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6 must-see streets in Seoul

Ken Coseto
Know the wonders of Korean street culture

HEARTLOCKET. A charming garden for friends and couples in Ssamziegal Building. All photos by Ken Coseto

MANILA, Philippines – Bustling streets, enigmatic lights and saliva-inducing street food — Seoul is much more than K-pop and kimchi.

READ: Finding my Seoul

It’s hard to imagine that, 60 years ago, the Korean War broke out and the city’s pollution and destruction was at its highest. But the collective resilience of the Koreans led to the massive reconstruction of Seoul.

The restoration led to the swift establishment of Seoul as a tourist hotspot. While popular tourist getaways like Seoul Tower and traditional sanctuaries such as the Changdeokgung Palace are found throughout the metropolis, the soul of the city is found in the street culture.

Urbanites leisurely walk and even suit-clad businessmen bike. It’s rare to see one driving and missing the view of the scenic cityscape. 

These 6 streets and neighborhoods may not be in every Seoul travel guidebook, but their distinct characteristics reveal a different side to the Seoul we typically see.

1. Insa-dong

Insa-dong mixes traditions of the past with modern concepts.

While Insa-dong is well-known as a traditional street, the independent stores in the vicinity sell goodies from ornate jewelry boxes [reminiscent to those of the period of the Three Kingdoms] to handcrafted iPhone cases. What’s important to these storeowners is that what they sell remains deeply rooted in not just traditional but modern culture, too.

The street food found in Insa-dong is not the everyday Korean fare, but a representation of the evolving culture. Throughout the area, visitors munch on Turkish ice cream. Turkish ice cream is light and aromatic, served in a crisp J-shaped cone.

TURKISH ICE CREAM. A big J-shaped cone-full of soft serve

Aside from street food, visitors can relax in Osulloc Tea House, which serves up Jeju tea and other tea concoctions in its 3-floor paradise.

TEA HAVEN. Teas galore at the flagship branch of Osulloc

One must not miss the Ssamziegil Building, with its artistically designed concrete walls. It houses dozens of independent specialty shops, teahouses, restaurants and a Living Museum — a play in an art gallery.

ARTSY. View from the top of the Ssamziegil Building

Instead of stairs, a sloping ramp is used to go around the open-air structure all the way to the lush-designed rooftop containing a heart-locket garden for couples [see lead photo] and a cozy eatery.

2. Cheongdam-dong Fashion [Celebrity] Street

Cheongdam-dong Fashion Street is the 5th Avenue of Seoul. Just steps away from the Agpujong Station, this designer mecca is lined with flagship stores of popular designer brands, from Chanel to Givenchy. In the center, we can find DFS Galleria, a tax-free designer complex, which features designer brands, from clothing and makeup to furniture in one shiny building. It houses a gourmet supermarket and dining hall in its basement.

MODERN ARCHITECTURE. Boutiques lining Cheongdam-dong

Cheongdam-dong is not just known for designer duds, too. The architecture of its buildings are something to be in awe of. Stores are not mundane set-ups; going into each store is like getting on a plane to visit and try out wares in Europe. The service and experience are reasons enough to visit.

BESPOKE. Leather goods at the back alleys of Cheongdam-dong

Treasures and hard-to-find brands can be spotted in the backstreets of Cheongdam-dong. 10 Corso Como, a café, bookstore, boutique and gallery, set-up shop in the posh district in 2008. It provides an outlet for customers looking for distinct objects with a European flavor. Brands like Balmain and Alaia, as well as photographs by celebrated artists can be found in this bazaar of a store.

The backstreets are also home to retailers providing bespoke leather shoes, suits and what-nots.

3. Garugo-sil Street, Sinsa-dong

Garugo-sil directly translates to “tree-lined street” — queues of Gingko trees flll the area. Similar to Soho in New York or a European high street, Garugo-sil is filled with trendy boutiques and fashionable cafes. It’s not surprising to see locals and tourists taking selfies in the gardens and with public artworks.

CONCRETE + NATURE. A mix of hard and soft textures can be seen in Garugo-sil

Art galleries have pervaded Garugo-sil since the 1980s. Until today, a slew of young artists and designers have followed in the footsteps of Gallery Yeh and set up art displays for passers-by to admire.

