There are times in Seoul when you feel as though you’re caught up in a big-budget pop video. But the neighborhood of Yeonnam-dong, an on-the-rise area just west of the city center, bucks the trend towards lurid hyper-modernism, instead tapping into a suppressed longing for something a little more down-to-earth.
The heart of it all is the new Gyeongui Line Forest Park, a four-mile stretch of disused train tracks repurposed into a green space. These tracks once led to the militarized border with North Korea, just 23 miles away. Today, couples stroll beside a man-made stream as kids play in the grass, oblivious to the troubled history that the old line has come to represent.
This being Seoul, you don’t have to go too far to find cheery mayhem. Just south of Yeonnam-dong is the university area of Hongdae, which teems with youngsters, many of them sozzled on soju. Exit the busy Hongik University Subway station to the south, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by these kids. The Northern exit, though, brings you out into Yeonnam-dong, its border marked by a ribbon of grass dotted with fountains and year-old saplings.
Standing in the park, watching clouds drift over the curved edges of a hanok’s roof, it’s hard to believe that I’m in the same town that gave the world “Gangnam Style” and the Samsung empire. Even in the more built-up parts of Yeonnam-dong, gentrification hasn’t diminished its flavor, as with so many other neighborhoods. You wouldn’t call the prevalent post-war apartment blocks here pretty, but they are gratifyingly old-school in a city that cannot sit still.
While long overlooked by the capital’s estimated 10 million inhabitants, Yeonnam-dong is now favored by those looking for an alternative to the noisy bars of Itaewon-dong and the snooty boutiques of Apgujeong-dong. Radiating off the forest park trail is a warren of alleys, each of them lined with cool and quirky businesses. Stand at the foot of Yanghwa-ro, the once-shabby main street, and you’ll see a parade of international restaurants, along with indie shops selling everything from dog clothes to handmade jewelry.
“People seem happier here than in the rest of Seoul,” says Austin Kang, a semi-finalist on last year’s MasterChef Korea and executive chef of Bistro Élève, a Parisian-style eatery he opened in April with fellow Korean-American James Kwon. Élève has become popular among young Seoulites looking for something different. The menu combines Western dishes with Kang’s childhood favorites: I start with a creamy kimchi dip followed by a main of duck breast in a honey glaze with a maple bourbon sauce.
Not long ago, the opening of such a restaurant here would have raised eyebrows. But Kwon, who also owns a local sushi restaurant and a chain of Mexican eateries, says the area is undergoing a transformation that will soon make places like Bistro Élève the norm. “A lot of people are coming, buying these buildings and renovating them, because they can see the opportunity.”
Indeed, driven by the opening of the Gyeongui Line Forest Park (and a decade of soaring rents in surrounding neighborhoods), Yeonnam-dong is in the midst of a mini property boom. And yet, as locals are quick to point out, the area has not lost its close-knit, neighborly feel. “Here we can all grow together,” Kang says. “The food, the restaurant, the neighborhood, we’re all learning together. Elsewhere in Seoul, it’s a battle. Here we’re all friends. We help each other.”
After lunch, I zigzag through the alleys toward Yeontral Park (the locals’ tongue-in-cheek name for their new central green space), passing students carrying blankets and bags of takeout chicken, and women wielding parasols against the intense afternoon sun. I’m in search of an unmanned bookstore that popped up here late last year, where you can buy books and self-brewed coffee using the honor system (plus there’s the edifying effects of CCTV cameras), but after passing the What’s Your Cereal Number? breakfast café for the fourth time, I give up. (I have since learned that the bookshop does indeed exist, but is very hard to find for people with no navigational skills.)
While Yeonnam-dong is a relatively small part of this vast metropolis, it’s still confusing for outsiders. For one thing, Google Maps has limited access to local terrain, a security restriction intended to thwart North Korean spies. Then, there’s the neighborhood’s hodgepodge of alleys, which leave you heading east when you meant to go south, and vice versa. I bumble along with a local navigator, Naver Maps (only available in the Korean language), and switch my search to SF Bagels, a bakery renowned for its tremendous cinnamon rolls.
Pastry chef Min-sun Sung, who previously owned a cake shop in trendy Gangnam across the Han River, opened her latest enterprise two years ago. She chose Yeonnam-dong, in part, because it stands as a kind of anti-Gangnam. “Seoul has modernized very fast, so the whole city feels like the same district with the same personality,” she says. “Yeonnam-dong feels like you have gone back to the old days.”
After grabbing a sourdough jalapeño-cheddar bagel and a compulsory cinnamon roll, I head next door to Coffee Libre, touted as one of the places that kicked off Seoul’s artisanal coffee craze five years ago. The tiny concrete-clad interior has a single table, a few barstools and a Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling mask on the counter. (Nacho Libre, I’m told, is one of the owner’s favorite films.)
