When we asked Peach and Lily owner Alicia Yoon about her native city's best beauty services, she couldn't resist making a list of Seoul's best spots for eating, drinking, and hanging out. For Shop the Globe week on Fathom, she lays out a plan for what to do between all the primping.
One of Seoul's many charms is that each neighborhood has a distinct micro-community and ambience, creating a mega-city of mini-cities all worth visiting. Within these neighborhoods, Korea's vibrant food scene is ever-growing with everything from mouth-watering BBQ to traditional Korean-style meals to inventive fusion restaurants. There's also a great mix of high- and low-end shopping at all hours of the day and night in huge indoor/outdoor mall complexes. A lot to take in? You bet. But my list of favorites will get you on your way.
THE FOOD SCENE (OR FOOD WITH A SCENE)
It's hard to describe the food at O Kitchen, but it's always surprising and very good. The menu is a fusion of Italian, French, and Korean in varying combinations. Though my favorite location in Itaewon is closed now, the two locations in Yeouido and Gwanghwamun are great.
Best Newcomer with Serious Buzz
Beyond the high-beam ceilings, sprawling farm table lined with melted candles, rose petal-strewn floor, and live music, there are perfectly cooked steaks. And that makes Grand Bleu the perfect place for date night. Seating is limited and the doors close during music sets, so it's best to go early in the evening. Afterwards, a stroll through the newly revamped, artsy neighborhood of Gyeongnidan is a serious must-do.
Ice-cold dessert chain Sulbing is on fire. Every location is almost always packed and for good reason: It created a dessert that takes a twist on the well-loved Korean pat-bing-soo. The traditional version consists of shaved ice flakes topped with red beans, ice cream, and other sweets. Sul-bing uses frozen milk flakes, which makes for a creamier and richer texture and taste. It aspires to create authentic healthy Korean desserts and includes injeolmi, a rice cake sprinkled with sweet bean powder, in all their "snow ice" flavors. Uniquely delicious. Definitely worth the wait.
Authentic Korean-Style BBQ
What's a visit to Korea without a pitstop at an authentic Korean BBQ joint? Koreans love both beef and pork BBQs. WooSung Galbi (inside Yaksu Market, 372-40 Shindang3-dong, Jung-gu; +82-2-2231-6722) is a pork-only stop where you'll sit on plastic chairs, talk as loud as you want, drink soju straight, and see only two things on the menu: pork meat or pork rinds. A cheap eat, crowded (but that's part of the experience), and immensely popular for the quality of the meat.
Best of Korea Old and New
The antique-filled restaurant Congdu is located in the Seoul Museum of History. The original architecture is still intact from centuries ago, and the place overlooks a former palace lawn. Congdu serves traditional Korean dishes with a twist. Michelin chefs co-developed this healthy and scrumptious menu. It's located next to Changdeok Palace, a place worthy of your Instagram feed.
Café Motte is perched on a hill with tons of windows overlooking the northern part of Seoul. It's filled with beautiful paintings and sculptures and has Korean-American menu. The cafe is located next to the Gana Art Center, one of Seoul's well-curated galleries.
Yeongyang Center, one of the oldest restaurant chains in Korea has a cult following among locals and tourists. The chicken, roasted or in samgyetang, a ginseng soup, is tender, juicy, and perfectly seasoned. It was founded by my vivacious and entrepreneurial grandfather, so I may be biased, but I think it serves the best chicken in town. The long lines out the door are a testament to the love. If you want to hit up the flagship in Myeongdong (52 Myeongdong 2-gil, Jung-gu), it's best to go before 6 p.m. or after 9 p.m
Best for Up-and-Coming Designers
Check out the first floor of Doosan Tower in Dongdaemun (open until 5 a.m., most days), or select boutiques along Garosu-gil (closest station: Sinsa station, line 3, exit 8) for a smattering of up-and-coming designer items. At $100 to $400 apiece, they won't be cheap, but they will be much more affordable than clothing at big designer houses. These stores curate rigorously to present only the best of the best, none of that run-of-the-mill stuff.
Best Shopping for Night Owls
For fast clothing and shoe purchases, Dongdaemun has a bevy of large department stores and smaller street stores where you can shop until the wee hours. Namdaemun is also great for late-night accessory finds at incredible prices. I get complimented on the costume jewelry I buy here (it looks really expensive, but costs $5 to $50). Namdaemun is more bargain-friendly than Dongdaemun.
Best Spot for Bargains
Side alleys off the main street Garosu-gil, the subway stop at Gangnam Station (yes, as in Gangnam Style), and streets along Ehwa Women's University or Hongdae University have affordable and trendy clothes, shoes, bags, and accessories. Clothes can range from $5 to $70. If you like seeing rows and rows of stores and enjoy digging through racks, this will be your small slice of heaven.
NEIGHBORHOODS TO EXPLORE
Samcheongdong is one of my favorite areas. It's known for its Bukchon Hanok architecture (traditional aristocratic architecture from the Chosun dynasty), as well as singular cafes, restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and beautiful staircases that lead to mountaintop views of the city. It's a distinct area where tradition meets modernity, art meets commerce, and nature meets architecture.
The Heritage Hallmark
Looking for beautiful souvenirs that capture Korea's heritage? Itching to see traditional artwork? Hungry for a traditional Korean meal in original architecture that captures Korea's traditional hanok style living? Insadong is for you. Go before 8 p.m. as this part of town closes early. But right around closing time you may catch indie bands with serious talent serenading the town.
The Emerging Neighborhood
Technically a part of Itaewon, Gyeongnidan is noticeably less commercial and much more intimate. To the undiscerning eye, the street looks to be a row of cement buildings. Look closer and you'll find cafes and restaurants that have a breezy, Venice Beach-meets-Paris vibe. The main part of Itaewon is where the U.S. Army used to have a large presence. You'll find rambunctious bars, bustling souvenir shops, and cheap and high-end eats.
Following the Fashion Crowd
Garosu-gil is a tree-lined street spotted with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and side streets that have more of the same. You'll find everything from Korea's version of H&M to avant-garde fashion to private labels that reflect Korea's fast-fashion sensibilities. A clean, pleasant, and convenient street where you can shop for a whole year's wardrobe in one short walk.
Myeongdong is a sight to behold. Bright lights everywhere, huge beauty flagship stores on every street, and more people than is sometimes comfortable. One of Seoul's most commercial districts, this is a great street to shop cheap beauty brands, buy $10 leggings from street vendors, and indulge in some high-end shopping in bright, music-heavy boutiques. The question is: Do you have any more room in your suitcase? But you can buy extra luggage in Seoul, too.
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