Seoul is incredibly dense, growing rapidly, and constantly buzzing with change. I've been visiting Korea my entire life. Growing up I'd spend whole summer breaks in Seoul with my grandmother. As an adult, I visit annually in the winter with my mother and sister. Over time I've accrued a special relationship with the city, seeing it change in big growth spurts between visits. Korea's fast economic boom is clearly reflected in its capital and the speed of change has made for an incredible mash-up of the old and the new culture living in parallel. It's truly one of my favorite cities, though sometimes not the easiest to navigate. Seoul is the kind of city that requires a commitment of time. The charms are not immediate, but unmistakably present and definitely worth the effort. This is a list of some of my regular favorite things to do in Seoul. They aren't especially trendy, some are obscure, and others commonplace, but collectively they sincerely hold and shape my experience of this metropolis.
Your Local Market
Everyone in Seoul has their favorite local market. Sometimes they are in subway stations, some are under department stores, and almost every apartment complex has a connected mini-mall of local vendors and food stalls. The ubiquitous, constant presence of food in Seoul is an overwhelming dream. I love how broad the category of "Casual Dining" is in Korea. In California, the dining culture dictates that the ambiance, menu, presentation, and level of service are not only reflected in the price of the meal but also have a direct relationship with the quality of the experience. The distinction between fine dining, casual, and fast food feel pretty clear. In Korea, these relationships and distinctions feel a little muddier. No one is surprised when the new hot noodle shop is in an apartment complex basement. No one questions that your best meal might be served in warped aluminum bowls.
For everyday groceries, meat, and quick meals our family has been going to Eunma Market for as long as I can remember. It's an ugly shopping complex, like most of these shopping complexes. Think: fluorescent lights, broken down cardboard on the stairwells, and rainbow colored plastic everywhere. There's a first floor spread of random stores where you buy knick-knacks and basics. There's nothing notable about the first floor except some pretty good deals on socks and pajamas, but it's when you go downstairs that things really open up. The first thing you see are the fish vendors, the rows of slick fish on ice. Women in rubber aprons are turning their egg-coated Jeon (savory pancake) on long flat grills. The Dduk (rice cakes) are especially pretty in oiled stacks of green, pink, and white. At the corner of the complex there are the food vendors with their vats of soup and endless stacks of ingredients in various stages of prep. The food stalls are separated by half walls and counter tops, barely partitions and more like space markers. We've been getting the soupy Ddukbokki here since we were kids. Unlike the stewier versions, this is just clean with a thin, bright red sauce, flecked with an occasional bit of onion but mostly just white floating Dduk. It looks utterly simple which makes the dish all the more satisfying. The sweet/spicy ratio is spot-on; a building spice that hits in the end but a sweetness that keeps you eating. I like soaking up the extra sauce with Gim Bap, a trick my aunt taught me.
Our new favorite vendor at Eunma is the family that specializes in Soojaebi (hand-pulled noodle soup) and Bibim Guksu (spicy cold noodles). Like the Ddukbokki the house specialties here are simple. The Soojaebi gets a few zucchini slices and the BiBim Guksu has some slivered cucumber to cool from the spice. The presentation is stark and clear, not a thing excessive. The Soojaebi is a mix of hand-pulled oblong noodles and longer Kalguksu noodles, which is a special touch. Sometimes you want more of a bite and sometimes you want to slurp a long noodle. Both are satisfied in this dish. The Bibim Guksu sauce is lighter than most other versions. We can't decide if they are using red pepper powder or red pepper paste, but whatever they are doing, it's working. The sauce is thick enough to really hang onto the noodles, but light enough that you can feel the texture of the thin wheat noodles behind it. You taste sesame oil for sure, but it's bright and barely there. Our family likes to get both dishes and switch between, going from hot to cold, spicy to soothing.
Eunma Market, Eunma Apartments, 212 Samsung-ro, Daechi Dong, Seoul
Chef Lim Ji Ho's restaurant, Sandang is technically outside of Seoul in Yangpyeong but it's an easy drive and a nice reprieve from the city. Sandang couldn't exist in the Seoul because Lim Ji Ho is an expert forager and all the food at Sandang is as local as it gets. Trained in Buddhist temple food, every dish has a medicinal purpose and a kind of carefulness that is immediately evident in the service. When we went, it was his wife who came to the table and explained each dish. She could speak to the preparation, health benefit, and concept behind every element of our meal. The dishes are also playful without being fussy. A signature dish positions softskin crabs crawling towards the ocean, the sauce represented as the full moon. The plates have a necessarily sparse quality to them because the ingredients are so carefully acquired.