Manager Myeong-geun Kim believes that Coffee Libre’s success is comparable to that of the neighborhood overall. “In Korean culture,” he says, “if somebody says something is good, everyone follows and it becomes a trend.” Besides the globally sourced beans, a big draw here is the prices: 4,000 Korean won ($3.50) a cup, about half of what you’d pay at the city’s flashier joints.
Yeonnam-dong has long been seen as an affordable area in an extortionate city. In the 14th century, it was home to low-tier government officials, required to live farther from Gyeongbokgung Palace than their higher-ranking counterparts. By the early 20th century, immigrants from China had earned the area a global reputation as a mecca for Chinese food. Otherwise, though, Yeonnam-dong suffered from neglect, and by the end of the century had fallen into disrepair.
Today, things are very different. Alongside the scores of Chinese restaurants on Hwagyo Restaurant Street (or “Little China Town”), you’ll find tapas at La Mesa Del Quixote, enchiladas at B’mucho Cantina and surprisingly authentic bánh mì at Lie Lie Lie.
“The area has a very SoHo [New York] feeling,” says Sunny Oh, owner of DW Design Residence, a guesthouse that increasingly caters to an international clientele. “Everything is here, from entertainment to artists. You can have brunch, tea or coffee, go shopping. It’s very small and cute with beautiful stores, and it’s very calm.”
While funky fashion and accessory stores are becoming more prevalent, the area is best known for its array of independent bookstores. In 2016, in an effort to reaffirm Yeonnam-dong’s literary credentials, the Mapo District unveiled Gyeongui Line Book Street, an outdoor installation-meets-retail space set within a stretch of Gyeongui Line Forest Park.
A throwback to the old railroad days, rows of faux train cars line both sides of the park, each containing space for authors and artists. I enter one and meet J. Kim, a gregarious sexagenarian in head-to-toe white, who says he’s on a mission to raise awareness of poverty by exhibiting photographs taken by children in a Filipino slum. “Koreans love numbers and money, and are very business-minded,” he says. “In this country, there’s not a lot of space for art, so this project is very positive for the people.”
My final stop is Miyuki, a subterranean sushi bar that was opened in March by Jun-Woo Park, a charismatic local who tells me he likes to dress in whimsical kimonos to start conversations with his customers. “I don’t speak much English, but I use great body language with foreigners,” he says, then breaks into some jerky little dance moves. “People ask me if I’m drunk, but I’m just happy. I want to spread the happy virus.”
Park’s menu contains only three items on any given day, their ingredients sourced from the auction at the sprawling Noryangjin seafood market. “Good taste is basic,” he says. “But I want to give special service. When people dine alone, I like to be a matchmaker.” He smiles as he confides that two couples he introduced here are still together. “My business concept is more than just the food.”
Later, as I wander back to my guesthouse, past stylishly clad dogs on moonlit strolls, my phone dies. I panic, realizing I’m lost in the tangle of alleys without a map. Within seconds, a cute teenage girl approaches and happily points me in the right direction. As she walks away, I notice the back of her T-shirt reads: “Existential Emergencies Only.” This is what passes as a superhero in Yeonnam-dong, and you really couldn’t hope for anything better.
Best new places to eat, drink and sleep in Seoul’s anti-Gangnam
Industrial-chic budget hotel located near the subway and the action of Yeontral Park.
A flower-filled space with a botanical garden vibe, this indoor café and flower shop is a favorite.
Well known for its house enchiladas verdes, this tiny Mexican restaurant attracts hordes of foreigners craving south-of-the-border flavors.
Roi Guest House
After being featured on local TV, this low-key property became one of Yeonnam-dong’s most popular guesthouses.
A hip chandelier- and mirror-festooned restaurant and wine bar where weekend crowds spill onto Yeontral Park.
On the Right Track
100 years of railroad history in Yeonnam-dong
Built a century ago during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Gyeongui Line ran through Yeonnam-dong up to Pyongyang, finally terminating in Sinŭiju, a northern city across from China on the banks of the Yalu River. The tracks also linked Seoul to Busan, a southern port city, transporting people and goods up and down the peninsula. When the country was divided into North and South after the Korean War, the railroad fell into disuse, and it wasn’t until May 2016, with the opening of the Gyeongui Line Forest Park on the location of the abandoned tracks, that Yeonnam-dong underwent a transformation.
A look at the city’s other popular neighborhoods
Known as Seoul’s “Rodeo Drive,” this tony district is home to scores of boutiques purveying high-end merchandise.
Popular with tourists, this area is filled with teahouses, street food and artisan markets.
A favorite of hipsters, this chic neighborhood in the Gangnam district is known for tree-lined streets and stylish boutiques.
Just east of Gyeongbokgung Palace’s walls, this quaint area brimming with traditional hanok houses offers an abundance of innovative art galleries.