Tourist Tips: One Day in Gangnam – An Introduction

I recently wrote a nice blog post for the team at Trazy! Trazy is a wildly popular travel services site for Seoul. They offer any and everything – private cars from the airport, tickets to Nanta, day trips to the countryside and ski resorts…even entry passes to Club Octagon!

Since I focus on tours in the Gangnam area, I wrote up some information about Gangnam, the history, the neighborhoods, transportation etc.

I always recommend visitors enjoy the Gangnam or Jamsil area for the day before our meetup. There are many things to do for the entire afternoon…and then stroll on over to Sinnonhyeon to meet me for dinner!

So this post is kind of shameless. Just copy and pasted with some links for you to get more info on the places…..here goes!

What Is Gangnam?

Anyone that comes to Seoul is already familiar with Gangnam, thanks to the suuuuuuuuper popular song from 2012, Gangnam Style:

Yes, it’s home to wealthy people, fancy cars, and celebrities, but that’s just one tiny pocket of Gangnam. Gangnam literally means “South of the River” and encompasses basically the entire southeastern region of Seoul including Seocho and Jamsil, not just Gangnam Station area. Gangnam was actually farm land until the 1970s or so and did not really become fully developed until the 80s (or later, depending on your definition of developed). So everything you see in Gangnam is “new” by Korean standards.

Gangnam itself is divided into several main areas (dong means neighborhood in Korean):

Cheongdam-dong : True Gangnam Style, home to all the celebrities, fancy cafes, expensive cars.

Nonhyeon-dong: Standard Gangnam. Offices on the main roads and tons of quiet neighborhoods, residences and local restaurants/bars on the back streets.

Sinsa-dong: Home to plastic surgery clinics, more businesses, more residences. Also home to Garosu-gil.

Samseong-dong: Another residential area of Gangnam. Home to COEX, Bongeunsa Temple.

Seocho-gu (Gu Means District): Standard Gangnam. Home to many businesses and high rise apartments.

Fun fact. Gangnam-daero (Road) is actually the dividing line between Seocho and Gangnam Districts. The average visitor won’t notice a difference, but for residents it’s a matter of where you pay your taxes and who provides services.

Songpa-gu: Songpa is actually a huge district that is considered Gangnam, but it spreads east verrrrrry far. Many, many, maaaaaaaaaaany high rise apartments. Also home to Jamsil Station and Lotte World.

Hotspots & Places of Interest

***The bold titles of each section are also links to Google searches for more information, pictures, etc.***

Gangnam Station:  Gangnam Station is actually the busiest subway station in Seoul and has a huge underground shopping center. Great for cheap women’s clothes and accessories!

Gangnam Station Exit 9 and 10: Major shopping street. Every major Korean and foreign brand AND a GIANT Kakao Friends store!

Gangnam Station Exit 11 and 12 (behind the main road): Looooooooooooong alleyways with TONS of restaurants, bars and cafes!

Garosu-gil (Sinsa Station Exit 8): Garosu-gil means “Tree Lined Street.” The main street is home to more Korean and international brands. Also home to Korea’s only Apple Store. The highlight of Garosu-gil is actually off the main road – there are TONS of dessert cafes, tiny restaurants, cute bars, and more to explore!

Hallyu K Star Road (Apgujeong Rodeo Station Exit 2): Also home to the Galleria Department Store and Apgujeong Rodeo Shopping/Nightlife Area, this road features many of Korea’s fanciest luxury brands. Fun Fact: This neighborhood is SO fancy, all of these luxury brands have giant stand alone stores here AND even a store right down the street inside the Galleria Dept. Store…..which makes you wonder, WHO buys all this stuff!?  But, K Star Road features many cute character statues for your favorite K Pop groups. If you’re wanting to find a celebrity, it would be here. They live and shop in this area.

Seonjeongneung Tombs: (Seonjeongneung Station Exit 3 / Seolleung Station Exit 8): Home to two sets of tombs, this is actually a very beautifully landscaped and relaxing park.

