Enjoy these small luxuries in Seoul for free
Coco Chanel once said, "The opposite of luxury is not poverty, but vulgarity.” Indeed, you don’t need money to appreciate the beauty of many things in life. You just need to look for the right events and places in Seoul to discover the small luxuries of the everyday. Perhaps you need to stretch your body through yoga while appreciating world-famous paintings, or listen to classical music at one of the renovated palaces. Whatever extravagance you seek, here are some events to rejuvenate your body without shelling out the big bucks for brand names.
Spend your 10,000 won extravagantly
About ten years ago, there was a Korean TV show in which celebrities survived on ten thousand won for a week, challenging notions of money and value. Although we probably can’t live on just ten thousand one per week or even per day now, there are still ways to experience how much a single green bill is truly worth. Check out this essential list of things you can do and buy with just ten thousand won or less.
Treat yourself with the best bang for your 20,000 won.
Movie: 10,000 won. The "popcorn combo": 15,000 won. It just feels way too easy to drain your wallet in Seoul without doing a whole lot. There are ways, though, to fill your day with what would be considered luxuries, at only 20,000 won. You can get inspired at the master artist M.C. Escher's first exhibit in Korea, enjoy jazz shows and a cocktail at Seoul's iconic old-school clubs or, simply, indulge yourself with a juicy hanwoo burger or 3-layer high tea for two and a pâtisserie buffet with a Hangang view. If you're in a mood for partying, you can also bar hop and go clubbing under 20,000 won, and if you're in need of some serious R&R, you can check out the many high-tech rooms at an uber-swanky sauna.
Your 24-hour itinerary in Seoul: The explorer
This course is for those who are eager to delve deeper in exploring this historic and urban city. This 24-hour course won’t be taking you to all the major tourist attractions but, rather, to spots that we might easily pass by without seeing their hidden gem. These small pleasures and quirks that are hidden throughout the city will surely keep you entertained and mesmerized throughout the day.
Great ways to tour Seoul
Artwork hidden on the streets
Hip-hop culture first emerged in Korea during the early ‘90s. As Kim Soo-yong discusses in his comic book Hip-hop, graffiti, which is one of the four elements of hip-hop, also started here in Seoul in the ‘90s. Firstgeneration Korean graffiti artists include Vandal, KOMA, Hudini, Santa and Garu who gathered together in the underground tunnel between Apgujeong-dong and the Han River to spray paint their tags on the walls. Their tags began to appear in places such as Apgujeong tunnel, Hongdae, Shinchon and Itaewon. Later on, in the early 2000s, street art made an appearance. Street artist JunkHouse says that the difference between street art and graffiti is like that between electronic music and ballads. While the graffiti that started in the United States is about resistance and serves as an axis of hip-hop culture, street art here is more akin to urban art and is closer to contemporary art. Twenty years have passed since these two types of work were born on the streets of Seoul and is still illegal. There is not enough support for it from the government, coupled with mainstream society’s lack of understanding of it as being a part of popular culture or art. For graffiti and street artists, the streets are their canvases and their galleries, and their talents and works of art are still waiting to be recognized on the streets of Seoul.
Hold your breath for Seongbukdong
“Oh, Seongbuk-dong is very beautiful,” remarks the taxi driver as he drives along the Bugak Skyway to get to Alex the Coffee. In the morning sunlight, there’s hardly a shadow from one architectural marvel to the next. Weaved into the neighborhood are relics of the past: Late author Choi Sunu’s hanok, the villa of 1900s merchant Yi Jong-seok and the teahouse, Suyeonsanbang, once home to the late author Yi Tae-jun. The significance of these places seems especially pronounced in contrast to the Western-style churches, embassies and diplomatic residences. The latter establishments have made for an unusually large demographic of foreigners in the neighborhood, despite its relatively long distance from central Seoul. Late last year, the current head of the Seongbuk-dong district office, Kim Young-bae, announced his plans to turn this neighborhood into more of a tourist attraction, hence the number of hotels, brunch cafés and Airbnb listings in the surrounding area. On a weekday morning, the streets are nearly empty save for a group of 50s-something Korean hikers and the occasional mother and son combination (Seongbuk-dong actually won a UNICEF Child Friendly City certificate in November 2013). Outside the quiet cafés, there’s the distant sound of construction, and you can’t help but hope that no one will demolish Seongbuk-dong’s intrinsic beauty.
You don't need to own a hanok home to experience the graceful lifestyle. From the coolest library in town well-disguised in a revamped hanok to a village of aristocrats' dwellings built hundreds of years ago that is now open to the public for free and one of Seoul's most beautiful museums offering stunning panoramic views, these graceful hidden spots housed in the midst of the skyscraper jungle will make you forget it's the 21st century.
Read everywhere, in Seoul
In Seoul, paper is popular this season. It is in large part due to these marvelous bookstores, libraries as well as book bars and cafés providing unique atmosphere and materials ranging from poetry to fashion magazines and LGBTQ books. Here’s our list of places for your autumn reading.
