101 GuidescityTravel

seoul city guide

by Stephanie

Today’s Seoul city guide comes from Katie Merchant. Katie is originally from Canada but first came to Korea after teaching ESL in Seoul and truly grew to love her adopted home. She currently runs a blog about Seoul/Toronto and shares with us a wonderful guide to the cafes, art spaces and incredible attractions around this metropolitan city. Thanks, Katie, for such a great guide! — Stephanie

*Font above by Sander Legrand, one of Grace’s favorites.

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!

I could never have expected Seoul to be as vibrant, evolving and surprising as it is. With pop-up art markets, rogue underground flea markets, a strong independent cafe culture, small-press bookshops and buzzing neon alleys, South Korea’s bustling capital is an exciting city to explore, with millions of discoveries to be made in each strikingly different neighborhood. As such, there are new places popping up almost every day (or so it seems). After spending over a year seeking out the best parts, I would love to share my finds with you in the hopes that this fantastic city will become a more deservedly popular destination.

I wasn’t a fan of Itaewon on my first visit; however, after an event at Space Hamilton brought me back, I realized the former ex-pat ghetto was teeming with unique cafes and art spaces.

Art Space Pool/Gasum Lounge
683-31 Hannam-dong Yongsan-gu, Seoul
This lounge/artist-run center is a very special place with lots of hidden rooms/details to discover. Their rooftop patio is not to be missed.

Takeout Drawing
A cafe that doubles as an exhibition space, Takeout Drawing offers both an interesting atmosphere and delicious baked goods. Sit on the second floor and be treated to sprawling views of the colored rooftops of Hannam-dong.

Space Hamilton
Space Hamilton is tucked away in a back alley between Hangangjin and Itaewon Station. The space is quite beautiful, and it plays host to various events in the creative community of Seoul. Be sure to check their website for upcoming events or else you may arrive to an empty space.

Leeum Samsung
747-18 Hannam-dong, T 2014 6900
Presented in this beautiful three-building museum (Museum 1: Mario Botta, Museum 2: Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas’s Child Education & Cultural Center) is some of the world’s best contemporary art.

Above Bar
119-25 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu T 749 0717
Tucked away in a restaurant/bar-lined alley directly behind the Hamilton Hotel, Above Bar offers an escape from Seoul’s chaotic atmosphere. They offer an extensive cocktail list and the service is truly fantastic.

Neal’s Yard Cafe
119-19, 2 F, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu T 794-7278
Neal’s Yard Cafe is a cozy coffeehouse that serves up delicious waffles.

et M’amie
736-9 1F, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu T 795 5245
Go to this high-ceilinged eatery for delicious pastries, carrot cake and affogato.

The Centaur
Designer Ye Ranji’s showroom has highly covetable clothing.

La Bocca
737-37 Hannam-dong Yongsan-gu T 790-5907
For authentic Italian cuisine in Itaewon, look no further than La Bocca for imported fresh meats, cheeses and exquisite pastries.

My Thai
123-18, 1F, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu T 794 8090
Owned by gay TV personality Hong Suk Chun, My Thai has a fantastic patio and even better Thai cuisine. The Tom Yam salad and green curry with (inexpensive) draft Chang are perfect for a hot day. Dine late and slip down to My Bed afterward for drinks.

These two neighborhoods are dotted with cafes, noodle shops and art galleries. Sandwiched between the iconic Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jongno Tower, both areas are a quick, pleasant stroll apart. On Saturdays and Sundays, Insa-dong is closed to cars, and tourists and locals alike meander up and down the street, popping in and out of the many shops.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Kukje Gallery
Kukje Gallery is a fantastic gallery in two spaces that rotates both Western and Korean art. They make really beautiful in-house publications of their exhibits and have an even better cafe (try the green tea cake!).

Hyundai Gallery
Just down the street from Kukje Gallery, Hyundai Gallery also shows both cutting edge Korean and Western artists.

커피 선반 (Shelf Coffee)
This coffee shop is the best. Decorating this tiny cafe are caricatures of the staff and owner (who sports a phenomenal man-bun), and they serve some of the best coffee in Korea.

63-6 Palpan-dong, Jongno-gu T 723 7339
This sandwich shop has amazing bread — it’s hard to leave without taking some home. Bucella also has locations in Hongdae, Sinsa, Cheongdam and Maebong.

Arario Gallery
Continuing the art crawl, Arario Gallery is nestled alongside noodle shops and cafes around the corner from the Kukje and Hyundai galleries.

The Books
Located in the Art Sonje Center, The Books has stacks of artist and small-press publications — you won’t leave empty handed. They also have lots of seating and a little cafe, should you choose to stay and flip through your purchases.