Bongeunsa Temple (Bongeunsa Station Exit 1): A traditional Korean temple right in the middle of the city. Great contrast between past and present, traditional and modern!

COEX (Bongeunsa Station Exit 7 / Samseong Station Exit 5 or 6): The world’s largest underground shopping mall! Home to a giant Megabox movie theater, tons of shopping and food, Kimchi Museum, Aquarium…even a Convention Center, TWO Intercontinental Hotels, a Casino….and even the City Airport Terminal that offers Check In, Immigration, and Bag Drop for your flight.

Jamsil Station: The area around Jamsil Station is often called Lotte Town by locals. It’s home to Lotte World, the amusement park, as well as Lotte World Tower, the123 floor skyscraper. Lotte World Tower features not only a giant shopping mall with duty free shops, restaurants, an aquarium….but a luxury hotel, residences, and the observatory at the top.  There is also a Lotte Hotel next door and TWO Lotte Department Stores literally across the street from each other. The CEO of Lotte Group lives in Lotte Tower and the company has all of various HQs in buildings surrounding the entire station.

Gangnam – Transportation & Getting Around

Traffic in Gangnam can be quite brutal. Gangnam is the business hub of Seoul, so many people from all over Seoul and the suburbs come here for work. There are buses available to literally every corner of Seoul and the surrounding area (and buses to other cities at Express Bus Terminal). The subway lines in Gangnam run east to west, so it’s easier to pick a subway line and walk the remaining distance north or south. Don’t really try to transfer in Gangnam subways as you’ll go out of your way. You’ll spend more time changing lines than if you just walked.

Subway Line 9 is perhaps the best part about Gangnam. It has an Express train that can take you all the way across to Gimpo Airport in roughly 30 minutes…but it is PACKED at rush hour! You can then just cross the platform at Gimpo Airport to change to the AREX and be at Incheon Airport in another 40 minutes.  There are many airport limousine buses to Gangnam, but be warned in bad traffic it can take almost 90 minutes!

Where to Stay

Most people that stay in Gangnam are business travelers for work. I strongly believe Gangnam is the best neighborhood to live in (infrastructure, neighborhood cleanliness, services offered, etc.), but perhaps not the best for a tourist.  As a tourist, you’ll be hopping around all day and it’s at least 40 minutes to Myeongdong and central Seoul, and 45 mins – 1 hr to the other side and Hongdae depending on where you are going.

BUT if you stay near Subway Line 9, it is very easy to transfer to other subway lines by Express train. You can be at Seoul Station in 15-20 minutes, Hongdae in 40, and so on.

Try to stay near Subway Line 9 and an Express Stop (Sinnonhyeon Station, Sonjeongneung Station, Bongeunsa Station).  Most of the action (shopping, nightlife, 24 hour vibe, busy streets and activity) is around Sinnonhyeon Station.

 

 

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Tourist Tips: Where To Stay in Seoul

Since I’m finally able to start back up, instead of trip reports and activities, I wanted to focus on the basics. As you know, I am verrrrrry active on Trip Advisor and am asked the same questions over and over. So, in the interest of simplicity, I wanted to create my version of what’s already out there…but simpler. To the point.

So you’ve decided to come to Seoul. But you have to decide where to stay, what’s important, how much you can spend, literally everything can be overwhelming. So, I’ll be breaking down the four major areas that tourists stays: Central Seoul (Myeongdong/Jongno/City Hall – all north of Namsan), Itaewon (Central, South of Namsan), Hongdae (West), and Gangnam (Southeast).

What I won’t be doing is 100 pictures and videos and hotel reviews. All of that is up to you. Your exact price, your exact location preference, everyone is different. If you’re looking for reviews, always check Trip Advisor, Hostel World, etc.

In my Mega Map below, you’ll see not only neighborhoods, but other categories you can filter so you can check in relation to a specific place you want to go or what’s your style.

How to Get a Free Hotel

Flying Korean Air or Asiana? Free hotels are available for those on a forced overnight stopover. There are several conditions, but the basic one is this: you are flying on the airline with a layover in Seoul, BUT there is no available flight that night. You are forced to stay over the night in Seoul. You cannot choose this option. You can’t choose a longer layover to get a hotel.  You must also have a ticket purchased through the airline directly, not an award ticket or codeshare from another airline (generally).

