Gangham and Itaewon, Seoul, South Korea


Yesterday, Perry and I had a very packed day, heading into the cold Seoul air around 8am and then arriving home around 10pm.

We learned that not only is Seoul freezing in the morning before the sun has fully come up (and pretty darn cold after the sun has come up, due to the buildings downtown blocking the light and increasing the wind), but most Koreans in the area that we stay in head to cafes around 10am, rather than early as we had expected. So, we wandered around our neighborhood in Gangham for a considerable amount of time looking for a breakfast place, and ended up compromising by heading into a convenience store (which are basically on every corner here) for Perry to find a breakfast burger sandwich (“the meat was weird”) and into a small cafe (we tried to avoid the Starbucks, Coffee Bene, Coffee and Tea, etc. large stores which are also on every corner) for me to order a latte.


At the convenience store, we noted some interesting Korean items, including pre-packaged bulgogi pizza and vacuum sealed corn. After breakfast, we decided to try our luck following street signs to the Coex, a giant underground mall with an aquarium, movie theater, hundreds of shops, and several restaurants. We walked for about an hour to get there, at the very northeast edge of the Gangham area, and stopped into a couple different bakeries and grocery stores on our way. It was really interesting to see the variety of produce available- things like scallions, radishes, and Asian pears are all huge here (physically just much bigger than their counterparts in the States). They also sell chili paste in gallon type containers, which was very temping to me.


We finally made it to the Coex and wandered around inside for a while before heading almost across the street to the Bonguensa Temple complex, which is a historical Buddhist complex still frequently used by practitioners. The temples themselves are a mix of restored spaces, and include several beautiful statues, meditation buildings, shrines, and offering sites. Out of respect, we didn’t go into many of the meditation buildings since they were in use, but the outsides of the buildings were incredibly beautiful. It was interesting being in such a serene space and then being able to see the bustling traffic and skyscrapers of Seoul in the immediate background, which kind of reminded me of Shanghai.


After we walked through the Coex and the Bonguensa site, we decided to head across the river into a different district in Seoul, Itaweon. First, we grabbed lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant much like the one we ate at the night before, where I had a spicy seafood stew (basically chili-tomato sauce in a hot pot with seafood, including a claw of some sort and a baby octopus) and Perry sampled the bulgogi hot pot again. This time, the sides that accompanied the meal included some kind of sweet bean, broccoli with chili sauce, sautéed vegetables, a fermented fish cake, a mini omelette, and, of course, kimchi. This restaurant was better in taste than the previous restaurant, and the kimchi was much more palatable (and delicious!). I started to feel the spice from my hot pot, but only slightly, so the search is still on.

After lunch, we caught the subway into Itaewon, a neighborhood in the Yongsan area of Seoul just across the river from Gangham. Sadly, the guide book somewhat built up the area as having some really interesting sights, but when we arrived, the specific sites from the guidebook didn’t seem too appealing (then again, I don’t know what we expected from a tailoring district and antiques alley). Nonetheless, the area itself was filled with a different type of crowd, shops everywhere, and a really vibrant restaurant scene. It also seems to be the home of Middle Eastern immigrants to Seoul, as we noted many more Middle Eastern restaurants in the area, and there is a famous mosque nearby. We found ourselves heading into another grocery store, where Perry sampled what appeared to be a donut and ended up being filled with egg-salad.


After wandering through the side streets for a considerable amount of time, we decided to see the Lee Museum of art, a group of 2 museums sponsored by Samsung (a lot here is sponsored by Samsung, including a fashion store, a coffee house, and a hotel that we have noticed, not to mention almost everyone’s cell phone of choice).


The museum is split into two parts: first, a historical museum which included insights and pieces of celadon, metal working pieces, Buddhist calligraphy, nature paintings, and pottery. The second museum included more typical “art” pieces by a variety of Korean artists.


After the museum, we decided to walk to the Grand Hyatt for a drink before dinner. The walk to the Grand Hyatt is pretty much straight up one of the largest hills we’ve seen so far in Seoul, and it took quite a while to figure out where the entrance to the hotel was. Eventually, we walked into the Grand Ballroom area, and were promptly escorted downstairs, straight into an awards ceremony for the same event that we had seen a gaggle of teenagers heading to preview in the Coex many hours previously. While the teenagers at the mall had been clearly lined up, registered for whatever event this was (it kind of looked like a movie premiere or K-pop album release from the banners in the Coex), we were suddenly in the middle of the press carpet area here in the Grand Hyatt’s Grand Ballroom. Realizing that we were totally underdressed for the occasion (not to mention, out of place) we headed back upstairs and tried to discover the entrance to the hotel. No one spoke English, so we headed back outside and kept walking. Finally, we made it into the hotel, where we proceeded downstairs to what we thought was the recommended viewing and drinks area. Turns out, that bar was closed, despite everyone waving us through (“open until 6pm”). So, we headed back upstairs and settled in the lobby lounge, which actually had a much better view than the downstairs area.


I ordered a “melontini” which was made with traditional Korean liquors, including Midori and soju. Perry got the Hite beer, which is brewed here as well. Of course, we paid more for the view, but it was a beautiful way to relax after all of that walking. For dinner, we set out to eat at a very popular Thai restaurant back down in the heart of Itaewon. The wait was incredibly long, so at first we left to explore the back streets of Itaewon, which become pedestrian-only after dark and offer a whole variety of international food options. However, everything was priced incredibly high (“Chicago hot dog for $20”) so we ended up going back to the Thai restaurant, which did not disappoint at all.


Overall, a great but incredibly packed day. Today, we are heading out for the center of historical Seoul, where the palaces are. Hopefully it’ll be just as interesting, but with much less walking!



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