Here, the streets are alive with a youthful spirit that fosters a creativity evident in the sounds of busking musicians, in the colorful graffiti on the walls and in the unique fashion and hair styles sported by the young inhabitants of the neighborhood.
Under the influence of Hongik University, a prestigious art school from which the area takes its name, Hongdae has become the home of an emerging underground music and art scene since the 1990s. Since then it has blossomed into a nightlife district of tiny music bars and multi-story dance clubs.
Despite its rather raucous reputation, there’s plenty to see and do here that will suit just about everyone’s taste. So, throw on your coolest clothes and get ready to immerse yourself in the quirky side of Seoul. (Be sure to check out the map at the bottom of the post to make your walk even more convenient.)
From the subway station, walk through the pedestrian-friendly Sculpture Park popular with street performers and cluttered with samgyeopsal restaurants to Obok-gil. This quaint street, whose name means “five blessings” is the perfect place for a morning stroll, thanks to its endless supply of independent cafes, chocolatiers and boutiques.
Unlike most of the run-of-the-mill shops in Seoul that sell ready-made clothing items, a handful of the clothing stores in this area are owned and operated by fresh-faced designers who sell unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. Additionally, the brick-and-mortar branch stores of popular online shopping malls offer a wide range of shopping opportunities.
At the end of the street, head west toward the university. Along the way, pick up tickets to see an afternoon performance of Kung Festival, an action-packed but lighthearted musical show held at the B-Boy Theater, the country’s first dedicated exclusively to the dance style. Kung Festival features the well-known and widely-loved SJay Crew, who effortlessly demonstrate just why Korea’s b-boys have the reputation of being some of the most talented in the world.
The Quirky Side of Hongdae
If Korea is the land of themed cafes, then Hongdae is the capital. Yet no other is quite as unique as Thanks Nature Cafe, located just down the hill from the university. Beautifully decorated, the cafe exudes a zen-like atmosphere with lots of greenery and a simple, clean design. There are also artistic portraits of various animals that hang neatly on the walls, but one stands out in the motif: sheep.
In addition to figurines and stuffed versions, there are two live well-groomed sheep that reside at Thanks Nature. Unlike pet cafes, the sheep are kept on the outside patio in a small pen, baaaaahing every now and then. There is no noticeable smell in the cafe's interior, so visitors can enjoy their coffee in a clean setting. Thanks Nature Cafe's menu features a nice selection of beverages, all of which are made with natural sweeteners. Try their waffles, which are also phenomenal.
As you make your way along Parking Street, the gateway to Hongdae’s nightlife, you will no doubt spot some vibrant murals and interesting exhibits. Yet nowhere in the neighborhood can you physically interact with art more than at the Trick Eye Museum. Located in the Santorini Seoul multicultural complex, the unique works incorporate trompe l'oeil, a technique used to make them appear as if they are three dimensional.
Recreations of famous works like Edvard Munch's “The Scream” and Da Vinci's “Mona Lisa”, along with interactive backdrops such as bamboo forests and spaceships, incorporate props or features added to make them more comical, thus creating a slew of incredible photo ops. The Love Museum, located in the basement of the same building, has the same premise, but is immensely exotic (in the most entertaining way possible) and, not surprisingly, is only open to adults.
Oodles of Noodles & Street Snacks
After cheesing out with your buddies and landing some excellent photos which will no doubt provide for some great profile pics, get ready to slurp down some of the best noodles in all of Seoul.
But first stop by the Music Show Wedding Theatre where you can opt to purchase tickets for the cheesy but endearing “Music Show Wedding,” a show that follows the comedic events leading up to a young couple’s wedding that combines live music, acting and performances. The non-verbal show features 23 musical instruments and an eye-catching stage lit with 30,000 LED lights.
Menya Sandaime is a Japanese-style ramen shop that carries on the three-generation tradition of making the famed dish with a secret recipe of broth that is steamed for over 24 hours and noodles that are aged for a day. The restaurant is cramped and chaotic, with an open kitchen that allows diners to watch the ramen magic unfold before their eyes. And, like any good restaurant that serves dishes that are high in demand, Menya Sandaime shuts down when it runs out of fresh ingredients. And it almost always does.
As tempted as you may be to order more, stick to one serving, and head back to the Street Food Alley next to the Trick Eye Museum to sample the latest street food trends, which change as often as K-pop and Korean fashion styles. There are plenty of tiny stalls that offer everything from boongeo bbang (a traditional sweet pastry) stuffed with ice cream to churros.
Unlike Hongdae’s street vendors that come and go, one neighborhood institution has been around for quite sometime, packing in customers with its twist on tteokbokki. Less spicy than its competitors’, Mimine’s version, which is made from miltteok (wheat rice cakes) and thinly sliced eomuk (fish cake), is almost like a soup.
This comfort food pairs well with the snack shop’s famous (and patented) saeu twigim (deep-fried shrimp) which are covered in an addictingly crispy batter and served with three kinds of dipping salts. Go to the second floor if you want to order shrimp.
