mixed with chilli pepper sauce and raw skate here. I would eat this every day for lunch if I could. Ojangdong, Gangbuk.
Tosokchon - This is probably the most famous place in Seoul for Korean chicken soup. Koreans serve a whole young chicken, stuffed with ginseng, rice, garlic, jujubes and scallions, in a steaming bowl of chicken broth. It’s meant to be enjoyed on the hottest summer days for optimal health, so prepare to sweat out all your toxins while eating this. Gwanghwamun, Gangbuk.
Jangchung-dong Grandma’s Pork Trotters - This is a family favourite serving Korean pork trotters (jokbal) in a street known as Jokbal Alley for its many jokbal restaurants. Pork trotters, with their cartilage and gelatin, is said to keep your skin youthful. Now you know the Korean secret to looking ageless – eat pig’s feet and be a wrinkle free grandma. Jangchung-dong, Gangbuk.
MUSEUMS & GALLERIES
Artsonje - My favourite contemporary art museum in Seoul, hands down, that’s relatively small in size but gigantic in terms of influence. They have a jewelbox annex space within walking distance of the main building that has excellent installations, so ask the staff if the annex is open for a visit. Samcheong-dong, Gangbuk.
ONE AND J. - One of the first Korean galleries I came across at one of the many international art fairs they participate in. They were one of the first Korean galleries that really were able to speak to an international audience to promote younger Korean and Korean American artists. Samcheong-dong, Gangbuk.
Alternative Space Pool - The coolest non-profit art space in a beautiful, small vintage building. I adore the shows and the building. Gugi-dong, Gangbuk.
Kukje Gallery - One of the most prominent galleries in Seoul showing celebrated Korean contemporary and modern artists such as those of the Dansaekhwa movement as well as big-name international artists such as Anish Kapoor. They have a sister gallery in New York – Tina Kim Gallery – as well as an incredible archive upstairs focusing on their artists.
Park Ryu Sook Gallery - A pioneering gallery bringing contemporary art to the Gangnam district since1983. Run by the gallery’s namesake and her daughter, Soo Choi. They also have a space in Jeju Island which I’m dying to see. Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam.
Leeum - A private museum for the family behind Samsung, located in Itaewon and a quick stroll down the hill from the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Their permanent collection which encompasses international, Korean, contemporary and modern is a must-see. They also have special exhibitions such as the 2016-2017 retrospective of Olafur Eliasson’s work which was gorgeous. Itaewon, Gangbuk.
Audio Visual Pavilion - An alternative art space in a somewhat rundown but cool traditional house with incredible tiny shows. In Korean, it’s known as SiChung-Gak and near Tongin Market. Yeonnam-dong, Gangbuk.
Gallery Factory - Another small alternative space focusing on emerging artists including international artists. Stop by mk2 cafe next door for some biscuits and a coffee. Changseong-dong, Gangbuk.
National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art - Has a relatively new space in Seoul with a relatively new museum director from Barcelona with multiple special exhibitions at a time. The building is said to be haunted but the museum director told me he hasn’t seen any ghosts yet. Samcheong-dong, Gangbuk.
Ilmin Museum - A thoughtful small museum that’s definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re near the Palace. Gwanghwamun, Gangbuk.
Korea Furniture Museum - Gorgeous assembly of traditional Korean houses with classic furniture. Make sure to book in advance. Seongbuk-gu, Gangbuk.
Song Eun Art Center - In the swish neighbourhood of Cheongdam-dong but has interesting shows such as the recent Tom Tandio collection of Indonesian artists such as Tromarama. Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam.
Daelim Museum and D Museum - The D Museum is a new museum related to the photography-focused Daelim Museum. These are the places for fun, fashion-crowd-friendly shows on personalities such as Nick Knight and Thomas Heatherwick. The cafe and design shop at the Daelim Museum is worth a visit alone. Jongno-gu, Gangbuk.
Sikijang - I'm addicted to ceramics; I have a serious problem. And Sikijang is my dealer. Their contemporary ceramics are high-end and mostly made by well-known artisans. It’s in the basement with a tiny gallery on the ground floor. Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam.
Choeunsook Art & Lifestyle Gallery - This gallery-slash-shop has spare and beautiful design exhibits and a shop filled with ceramics, hoorah. Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam.
Portfolio - A letterpress and stationery shop in the heart of Samcheong-dong. So tiny and sweet and usually pick up a card or two when I pass by. Samcheong-dong, Gangbuk.
SSG Food Market - A luxury food market that has a lot of artisanal local food products as well as imported foods. A luxury supermarket with artisanal Korean products as well as international goods. I shop there and bring back vinegars, sauces and even fresh herbs with me. It's in the same building as a small Boon the Shop, FYI. Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam.
Hyundai Card Travel and Music Libraries - You need to have a Hyundai credit card to enter, but worth finding someone to take you to enjoy browsing their shelves. Itaewon, Gangbuk.
Hay Design - The Danish design store has an outpost in Seoul. Not Korean at all but perfect when you need the ideal brass bottle opener. Itaewon, Gangbuk.
Shinsegae Department Store - Department stores in Seoul are massive. Some have amusement parks attached to them, and they've had indoor ice rinks since I was a child. Food courts there are always fun to see. Shinsegae is the best one in my mind if you want to see one, with many branches but the Apgujeong-dong branch is a classic. Banpo-dong, Gangnam.
Other high-fashion boutiques - There are several multi-brand, high-end boutiques reminiscent of Barneys in NY, Matches in London and Joyce in Hong Kong. Boon the Shop in Cheongdam-dong is my favourite. The prices for international brands are heavily taxed so be sure to ask for duty free if you don’t live in Seoul, or just go and admire the well-edited displays.