seoul searching in Ikseon-dong
If Seoul is the New York of Asia, then Ikseon-dong is its Greenwich Village. A stark contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers, the small village consists of one-storey hanoks, or traditional Korean houses, that line about a dozen intimate alleyways. Ikseon-dong truly is the hidden gem of Seoul.
Change is no stranger to Ikseong-dong. One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Seoul, it has continuously shifted its reputation throughout the years. After starting out as peaceful retreat from the city in the 1920s, Ikseon-dong became a red-light district in the 1950s and 1960s and was almost demolished by the government in 2004, but in 2013, a group of artists and entrepreneurs saw its potential and began transforming it into the hip, bohemian hot spot it is today.
On the surface, it can seem like not much has changed. Ikseong-dong is still host to its traditional hanok as the gleaming metals of modernity haven’t been able to breach its borders. However, step through one of its many low doorways, and you’ll find a delightful merging of past and present, from curious cuisine to intricate interiors.
Easily the most famous eatery in Ikseon-dong, Gyeongyangsik 1920 specialises in one of Korea’s favourites – tonkatsu, or pork cutlet. And this old restaurant retains its fame by strictly serving recipes straight from the past. Interiors reminiscent of famous London restaurant Sketch’s trendy aesthetic are a stark contrast to the restaurant’s traditional cuisine. Soft pink and gold chairs crowd around crisp, white-clothed tables and naked bulbs hang from the ceiling, merging new looks with old flavours. 17-30, Supyo-ro 28-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Sikmul, which translates directly to ‘Plant’, is the spot that put Ikseon-dong back on the map. While new cafes and bars continue to inhabit the hanok village, Sikmul is held dearest in the hearts of the locals. In 2014, photographer and former art director Louis Park fell in love with the quiet neighbourhood and so salvaged a hanok, transforming it into one of the ‘chillest’ places in Seoul. In keeping with the unspoken rules of Ikseon-dong, Park used remnants of the old building, such as broken tiles, the original rooftop and retro Korean-style furniture, to retain the hanok’s history. It’s the perfect spot to settle down with a creamy coffee (our favourite is the rich Boy and Girl coffee-cocktail) and watch the world go by. 46-1 Donhwamun-ro 11da-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
Tucked away in the maze of Ikseon-dong is one of Seoul’s coolest bars, Ale Dang. Fun fact: when written in Chinese characters (愛日堂), the pub’s title takes on a new, endearing meaning: a house where love is shared every day. And, with its warm, comfortable atmosphere, made even more homely by a rare collection of eclectic furnishings, Ale Dang certainly spreads the love. Most impressive is their offering of craft beer. We recommend their Table Beer Amber paired with the pub’s popular banana bread for a revitalising snack. 33-9 Supyo-ro 28-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
No hip area in Seoul stays hip for long without offering a myriad of shopping options, and Ikseon-dong doesn’t disappoint. Here, vintage finds are clearly a favourite. Little sister to famed Lomi Vintage in Hongdae, Vintage Bonnie boasts a collection of quirky and fascinating finds from the 1920s to 1980s. Kim Jeohyun’s metalware and jewellery studio is another must-visit: her wide range of products (from silver earrings to very high-end handcrafted desk lamps) are classy yet futuristic, capturing the very essence of Ikseon-dong. Lastly, if you’re looking for a true lasting impression of the ‘hanok island’, pop by Café Graang to enjoy and even purchase some local art.
If you have time left over, while it away at Pojangmacha Street. The cosy space is a perfect metaphor for Korea’s warm-hearted culture. Tented food stalls crowd the street and welcome visitors with the delicious smells of classic Korean street food, from jeon (pancakes), udon and ramyeon noodles to eomuk (fish cakes) and tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes). These stalls, known as pojangmacha, consist of a cooking area and small dining tables that give diners a front-row seat to the kitchen. Pair the hearty dishes with a few shots of soju, and Pojangmacha Street will become your new favourite hangout.
THE PRACTICAL SIDE
- Weather warning: the seasons in Seoul are extreme; summer is unpleasantly humid and hot, while winter is ice-cold. The best time to visit is in autumn: the weather is drier and crisp, but still relatively warm.
- Finding your way: download the Kakao Map and Kakao Metro apps to help navigate the city and its subway system. Google Maps is not as trustworthy in this Asian capital.
- Public transport: to use the subway and bus system, purchase a Metro card at any convenience store. The cards are inexpensive and much more convenient than buying individual tickets.
- Talking taxis: Uber does not exist here, but taxis are everywhere and are astoundingly cheap. Just try to avoid mispronunciation mishaps, as it won’t work to show the driver an address on your phone (any map app you use will be in English because the app automatically sets its language to the phone’s language). The best method is to know the area you are going to (e.g. Munjeong-dong) and then give the driver the new address system code (a number that has this format: 652-1) for that area.
- Learn a little Korean: while many Koreans speak basic English, there are also many who don’t. It helps to learn a few phrases, such as kam-sa-ham-nida (thank you), anim-nida (no, thank you) and jam-chi-man-yo (excuse me). While it will help to learn the Korean alphabet, Hangul, doing so is not entirely necessary as most street signs in Korea are also in English. However, most restaurant menus are not.