Beyond the crowded mega malls of Dongdaemun, Seoul’s got plenty of charming hidden spots. Sip an artisanal brew in a cafe housed in a former shoe factory, or visit an ancient temple surrounded by modern buildings.
1. Anthracite Coffee Roasters
Image: Anthracite Coffee Roasters
In a city with cafes on every block, Anthracite Coffee Roasters is a gem in the rough. Named after a type of coal, this java joint was set up in a former shoe factory and roasts its own beans from around the world.
2. Gyeonghuigung Palace
Scattered throughout central Seoul are five royal palaces from the Joseon era, Korea’s last dynasty. The smallest and least-visited is the western palace, Gyeonghuigung. Though it was originally much larger, the present version of the palace has a compact charm of its own.
3. Jungbu Market
Though it is overshadowed by its neighbour, the huge, sprawling Gwangjang Market, Jungbu Market is worth visiting to browse the mind-boggling variety of fish and seafood products that end up on Seoulites’ dining tables. The covered market stretches several city blocks.
4. Majung bar
The fine fermented flavors of the country all come together at Majung (29 Gwanghun-dong, Jongno-gu), a makgeolli (an alcoholic beverage made of fermented rice) bar tucked away in an alley in Insa-dong, a neighborhood known for its craft stores and galleries. Makgeolli goes well with savoury side dishes like haemuljeon.
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5. Jeongneung Royal Tomb
Once you’ve entered the exquisite forest of Jeongneung, it’s easy to forget you’re still in Seoul. The main attraction is a royal tomb: The second wife of the Joseon dynasty’s founder is buried at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
6. Suyeonsanbang teahouse
Concealed in a quiet lane in Seongbuk-dong, Suyeonsanbang dates back to 1933 and served as the home of a famous Korean novelist. The heritage building now serves as a teahouse. Try the jujube tea, the house special.
7. Changshin-dong neighbourhood
Changshin-dong is remarkably close to the heavily touristed shopping district of Dongdaemun, yet this colourful working-class world of its own remains unexplored. Nearby are some of the few moon villages (also known as shanty towns) in Seoul that have escaped redevelopment.
8. Baengnyeonok restaurant
In a city where carnivores are king, vegetarian-friendly restaurants like Baengnyeonok (2407 Nambusunhwan-ro, Seocho-gu, Tel: 02-523-2860) are a rarity. Located across the street from Seoul Arts Center, Hundred-Year House (as its name translates) specialises in time-tested tofu dishes, along with other tasty tidbits.
9. Bongeunsa Temple
While the Gangnam district only began to sprout up in the ’70s, the Buddhist temple of Bongeunsa has been rooted there for centuries. Though now dwarfed by Coex Mall and a spread of modernistic high-rises, Bongeunsa remains a sanctuary of serenity and mindfulness.
10. Korean Stone Art Museum
Perched high in the hills above downtown Seoul, the Korean Stone Art Museum features intriguing Korean rock carvings from throughout the ages. In a city with hundreds of galleries and museums, this one makes an imprint.
11. Seonyudo Park
No less than 18 bridges cross Seoul’s mighty Han River, and one of them – Yanghwadaegyo – makes a pit stop at the island of Seonyudo (which means Wandering Fairy Island). Formerly blighted by a water-processing plant, Seonyudo has been reborn as a lush park.
12. Korean Film Archive
Wedged into the corner of a building in the Digital Media City complex, theKorean Film Archive is a one-stop attraction for film buffs. It has a museum devoted to Korean film, an art theatre and a DVD library with free viewing stations.
13. Bongsan peak
Straddling the city-limit line, the small peak of Bongsan (Sinsa-dong, Eunpyeong-gu) was once used as a signal tower. Torches were lit at night and beacons puffed out smoke by day, passing messages from one mountain to the next, all the way to Busan.
This story was originally published in Silverkris.