The meal itself is beautiful but the setting and landscape of the restaurant are truly special. Arrive early to walk the grounds among the field of sauce pots filled with fermenting soy sauces or sit on the raised patio at sunset. After your meal you'll be led upstairs for tea and dessert, a quiet space decorated with traditional furniture but situated in a modern style.
If you're lucky, Chef Lim Ji Ho will do an aura drawing for you. Open and accessible, he seems genuinely excited to meet all of his guests despite his fame. He's also an avid painter, acutely sensitive to colors and energies. The restaurant is full of his vivid expressive paintings. On our visit he kindly drew my energy and my intention (pictured below).
This reservation requires a little planning but the experience is memorable. And as aforementioned, while I would consider this fine dining, the vibe is unmistakably casual. You can stay for 1 hour, you can stay for 6. You're encouraged to enjoy the space, to move around. There's nothing stuffy about the service though you'll feel well attended to, as if the restaurant only opened for you, that your entire experience will have been considered beyond just the food.
Sandang Restaurant , 104-1 Unsim-ri, Gangha-myeon, Yangpyeong, Gyonnggi-do
Seo San Gan Jang Gae Jang
The best part of Gae Jang (raw soy marinated crab) is eating the head meat. It's gelatinous with no chew at all. It's fatty and rich but without grease. I've compared it to a funkier uni or a raw egg yolk. It's luxurious, refined without pretension.
At Seo San Gan Jang Gae Jang this is the only thing to order. Like most Korean restaurants, they are specialists, they only make one thing but they do it really well. Their Gae Jang comes swimming in it's juices, dotted with bright orange eggs and green peppers. They provide plastic gloves so you can squeeze our every last morsel from the legs.
The big variable in Gae Jang's is salt level. In order to cure the meat properly the salt level needs to be substantial without killing the delicate meat. What I loved about Seo San was how clean the marinade was. The common trick to balance out the salt is to add sugar but this version of the dish relies on the the natural sweetness of the crab to shine through.
Reservations are highly recommended and prepare to spend approximately $30-$50 per person despite limited frills and ambiance. You're paying for quality, clear and simple.
Seo San Gan Jang Gae Jang, 7 Janghan-ro 24-gil, Jangan 2-dong, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul
A play on the prix-fixe, all-inclusive meal style that is traditional to Korean dining, Jung Sik Dang is one of the more extravagant dinners I've had in Seoul. While I'm more often disappointed than not by fancy-takes on Korean food, Jung Sik Dang sticks out as a successful attempt at re-interpreting traditional favorites. Yes it's formal and definitely a splurge but the restaurant's adaptations on classics like Bibimbap (rice bowls) and Pat Bing Soo (shaved ice dessert) don't stray too far from their originals. They are both, in taste and presentation, referential to their traditional elements. You don't get the sense that they are trying to elevate the cuisine through a Western lens, it feels clearly Korean.
Paced meals include multiple small courses. Patrons choose from 3 prix-fixe options ranging from approximately $75-$120. The menu is subject to change and often does depending on seasonality and the chef's whim.
Each dish is small and focused, often highlighting a single ingredient. A favorite is the grilled octopus, a single tentacle perfectly charred and served curled over Gochujang (red pepper paste) aioli. Visually, the meal is stunning and you'll want to take a photo of every single dish. The Banchan (small side dishes) course reimagined as an array of small bites will accurately reflect the whimsy in the food, the play on colors and deconstructed iconic flavors. The Uni Bibimbap, an early staple at the restaurant is an easy winner. The sesame oil melts into the already rich uni and the blended rice and popped millet add a key nuttiness to the simple but elegant course.
In it's 10th year, Jung Sik Dang is a standard in Korean fine dining at this point. Proud recipients of 2 Michelin stars and an award winning wine program, this is beautiful meal executed at the highest level. The ambiance might be a little cold and business-like for some, though recent renovations promise upcoming changes to the interior.
Jung Sik Dang, 11 Seolleung-ro 158-gil, Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Hanok Cafes and Tea Houses
A Hanok is a traditional Korean house made primarily of wood and rock. The eco-friendly design cools the house in the summers and warms from the floor in the winter months. The style dates back to the 14th century and traditionally considers it's orientation and location in relation to it's natural landscape. They are beautiful, airy, and often L-shaped for better flow. The doors and windows are paneled with Hanji (mulberry paper) and afternoon light filtered through this waxed paper is magical.
