Maps are wonderful things.
But if you have the time, figuring out a new city is best done by getting lost in it. We learn best when we use all our senses. Discard the map (or more like keeping it in your pocket for safety), and you get to use one additional sense of perception – INTUITION.
Sometimes you get things right, other times you’re wrong. But then again, there’s really no right or wrong way when you’re wandering aimlessly.
Sure, there are sites you marked beforehand. You can go there directly, following a clear set of directions – take these number of turns, watch out for these landmarks, and so on… It’s efficient. Saves you time and energy. Definitely gentler on your feet.
Or you can go for the detour.
As you let your feet dictate your whereabouts, you allow the city to unravel itself before your eyes. A place becomes a person.
“Indulge me,” says your host.
“Good things linger just around the corner. Somewhere left of the middle.”
In Seoul, there are neighborhoods that neither have the grandeur of palaces nor gorgeous landscapes, but they definitely make up for it with charm and character. These are the kind I wouldn’t mind getting lost in…
again… and again… and again…
Indie rock & roll. It’s youth in revolt. Brash and red-blooded. Wears its heart on its sleeve. Wears its art on its sleeve. Not surprising at all for a locale that sits right next to the country’s top university for the arts, Hongik University.
For twelve days, Hongdae was home. When asked for travel tips, my friends insisted that I stay here. Either they know me too well, or my tastes are just that predictable.
The residential side is a little more subdued compared to the one across the street, the side nearer to Hongik. It seemed like just any other neighborhood at first. But the everyday stroll from the hostel to the subway station proved otherwise.
A cello student on her way to class. A group of guys with guitars strapped on their backs. A 7-Eleven crowded with ballerinas. Skater boys during the wee hours of the morning.
Throw into this curious mix a few galleries, a recording studio, a dance studio, a skate shop, a ukelele shop, and a coffee shop that serves 1L-sized coffee, to go or al fresco (at your own risk).
Back at the subway station, going up Exit #9 takes you to the heart of Hongdae.
Like any other university town, it’s populated by shops, restaurants, bars, noraebang, DVD bang, and all those other attractions fit to excite the teen spirit. But here, hearts palpitate more than anywhere else. Banksy-esque murals and graffiti pump blood into its main arteries and network of narrow alleyways. At night, a musical mash-up of lively chatter, clinking of shot glasses, and independent musicians plugging their instruments, is the official soundtrack.
What sets Hongdae apart is its unapologetic nature. It’s unapologetically young, and decidedly drunk – with art, music, and soju. All days, but most especially on non-school nights. Hongdae is to be young, to be wild, and to be free to express one’s individuality.
And those who chose to be wild, those who stuck around ’til the after hours, were probably the ones buying that 1L-sized coffee in the morning.
My rain day savior. If Hongdae were fire, its next door neighbor is ice. Sangsu is laid back and homey, perfect for days when you just want to hole up. The boheme vibe is not at all lost. It just manifests itself in some other ways – preferring intimate gatherings, with coffee as its poison of choice.
Sangsudong is the brewing site for creative independent cafes, most of which are renovated residential spaces. One rainy evening, I chose to linger at Cafe Comma. It’s a book cafe with a selection stacked to the ceiling. Everything’s in Korean though. Good thing I had Mr. Kerouac to keep me company.
Edae and Sinchon are…
Home to two of Seoul’s most beautiful campuses – EWHA Womans University and Yonsei University. What can I say, campus crashing is a hobby!
EWHA’s Underground Complex is my favorite architectural piece in Seoul. It is designed by French architect Dominique Perrault, who calls this project “The Hidden Valley of Ewha”. Despite its steely facade, the structure integrates itself seamlessly into the landscape. In fact, it has for its roof a sloped garden on each side.
The complex houses a movie theater, study & lecture halls, cafes/restaurants, a library, a fitness center, plus some other cultural facilities. Non-students can actually hang out here. I did, while eating my favorite Korean fried chicken with tteokbokki.
Walking towards Sinchon from Edae (the neighborhood surrounding Ewha), leads you to the vicinity of Yonsei University – one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in South Korea.
Yonsei’s campus is old-school with its ivy carpeted buildings and manicured gardens. You know that funny scene from the movie My Sassy Girl – the one where the girl asked the boyfriend to swap shoes with her? Yep, it was filmed here.
For the romantic. It’s one of those places that can make you go “Awwwww…”, A LOT.
I was following Gyeongbokgung’s outer walls from Insadong, when Samcheongdong welcomed me with a mural, a song, and some flowers.
Nestled on hilly streets next to the palace and near the foot of Bugak mountain, this neighborhood has mastered the art of quiet elegance. Samcheongdong is pretty to the hilt, with a dash of quirkiness that keeps things interesting.
It was as if I walked in on one of my Pinterest boards. There were just so many things competing for my attention. The shop facades that were in themselves design projects. The strong aroma of hand drip coffee. That inviting rooftop of another cafe. The cute little trinkets, hand-made jewelry, fashionable items on the clothes rack, and that Little Prince umbrella. Those retro bikes parked in front…
Be still, my fluttering heart.
I came across a fork in the road. Turn, to get to more shops, or follow the same road, which lead to a dead end. At the end of this street, there was a crowd, and people were queued up for something.
The name of the place is Coffee Mill Cafe. People were lined up not for the coffee, but for the 1-minute portrait. It would cost you a drink plus ₩1,000 (roughly Php 50) to get one.
As if to say that there’s just too much prettiness going on in this hood, the cafe owner-artist portrays you in a not-so pretty manner. Those getting their portraits done, including myself, sat nervously in front of him wondering how our faces would turn up like. Though once it’s finished, we just laugh at it along with the crowd.
Here’s how mine turned out. Definitely ugly, but I do see hints of me there. I think it’s a pretty cool, not to mention very personal, souvenir. I have it pasted on my wall now – my very first portrait.
Hopefully, I’d get to have a prettier version someday.
So there beneath the blue (or sometimes rainy) suburban skies, I sat, walked, and wandered about penny lanes. My feet sore, but spirit filled. Travel, they say, gets you to experience mini-universes. The beauty of it is that there’s no one way to go about it. If anything, the only advise I can give is: Bring lots of band-aids, all the time.