The globalisation of Korean music, entertainment and culture has seen Seoul become one of the world’s top travel destinations. This touristic boom may have happened rather spontaneously, but the city needn’t change much to fit the image: palaces, PC cafes, and the plethora of food were there long before the tourists were. Seoul is easily a paradise for travellers, although just as easily, it can be overwhelming too.
As a girl from countryside, its hard to ignore the harsh, fast-and-furious nature of capitol cities. In other words, everyone needs to be somewhere ASAP and they do not take any prisoners. Couple this with an entirely new language and your exciting adventure risks an ordeal (the frustrated huff-and-puff of a taxi driver who can’t understand you needs no translation.) In a strange, new place, experiences like these can leave a sour taste, a breath of anxiety, and the view from Namsan Tower is not quite beautiful enough to displace the feeling. I’ve often thought scenic beauty was entirely different from the beauty of people, the latter being infinitely more powerful.
At times when I’ve felt insecure or homesick, the warm welcomes of others have restored my confidence and reminded me of my intentions. On that note, here are some of the friendliest places in Seoul!
1. Corner Pub, Hong-dae
A hotspot for expats from all over the globe, but not lacking in its Korean charm and essence. In a country where there are many unspoken rules about how to look and behave, Corner pub is place you can simply be yourself. There’s beer pong, darts, arcade games, whacky cocktails and shots. But, if those aren’t your thing, simply grab a beer and chill out on the terrace with the fairy lights.
개임 (gae-im) and 개인 (gae-in): in English, games and individuality, and you’ll find plenty of both here. Indeed, a busy shift won’t stop the team from showing off their cool style and flare, as shown in the picture above. They’ll remember your face and welcome you back every time, whether it’s been a week or a year since your last visit. Corner Pub truly combines the comfort of a familiar face with the excitement of meeting someone new.
Check out: cornerpub.modoo.at
2. 33 Yukon, Yeonnam-dong
Dark red lights, a silent movie projector playing non-stop and a drinks menu longer than the credits scene from Avatar. For pre-drinks, I recommend convenience store somaek (soju and beer), but if you’re a special type of missionary, 33 Yukon is the shrine that worships alcohol as an art form. However, places like this can be kind of intimidating, especially if you’re no wine or whisky connoisseur…I’ll take a peach crush please! And yet, here you’ll find that the steel cool atmosphere is met with the warmth and friendliness of Suji and Haekweon.
Sometimes their dogs even make an appearance, which just makes the place even cozier!
Check out: @33yukon
3. Retro Game Bar, Hong-dae
Mariokart or Mortal Kombat? You decide. An absolute must for hardcore gamers or just a chilled out place to play if high scores aren’t your aim. Retro Bar is a fun and fresh hole-in-the-wall run by a lovable gang who will instantly win you over with their spirits…and I don’t just mean the vodka.
Mikael (top left), who hails all the way from Sweden, is someone you can’t imagine without a smile on his face. Consequently, he’s sure to put a smile on yours, especially if you’ve been feeling a little left out as we expats can often feel. Additionally, you’ll notice the signature of the most famous Swedish gamer, Pewdiepie, on the Swedish flag that catches your eye on arrival.
Check out: @RetrogamebarRGB
4. Grain blé, Mang-won
I’m lucky enough to live a stone’s throw from this adorable ‘petite France’. Delicious cakes and pastries for when I’m feeling cheeky and fresh sandwiches ideal for a British girl with meal-deal withdrawal. So, European travellers, this one is for you! And if you’re not European… I mean, it’s cake and bread, who could complain?…sorry gluten-free folk. ‘To speak or not to speak’, all foreigners will know the struggle. Rest assured that the staff at Grain blé are always super smiley and interested to hear what you’ve got to say, making it my favourite place to practice Korean! Sometimes I pop in just to say hello, other times I like to ask the staff for their suggestions. This wee bakery certainly makes Mang-won feel like my home-from-home.
