The discerning traveller’s guide to Hongdae, Seoul’s coolest neighbourhood
With great shopping, scrumptious food and design-driven hotels, this buzzy area in the South Korean capital isn’t just for university students anymore.
You’ve lived the high life oppa Gangnam style, shopped till you dropped in Myeongdong and soaked in traditional art at Insadong. Now, it’s time to get a glimpse into the creative heart of Seoul – the vibrant Hongdae neighborhood.
Its name is derived from the nearby Hongik University, a prestigious fine arts institution. This area initially became a centre of indie music and culture and a treasure trove of vintage shops when students began moving in.
Today, as befits its reputation as one of the most vibrant precincts in the city, its tiny streets are jam-packed with trendy boutiques, cool cafes and bars and chic boutique hotels.
But its greatest strength can also be its weakness – it can be hard to tell what’s good and what’s not. For the discerning traveller, here’s an edit of the places to see and be seen in in Hongdae.
Fine dining has not quite reached Hongdae yet, but there are a few gems that are well worth a meal at. L’Impasse 81 is a smart French brasserie that specialises in house made charcuterie such as boudin, pate and rillette – a rare find in the city.
For something more local, head to Michelin Bib Gourmand eatery Okdongsik, which elevates the traditional homestyle rice and soup dish to a whole new level. At this no-reservations joint, razor thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth pork is placed over fluffy white rice and generously doused in a flavourful clear bone broth. For a hit of spice and more umami, eat this with as much kimchi as you’d like. Order the large serving – you won’t regret it.
For an after-hours tipple, you will be spoilt for choice in Hongdae, which is filled with bars, nightclubs and live music venues. Many of these establishments have a slightly grungy vibe – this is a university area after all – so when it is time to kick back, make a beeline for Side Note Club, the rooftop bar at Ryse Hotel. With an enviable vinyl collection, a killer cocktail and whiskey menu and a good roster of DJs and live performances, there’s no better place to soak in the electric atmosphere of Hongdae.
When the hustle and bustle gets too intense, escape the buzz at the Gyeongui Line Forest Park, located right next to the Hongdae subway station. This 6.3km long green lung runs along an old, unused railway track and is a popular hangout, especially in the evening when locals gather on the grassy lawns and ample benches for a picnic or simply to hang out. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants lining either side of the park for when you need a pitstop or simply to people watch.
For a glimpse into Seoul’s thriving music scene – which is not just limited to K-pop tunes – take a stroll along Eoulmadag-ro, sometimes known as Hongdae Fashion Street. Musicians, bands and dancers often busk here and while the quality of the performances does vary, a number of popular independent bands, such as 10cm and Monni, were discovered here. So, keep your eyes peeled and you might just discover the next big thing ahead of the masses.
The endless rows of tiny clothing and accessory boutiques make for great browsing – and affordable buys – but to be honest, the products can end up looking like variations of whatever is trendiest after a while.
If you are time starved, head to the Instagram-friendly Hongdae outposts of Style Nanda and Aland. Both multi-label boutiques carry a solidly curated range of stylish, well-designed apparel that will have you looking like a K-drama celebrity in no time at all.
These are also good spots to stock up on cool K-beauty brands. Style Nanda’s in-house make-up brand 3CE is a cult favourite while the beauty section of Aland is a veritable emporium of hard-to-find, up-and-coming skincare brands, including CosRx, Klairs and Son & Park. (Tip: The Style Nanda Hongdae outlet is slated to reopen on Oct 1 following a two-month refurbishment)
There’s also a good selection of designer stores to check out, including the flagship Gentle Monster boutique, which is best described as an installation art gallery meets edgy eyewear designs; Korean-owned German luxury leather goods brand MCM; and the only Jordan store in Seoul, where customers can enjoy customisation services.
In recent years, a number of design-centric boutique hotels have opened in this colourful district, providing a luxe option to the hostels that used to typify this area.
Designed by architecture firm Michaelis Boyd, which is is known for multiple Soho House locations in London, Ryse Hotel, by the Marriott’s Autograph Collection, is arguably the chic-est of the lot.
With raw concrete walls juxtaposed against pink resin flooring and other pops of colour, the hotel’s light filled public spaces are great gathering spot in the heart of Hongdae.
A highlight are the hotel’s five Artist Suites, which have been decorated by five different artists around the world. With graphic touches such as coloured wall panels and statement light fixtures, this sure isn’t your standard cookie-cutter bolthole.
Just down the road is 9Brick Hotel, which has smartly designed rooms with modern amenities like iPod docks, flat screen televisions and multiple charging ports for all sorts of mobile devices. Even the smallest rooms are spacious enough to house two travellers comfortably while larger rooms come with indulgent touches such as whirlpool tubs and seating areas.