The sprawling, glimmering and ever-busy city of Seoul can be daunting for many, especially those travelling alone. Thankfully, some of the city’s few remaining hot-spots that haven’t been stripped of their unique and unparalleled charm are all huddled together, making them easy to navigate and explore with ease.
These neighbourhoods, which include historic Bukchon, artsy Ikseon, clean Samcheon, heart-of-Seoul Hannam and the multicultural Haebangchon, are all perfect places for solo travellers since they show the authentic and indescribable heart of Seoul that cannot be seen in the city’s many tourist-heavy attractions.
Follow us as we take you far beyond the well-traversed streets of Seoul, sharing a measure of history as we guide you to those places we love most.
Located north of Cheonggyechon and the hustle and bustle of Jongno, the area of Bukchon, also known as North (buk – 북) Village (chon – 촌), has steadily become one of Seoul’s most popular areas and is on the itinerary of almost every traveller planning on visiting Seoul.
One of the main highlights of the neighbourhood is the infamous Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을), which offers visitors both a slice of history and a scenic backdrop for photos. Surrounded by both Gyeongbok and Changdeok Palace, this hanok village is made up of hundreds of ancient Korean folk houses.
Originally, many houses in both Bukchon and Ikseon’s hanok villages were constructed during the 1920s to make sure traditional Korean architecture and culture weren’t lost or destroyed under Japanese rule – though quite a few hanok can be dated back to the Joseon Era (1392-1897).
Connected by thin, intertwining alleyways and rustic cobblestone streets, a majority of the hanok have been converted into small shops which include hanbok rental stores, design and craft workshops, museums, boutiques, restaurants, bookstores, traditional tea houses and independent cafés – all of which provide unique opportunities for solo travellers to experience Korean culture.
Once you begin exploring Bukchon, keep an eye out for two of our favourite cafés: the warm and cosy Coffee Mill and the quaint but charming Polpo Press.
Also known as Coffee Bangagan (커피방앗간), Coffee Mill is one of the smaller cafés Bukchon has to offer – only managing to squeeze five tables in the cozy house – which isn’t much of a problem if you’re travelling alone. What this café lacks in space they make up for with excellent coffee, a homely atmosphere and, if you’re lucky, hand-drawn caricatures by Coffee Mill’s owner.
Just a short walk from Coffee Mill is Polpo Press, another small hanok café that usually leaves a big impact on its visitors – acting as a European-styled café, deli and bookstore that sells both eye-catching recipe books as well as delicious, homely meals to hungry sight-seers.
Ikseondong | 익선동
Ikseondong, also known by locals as “Hanok Island”, has quickly evolved from a cluster of old houses into a vibrant hotspot of style, craft and self-expression – making it a haven for Seoul’s artsy and nostalgic youth.
Here, Seoul’s young entrepreneurs have banded together to prevent this unique neighbourhood and its historic beauty from being gentrified by big, brand name corporations – a fate sadly shared by many of the city’s former artistic and cultural hubs.
In recent years the many visitors and tourists who flood the narrow lanes of Ikseon have picked up on the neighbourhood’s distinct retro charm, whether it be themed cafés inspired by the “Swinging Sixties” or even boutiques that allow visitors to rent vintage clothes that would have been in-style during the 1940s – these outfits can even be rented all day.
However, if you’re the type of person who has some concerns about travelling alone throughout a neighbourhood in retro clothing, standing out from everyone else, then put your worries aside – renting vintage outfits in Ikseon is almost as common as wearing a hanbok to Seoul’s palaces.
Even if you choose to skip the vintage clothes altogether, Ikseondong has a wealth of experiences to offer any solo traveller – especially if you have enough time, and courage, to throw your maps aside and simply lose yourself in the neighbourhood.
In Ikseondong Hanok Village alone there are plenty of shops and eateries to explore, such as Uncle Video Town (엉클비디오타운), Twelve Months (열두달), Ssal-sanghoe (쌀상회), Changhwa-dang (창화당) and the popular Assi-bangagan (아씨방앗간) – a candle and diffuser store pictured above where visitors are encouraged to explore the benefits of aromatherapy and can even create their own scents.
Samcheong | 삼청동
Surrounded by major attractions such as Bukchon, Ikseondong, Insadong, the Blue House (also known as the Presidential Office), as well as Gyeongbok and Chandeok Palace, the neighbourhood of Samcheong is in an ideal location for both locals and travellers.
Living up to its name – Sam (삼 – three) cheong (청- clean/good) – Samcheong has built up a reputation for being both a unique and clean neighbourhood, as well as being a haven for art-lovers of all kinds.
Similar to Bukchon and Ikseon, the whole neighbourhood of Samcheong is peppered with cafés, boutiques and galleries that are woven together by mural-covered sidestreets and back-alleys, or gol-mok (골목), making it an excellent place for solo exploration.
For those who lean more towards direct shopping rather than mindless exploring, Samcheong boasts two large shopping streets lined with both accessory and clothes stores.
Our personal highlight of Samcheong is its doldam-gil (돌담길), or traditional stone walls. Although they can be found all over Seoul, the ones found in Samcheon stand out to many since they were used during the filming of the popular K-Drama Goblin: The Lonely and Great God (쓸쓸하고 찬란한 – 도깨비) back in 2016.
Located just outside Anguk Station, this beautiful spot is home to many of the K-Dramas’ iconic scenes – such as Eun-Tak’s first meeting with Kim Shin.
Another K-Drama-inspired location in Samcheong is the iconic We Are Young Mural, which depicts an elderly couple sharing a kiss.
Painted by Korean artist SIS, this mural has been featured in many dramas such as While You Were Sleeping (2017), Manhole (2017), My Golden Life (2017) and My Strange Hero (2018).
Hannam | 한남동
Known for being a global village right in the centre of Seoul City, the neighbourhood of Hannam used to be referred to simply as Han River Village (한강리) during Japan’s rule of Korea.
In more recent years, Hannam has grown into a diverse neighbourhood full of life, art, music and creative exploration.
Located across the river from Gangnam, this hilltop neighbourhood is geographically the heart of Seoul and has become home to many creative business owners and artists who have transformed the once empty neighbourhood into a unique area filled with studios, workshops, vintage boutiques, cafés, bars and bookstores where it’s common to see various celebrities.
Aside from this, what we personally love about this area is the fact that whilst other nearby neighbourhoods have been stripped of their old charm and atmosphere, Hannam has held on to its rugged authenticity – which, in many Seoul neighbourhoods, have been covered over by shiny buildings and corporate businesses.
Haebangchon | 해방촌
As one of the oldest neighbourhoods in central Seoul, Haebangchon is often overlooked by travellers – but in recent years, the area has become known for its vintage appeal and new independent businesses owned by foreign residents.
Alternatively known as “Liberation Village” or “Neighbourhood at the Foot of Namsan” (남산자락), Haebangchon was originally a pwanja-chon (판자촌), or shantytown, providing refuge for those who had to flee from their hometowns and had nowhere to go.
Located at the bottom of Namsan and across from Itaewon, this neighbourhood is now home to both Korean and foreign residents who come from countries such as New Zealand, Ecuador, Nigeria, Australia, Brazil and the Philippines.
They run local bakeries, cafés, manhwa shops, bookstores and studios, all of which add to Haebangchon’s mix of old, traditional cultures with a blend of cultures that is both new and diverse.
As a result of the Art Village Project, Haebangchon is also showered in murals and artwork – the most photo-worthy being the 108 Heaven Stairway (108 하늘계단).
Feature Image Source: ©Photo by Daniel H. Tong, 07.04.2019, unsplash.com
Special thanks to Robert Koehler for providing photos.