AA Design Museum

You can find a wide variety of souvenirs in this winding art market, which culminates in a beautiful rooftop patio.

MMMG Head Office/Shop/Cafe
My favorite MMMG location in Seoul, this cafe is cozy and full of thoughtful details (complete with antler mirror in the restroom!). Their patbingsu is the best I’ve ever had.

Jongno Tower
It’s worth zipping up to the Top Cloud Bar located on the 33rd floor of this landmark to see spectacular views of the city.

One of my favorite things to do in Seoul is to head to Hongdae on a Saturday. This neighborhood is buzzing with art students (thanks to Hongik University) and stylish young Koreans. It’s packed with street stalls, impromptu flea markets, clubs and shops.

Café Ronin
T 02 336 0105
This is my favorite place to sit with a glass of wine in Hongdae. They know how to pour a real glass of wine, which comes served with a complimentary cheese platter. At night they play classic black-and-white movies on a projector outside, and the overall vibe is very relaxing.

Joey’s Brunch Café
T 02 324 0214
This cafe has a London theme, with framed photos of the Royal Family and a London subway map decorating the walls. They serve extra cheesy broccoli soup and hefty sandwiches, which you can select from a pop-up menu.

T (02) 3143-2284
This underground bar has over 4000 LP’s from the 60s to 80s. It plays traditional K-Pop way into the night and serves the very best traditional Korean food I’ve had. The kitschy décor in this place is just as amazing as their tteokbokki.

Du Pain
T 02 – 336- 3613
Located up a side alley (which doubles as their patio!), Du Pain serves really homey comfort food. My favorite is the foil-wrapped hamburger steak. The service here is wonderful, as well.

Wausan-gil, Hongdae (Sangsu Station, Exit 1)
Bags of booze. Robot façade. Great music. Cool posters.

Romiwa has a bright pink façade, making it hard to miss. I especially like their accessory selection (chunky earrings galore!).

Finchley Road
Finchley Road is another awesome vintage store with really cool owners. They often have a great sale rack outside.

Selected Bookshop Your Mind
This bookshop houses small publications, independent music and a well-curated selection of magazines (including some majorly vintage Vogues).

Café Mayjune
Their takeout window is perfect for grabbing an on-the-go cupcake.

i think so
T 02 337 8233
This basement shop has lots of good finds — stationery, colored masking tape and loads of cute wrapping materials/ideas.

Alice and Dorothy
T 02 338 3318
This through-the-looking-glass themed cafe has the best hand drop in Korea.

6-129 Changjeon-dong, Mapo-gu
T 2 322 2311
Popular with students, this onigiri stop is super cheap and delicious. I (strongly) recommend the tuna-kimchi onigiri.

Café Sukkara
The food here is organic, delicious and prepared in a homey, open kitchen. Their soy lattes taste like buttered toast, and they make ginger ale from scratch. Their taco rice and butter chicken dishes are highly recommended.

335-16 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu T 02 3143 7077
Milcale is a tiny bakery with very lovely homemade sweets and breads.

at corner natural shop
A favorite spot in Hongdae, this special antique shop/cafe is full of vintage magazines, doilies, kitchenware, telephones and Babar dolls.

Tora B
347-12 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu T 02-6408-8038
Tora B is a really cute Japanese-themed cafe tucked up in a side alley. It plays host to local artists’ small exhibitions and has a very cozy vibe.

The Book Society
The Book Society is a great little bookstore/project space run by Media Bus. Here you can find a well-curated selection of small-press and artists’ publications, alongside a variety of self-published books. Among the stacks of zines, I like Korean artist Jung Eun Park’s best.

Salon Yong
Located just up the street from Romiwa, this vintage shop has very inspiring styling.

Burger B
362-7 Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong T 070-8870-9220
This burger shop has been getting a lot of press in Korea, and it’s no wonder. The burgers are juicy — just messy enough to know they’re good — and the staff is very friendly. They also make a mean Americano.

My favorite stationery store in Seoul, Oval has products I’d never seen before, many imported from Japan and Germany. It’s obvious the stock has been thoughtfully selected, and it’s quite difficult to leave empty-handed.

These two decidedly upscale neighboring hoods are full of young, stylish Koreans and back alleys full of concept stores, sandwich shops and tiny, buzzing nightclubs.

Café Papergarden, Hall
Café Papergarden is a bright, airy place to grab a bite to eat. Upstairs you’ll find Hall, an equally bright store with a well-curated selection of clothing, books and homewares — think Comme des Garçons, Korean label Talk/Service and Acne Paper.

Allo Papergarden
520-9 Sinsa-dong Gangnam-gu Seoul T 02-541-6933

Scoop Garden
535-13 Sinsa-dong Gangnam-gu
Scoop Garden is a leafy outdoor cafe — perfect for taking a break from shopping to enjoy a glass of wine and a sandwich.