Check out: grain-blé-그랭블레
5. Sikmulhak, Sin-sa
As a historical tea lover — and coffee hater — Sikmulhak marks the holy site where I was converted to coffee. Albeit, with a vanilla latte, which is essentially an ocean of milk and syrup with the subtlest hint of bitterness — but hey, it’s still coffee. Take a moment to watch the staff at work and you’ll notice the fresh ingredients used and the skills implored. What’s more, take a moment to talk to the staff and you’ll see that this is no side job for them, these dudes effing LOVE coffee… I can only imagine. Although Jackson and Andy may dress the part of cool and stylish Garosugil-ites, they’re actually super down-to-earth. Not to mention they speak perfect English, so no fear of embarrassment there (except for my friend Haeun, who laughed so hard she spilled her drink.)
Check out: @sikmulhak
6. Cat’s Playground, Myeong-dong
Easy-listening music, sleeping cats and sweet milk tea. You couldn’t ask for a more relaxing environment…unless perhaps you’re a lactose-intolerant mouse that hates Frank Sinatra. This is another place to practice your Korean, if that’s your prerogative. Why? For one, most of the staff are cats (no judgement here!) Dara, the Norwegian forest white, will greet you on your way in and the chubby, orange tabby spread out on the table in front? That’s Rangi. As for the humans, like most cat-lovers they’re calm, understanding and love an easy chit-chat. But, if speaking Korean is making your head hurt then no worries, the menu and information are available in English!
Check out: @catplayground
7. Giku Sushi, Sin-chon
One fateful night after work, the hardworking soldiers at Giku Sushi were tasked with satiating my almost feral craving for sushi — and they did it for less than $10! Of course, their tasty dishes and modest pricing are not the reasons they make this list. The first time I visited I was dining alone, no partner in toe like the rest of the couples, but the chef was friendly and interested in where I’d come from and what it was that I loved about Korea. Additionally, as an explorer of culture, it’s humbling to meet someone who is interested in what your land is like. I went back again, this time with a friend, and he gave us a free drink, which is always nice isn’t it?
Check out: Giku Sushi – Sinchon
8. Mother & Son, Hongeun-jungang
If you’re missing the intimacies of a home-cooked meal, it’s right there in the name. Mother and son, pronounced ‘eo-meo-ni-wa a-deul’ in Korean, is a family-owned chicken broth restaurant…Eomeoni Waddle? it reminds me of Pingu’s mum somehow. Here you’ll be offered the perfect healing food to warm tummies on a cold day. In the picture above you’ll notice a very happy Eomeoni, equally happy family pictures and sticky notes with words of love and thanks on the wall. For instance, we wrote “jal meo-geo-sseub-ni-da” meaning “we ate well!” Indeed, after a long day of hiking, a filling soup went down a treat.
9. Jugamirak, Gong-deok
Another place that combines the cool with the cheerful, Jugamirak is a bespoke restaurant offering a particular style of Japanese cuisine whereby the chef cooks you what he likes! Furthermore, Like many Michelin-star chefs he’s well-travelled and I relished our conversation about European food over my plate of truffle glazed shrimp. The friendly faces and intimate atmosphere of Jugamirak makes for a perfect oasis from the busy streets of Seoul.
Check out: @jugamirak
10. Seollun, Seo-cho
I had the joy of meeting the manager on the subway one morning. It was crowded and I let her take my seat and in return, she gave me a box of masks and invited me to her restaurant. However, ‘naeng-myeon’ AKA ‘cold noodles’ aren’t for everyone. But, thankfully there’s hot meat and dumplings too! This restaurant is a great one to round off the list as I discovered it through the kindness of a Korean. Moreover, a woman of the older generation whom are less likely to speak English and more likely to be unwelcoming of change or progression.
Check out: goo.gl/maps/FEYjt6LtYn6Sb3VQ7
If you do end up catching a passer-by on a bad day or the confused glance of a waiter or barista, I implore you to go to these places and meet the real people of Seoul. These are just a few of the many, many Koreans who are happy to meet you and welcome you to their country. Whether you love K-Pop, kimchi or have ended up in Korea serendipitously, they’re just glad that you’re here!