While the popular Seoul neighborhoods, like Dongdaemun and Gangnam, are beloved by Koreans and foreigners, only the locals know where the hidden gems are. There are many affordable activities to do in Seoul, but visiting these neighborhoods should be a top priority. Do as the locals do and visit these non-touristy, under-the-radar neighborhoods to get to know Seoul:
Seongsu has quickly risen in the list of hip areas in Seoul in the past few years. Formerly an industrial area, Seoul’s young entrepreneurs have come into the area to convert warehouses and factories into hip cafes, restaurants, and galleries. Seongsu does see its fair share of young tourists but doesn’t feel touristy and retains its unique atmosphere. The area is often compared to New York’s Brooklyn borough, but Seongsu sets itself apart from Brooklyn with its bright and colorful charm.
What to do in Seongsu
Visit Seoul Forest
Seongsu’s biggest attraction, Seoul Forest, offers a relaxing place for young couples, families, and the elderly. The park is massive and features natural areas as well as art installations. Going to the park for a stroll or lying on a bench is a common activity among Seongsu residents.
Check out a pop-up store.
Seongsu, being the hip and trendy place, is a hub for pop-up stores. Although knowing when and where pop-up stores will happen is hard, you may stumble upon one while walking around the area. Finding the coolest pop-up stores in Seongsu will be a true test of your status as a Seoul insider.
Even though this neighborhood is in the biggest city in South Korea, it has a quiet, small-town charm. In the area around Mangwon Market, you’ll find grandmas running open grocery markets that sell baskets of fruits and bundles of vegetables. People push their bicycles in the market while talking to the store owners. The surrounding areas of the market are residential, so it’s no surprise that this area has a close-knit feel.
What to do in Mangwon
Try the chicken at Mangwon Market.
Trade in the popular and busy Gwangjang market for Mangwon Market. The market primarily caters to locals doing their daily shopping, but Mangwon Market has plenty of Korean street foods comparable to Gwangjang’s in taste and price. The must-try foods at Mangwon are seasoned fried chicken and twigim (튀김) or various fried foods.
Ride a bike at Mangwon Hangang River Park.
After grabbing coffee from one of the many cafes in the Mangwon area, head to Mangwon Hangang park for a bike ride. Renting bikes to ride along the Han River is a popular activity, and Mangwon Hangang park is the perfect place. This park isn’t as talked about as Banpo or Jamwon Hangang, but it is still a great place to see the Han river and cityscape.
Lying in the north of Seoul is Seongbuk-dong. This neighborhood is perhaps one of the least touristy neighborhoods on this list, arguably adding to its charm. The area is covered in trees and is home to historical attractions such as Suyeonsanbang and Simwoojang.
While the area offers a nice break from the concrete jungle of central Seoul, it’s also well-known for the wealth gap within the neighborhood (the neighborhood even makes a cameo in Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite). Seongbuk-dong is home to the wealthy, including ambassadors, but at the same time, it is home to one of Seoul’s last poor hillside villages, Bukjeong.
What to do in Seongbuk-dong
Visit Simwujang (심우장)
Simwujang is a historically significant location, yet visitors often miss it. The house was the residence of monk, poet, and independence activist Han Yong-un, who wrote under Manhae. The small house is open for visitors to explore and holds Han’s writings and other possessions.
Do a temple stay at Gilsangsa (길상사)
Gilsangsa is a fairly new temple in Seoul, but its location in Seongbuk-dong cannot be beaten. Visiting the temple offers a great look into Korean Buddhist culture and a nature-filled escape from the city. If you can’t get enough of the beauty of Gilsangsa, participate in a temple stay during which you will learn about Buddhism by living alongside and talking with monks.
If you don’t like Hongdae’s crowds, try exploring the nearby Yeonnam neighborhood instead. Yeonnam is littered with cafes and restaurants as trendy and aesthetically pleasing as Hongdae’s. Although it can get busy on the weekends, Yeonnam is fairly quiet and empty during the weekdays, save for the locals in the area. Yeonnam’s quirky and unique cafes make it a great place to hang out with friends or date.
