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Asia travel

Secret Seoul: the South Korean capital’s hidden gems that only locals know

From eclectic food trucks to budget boutique shops to trendy bars with a view, see Seoul from an insider’s point of view by wandering off the beaten path

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 3:22pm

Walk down the main streets of popular areas in Seoul and you are likely to acquire a feeling of claustrophobia (well, unless you live or have lived in Hong Kong, that is). This modern metropolis has a population of around 10 million people and on a sunny Saturday it can feel like everyone is out and about, pushing and shoving to get to the next trendy locale.

If waiting in lines and following the crowd is not your idea of a holiday, then it may be a bright idea to take a side street. Then take an alleyway. Then open that manhole … just kidding; you don’t have to go quite that far to find a few lesser-known gems. We’re talking the kind of places where the 70-year-old owner sits down with you for a chat or an independent start-up that gives you flowers with your hand drip coffee. We have compiled a few places that are a little off-the-radar, not well known, but still superb.

Drip coffee and fresh flowers at Café Saru

On a small side street off the incredibly busy and popular Kyungridan-gil, curious coffee lovers will be instantly attracted to Café Saru’s vivid blue exterior and the juxtaposition of fresh flowers peeping out from the exterior drain’s concrete grids. On entering the café one is greeted by dried bouquets hanging from the ceiling and fresh bunches gracing every space, resplendent in baskets, vases and boxes.

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It would be enough just to sit here and soak in the eclectic art, music and flowers. But the drip coffee on offer is something else. Owner and operator, Saru is meticulous about sourcing his beans directly from reputable growers and he takes his time preparing the brew, which is always worth waiting for. Saru believes that coffee tastes best when people are feeling good, so everything within the café is designed to foster relaxation and creativity.

Food is on the menu occasionally, such as blueberry pancakes, but it is completely dependent on whether Saru can source the best and freshest ingredients that day. Twice a week, at the crack of dawn, the dedicated barista makes a trip to the flower market, and his customers are always delighted to find that their drink is accompanied by a gorgeous little bouquet wrapped in brown paper.

Café Saru, Hoenamu ro 28, 6-3, Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

Makgeolli (rice liquor) and sustainable food at Tricycle

Years ago, makgeolli was commonly known as nongju meaning “farmer’s liquor”, because it was traditionally served to farmers in order to give them the strength to plough through their strenuous work. Nowadays the perceptions surrounding this beverage have completely changed and there are trendy makgeolli bars in every locale. Tricyle, located far enough away from the hustle and bustle of central Hapjeong, is one such venue. It offers a stylish and minimal aesthetic, contemporary Korean fare and a lot of makgeolli. Here, you can sample hard to come by and house-made types of this fizzy, fermented, milky-looking and quintessentially Korean, rice liquor.

The alcohol is served with deconstructed traditional Korean dishes that use fresh, sustainable ingredients, the experience at Tricycle is a personal favourite.

Tricycle, 426-1 Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul.

See the sunset at Oriole

This bar is located in the popular area of Haebangchon, which has seen a huge revival in recent years with hip cafes and restaurants popping up everywhere. You will often see lines of people waiting to get in at some of the most popular hot spots here. If you walk a bit further, past the crowds and through a large intersection, you will come to a quieter area where Oriole is located. The most striking aspect of Oriole is its superb rooftop. Visit around sunset on a clear evening, and the view of Seoul tinged with reds and pinks is resplendent.

Back inside, the decor is minimal with candles and cacti lending a hipster vibe. On the second floor is a large bar, with a vast drinks menu. A selection of contemporary meals is available, such as the vegetable confit rucola salad and an appetising rigatoni green curry. The food and drinks, however, are a little pricey here.

Oriole, 406-99 Huam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Chicken and beer at Gyemijib

Chicken and beer in South Korea has its own portmanteau: “chimek”, a blending of the words chicken and maekju, which is Korean for beer. The owner of Gyemejib, unsurprisingly, loves fried chicken and a good beer (specifically ale), and used to have trouble finding an establishment that served both. Now he has brought the two complimentary pleasures together with a small gastropub in a quiet side street in Hapjeong.

