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How to Eat, Drink and Gallery Hop Like a Seoul Local

5 min read

South Korea’s capital is electric. Among its neon lights, K-pop and fast-paced energy, you can feel the current, the hum of activity moving through the streets. Nowhere is this more evident than in Itaewon, Samcheong-dong and Hongdae, neighborhoods popular with the city’s creatives.

The sprawling city isn’t always the easiest to navigate for visitors with mostly Korean signs and a complex transportation system, but the chef Mingoo Kang of the two Michelin-starred Mingles; the contemporary artist Wona Cho; and Hakjun Lee, the general manager of Christie’s Korea, take some of the work out it for tourists by sharing their favorite places in these neighborhoods and the surrounding areas.

As Seoul’s art scene grows more international, galleries like Lehmann Maupin and Pace have established outposts in this foreigner-friendly part of the city, adjacent to a former American military base, that is known for its nightlife, restaurants and shopping.

Ms. Cho, 41, who lives nearby, said this was a place to go to see what’s trendy and popular with young people in South Korea. “I’m in Itaewon the most often,” Ms. Cho said in a phone interview. “You can see what young people these days are up to, what style of clothes they’re wearing.”

For her, it is the brunch scene she enjoys the most. She frequents Oasis, an all-day brunch cafe; the Baker’s Table, a German bakery; and Pancake Shop. She also enjoys heading for a walk with her dog at Namsan park.

Mr. Kang, 39, who also opened Hyodo Chicken, a collaboration between himself and the chef Chang Ho Shin that specializes in Korean fried chicken, said his favorites in the area were the three Michelin-starred Mosu, the chef Sung Anh’s contemporary fine-dining restaurant; and the American casual dining restaurant Cesta.

If visitors need a good post-meal coffee, he said they should head to Hell Cafe. Mr. Lee described the coffee there as being like “a consistent, old friend.”

As for cultural experiences in the area, both Mr. Kang and Mr. Lee recommend the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, which shows traditional Korean art as well as contemporary Korean and Western art.

Mr. Lee, 58, also recommends the Hyundai Card Music Library. It holds more than 10,000 vinyl records, including rare releases, that can be listened to on-site on turntables. Next door, the Art Library houses thousands of art books and the Storage exhibition space displays contemporary visual art. The two libraries are part of a series of five cultural spaces created by the credit card company Hyundai Card. (Call ahead for entrance and admission information.)

If you’re hungry after taking all that in, Mr. Lee recommends heading to Bulgogi Love, a restaurant famous for its thinly sliced marinated beef, as well as Pyongyang-style naengmyeon, which are cold buckwheat noodles. The restaurant serves “very decent, authentic and simple Korean foods,” Mr. Lee said in an email.

This neighborhood is a maze of centuries-old houses, artisan workshops, museums and some of Korea’s most well-known galleries. “It’s hip, but it’s also quite peaceful, quiet, has a quaint, old-fashioned feel,” Ms. Cho said. The area abuts Gyeongbokgung Palace, the home of the last Korean royal dynasty, and it is where you can find many of the city’s hanok, or traditional Korean houses.

Here, Ms. Cho and Mr. Lee suggest gallery and museum hopping. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, is a must-see for its international and Korean art, as are longtime players in the Korean gallery scene, Kukje, Gallery Hyundai, Hakgojae and PKM Gallery. (Ms. Cho also recommends trying to get a reservation at PKM’s restaurant, which serves Italian and cafe fare.)

There are also newer galleries along the main stretch of Samcheongdong Road, including Gallery Afternoon, which Ms. Cho says have been exhibiting the works of young emerging artists.

Mr. Kang recommends heading to Fritz Coffee Company’s Wonseo branch, located inside the Arario Museum in Space. He often finds himself there on his days off, he said, taking in the atmosphere in the courtyard of the building, which is part modern and part traditional hanok.

Also nearby, Mr. Kang said, is Haap, a cafe that sells traditional Korean desserts and snacks, as well as the modern Korean fine dining restaurants Joo-ok and Onjium.

And for those in search of drinks, it’s Bar Cham that he recommends. It makes creative cocktails with Korean ingredients and traditional liquor, such as soju, as a base.

Home to one of South Korea’s top fine-arts colleges, Hongik University, this buzzing neighborhood is where young artists and musicians have gathered for decades to kick back, relax and be inspired. There’s a distinctly bohemian feel to the busker-friendly area, said Ms. Cho, who recommends wandering through the streets near the school to take in the collegiate atmosphere. “There’s a lot of bars and restaurants here, like Itaewon, but it’s different to Itaewon,” she said. “There’s a feeling of freedom.”

Mr. Kang recommends heading to the nearby Mangwon market, a traditional Korean market that was modernized but is still beloved by locals and tourists for its blend of modern and classic offerings, like deep-fried chicken, pigs’ feet, knife-cut wheat noodles.

He also recommends Miro Sikdang for its homestyle Korean food, including spring-onion pancakes, marinated meats and savory rice cakes; Soi Yeonnam for its Thai rice noodles, Izakaya Robataya Caden for affordable Japanese and Ongo Patisserie for pastries.

If you’ve had your fill of food and are looking for something good for the soul, Mr. Lee recommends heading to the Unplugged Hongdae to meet and listen to young, talented, independent music artists. There is a cafe on the ground floor and a small concert hall underground.

“It is a very interesting, unique spot that feels like a safe house for musicians,” he said.

Christy Choi

2023-08-31 09:02:48

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