Garugo-sil is also known for its boutiques. A handful of designers have set up shop here, like the 3-storey Paul Smith complex and Boon The Shop, which carries Korean and international designer labels. Korean-bred stores like Around the Corner sell everything from clothes to coffee.

THINGAMAJIGS. Nifty gifts at Around the Corner

Garugo-sil has a sprightly nightlife. For those in search of western-style cocktails, yuppies can head to Social Club for drinks and mixes by popular Korean DJs. The much-lauded Grandmother is an interesting wine lounge where guests can play sommelier [wine steward] and taste over 50 types of wines from all over the globe.

4. Samcheong-dong

There may be no clear archetype of a hipster in Seoul, but if there were, Samcheong-dong would be considered the hipster hub. New-age coffee shops, pop-up art galleries and customized boutiques are sprinkled across the colorful neighborhood. It’s easy to find one-of-a-kind gifts and accessories in the shops.

TRINKETS. Browse endlessly for cute stuff at Samcheong-dong

On a hot summer day, it’s relaxing to step into one of the contemporary dessert shops and split a Bing Su. Samcheong-dong is teeming with curious cafes that it’s hard to decide on just trying one. The ever-pink Hello Kitty Café sells themed drinks and desserts to a theme park soundtrack. Haagen-Dazs’ modular ice cream bar serves indulgent takes on popular ice desserts in Korea.

BING SU. Cool down with this Korean shaved ice dessert

While one can simply head to the foreign brands in the vicinity, it’s more fulfilling to scour Samcheong-dong for uncommon finds like footwear from Salt and Chocolate or homemade chips from Amy’s Kitchen Lab.

Instead of shopping, it’s great to wander around the mini-galleries like the pop-up Van Gogh exhibit. 

5. Myeong-dong

The main street of Myeong-dong is filled with what most tourists are looking for: fast fashion brands. The shopaholic will be surrounded by brands like H&M, Zara and Uniqlo, while beauty aficinados will find heaven in renowned Korean make-up brands like Nature Republic and Etude House that have several branches on the main road.

SHOPPING SPREE. Myeong-dong on a busy shopping day

Korean-bred stores like ALAND and Spicy Color are hidden in the side streets of Myeong-dong. These stores offer a mix of different things, not just clothes but a lifestyle. ALAND sells everything: clothes from rare Korean and international brands, as well as home accessories like kitchenware and furniture. Spicy Color puts an emphasis on apparel and camping equipment.

EAT AT YOUR OWN RISK! Raw octopus — Is it really a delicacy?

Myeong-dong transforms into a food commune at night. Foodies can indulge on the infamous raw octopus or street food. Vendors set up a mini food fair offering specialties like French fry corn dogs, dakkochi [skewered meat], ho-tteok and tteokbokki.

STREET DELIGHTS. Appetizing street food of Myeong-dong

6. Hongdae

Hongdae is the university town of Korea. It is made up of inter-connecting tiny roads and is the epicenter for the students of Hongik University.

Throughout the day, good Korean barbecue can be found in any nook in Hongdae. Window-shopping for international brands through the Free Market is a great way to spend an afternoon for any student and tourist.

DIVE IN! A hearty Korean barbecue with all the fixins

Hongdae comes alive at night. Club M2, Club Mansion and Cocoon are packed on weekends with locals, tourists and exchange students. DJs and bands play electronic, hip-hop and K-pop tracks.

COCOON. Once you start dancing, you can't stop!

Street musicians are watched by hundreds in Hongdae Playground. Food hawkers and barbecue houses are open until early morning and serve oily fare to remove a hangover.

UNTIL THE WEE HOURS. The busy streets of Hongdae

Korea is just a 4-hour flight away, and there are tons of discount flights up for grabs. Whether you’re in search of good food, one-of-a-kind finds or an unforgettable night out, Seoul is a cornucopia of things to do and places to see.

So get packing and greet this city with a gleeful “An-yeong!” –

Enjoy the beauty of Korea and see these awesome must-see streets in the city. Click here to reveal a great selection of airfare deals and hotel discounts!