Seoul is South Korea’s vibrant and buzzing capital city, and with over 20% of the country living in Seoul alone, the city is huge. Travelling from one major neighbourhood to another can take as much as 1 hour on the city’s subway system. Thankfully, Seoul is very well-connected by public transport, which makes it incredibly easy to get around.
This can make choosing a neighbourhood as a base difficult if you haven’t been to Seoul before. Thus this guide acts as an introduction to the city’s neighbourhoods, and which I’d recommend for different travellers.
Hongdae is where you’ll find Seoul’s vibrant youth culture, and it’s here where you’ll get the feeling like the city doesn’t sleep.
If you’ve heard anything about the busking scene in South Korea, you’ll find it all here with many youths displaying their talents in the streets, often with many fans and spectators gathered round.
Here’s also where you’ll find lots of street stalls and boutiques selling everything from accessories to clothing, alongside bubble tea stores, Korean barbecue restaurants packed out with diners, and clubs with long lines in front of them.
Stay in Hongdae if…
You’d like to be a door step away from South Korea’s pop culture.
You’d like to live it up in Seoul’s nightlife.
You’d like to be somewhere where you can shop the many boutiques and stores, including vintage clothing stores.
Itaewon is known as the neighbourhood popular with the immigrant community, and you’ll see the cultural diversity (for Korean standards) the moment you get off the subway.
Once you walk out onto the streets of Itaewon, you’ll find specialist shops catering to the immigrant community and their needs, as well as Turkish kebab joints, Japanese izakayas, New York diners, and Mediterranean cafes.
Walk down Itaewon-dong to find the coolest vinyl store called Vinyl & Plastic by Hyundai Card.
You’ll also find a neat little lookout point just beside that store looking over the Itaewon neighbourhood.
Stay in Itaewon if…
You’d like to be near restaurants of other popular cuisines round the world (often not the easiest to find in Korea, mind), where you can literally have a different cuisine a minute’s walk away from another.
You’d like to be somewhere a little more distinguished and mature compared to Hongdae.
Gangnam is Seoul’s fancy neighbourhood, where posh apartments meet expensive luxury cars.
You’ll find lots of 5 star hotels located in this neighbourhood too, as well as many large convention halls used for international exhibitions and trade shows. Mega malls are everywhere, and all this in the neighbourhood immediately tells you a lot about what Gangnam is like.
Fret not, you can still find a piece of traditional Korean culture and tradition here in the form of the famous Bongeunsa Temple, which provides a nice slice of serenity just across the road away from the hustle and bustle of Seoul.
Oh yes, and that library everyone talks about that has become an Instagram favourite?
Starfield Library can be found here too, and it truly is stunning as light pours in through the ceiling and windows.
The many office buildings here also doesn’t mean Gangnam isn’t full of life.
Take to the streets to find endless (and I truly mean endless) restaurants and coffeehouses seemingly busy at all times of day with many groups of people, especially the after work crowd letting their hair down over great food and drink options. The streets here are extremely busy once night falls.
Stay in Gangnam if…
You’d like to be in a smart and more formal neighbourhood, yet one that’s still incredibly busy at night with plenty of food options.
You’re a massive K-pop fan, as many entertainment agencies have museums and merchandise shops here, a famous example being SMTOWN@coexartium.
You’ve come to Seoul for medical purposes as many clinics can be found in Gangnam.
It’s easy to write Dongdaemun off as just a place to shop, but even within the realm of shopping, Dongdaemun offers so much.
Everything from underground shopping centres where you can find some nice bargains to designer goods in fancy department stores, to thrift shopping at local markets, to large wholesale markets where you’ll find ties, belts, accessories, flowers etc. Dongdaemun truly has everything you’d want under the sun all in this neighbourhood.
An architectural standout and a must-see is the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, a masterpiece by the late architect Zaha Hadid.
Known as DDP for short, it’s a massive building used for many events and design-led workshops, as well as hosting farmers and makers markets and an all-round creative space.
If you appreciate anything about the arts and architecture, you’ll love this place.
Don’t forget to see one of Seoul’s city gates, the Heunginjimun Gate, another stunning display of Seoul’s traditional and modern sides complementing each other in a great way.
Head to Gwangjang Market for an incredible atmosphere of street food, with the vintage clothing shopping arcade located on the second floor.
Stay in Dongdaemun if…
You came to Seoul to shop.
And to shop.
And shop some more.
The area of Insa-dong is known as Seoul’s artsy neighbourhood, where you can pick up many crafty souvenirs.
You’ll also find calligraphy and tea ceremonies in this neighbourhood, and many local boutiques and craftsmen have set up shop here.
An up-and-coming area just next to Insa-dong is Ikseon-dong, an area of traditional hanok-style houses where restaurants, boutiques and cafes have moved in to revitalise the district, and you’ll find many camera-welding travellers and locals here.
Stay in Insa-dong if…
You’d like to be in a culturally-rich neighbourhood.
You’d like to be somewhere busy and touristy (not always a bad thing!).
Myeong-dong is an incredibly famous district, and is just as touristy as Insa-dong if not more, and you’ll find that the streets truly do come to life when night falls and the food carts start setting up.
You can easily get plenty of Korean street food favourites here whilst you pop into the endless rows of shops.
Heard loads about those Instagram-worthy shops and cafes?
Stylenanda’s Pink Hotel is here, offering different levels of cosmetics, clothing and the famous Pink Pool Cafe.
And just a couple streets down lies the Line Friends Store & Cafe.
Stay in Myeong-dong if…
You’d like to be somewhere young and touristy.
You enjoy street food and shopping.
Sinsa-dong is famous for it’s tree-lined avenues and numerous cafes and boutiques which make the area feel more like you’re somewhere overseas.
Famous sunglass label Gentle Monster has a store here as well. Seriously though, popping into any one of their stores is a trip in itself. Anyone who can appreciate art direction and interior design will certainly appreciate what Gentle Monster does.
Many expensive retail brands and beautiful cafes can be found here, and is certainly a posh neighbourhood not too far removed from Gangnam.
Stay in Sinsa-dong if…
You’d like to be in an upscale neighbourhood that isn’t just glass skyscrapers and business suits.
All in all though, many of the neighbourhoods have a distinctive vibe and atmosphere, but many also have common similarities, like the plentiful shopping and street food that Seoul does so well.
I’m not really including Bukchon Hanok Village in this list as I wouldn’t consider it a neighbourhood one would consider when choosing where to stay in Seoul, and ultimately it truly depends on what kind of traveller you are, who you’re with, and the type of accommodations you’d like to stay in.
Personally, I love the area of Hongdae and if you’re young (or young at heart) with an interest in the arts and pop culture and love the energy and buzz of Seoul, there’s no place else to be.