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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
Visitors inside Bongeunsa.

A local’s guide to Seoul

Visitors inside Bongeunsa.
  • By Haeryun Kang
  • Photos by Jean Chung

In Seoul, you’ll find contrasts everywhere: mountains behind skyscrapers, entangled electrical wires near hyper-modern buildings, traditional hanoks alongside Irish pubs and Soho cafes, and a man-made stream in the city center with fish, ducks and herons. It’s immensely old, continuously settled by different kingdoms for over 2,000 years. But it’s also new, with much of its architecture rebuilt after the Korean War in the 1950s in pursuit of modernity.

The city is loud and quiet, dirty and clean — sometimes all within a block. It’s a fascinating symbol of a country that modernized rapidly and is coming to terms with its own history. What’s constant is change: All that’s left of a Japanese shrine in the colonialist era is an unnoticed stairway in quiet neighborhood; the old cafe you love may well be replaced with a fried-chicken joint in months. That’s the beauty of Seoul. It’s never the same, so see it today before it’s something else tomorrow.

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Haeryun has lived in Seoul since 2014. She loves its mountains, although more the idea of them than the actual hiking.

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Itaewon, the former headquarters of the U.S. military base, is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in South Korea. A few minutes walk from Seoul’s only mosque is the center of Korean gay nightlife, a district boasting a famous stretch of international cuisine, bars and clubs. Itaewon is a tourist hot spot, so hotels, hostels and Airbnbs are plentiful. Find this neighborhood.
Stay in Seoul away from Seoul at the foot of the Inwang Mountain by the streams, free of skyscrapers and loud traffic. Visit Buam-dong’s art galleries (such as Whanki, Zaha, Seoul), explore the quiet alleyways, go hiking or take the bus down to tourist hot spots such as Gwanghwamun and Insadong, which are 20 minutes away. Accommodations are trickier: There is one hostel, the Kims, several Airbnb options, and Cindy’s B&B, which has high ratings. Find this neighborhood.

