As I’ve documented before, Seoul is a city of hidden depths filled with wonderful places to explore. One of the greatest pleasures of living here is getting to know the neighbourhood where you live.
I’ve personally lived in four different parts of Seoul, each one unique in its character. I set out to ask some of my friends what they think of their own neighbourhood, and they all surprised me with enthusiastic answers rattling off the nicest features of their areas. And I was able to speak to people living everywhere from highrises to Hanoks, each offering a different take on living in Seoul.
It’s interesting to note how the neighbourhood is defined here, as one can to identify with the local -dong, or the larger -gu district, and in some cases an even smaller unit, the maeul.
Yeonhee-dong – Me
I live in Yeonhui-dong, which is nestled right up to Yonsei University. Actually, the name Yonsei is a combination of Yeonhee and Severance Hospital, and this area is largely a university neighbourhood with lots of homestays and cheap rent. The heart of Yeonhee is Saruga Shopping Center, a wonderful grocery store with an impressive imported foods section that’s been open since the ’60s. In the vicinity are many older houses that are one-by-one being renovated into unique-looking modern cafes, bars, and restaurants. The neighbourhood is bordered by a ridge, providing lots of natural space to explore. My home is on the edge of the neighbourhood, facing onto a massive eight-lane road, but I find the sound of traffic to be soothing white noise. It also provides excellent bus service, which is good because we don’t have any subway stops. I get around by scooter anyway, which places Hongdae and Sinchon at five minutes away and downtown at ten minutes away.
Suyu – Aaron (Australian)
Suyu has a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere compared to other neighbourhoods in Seoul. There are very few highrise apartments so there is a clear view of Suraksan and Dobongsan from almost anywhere. There are a number of traditional market streets, full of generally friendly vendors who value repeat business and seem to be on a first-name basis with all their customers. My wife and I became very good friends with a number of people in the markets and were constantly given gifts every time we did our shopping. People are generally friendly in Suyu and happy to chat. Sitting on our villa rooftop we regularly talk to our surrounding neighbors as we do our gardening. There is also easy access to the subway, taking about 40 minutes to get to downtown Seoul, plus buses to almost anywhere in Seoul as well as a few regional buses. Also, rent is relatively cheap, as most of the apartments are in small villas and are quite old and full of character. I would recommend Suyu to anyone moving to Seoul.
Seochon – Robert (American)
When I think of Seochon, I think of neighbors and alleys. Sitting in the heart of Seoul between Gyeongbokgung Palace and Inwangsan, Seochon is one of the few residential areas left inside the Four Gates that defined the Joseon Period (1392-1910) borders of the city. In the jumble of Hanok, two-story houses, and multifamily units, live people from all walks of life. Some, like the grandmother who has sold tteokbokki in Geumcheon Market continuously since the end of the Korean War, have spent their lives in Seochon. Others, like the couple that run the wonderful Coffee Gongbang in Tongin-dong, came to Seochon in the late 2000s for the quirky retro feeling and sense of community. The dense network of alleys, many of which date from Joseon Period, links the neighborhood together physically and emotionally. People who live on the same alley share, talk, watch out for one another, and often grow up together. All of which makes Seochon a backdrop for the grand story of life, which, like the winding alleys themselves, never curves in the expected way.
Sillim-dong – Jack (American)
Sillim-dong is primarily a residential area. It is a pretty well-known fact that the cost of living here is quite low, therefore many families who once lived in smaller cities outside Seoul come here for a familiar level of affordabity. Traveling to and from Sillim is also pretty convenient. It is located right on line 2, which gives you access to the entire city. Those who desire an aesthetically pleasing area may find most of Sillim a bit disappointing. However, there is a beautiful stream that runs through the area named Dorim-cheon. On warmer days, you will find anything from joggers and bikers, to street singers and martial arts exhibitions. In the evenings, couples flock to Dorim-cheon for a romantic stroll. Sillim-dong has a few other popular attractions, but none more popular than its nightlife. Every Friday and Saturday night, young Seoulites head to Sillim for good drinks and good fun. Here you will find anything from the more expensive, classy bars to the sweaty, hole-in-the-wall joints that many know and love. Overall, Sillim is a great place to live. Its low cost of living, nightlife, and accessibility to the city make it ideal for young residents.
Gunja – Laura (Canadian)
Gunja is an area that feels very new, very young, and very fit. It’s an area where I, at 32, feel older than most of the people around me. The alleys offer a pretty typical assortment of bars and Korean restaurants, but this isn’t the place to go for traditional markets or street culture. You can ride down the sidewalk bike paths past posters advertising fitness centres on your way to grab some coffee with your date before a movie at the CGV. There are the standard coffee chains, like A Twosome Place, as well as smaller operations — Caffe Muco, for instance, has a nice atmosphere, comfortable sofas, and an impressive menu. Children’s Grand Park is a nice place to walk, jog, or bike, and offers seemingly endless areas to explore — the amusement park, zoo, fairy tale world, stage, gardens, or any number of temporary themed shows. Achasan and Yongmasan, nearby, offer hiking trails and more opportunities to get in shape. Just down the road is Geondae, a university district which is a sort of mini-Hongdae and great for those looking for a little excitement or a lot of alcohol.