Wondering what’s in store for your future? (Besides a heart attack after all that food?) Then check out one of Parking Street’s many fortune tellers.
Although tarot cards have been used in divination since the 15th century in other parts of the world, they have only been popular in Korea for a couple decades. Many Koreans (including celebrities, as you’ll note on the posters) will visit fortune tellers when faced with a certain dilemma or need advice about an important upcoming event (or a potential boyfriend or girlfriend.)
Fortunately, a number of these tarot card readers speak English, though some do require an additional fee for doing so, and will answer just about any burning question you may have about life. There are alternative forms of fortune telling, many of which are more traditionally Korean, and include gwansang (fortune telling through facial characteristics) and saju (prediction of good or bad luck based on one's birth date). Whether you take fortune telling seriously or not, it’s a fun way to see what the stars might have in store for you.
Speaking of stars, why not let your inner rock star shine at Luxury Su Noraebang? Known to be one of the best karaoke rooms in all of Seoul, Su is the go-to spot for people looking to get their karaoke on after a few drinks. But, because of its unique interior, great reputation and all-you-can-eat ice cream, it can get pretty crowded at night.
Why not take advantage of the afternoon discounts earlier on in the day to experience this Korean cultural institution? In addition to having a huge selection of songs, some rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows, which allow customers to belt out songs to all of Hongdae, and perhaps even get some applause from passersby.
Style & Design
Located next door is the Sangsangmadang Building, one of the more recognizable buildings of the neighborhood, thanks to its futuristic architecture, and is an 11-story multicultural space that is a haven for both artists and art-lovers. Design Square is located on the first floor and is one of the best places in Korea to pick up unique gifts—think notepads that look like deli meats, or scuba diver tea infusers—which are created by local designers.
The second floor operates as a gallery and exhibits photographs and contemporary art by both Korean and international artists, while works by Korea’s young artists are available for sale on the third floor. The remaining floors boast everything from a movie theater to studios to a live performance hall. Daily schedules can be checked at the ticket box on the first floor.
The stylists are very well versed in the latest funky trends (I mean, this is Hongdae, after all) but have mastered all the classic styles, too. Soonsiki boasts a color bar with more options than a Crayola box and is the city’s top dying expert. This place is always packed on the weekends, so be sure to make a reservation beforehand.
Hongdae Nights (and Mornings)
If you’re in Hongdae on a weekend, the Hongdae Playground is the place to soak up the true essence of the neighborhood. The Free Market (on Saturdays) and Hope Market (Sundays) are are the prime cultural hotspots where local designers sell their artwork, such as hand painted sneakers and jewelry made from found objects.
The playground, which is decorated in colorful graffiti, boasts a small stage where artists from a variety of genres play for audiences well into the evening. Once a month, the playground transforms into a silent disco, where attendees dance the night away to tracks played by a DJ who is only audible through the headphones distributed at the sign-in desk. It’s quite an experience, and a rather confusing sight to unsuspecting onlookers.
Next up: dinner. As owner and head chef of The Beastro, Matthew J Chung has created a simple yet elegant menu of American classics and comfort food with a modernized twist. From fried chicken with mashed potatoes and biscuits to a tender and succulent 24-hour hanger steak cooked in beef fat, there is simply no bad choice here.
Everything has been made from scratch in house where possible and the freshness and quality of the ingredients is evident with every bite. Grab a spot on the rooftop where you can get a bird’s eye view of the playground across the street.
After dinner, test your wits at The Vault, one of Seoul’s most unique entertainment facilities. Combining a spacious dining area, an eclectic cocktail menu and a number of “escape rooms,” the complex provides an experience unlike any other in Korea.
Here, groups of friends can attempt to make their way through a series of rooms, breaking codes and uncovering clues to complete tasks reminiscent of Mission Impossible, complete with lasers, alarms and secret passages in a certain amount of time.
The adrenaline brought on by the race against the clock will have you pumped up and ready to experience the musical side of the district. Indie fans will adore the folk and acoustic sets at Indie Talk, while those with an ear for something a bit louder should head to Club FF. Here, live hard rock and punk performances are held on the weekends, which are followed by a dance party.
If hip-hop is more your thing, grab a spot in line at YG-owned NB2, one of the hottest and most established clubs in Hongdae, and be prepared to dance until the sun comes up, that is, if you can handle being packed in like a sardine.
By now, the subway will have opened again, so head back to the station and get a good night’s (or morning’s) sleep. Consider seeking out haejangguk (hangover soup) for breakfast. You’ll probably need it.
To Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Hongik University Station (Line 2 & AREX Lines, Exit 9).
More Neighborhoods Like This: Sinchon; Edae; Gangnam Station
Nearby Neighborhoods: Hapjeong; Sangsu; Yeonnam-dong; Seodaemun
Disclaimer: The above information was accurate at the time of publication.
Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.