Hot spots around Seoul
Hot Spot: Exploring Euljiro
TIMEWORN, OIL-STAINED FACTORIES; Seun Arcade, where vendors sell videocassette porn from the shadows; and old run-down stores... On Euljiro, once a symbol of Korea’s modernization, time now seems frozen in the ‘70s and ‘80s. During its golden age, this central Seoul thoroughfare was such a hive of industry and commerce that you could even, so the joke went, have a tank built there. But since Seoul’s economic heart shifted south to Gangnam, Euljiro has become almost foreign to younger Koreans, even those born and raised in Seoul. Now, however, the tired giant is stirring once more. The capital's nomadic artists, always on the lookout for cheap studio space, have begun moving into Euljiro's aging buildings, accompanied by the usual hipsters and their quirky cafés, bars and record shops. Meanwhile, old restaurants that have been feeding the area's working classes for years have shown up on the media’s radar, bringing in fresh stampedes of hungry visitors. Head here to experience the coexistence of 2016 and the 1970s.
Hot spot: Oh damn, Cheongdam
For those who vow to never hang out south of the river, Cheongdam can be the epitome of everything that is dislikeable about the Gangnam area. Expensive, exclusive and elite; Cheongdam’s the meanest of the Mean Girls. All the buildings become a blur with one lavish, luxurious exterior after another, and unlike central Seoul spots where it’s easy to walk from one place to another, the blocks are long and arduous, making Cheongdam somewhat of an intimidating space to explore. A name that’s long been in the know amongst trendsetters, the neighborhood is making a comeback and it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, “Cheongdam is rising again.” For many a K-pop lover, the Hallyu streets, which are becoming more and more tourist-friendly, smell of their favorite celebrities with the JYP building and the K-Star Road right in center of the neighborhood. But the neighborhood is making other developments as well—becoming slightly more affordable and mixing in some down-to-earthness without losing its upscale feeling. Put on your nicest shoes and hold your head high because this is your exclusive invite to the most elite Gangnam party.
Hot spot: The new kids of Yeonnam
I remember my first visits to Yeonnam-dong, only a 15-minute walk from Hongik University, as drunkenly going to small after parties at 5am. To this day, Yeonnam-dong locals lament how difficult it is to get a cab driver to drive you from the playground to the small alleyways surrounding Dongjin Market. My first sober memories of the neighborhood start similarly and date back to 2010, when it was nearly impossible to find decent coffee for hungover Sunday mornings (a problem remedied first by Café Libre and then by Tailor Coffee). The Yeonnam-dong friends I had were the half-extroverted types—bragging about being the only foreigners in the more local part of town and being closer to the Hongdae action but also enjoying time alone. Though there was already a share of well-known Chinese restaurants around, the real boom started in 2014 when various newspapers began reporting on the hidden troves of foreign foods, cafés and guesthouses slowly emerging. Happening in conjunction with the revitalization of the neighborhood is the construction of Gyeongui Line Forest Park—a 1.3-km park with a small stream in the center that runs along the tracks of the former railways; lined with yellow gingko trees in the autumn and cheery dog walkers in the spring. A feeling of hope fills the air as this area welcomes some fresh faces and we, too, at Time Out Seoul would like to greet these new kids on the block.
Hot spot: The road not taken, Gye-dong
Nestled between the Bukchon Hanok Village and Changdeokgung Palace, it may be easy to write off the long stretch that is Gye-dong as a disposable tourist attraction— beautiful and worth seeing, but not worth revisiting. Indeed, the street is jam-packed with tourists with maps in hand, peering curiously at the restaurants with no menus outside and having their photo taken outside Choong Ang High School (a historical institution founded in 1908 during Japanese colonial rule and made famous by the drama Winter Sonata). Filled with residential hanoks and guesthouses at the end of each alley and small shops from the ‘70s, the neighborhood’s experienced a resurgence in interest by the local community recently. Examples of this are Joongang Bath, Korea’s oldest public bathhouse founded in 1969, which was taken over as a Gentle Monster showroom last year, and the fact that the twenty-somethings dressed in hanboks are mostly local Koreans and not tourists. Soundtracks from the cinemas waft onto the streets from bustling cafes themed around arthouse movies, and there’s an ironic sense of nostalgia as giggling schoolgirls dressed in hanboks take selfies with their smartphones in Gye-dong’s alleys. Be it through books, dress, cinema or history, there are plenty of small ways to escape from the everyday here in Gye-dong. It just might be the one tourist hub worth returning to.
