Every city has a neighbourhood like this — an unassuming and hip spot which has a certain magnetism that pulls only the coolest kids in town. In New York, it’s Brooklyn; in Tokyo, it’s Shimokitazawa. As for Seoul, it has to be Ikseondong. In an urban metropolis like Seoul, modernity is everywhere. Entire buildings of international brands line the roads of Gangnam, while lines in Myeongdong and Hongdae are formed by throngs of tourists from all around the world. But Ikseondong is different. It’s cool, it’s hip, and it’s the trendy secret neighbourhood that locals are somewhat reluctant to share.
Ikseondong is nothing like the commercialised grounds of Bukchon Hanok Village. In the late 90s, Ikseondong was a forsaken neighbourhood with nothing much going on. About a decade later when the government made plans to demolish the area, many local residents fought to preserve this historic site. Young creatives at that time took the opportunity to recreate the space as a place for inspiration and set up restaurants and independent shops.
The 1920s architecture of the hanok houses here have been preserved to pay homage to an era of South Korean history, and locals have been picking up on this too. This period of time is known as ‘gaehwagi’, the start of the Westernisation in South Korea in the late 19th to early 20th century. It is easy to spot couples and friends renting period-specific clothing to get into the ‘vintage mood’ of the neighbourhood, and everyone here hangs around artisanal cafes and independent boutiques. Feel like getting in on the action? You’ll find it here.
How to get here
Ikseondong is an area with many entrances, including from the shopping street of Insadong. However, one of the easiest ways would be to alight at Jongno 3-ga station and take exit 4. From there, walk to the back of the main street via CU convenience store and you would have arrived.
French cuisine can be intimidating. Le Blanseu, however, serves up authentic French cuisine in a homely hanok here at Ikseondong. With the objective of treating customers like guests at a house dinner, most dishes are familiar items with a little twist. Their mussels in a blue cheese sauce is a crowd favourite, so customers intending on visiting should try to come a little earlier.
Graang Gallery Tea & Bar
Graang Gallery Tea & Bar is a modern tea house that is furnished entirely with traditional Korean furniture. Guests usually enjoy a cup of traditional Korean and English teas during the day and grab a glass or two of their cocktails in the evening. The gallery in its name comes from a dual use of the space; it is a folk painting design studio as well as a shop for local arts.
There’s something comforting about eating bread, especially for carb fanatic Korea. This neighbourhood is no less different, but don’t expect to see a Paris Baguette here anytime. While most chain stores try to attract customers with their fancy toppings and innovative creations,Mil Toast brings it back to the basics with their famous steamed bread. The smell of soft warm steamed bread in a bamboo basket coupled with homemade butter — if this doesn’t sound like a perfect carb date, we don’t know what is.
Towards the inner alleyways of the neighbourhood lies a cafe a little more crowded than most – Seoul Coffee. While they do sell an amazing cuppa, including a personal favourite, Vienna Coffee, most customers come here for their bread. The small loaves are stuffed with thick slices of butter and red bean paste, making this visit a guilty pleasure that everyone needs to have at least once in their lives.
It is evident that every country is obsessed with fortune-telling. Be it a tarot reading gypsy or a crystal gazing witch, the idea of knowing one’s future always draws a crowd. In Ikseon-dong, the future can be read with just ₩1,000 (SGD$1) through a capsule machine. 그분이 오신다, loosely translated as ‘That person is here’, is a row of outdoor capsule machines that promises only happy fortunes to those who seek it. Be sure to bring a local friend along, as fortunes are only in Korean.
In line with the mood of the neighbourhood, Vintage Bonnie specialises in selling vintage-inspired items. Every single piece is specially curated for customers to really get into a nostalgic mood, from clothes to their household ware. To round up the vintage adventure, head to Uncle Videotown (엉클비디오타운). The mini theatre is reminiscent of older times when theatres were a novel experience, and the program is compiled from their bi-monthly catalogue of films. Apart from regular seats, the theatre also has separate booths for visitors who want some privacy.
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.