In Bukchon, Insa dong, and Ikseon Dong you can still see clusters of these traditional structures. Some have been made into hostels for travelers and students, some have become small museums and tourist attractions. I'm especially charmed by the Hanok houses that have been converted in cafes and tea houses. The small side rooms and beautiful wood details easily convert to cafe nooks and the warmed floors make for casual and sensible seating.
I also love that how common these structures are right in the middle of the larger context of the city. It's easy and common to just happen upon this meditative and peaceful cafe experience, completely transported from the bustle immediately outside. Seoul is a city for walking and the reward for the effort are these hidden gems, only reachable by foot.
I take an annual trip to MMCA (The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) every winter when I'm in Seoul. My trip usually coincides with the yearly Korea Artist Prize exhibition, highlighting Korean contemporary artists. Each time I see this changing exhibition I am awed by the diversity of work and particularly as a Korean-American I'm interested in the political and social subtext being explored by this parallel generation of Koreans.
Located in the historic city center, MMCA Seoul is built on top of an administrative site from the Chosun Dynasty, over 600 years old. Two structures from this era still remain on the site, recognizable by their tiled roofs. Later in history, the same site was converted into the Defense Security Command after liberation from Japanese colonization. Today, this storied history is reflected in the architecture. The two Chosun structures are enclosed by spacious well-manicured courtyards, calling attention to the importance of the Madang (courtyard) in every day Korean life.
This is a great way to spend a free afternoon, especially when coupled with a long walk in the neighborhood which is lined with galleries, boutiques, and eateries.
MMCA, 30 Samcheong-ro, Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu. Seoul
My sister and I can't help ourselves, we love Korean stationary and bookstores. As kids we spent hours at these stores, assessing every eraser and testing every pen for the perfect fine-point. And to this day, we have to dedicate a solid afternoon to visiting Kyobo Bookstore. We get out annual supply of notebooks, calendars, letter paper, and craft projects we'll never touch. They stock every kind of obscure magazine, planner, portfolio, greeting card, whatever you need.
Kyobo also has a pretty robust selection of English language books, especially pertaining to Korean culture. I've found translated gems on Korean cooking, architecture, and contemporary art that I would never have been able to access in Los Angeles.
Named after its hallway made with stacked books, Arc.N.Book is a newer bookstore. They have a more curated (though still exhaustive) selection divided up into 4 themed categories: Daily, Weekly, Lifestyle, and Inspiration. Their Daily section is themed, seasonal, and always changing.
Arc.n.Book, 29 Eulji-ro, Euljiro 1-ga, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Kyobo Bookstore, 1 Jong-ro, Jongno 1-ga, Jongnu-gu, Seoul
Whenever I'm in Seoul, I make a trip to the flagship Yido store. My mother and grandmother have been collecting specialty dishware their entire lives and admittedly I have their obsession too. My aunts first took me to Yido in 2014 and I've been slowly accruing pieces, one at a time and building my collection like my mother and grandmother. I love Yido's porcelain ceramics in particular. Over the years I've seen the company grow in demand and size but still each hand-crafted piece has it's own integrity. The glazes and shapes feel loosely traditional but aren't overly serious or literal.
Headed by Yi Yoon Shin who was first recognized for her special talent with Goryeo celadon, the line is firmly grounded in traditional Korean techniques and concepts. Her fine art background extends and pivots the traditional references into a functional, elegant collection.
The basement floor of the Yido flagship store also features a cafe that serves lighter fare (on Yido dishware, of course), espresso, and tea. It's an easy place to read and work with wifi. Notably, there are a number of cute coffee shops and cafes in this neighborhood and within walking distance of Bukchon Han Ok Village which is worth a visit.
In the last few years the company has grown substantially and you can now find line in luxury department stores like Shinsegae and Galleria.
Yido, 191 Changdeokgung-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
My Grandmother's Kitchen
My grandmother deserves a whole other post so I won't be too wordy here. Her food is, hands-down, my favorite. She's made a study of cooking her entire life and it still motors her today at 88. She's worked as a food-stylist and a cooking instructor and is famous in the family for something we call Sohn Mat (hand-taste), pertaining to that special magic that a cook only acquires through time and experience.
There are few pleasures like cooking and eating with this hero of mine.