Explore more of Seoul


Terarosa, Gwanghwamun
Terarosa has branches across Seoul, but Gwanghwamun is great because the historic center of the city offers lots to see before and after the meal. The “Western-style” brunch menu, available from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., changes daily and feels more like lunch, with eggs, different salads, pasta, roasted meats and more. If you want something lighter, go for the various pastry options with drinks, including coffee, available all day from 7:30 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. on weekends.
BTW: Avoid peak brunch hours, as this place will typically get packed.
Terarosa, 50 Jong-ro 1-gil, Junghak-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Joongang Haejang
If there’s a Korea-specific breakfast tradition — because eating out at “Western” brunch with eggs and toast is a recent trend, especially among the younger generation — it’s probably haejang, or relieving a hangover. Joongang Haejang is open 24 hours, with haejang stews filled to the brim with vegetables, meat and beef bone broth, supplemented with rice and kimchi. Party all night in Gangnam, come to Joongang and fight that hangover away … and come back at dinner for the same meal, with a shot of soju.
BTW: Get some fresh air after the meal by walking along the nearby stream, Tancheon.
996-16 Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Doenjang Art
This is as good as a “conventional homemade Korean meal” gets, with wonderfully hearty dishes for vegetarians and meat-lovers. The number of sides — or “banchan” — are almost overwhelming and are refillable, with different greens, kimchis and soup. The signature lunch menu is the doenjang bibimbap, or fermented soybean paste with rice and vegetables. If by a miracle your appetite isn’t satiated, try the more expensive main dishes, including steamed pork or spicy octopus.
BTW: If possible, go with a big group of people who can handle all those banchan.
103-8 Myeongnyun 4(sa)ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Ojangdong Heungnamjip
The pain of Korean division stays alive in food, including the widely beloved Hamheung naengmyeon — cold noodles from Hamheung, a city in North Korea. Opened in 1953 by refugees from North Korea, Ojangdong Heungnamjip is one of the oldest and most famous places to go for these thin Hamheung noodles, which are made from sweet potato starch. There are five different types of noodles (not all cold) on the menu, but try the hoe bibim naengmyeon, which features raw skate fish and spicy red sauce.
BTW: If you don’t do spicy, mulnaengmyeon or the warm onmyeon may be a better choice.
Ojangdong Heungnamjip, 101-7 Ojang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul
Right next to the heavy traffic in the Jangchungdong neighborhood is a small, beautiful park near Dongguk University. Inside the park, Dadameteul is almost hidden to viewers walking on the sidewalk. The traditional hanok building offers calm in the middle of chaos, like a temple in the city. Its wooden architecture pays homage to Korean history, as well as its cuisine. This is a vegetarian-friendly restaurant, with a variety of interesting dishes, including lotus rice, noodles and bibimbap.
BTW: Stay for dessert because Dadameteul has excellent Korean snacks and tea options.
Dadameteul, 197 Jangchung-dong 2-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul
Yaksu Sundaeguk
There’s always a long line in front of Yaksu Sundaeguk, which sells one thing: bone broth soup with pork innards and sundae (pronounced soon-deh), a type of blood sausage. The restaurant, despite its popularity, still feels like a hole in the wall — an unadorned, strictly functional interior with chairs and tables reminiscent of South Korea in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s worth the wait: the broth is rich and deep; the meat, generously served, is juicy; and the sticky rice is perfectly white and soft.
BTW: Everything goes well with a bottle of soju, sold at the restaurant for $3.
368-77 Sindang-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul
Boxing Tiger
A speakeasy in the back alleyways of the Sinsadong neighborhood, Boxing Tiger is close to the bustle of the chic Garosugil, an upscale shopping area, but hidden enough to offer a respite. The mahogany interior is dimly lit and quiet, and the staff are friendly and eager to explain the alcohol menus in detail (most speak English). The cocktails and wines are good, but my favorite is the whiskey selection.
BTW: If you’re looking to bar hop, check out Garosugil, which offers plenty of other late-night options.
Boxing Tiger, 510-3 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Jinokhwa Halmae Wonjo Dakhanmari
That name’s quite a mouthful; it means, “Grandma Ok-hwa Jin’s Original Whole Chicken.” The restaurant is in a cramped alleyway at Dongdaemun, a popular shopping neighborhood where an old palace gate stands. The alley is full of whole chicken restaurants similar to it, but Jinokhwa is rumored to be the original. When dinner starts to wear off, come to the restaurant for a late-night feast with whole chicken immersed in a huge pot with broth, vegetables, noodles and more. The energy of the alleyway is contagious: raucous laughter, soju glasses clinking, and people yelling, “More broth, please!”
BTW: If Jinokhwa is overcrowded, which is usually the case, its competitors just a step or two away will most likely rise to the occasion.
Jinokhwa Halmae Wonjo Dakhanmari, 18 Jong-ro 40ga-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
(Seoul illustrator Jungsu Han for The Washington Post)
  1. Check the air quality and always be ready with a protective face mask. Air pollution is becoming a severe health concern in South Korea.
  2. Google Maps has limited access because of government restrictions. Try Korean companies Kakao or Naver instead, which offer detailed maps in English.
  3. Korean spas, locally known as jjimjilbang, are all over town and can be a cheap alternative to other types of accommodations — but only if you don’t have much baggage.
(Seoul illustrator Jungsu Han for The Washington Post)


