In the same vein that real New Yorkers can talk about taking the L train before Williamsburg got hot, one day people will talk about Yeomri-dong. Let’s face it. These days, knowing how to one-shot soju and sing “Gangnam Style” doesn’t make you anything of an authentic Seoulite. To collect creds for being a local, you need to go where the alleys are narrow and the menus untranslated—Yeomri-dong.
From Exit 5 of Ewha Womans University Station, enter the small alleyway opposite the bustling brand name businesses and go past your comfort zone. As you walk on, you’ll notice storefronts with muted colors, cracked red brick walls and low ceilinged houses wedged against and on top of one another. Here, with Yeomri-dong’s 80s architecture and residences preserved exactly as it was, you will find that the contemporary Seoul you thought you knew still has some tricks up its sleeve.
Albeit not as dangerous as it sounds, you could try the neighborhood at night for some extra credit. Back in 2012, the city, sensitive to high crime rates, redesigned this place: They built streetlights, painted yellow road signs and designated a cultural experience that they call the “Salt Road.” With the kaleidoscope of murals painted on the walls, the Salt Road currently doubles as Yeomri-dong’s safeguard as well as a scenic route. The Salt Road, along with the neighborhood’s vibrant personality and affordable rent, has been attracting a lot of attention from visitors and new residents alike.
Essential walk: The Salt Road
How to find the Salt Road : Come out exit 5 of Ewha Womans University subway stop and you will notice Myeongseong Chinese Medicine Clinic. Facing the clinic, turn into the alley on your right where you will see a CU convenience store, and walk behind the store to climb the uphill road to #36 Salt Road. The Salt Road No. 19 : Walk along the Salt Road and one of your first pleasant surprises will be what we like to call a “not-store.” This “not-store” is an outdoor collection of free stuff on the doorstep of a pink-colored house. The residence belongs to Grandpa Kim Jong-cheol who collects discarded but usable household items and leaves them for others. Supporters of this philanthropic cause can also drop off their own goods while visiting. The Salt Road No. 32 : Stand at this very spot for one of the best views in the neighborhood. Smile Bab’s co-owner Choi Sung-ho recommended this place as his favorite in Yeomri-dong for its resemblance to the 1994 TV drama "The Moon of Seoul," which depicted the lives of hardworking Seoul residents.
Walk along the Salt Road and one of your first pleasant surprises will be what we like to call a “not-store.” This “not-store” is an outdoor collection of free stuff on the doorstep of a pink-colored house. The residence belongs to Grandpa Kim Jong-cheol who collects discarded but usable household items and leaves them for others. Supporters of this philanthropic cause can also drop off their own goods while visiting.
Great Yeomri-dong shops
This place opened up when three people new to Seoul decided they needed to make some fast cash. One of them randomly said, “Let’s just sit and sell kimbab” and that’s how this popular establishment came to be. Here, they make rice balls fresh daily from newly harvested rice and other domestic ingredients. Topped with tried and true combinations of spam, kimchi, egg, tuna, chicken and vegetables, these rice balls are proof that cheap eats can be delicious. Now available in two different locations (the second being in Euljiro) and distributed across the city, Smile Bab can get you smiling all over the place!
What’s better than combining reading and drinking? The name Book & Pub says it all. A modest bookstore, this place opened last April by Couchsurfing host, writer and traveler Kim Jong-hyun. After publishing the book Traveling with Couchsurfing, Kim’s original concept was to create a performance venue and café. Today, that idea has evolved into a bookstore that hosts shows and sells alcohol. Once an air ventilation repair shop, the 42m² space is now filled with books, shelves, chairs and beers. All of these things are good conversation starters so join them on Saturdays for a weekly discussion on independent publications. (Since many regulars are well-traveled, they’re likely to understand some English or be English friendly.)
Store Unttu (Korean for “by chance”) is located in Ahyeon-dong, adjacent to Yeomri-dong. The storefront almost looks like a rice store, but other than not being in the rice trade, Unttu is a tricky place to define. On Facebook, Unttu is described as “a potential site for reconstruction one day, a playground for those who have, by chance, gathered here.” Nicknamed “Peter,” owner Cheon Hwi-jae created this place with his friends’ band for social dining, exhibitions, shows, and workshops. On idle afternoons, Cheon opens this place up as a communal environment for those needing their own workspace. Unttu is now trying out a food menu with experiments such as curry rice and soondubu stew.
Stop For Now is a bookstore that sells travel books and independent publications. In search of a nomadic vibe, owner Song Eun-jeong found Yeomri-dong. Stop For Now has a larger variety of travel books than you’d expect. From travelogues to books that will inspire you to travel to books you can put in your carry-on, the store is brimming with publications to expand your traveling horizons.
The insider view
Who are you?
Although I’m part of a band called “Peter Ajussi,” my real name is actually Chun Hee-jae. The other band members and I live in what we like to call an “Ahyeondong three room” apartment. We often host concerts at home, calling them “Homemade Concerts” and in light of that sentiment, we recently opened a store called “Unddet Gagae.”
What exactly do you do?
“Ahyeon-dong three room,” “Homemade Concerts” and Unddet Gagae are all neighborhood-inspired creations. Our idea is to eventually contribute something that can enrich this place artistically while making a profit at the same time. As for now, there is hardly any profit but we hope to establish some kind of sustainable business here by the end of the year.
Do you think Yeomri-dong lives up to the hype?
Yeomri-dong, a neighborhood that belongs to the locals, is a rare find for this town. The neighborhood is indeed “hip”—there’s no doubt about that. But if you wander the streets with expectations, you’ll be disappointed. Sure, there isn’t much to see, but that misses the point. Yeomri-dong is a neighborhood built on the accumulated grains of history. Take the time to walk the Sogeum-gil (Salt Road), and you’ll see why.
Any other places worth a visit?
Weaving in and out of street corners, you’ll eventually run into an old stationery store called “Taeyang Mungu.” It reminds me of the corner stores from my childhood, munching on junk foods and flipping coins for vending machine toys after school. I go from time to time to relive those moments.
When’s the best time to visit?
Every year, the swallows stop by Yeomridong. When the breeze becomes warm in April, the birds mend their nests to raise their hatchlings. It’s a treat.