525-5 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu T 070 7613-6610
This home-style Japanese cafe gets fairly busy (best to make a reservation or arrive early – especially for lunch!). Their broiled salmon melts in your mouth.

Deli Heinzburg
534-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu T 02-541-8780
Although dining here can be a bit hectic, there is something to be said about Deli Heinzburg’s sandwiches. They have a wide selection, delicious breads and are very generous with the toppings. Their pickled red cabbage and daikon are also amazing.

Sett Sensitive Pancake Café
T 02 517 3369
This is my favorite brunch place in Seoul. The prices are very reasonable (especially for Sinsa-dong) and you can’t beat the atmosphere. It’s cozy and their pancake sets are a perfect start to any day.

Mug for Rabbit/Cork for Turtle
546-5 Sinsa-dong Gangnam-gu Seoul
As the name suggests, Mug for Rabbit is a large bunny-themed cafe. They specialize in lattes (including wasabi and ginger!), and brightly frosted cupcakes. Make sure to try their patbingsu in the summer months. If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, head up the stairs to Cork for Turtle (which also offers cooking classes).

Le Alaska
653-9 Sinsa-dong T 02 516 5871
Le Alaska is another adorable bakery, located across the street from Café Papergarden.

Dare is most definitely the best vintage shop I’ve ever been to. It reminds me a bit of Toronto’s 69 Vintage, and the stock is heavy on the denim. They also have very unique homewares (think crucifixes and taxidermy). Everything in the shop is available to buy or rent.

9owls sells vintage goods from the 1920s to 1980s — they have an exceptional selection of handbags.

B1, 534-20 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu T 2-3443-6048
Located through a sliver of a doorway and down a dangerously steep flight of stairs, this vintage shop is worth venturing into. Like 9owls, they too a have highly covetable collection of handbags.

The Galleria Department Store
494 Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu T 3449-4114
Department stores are entrenched in Korean shopping culture. I’m not usually a fan of this way of shopping, but UN Studio’s Galleria is certainly worth a visit if only to see the gleaming exterior. They have an overwhelmingly well-stocked Food Hall in the basement, should you need a bite to eat.

Platoon Kunsthalle
97-22 Gangnam-gu Nonhyeon-dong
According to their website, “PLATOON KUNSTHALLE [was] set up in Seoul as a space for subculture in Asia. Its programmatic orientation towards cultural movements beneath the radar creates a dynamic space where new ideas are born and presented.”
Not to be missed: The BLING magazine’s night flea market, which happens on the first Saturday of every month.

A LAND has to be one of my favorite stores in Korea. It has a bit of an Urban Outfitters vibe, but it’s much cooler. A LAND has locations in Hongdae, Sinsa-dong, Apgujeong and Myeongdong. The Myeongdong location is certainly the best (and the busiest!) with four floors of fashions. The top floor has recently been redone into a huge vintage market.

National University Museum of Art
A bit out of the way, the National University Museum of art makes for a good afternoon trip (especially in the fall, when you can take advantage of the leaves changing color). The architecture here is amazing. They also have a lovely little cafe tucked under the backside of the gallery.

Paju Book City
Paju Book is an innovative publishing community/living architecture museum nestled on reedy wetlands about 30 minutes north of Seoul.

O-Check Design Graphics
O-Check is a lovely Korean design company. They recently opened a cafe and store at their head office (T 02 3210 1555). Their products are also sold at A LAND.

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  • I was just in Seoul a couple of days ago and was unable to find ANY of the places listed in this guide. I’m not blaming the author….it seemed that a lot of helpful Koreans couldn’t find them either. We even had a friend call and ask for directions in Korean, but alas, none of the places in Hongdae could be found. It’s okay though, there are millions of places in Seoul to enjoy! Just an FYI for those who intend to use this as a guide :)

    • monica

      could you tell me which places you had a problem with? i’ll contact the guide author to address those places in particular. i was able to find websites for the first 5 or 6 i tried, so i think they exist. perhaps they were on the indie side and not everyone knew where to find them?


  • I think your issue Monica is that Hannam is actually a completely different neighborhood than Itaewon (I think the author may have confused Hannam for being in Itaewon due to the two neighborhoods’ close proximity to each other). Those familiar with Itaewon are usually not as a familiar with a Hannam (different crowds). Additionally, phrases like “tucked in a back alley” can be confusing with both Hannam and Itaewon having endless alleys.

    Grace–I’d love to update and expand on this list if you or Kate wouldn’t mind. I currently live in Hannam and know that some places on this list have changed names or closed.

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