The oldest venues in Seoul might not be all that glamorous from the outside, but they all have a unique and rich story of their own. Whether it’s the oldest bookstore in town or a Joseon Dynasty neighborhood getting a new spotlight as Seoul’s hot spot or even the oldest barbershop, these places are sure to shine light on Seoul vibrant heritage.
Back in the day, I used to try interesting snacks and ice-cream from the mom and pop stores, but the Monaka ice cream that I used to eat with my parents at the fancy bakeries was also a big part of my childhood. The Monaka isn't your average saccharine fruit-flavored ice-cream - the milky, crackly ice cream sandwiched between two crispy biscuits...mhmm! Maybe that's the reason why I still find myself going back to reminisce while biting into a Monaka ice-cream from Taegeukdang. Known to be one of the oldest bakeries in Seoul, once you step into the Taegeukdang at the Jangchoongdong location, you'll notice the interior design and typography reminiscent of 1946 when it all began. The magic of leaving a bakery filled with kitschy yet nostalgic breads and ice-cream to return to 2015!
Wooraeok has been serving naengmyeon, noodles in icy cold broth, since 1946 and is one of Seoul’s most famous old restaurants. While many naengmyeon stores have relatively shabby exteriors, Wooraeok has a classier atmosphere and is quite pricey for a normally inexpensive dish. But with their reputation and flavor, it's worth it: Wooraeok's naengmyeon is known for its flavorful, rich broth. If you like the taste of buckwheat, try the "soonmyeon," which has a higher percentage of buckwheat content. As with other Pyeongyang-style naengmyeon houses, Wooraeok is always filled with senior citizens, nostalgic for the tastes of earlier times. Looking for someting more filling than noodles? Another popular menu item is their bulgogi cooked on a copper grill, known for its strong seasoning. The diverse menu also includes yukgaejang (hot spicy meat stew) and galbi (grilled short ribs). Koreans often finish a meal of grilled meat with a course of naengmyeon, so save room for their signature dish if you're ordering meat. Wooraeok is easily accessible by car or public transport: it has a spacious parking lot and is also located near the subway.
“How can a mackerel possibly taste so soft and tender?” I ask in shocked delight. Honam Jip, which opened in 1974, is the oldest restaurant in this alley. The fish is cooked to perfection as the owner cooks them on low heat, flipping each of them three to five times. You don’t need to have anything else with it, but eating it with boiled rice makes it even better. There are six types of fish you can choose from but mackerel, cutlassfish, imyeonsu (atka mackerel), and samchi (Spanish mackerel) are the most popular.
There’s nothing like running your hands through freshly cut hair. Barbershops have been around for a while, but really took off in Seoul during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when more disposable income meant that people spent more on personal grooming. There aren’t too many old-school barbershops around today, but gents can still get their hair trimmed at the 80-year-old Seongwoo Iyongwon, whose aging owner will give you a cut and a shave with his classic German razors. Back when he started working at his father’s shop some 50-odd years ago, a haircut was 50 won (these days, it’s a little over 10,000 won). Getting a cut here is a blast to the past—some of his hair driers are so old he has to use converters to plug them in. There aren’t many old barbershops left, as they started to decline in the ‘70s and ‘80s: for one, longer hair came into style, thanks to bands like the Beatles. For another, certain barbershops became covers for unsavory underground businesses selling sex, and the government cracked down on all barbershops.
Opened in 1956, Hakrim Dabang is one of Seoul's oldest dabangs, or traditional coffee houses. In its younger years, Korean students fighting for democracy came here to discuss philosophy, literature and art. Today, only its function has changed. Seemingly every detail, from the browning vinyl records to the black and white portraits of musicians to the vintage photography books, has maintained the spirit of Hakrim Dabang's earlier days. Customers of all ages come here to chat and sip their beverages, which are undoubtedly much better tasting than the instant coffee once served in dabangs like Hakrim. In addition to having their own house blend, the menu also features lemonade, a nice selection of teas and even cocktails. Their homemade cream cheese cake, which is more custard-like than cake, is also a popular item.
Daeo Book store is the oldest secondhand bookshop in Seoul, celebrating its 60th year in business since it was founded in Seochon way back in 1951. The ancient hanok where the elderly founding couple lived stretches into the interior of the bookshop and remains largely unchanged. When the elderly gentleman eventually passed away, his wife maintained the place alone until she put it up for rent several years ago, to the dismay of many. Finally, when the city of Seoul declared this bookstore a municipal heritage site last year, every last detail, from the blue door to the weathered shop sign, as well as the old books packed into their shelves, were safely assured their places by our side. The daughter of the elderly lady that ran the place until very recently has opened a small café next to the bookstore. This café isn’t run for profit, but for the upkeep and restoration of the bookstore. If you visit the low wooden bench, or "pyong-sang," in the bookstore garden, you might be lucky enough to spot the occasional "bench music concert."
Hoehyeon underground shopping center has an exceptionally high number of stores selling vintage LPs, cameras, and goods from the analog era. It’s shocking just how different the underground shopping center can be from the large and popular fancy departments a level away. There are nine different record shops in the area and Living Inc., which opened in the 60s, is the oldest. The original shop owner passed the store down to his daughter who now runs it with her husband, giving the Living Inc. a family feel. The couple also runs LP Love, a less hardcore music store, right across the hall. Whether you’re a Justin Bieber fan or vintage record collector, there’s something at the underground shopping center to suit your needs.
Although most structures in Seoul are constructed using the easiest and cheapest methods, Myeongdong Cathedral is one of the rare edifices built with a lot of dedication and effort. You can sit back and relax in the wide courtyard and take time to relax in the middle of the most overpriced part of Myeongdong. It makes the time that you spend there more precious.
Even those who haven’t been to NYC have heard of the famous Greenwich Village—Bohemian capital of the world. Far fewer recognize that this district would not even exist today had it not been for the activism of sociologist Jane Jacobs who argued: “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” This concept struck a bell as we walked in and out of the recent venues set up in the old hanok-heaven neighborhood of Ikseon-dong. Built during the Joseon Dynasty, this area has the largest concentration of hanoks outside Bukchon Village. It is a place where salt-and-pepper haired grandpas in their pajamas peer curiously at you from their slightly open wooden doors smudged with fingerprints dating back more than 40 years. Grandmas and their daughters, now old women too, tend to small flowerspeckled jungles climbing the front walls of their low-roofed, brick wall buildings. Looking up, the newer, taller edifices that now shroud Ikseon-dong hover above. More so than any other hot spot, venue owners were passionate about the location’s history. “You have to tell the story of the land,” they pleaded. Some of them have taken great pains (financial and physical) to adapt the hanoks to the modernity of Seoul—even to the complaints of longtime residents. Not all land-owners in this town hold a deep affection for their spaces as many of them bought the land with the intention to sell it for a higher property value in the future, not realizing that a highly controv