What to do in Yeonnam
Walk in the Gyeongui Line Forest Park
This park runs for 6.3 kilometers through the Yeonnam neighborhood. If you visit the park, you’ll notice railroad tracks of the old Gyeongui Line that used to go to Pyongyang, North Korea. When the Gyeongui line was moved underground and turned into a subway line, the city transformed the above-ground railway area into a green space for Seoulites to enjoy.
Yeonnam is one of Seoul’s cafe-dense neighborhoods, perfect for coffee-loving cafe hoppers. The famous Instagram 2D cafe, Greem Cafe, is located in Yeonnam. If Greem Cafe is packed, there are plenty of other cafes in the area to try. For those with a sweet tooth, Cake Dabang has cakes you can decorate. The variety of cafes in Yeonnam is unbeatable.
For more Yeonnam cafe recommendations, check out Seoulspace’s article “10 Must-Visit Yeonnam Cafes.”
Mullae, a neighborhood lying south of the Han River, was an industrial area known mostly for its metalwork. Artists moved in and set up workshops when the steel and iron industries started to leave Mullae. Today, Mullae is most famous for its art village, similar to the Ihwa Art Village in northern Seoul. Despite the more artsy reputation, the neighborhood retains much of its industrial aesthetic.
What to do in Mullae
Take in the art
Mullae’s art village covers a large section of the neighborhood. All along the alleys between buildings are colorful murals, exemplifying the artistry of the area. The art village is filled with workshops, cafes, and restaurants. Make sure to check out the interiors of these establishments after you enjoy the art in their exteriors.
Order a drink at one of Mullae’s bars.
While many people visit Mullae for its art, its bar scene is also worth checking out. The neighborhood’s industrial aesthetic perfectly sets the mood for a beer with friends in the evening. Old Mullae is a popular cafe by day and bar by night. Here you can order comfort foods, like fries or nachos, to enjoy with your draft beer.
Another alternative to Hongdae, Hapjeong is only one subway stop past the Hongik University stop. Seoulites have been flocking to the Hapjeong neighborhood as Hongdae becomes increasingly gentrified. As a result, Hapjeong has gained a hipster reputation. Although it isn’t as under the radar as it used to be, the Hapjeong area is perfect for a casual outing with friends.
What to do in Hapjeong
Once again, one of the best ways to get to know Seoul’s underrated neighborhoods is to visit its cafes. Hapjeong is known for its cafes, which have a variety of aesthetics. Anthracite is a popular Hapjeong cafe located in a former shoe factory. The unique aesthetic of the cafe and its great coffee make it a must-try while in Hapjeong. We also recommend checking out The Key Coffee (덕희커피), which feels like it could be your hometown coffee shop.
Visit YG Entertainment
If you’re a K-Pop fan, visit the YG Entertainment building in Hapjeong. YG has produced influential groups such as 2NE1, Big Bang, Epik High, Blackpink, and AKMU. The main building has a merch store in the basement so that you can stock up on K-Pop albums. YG Entertainment also has a cafe you can stop at while cafe-hopping.
This neighborhood is located high up on a hill, yet another university area. The Hyehwa neighborhood includes Seoul National University’s Yeongeon and Sungkyunkwan University. Hyehwa is fairly calm for a university area but has the classic staples for any college crowd: cafes, clothes shops, and cheap food. Even better, one of the less-frequented royal palaces is right next door. This non-touristy university neighborhood is great for anyone looking for a chill day out or some alone time to explore historical sites.
What to do in Hyehwa
Visit Changgyeonggung (창경궁)
Bordering the west side of today’s Hyehwa neighborhood, Changgyeong palace was built in the 15th century under the direction of King Seongjong. He was only 13 years old when he ascended to the throne. The palace served as the residence for three dowager queens: Seongjong’s grandmother, aunt, and mother. The palace grounds include long walking trails through a forest, a pond, and a greenhouse. The expansive nature areas make Changgyeonggung a great place to take a relaxing stroll through history.