Han River
If you haven’t seen Seoul from its river, you haven’t seen Seoul. Cycling alongside the river is my absolute favorite outdoor activity when the air quality is good. The bike paths give you the rare freedom in a crowded city to fly through beautiful parks peppered along the Han, under the massive 31 bridges connecting Seoul across the water, all the while absorbing the beautiful cityscape. Rent a Ttareungyi city bike, which has about 150 stations throughout the city. Calculate how long you’ll need the bike and find the closest return station before time is up.
BTW: Pick specific destinations along the river to cycle to, such as the parks in Mangwon, Ichon, Banpo or Yeouido.
Banpo Hangang Park: 40 Sinbanpo-ro, Banpo 2-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul
This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Seoul. Its 100 or so hanok houses were built in the early 20th century during the Japanese colonial era. Ikseondong survived the destructive Korean War in the 1950s and the “redevelopment” construction projects of the present day, which constantly replace old neighborhoods with glitzier apartment complexes. It’s an interesting combination of old residents going about their daily lives and younger merchants, filling the narrow alleys with cafes, bars and shops to attract visitors.
BTW: Don’t miss La Ikseon, a wine bar that offers a little taste of Spain with its gambas dishes and more.
Donhwamun-ro 11ga-gil 31, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Off-limits to the public for 40 years until 2007, the 342-meter-high mountain in the middle of downtown Seoul overlooks the presidential Blue House. Throw on some comfortable shoes and hike the path — if you’re pretty fit, it’ll be more of a nice stroll up a hill. Parts of the mountain still have bullet holes from 1968, when North Korea tried to assassinate the South Korean president by sneaking in through Bugaksan.
BTW: Check with the Bugaksan tourist center about the opening hours, which change seasonally. Also, there are three entrances/trails (the northern Sukjeongmun Gate’s address is listed here), but confirm your choice beforehand, because sometimes an entrance may be closed for construction.
40 Samcheongno 11gil, Jongnogu, Seoul
Explore Hongdae
Hongdae is a young, crowded neighborhood full of students from the nearby Hongik University. It’s traditionally known as an incubator of indie musicians and artists: Walk around and watch buskers entertaining in front of tattoo shops, bars, restaurants and cafes. Nowadays, the district has become gentrified, with new capital driving out its poorer artists and venues. Luckily, the music scene retains some of the old magic and is perfect for show-hopping. Gopchang Jeongol has interesting, lesser-known Korean tunes from the past; Freebird, also known as Con-Vent, offers live indie performances; and FF is great for sweaty dancing and occasionally decent music.
BTW: If you want to belt out some music of your own, karaoke at the luxuriously decorated (but reasonably priced) Su Noraebang in Hongdae.
8 Wausan-ro 29-gil, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
Bongeunsa Temple
Located in the middle of Gangnam, Bongeunsa is a reprieve from the smog and concrete. Built in 794, the temple is home to more than 3,000 woodblocks used to print Buddhist scriptures, which are just a traffic light away from COEX, a popular shopping complex for tourists and locals. The temple was an important location for Korean royals until the Joseon dynasty, established in the late 1300s, whose Confucian ideology gradually diminished Buddhism’s prestige. Today, the temple offers $2 vegetarian meals from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (from noon to 12:30 p.m. on Sundays), as well as a longer templestay program.
BTW: Gilsangsa and Jogyesa are also well-known temples within Seoul that offer vegetarian lunches that are either free or very cheap.
531 Bongeunsa-ro, Samseong 1(il)-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Sinheung Market
Opened in 1969, Sinheung is an example of how Seoul is becoming more conscious about preserving places rather than bulldozing them. It’s located in Haebangchon — a fascinating neighborhood that included a now-demolished Japanese shrine in the early 20th century and was once crowded with refugees from North Korea in the 1950s. Sinheung market saw its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, and it became irrelevant in the 21st century, with only flies and dust inside its old vendors. Since the government decided to re-create Sinheung as an “art market” in recent years, more visitors have come to enjoy its hip cafes and restaurants.
BTW: Cafe Orang Orang offers a cool view of the neighborhood from its terrace on the second floor.
Sinheung Market, 95-9 Sinheung-ro, Yongsandong 2-ga, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Haeryun Kang
Haeryun has lived in Seoul since 2014. She loves its mountains, although more the idea of them than the actual hiking.
Jean Chung
Jean is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in Seoul. Born and raised there, she appreciates the energy of the city and makes sure to take friends visiting from overseas to Gwangjang Market downtown.