The coolest city attractions in Seoul
Culture Station Seoul 284
Culture Station Seoul 284 is a place that I frequently visit. It’s easy to get to and the programs it offers are great (and also free). Transformed in 2011 as a place of culture, this former train station has a unique aesthetics and architectural aura. As I am reminded each time of visit, the main hall comprised of a dome with 12 stone pillars is indeed majestic. The stained glass depicting Ganggangsullae, a 5,000-year-old Korean dance, established on the ceiling goes quite well with the whole structure. Among the separate rooms used for art exhibition, the VIP guest room with a fireplace and chandelier along with the one that used to be Seoul Station Grille, a high-end Western restaurant during the Japanese rule, exudes antique charm. With curtains made out of red velvet, vintage wall papers, the massive wooden doors and floors made out of birch wood—the atmosphere created by all of these elements will bring you back to the 1920’s Gyeongseong. Created by Japanese scholar Tsukamoto Yasushi under Japanese rule with Switzerland’s Lucerne railway station as a model, the Culture Station Seoul 284 building is one of the few modern cultural heritages existing in Seoul today. The scenery created by its orange lights reaching the blue sky after the sun goes down is indeed picturesque and full of classical grace.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP)
Designed by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid, DDP is a cultural playground that operates 24 hours. The futuristic landmark shines in silver during the day, as the exterior is fashioned out of aluminum panels. The building lights up in the dark and flickers its lights, just like a spaceship that transmits visual signals into space.
Dongmyo Vintage Flea Market
This vintage flea market is located near Dongmyo, a shrine built in honor of Guan Yu, a Chinese military commander. Exit Dongmyo Station Exit 3 and walk straight for about 30 seconds until you reach the entrance of this bustling market. Hundreds of street stalls open up along the stonewalls of the shrine, all the way to Cheonggyecheon Stream. This flea market literally has everything you need—from second hand clothes to antiques, vinyl records and miscellaneous goods. Clothes are only 1,000 won a piece, offering leather jackets in the autumn and faux fur in the winter. This traditional market has become an unusual hot place in Seoul, with people carrying around their newly purchased items in black plastic bags and sellers pushing around carts full of antiques. We advise that you bring a lot of 1,000 won bills with you, as it makes bargaining easier. Another tip is to go early, when the market opens, in order to dig through the piles to find the best items. Dongmyo Flea Market opens at 2pm on weekdays and at 10am on weekends. They close before sundown and on every 2nd and 4th Tuesday.
Wear your sneakers when coming to this little Montmartre of Seoul, for the park’s name comes from “nakta” (a camel’s hump). Children playing rock, paper, scissors on the stairs make the long climb less intimidating. Persevere to the top and trust us, it’s worth it. Head to the top of the winding fortress wall wrapped in yellow lights for a breathtaking view of Seoul in its entire nighttime splendor.
Two day trips from Seoul
Transportation Express busTime 2hrs 40mins Ticket 12,800 won (from Express Bus Terminal) *Until Dec 27th, foreign passport holders can apply to take a free shuttle bus from Seoul (the parking lot of the Donghwa Duty Free Shop near Gwanghwamun) to Jeonju’s National Intangible Heritage Center and back. Applications are taken at shuttle.dongbotravel.com and buses leave every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Where the forest is
It takes 3hrs and 20mins to get from Seoul to Hamyang by Express Bus. This is the only option because trains don’t travel here. A lot of people assume that the only reason I’d want to go Hamyang is because I’m from there and before I came to Seoul, no one ever talked about this particular forest. I later came to find that it’s the oldest artificial forest in Korea, created 1,100 years ago under Choe Chi-won of the Silla Dynasty. Installation artist Jang Min-seung and composer Jung Jae-il collaborated last year to create records about their observations of this artificial forest. Then, they released an app called, Sanglim, which features videos of the forest coupled with a digital album made especially for the place. I always wanted to go to Hamyang because it was my dream to listen to the song “Sanglim” in Sanglim Forest.
Sightseeing: the O and V trains
“There are other memories, not only flowers from the fire but little sprouts that suddenly appear when I go on trains,” wrote poet, and avid train lover, Pablo Neruda. In Temuco, Chile, the National Railway Museum was built in his honor and is laced with his poetry, as his train travels were often the windows for his words. I had imagined the five-hour O-Trainto be quiet and pensive like my muse for this trip—the Bergen Railway. Instead, it turned out to be filled with a bipolar pop music playlist and cheery train attendants who also doubled as the hosts of a game show aired throughout the train. Rain and fallen branches on the tracks meant a two-hour delay in Buncheon, where we were scheduled to transfer from the O-Train to the V-Train. To kill time, we bought fresh dongdongju and apples from the 55-year old convenience store named Hwang-su Super, until cheering from hiking-gear dressed ajummas and ajusshis signaled the V-Train’s departure. The V-Train, only an hour long, served as the highlight of the trip, where we rode with the windows down as it wove in and out of tunnels built into the soft mountain hills, wet with raindrops and trickling valley rivers. Though supposedly most beautiful in winter, the occasional white flowering perennials speckled like snow showcased the mountain’s appeal even off-season. Once in Cheoram, we walked around the Coal Mine History Town—a preserved collection of buildings from the ‘40s to the ‘60s made even more realistic by the gray weather.