Visit Korea’s oldest university, Sungkyunkwan (성균관)
Established in 1398, Sungkyunkwan was the highest educational institution of the Joseon Dynasty. The institution focused on teaching Confucianism to prepare its students for the national civil service exams. The name Sungkyunkwan means “institute to make a great society.” You can still see the original Sungkyunkwan buildings on today’s Sungkyunkwan University campus in Hyehwa.
Seochon, the neighborhood to the west of Gwanghwamun and Gyeongbukgung, is often overlooked by tourists who tend to visit Bukchon, the neighborhood on the east side of the main palace. Like Bukchon, Seochon is filled with traditional Korean architecture or hanok (한옥) buildings but has some lighter foot traffic than Bukchon. The Seochon area used to be home to numerous Korean artists, and it retains this artistic spirit with the many boutiques in the neighborhood.
What to do in Seochon
Eat at Tongin Market
This market is smaller than other popular markets, but its fame doesn’t come from its size. Instead, Tongin Market is known for being the Dosirak (도시락) market. Here you can trade in real cash for Joseon coins to use at the participating food stalls to fill up your dosirak tray. This is a great way to get acquainted with Korean foods such as mung bean pancakes, tteokbokki, twigim, kimbap, and more.
Visit Park No-soo Museum
This museum has a collection of over 1000 art pieces by painter Park No-Soo. The museum was Park No-soo’s residence until he died in 2013. The house incorporates elements of Western and Korean architecture. Much of the house’s interior is preserved from when Park lived there. The museum is a great place to learn not only about Korean art but also about Korean history.
Bordering Hapjeong and Hongdae, Sangsu-dong is perhaps the least discussed alternative to the Hongdae neighborhood. Maybe it’s because Sangsu is often grouped into the larger Hongdae area. But trust that this area is distinct enough to deserve individual praise. Sangsu is a bit more lowkey and hipster than Hongdae. The neighborhood’s cafe street is packed with unique and independent cafes.
What to do in Sangsu-dong
Go thrifting at secondhand stores.
What’s more hipster than thrifting? Buying clothes secondhand is slowly becoming more popular among young Koreans. There are plenty of Sangsu-dong stores catering to those looking for vintage items. Page One, located only a block from Line 6’s Sangsu station, is a great place to find a range of vintage feminine clothes. Secondhand stores in the Sangsu-dong area are Guerilla Radio, Tokyo General Store, and Pijomul.
Check out Sangsu-dong’s independent cafes.
Sangsu-dong’s less-touristy cafe street is a great place to go when all of Seoul’s other streets are packed. We recommend checking out Siyeon (시연) cafe on the main road where Sangsu subway station is located. Siyeon has a cozy atmosphere with its shelves of books and worn wood furniture. If you want to get further away from the crowds, try Sangsubang Cafe, located in the southern part of Sangsu. While this cafe isn’t in the cafe street area, it’s still worth checking out for its drip coffee and cheesecakes.
As part of the larger Itaewon area, Huam-dong has a culturally mixed history. This neighborhood was home to affluent Japanese people during the colonial era. After liberation, Korean war refugees settled in Huam-dong. You can still see the history of this neighborhood in its diverse architecture. Today, this storied neighborhood attracts younger crowds with cozy cafes and restaurants. While you may see some foreigners in the area, Huam-dong is a nice change of pace from the busier Itaewon.
What to do in Huam-dong
Stroll along the Soweol-ro, or foliage road
Between Namsan and Huam-dong is Autumn Foliage Road, formally known as Soweol-ro. This road is designated where people can see the beautiful leaves turn during the autumn months. Seeing Namsan in autumn is one of the most beautiful views in Seoul. Although this activity is restricted to autumn, it is still worth the experience for those in Seoul at the right time.
Visit the Heaven Stairway
Built by the Japanese during the colonial period, Huam’s 108 steps lead up to a Shinto shrine. Koreans living in the area were forced to walk up these stairs daily to pray and pay respects at the shrine while living under Japanese rule. While the Shinto shrine was destroyed once Korea was liberated from Japan in 1945, the stairs remain. These stairs appear unassuming, but they serve as a reminder of Korea’s history.