Gyemejib has a warm, cozy feel and only caters to a few patrons at a time. The interior is designed specifically to encourage interaction between customers, and the chairs outside are angled inwards – facing toward the open windows to encourage conversation. If the boss is not busy, he sits with customers to chat about their day, and to make sure that they are enjoying his vast selection of over 20 ales.

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The chicken here is ordered fresh daily and coated in a deliciously thin batter that doesn’t mask the flavour. The sauces tend to be spicy and they add greatly to the chicken’s taste. Paired with a refreshing beer, and it’s easy to see that the Koreans are onto something.

Gyemijib, 2 Baekbeomro-26-gil, Mapo-gu, Seoul.

Boutique shopping in Yongsan district

Not too far from Noksapyeong station are a couple of charming little stores side by side. With its romantic name and quirky imagery, “I still hide you in my poetry” always catches the eyes of passers-by. Inside you will find a range of jewellery and accessories such as delicate earrings and rings in silver and gold, pretty necklaces and cute headbands – all priced under US$20. Next door, “Hello you there in my poetry” has recently opened and stocks a large selection of gorgeous and affordably priced hats, from berets to fedoras.

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A few minutes walk up the street you’ll find Peacock, a petite, eclectic resort wear shop featuring colourful accessories, beachwear, dinner wear and daily outfits. The shop is a vibrant clutter of colours and textures, much like the bird it’s named after. Most of the clothes combine creative patterns and materials reminiscent of a tropical holiday. Although the majority of clothes are vibrant, there are also some neutral black and whites for more simple styles. The prices are affordable at around US$20-$60 per piece.

I Still Hide You in my Poetry, Kyungridan Intersection, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Peacock, 27 Hoenamu ro, Kyungridan-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Home cooking at Guldari Sikdang

Not far from Gongdeok subway station is Guldari. This homely restaurant has been open for around 40 years and although it is now surrounded by modern buildings and trendy cafes, it continues to attract a steady stream of locals looking for a satiating Korean lunch. Guldari sports a very typical Korean interior and has an incredibly simple menu of just two dishes – kimchi jjigae (a hot hearty stew made with kimchi, pork and onions) and jeyuk bokkeum (spicy stir-fried pork).

The simple bright red stew is not the prettiest, but it’s packed with extraordinary flavour, and comes with a steaming bowl of white rice and a few side dishes, such as soft egg rolls and spicy fish. The owner says there is nothing special about her dishes, and that it is just a simple recipe passed down from her mother. But her regular customers, who have kept this restaurant alive for over 40 years, beg to differ.

Guldari Sikdang, 181-45 Dohwa-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul.

A new twist to a Korean classic treat at Rusted Iron in Dumbo

In its traditional form, the Korean take on shaved ice, known as patbingsu, usually consists of shaved ice flakes and condensed milk, covered with sweet red beans and topped with a few slices of chewy rice cake. The dish is delicious, but cafés and restaurants are experimenting with new and creative ways to enjoy the much-loved treat.

In the developing industrial neighbourhood of Seongsu, referred to by some as the “Brooklyn of Seoul”, is Rusted Iron in Dumbo, a creative space and café that serves bingsu in mason jars. Try the panna cotta cafe bingsu which features layers of milky shaved ice mixed with espresso, covered with soft yellow rice cakes and petite squares of chocolate brownie. Served on the side are house-made red beans and sweet café panna cotta. Mix it all together and you have an eruption of flavours and textures.

There are five bingsu on the menu here, as well as pizza, sandwiches, waffles and an array of drinks. The café spans four floors and has a cool industrial feel to it, the exterior is brick and inside the works of local artists adorn the walls.

Rusted Iron in Dumbo, 656-834 Sungsu-Dong, Sungdong-gu, Seoul

Food trucks and shopping at Bamdokkaebi Night Market

Open only two nights per week, the night market at Yeouido Hangang Park is a must-visit. This is where South Korea’s most popular food truck zone is located. Here, visitors are able to discover unique and experimental treats made by creative young chefs.

At night, traditional and modern cultural performances are held against the backdrop of the Han River. There is also a cute shopping street packed with tents where visitors can browse one-of-a-kind handmade items created by artists and designers.

Bamdokkaebi Night Market, Yeouido Hangang Park, Seoul. Every Friday and Saturday from 6-11pm.