Mangwon – Bobster (American)
Mangwon-dong is not modern, not so much as other parts of the city, but in many ways it feels like a more human place to live than some others. I’ve heard it said that most residents want to move out as soon as they get enough money to go to a better place, but it’s probably fair to say that about most areas of the city.
I think it’s fair to say, though, that it’s a neighborhood, in the original sense of a place where people live and often know each other, maybe even look out for each other, more so than is common these days.
I’m a pedestrian, so I like the narrow streets, though taxi drivers are reluctant to take me all the way to my door. Because they are so narrow, most of them, fewer cars drive on them, and those that do have no choice than to drive slowly.
Mangwon Market is a smaller version of the old-style open-air marketplaces that are dwindling in numbers but still extant, of which Namdaemun and Dongdaemun remain as tourist destinations. America and most other western countries don’t have anything much like this — flea markets might come close, but they aren’t really that.
Here’s what I love, every time I visit one of these markets: the constant activity, the visual stimulation, the sounds, the smells, the mixture of what sort of kind of a little bit passes for tradition along with what definitely qualifies as the macabre. The chaos of it all, the glorious mess.
If you’re in the area and we’re acquainted, ring me up, and I’ll make you a cup of coffee, show you around the market, then we’ll go around the corner to a galbi place I know.
Read more about Mangwon-dong on the Bobster’s blog.
Guro-dong – Jennifer (American)
Near to Sindorim Station, Guro-dong is the perfect blend of the commercial and the residential, offering a gradual transition from big retail centres to high-rise residential complexes and a wide array of local shops, bars, and restaurants. Despite its industrial roots, Guro-dong is a great place to live. One highlight of Guro-dong is convenience. Sindorim Station boasts a TechnoMart, an E-Mart, and a CGV at exit 2; and at exit 1, there is a large Homeplus and one of Seoul’s main retail attractions: DCube City (디큐브 시티 백화점). With all this concentrated in such a small area, you don’t need to venture far to get everything you need. If shopping isn’t your thing, take advantage of the cool fall weather to explore the wider area of Guro-gu. Within walking distance of Sindorim Station, you can satisfy your athletic needs at the Daerim Sports Complex (대림 운동장) or enjoy a nice stroll through Geogyeok Park (거격 공원). If you wander a bit further west to the Anyang Stream (안양천), you will find a riverside park and a wildlife garden. The more adventurous among you will be pleased to learn that you can hike several mountains nearby. Gaeungsan (개웅산), Gwanaksan (관악산), and Samseongsan (삼성산) are all in the area. Transportation is another selling point for Guro-dong; Sindorim Station offers access to lines 1 and 2, which can get you around the entire city. You can reach Seoul Station in a little over 20 minutes. Guro-gu has a little something for everyone and, surprisingly, you won’t pay a premium for it. Rent is about average for Seoul and the cost of living is no different from what you’re probably used to outside of Korea. What may be a pearl for some and a pitfall for others is that Guro-dong is not a foreigner-heavy area. That said, should you ever fancy a taste of home, Outback Steakhouse and Vapiano are just a short walk away.
Gangnam – Jaeeun (Korean)
People may think that Gangnam doesn’t need much of an introduction. After all, it’s famous for having 50-story apartments, possibly the largest number of cafes per capita, and a propensity to spend what may be too much on hagwon education, so we know all there is to know about it, right?
Wrong. The Gangnam I know and love may have all this, but it also has Yangjaecheon Stream, a very well-maintained and beautiful stream that flows through providing many the opportunity to jog, bike, or rollerblade around in. It has small marketplaces where they sell cheap socks and street food next to large department stores and the only Maserati store in Korea. From Gangnam, you can go almost anywhere in Seoul and the greater metropolitan area by bus, which is perfect for someone who enjoys random trips like me. Maybe other districts have quieter neighborhoods or friendlier shopkeepers, but the hustle and bustle of Gangnam is what really made me fall in love with Seoul, not my 23-story apartment building, nor my teenage years spent inside one hagwon building after another.
Apgujeong – Phil (American)
Living in the most expensive area in Seoul offers me a small sense of pride when I get off the subway to go home in Apgujeong, especially on days when I look a tad disheveled. It’s kind of the same feeling I get when I’m asked where I live in Seoul. Koreans and foreigners alike will often raise both eyebrows and say “oh” with a small sense of surprise, usually followed by a remark of how nice that particular area is.
As I stroll home, I pass BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and even the occasional Ferrari, and every time I do there’s a feeling in the back of my mind that I shouldn’t be living in this neighborhood, like I don’t belong here. However, my anonymity works to my benefit. I never get worked up about all the celebrities that live in the area, or how expensive everything is, or even how regularly I see models posing in front of stores and the occasional film crew shooting something that I’ll never see. That’s the duality of living in Apgujeong. I like the feeling of having my pick of expensive restaurants, classy bars, fancy coffee shops, and over-priced fashion stores that dominate Garosu-gil. However, that’s all despite the fact that I’ll most likely never step foot in any of these places. I like that they’re there and available at my disposal, but most of them will just be there as far as I’m concerned. I can walk to the Han River from my apartment which is quite nice in good weather.
When all that gets tiring, leaving Apgujeong is never a difficult problem because it is near the very center of Seoul, and I can take the subway almost anywhere in a very reasonable amount of time.
Do you live in Seoul? How does your neighbourhood compare?