Most of those flying Australia to Europe will qualify since Australia flights land in the evening, but almost all flights to Europe and the USA leave in the morning/early afternoon.  Those flying from the US to almost everywhere in Asia will essentially not qualify as most of the flights are set up to connect from US to other points anyway. Do check your schedule and you must contact the call center!

Hotel choice may vary. You must contact Korean Air or Asiana customer service over the phone directly and inquire about the Stopover Hotel.

This document explains the rules for Korean Air.

There are many blog posts for the Asiana hotel, but nothing official I can find.

 

How to Use The Map

In the top left corner of the map, you’ll see a window icon with an arrow. This shows the drop down menu so you can filter out other categories as you wish. The far right rectangle makes the map bigger on its own Google Maps page.

 

Central Seoul – Myeongdong

Myeongdong is technically a very large around right in the middle of Seoul. While most people think of Myeongdong Station itself, it extends in a large area all around the station.

In the immediate area to the north of Myeongdong Station, you will find major, large hotels around 150 USD per night, give or take. You will also find the swarms of tourists in the shopping alleys until sundown, when the streets fill up with even more street food vendors.

If you head further north, you will find the Jongno 3 Ga area. This is home to the tourist sites and has both a business district feel on the main roads…and very old school Seoul in the alleys and backstreets.

Positives:

  • Easy airport access with many airport buses in the entire region AND easy subway access to everywhere (multiple subway lines)
  • Walking distance to all major tourist sites
  • Central shopping district with all major Korean brands for fashion and Korean beauty and skincare
  • Established tourist district means Tourist Volunteers in red coats and Tourist Police to help with any problems or if you’re lost

Negatives:

  • Myeongdong is 100% touristy. No doubt about it. And dead at night.
  • Myeongdong Street Food is not traditional. It is completely designed for tourists.
  • The area south of Myeongdong Station is kind of random. Not much there to do or see…..AND it’s on the side of Namsan, so there are lots of hills.

 

Central Seoul – Jongno 

Jongno is actually made up of several areas, running from Jongak Station (Line 1, Dark Blue Line) all the way to Jongno 5 Station.

The areas around Jongak and Jongno 3 Ga Stations have the most activity day and night. There are many businesses, parks, and offices during the day…and bars, restaurants, and street tents at night.

While Dongdaemun Plaza is to your far east, the area in between Jongno 3 and Dongdaemun is verrrrrrrrrrry quiet (around Jongno 4/5 area, for instance) after dark. Like a ghost town.

The area around Jongno 3-Ga station is actually the OG Gayborhood and is home to many Korean gay bars and street tents for drinking (most active on weekends). This is not like your standard western gayborhood with cafes, etc. It’s just where they go out. Korean society is still on the hush hush with the gays.

If you stay here, definitely stay in the immediate area around Jongno 3-Ga Station. There are many guesthouses and affordable motels.

Warning: These motels are actually “love motels” where many Koreans (young and old….I’ve shared elevators with couples in their 50s) go for some “alone time.”  They’re not sketchy, or really dirty or in bad shape, these places. It’s that most Koreans live with family, so they go there for a few hours in the afternoon (30$! 6 hours! From like 5-11 you get the palace…..and only like 50-60$ on weeknights. 70-80$ on weekends).  When you travel, in smaller cities, this is often all you have anyway.

So, in short, if the motel looks “cheesy,” covered in neon, or decked out with weird wallpaper with weird things like Marilyn Monroe quotes or fake plant pictures….it’s probably a love motel. And it’s definitely a unique Korean experience.

Central Seoul – City Hall/Namdaemun

To the West of Myeongdong is the business area surrounding City Hall and Namdaemun Market. To be honest, I don’t know much about this area. It’s a normal area, totally fine, but for night time action and food, you’re still going to end up over in the Jongno area.

Itaewon

Itaewon comes up often in the discussion. Itaewon is a perfectly fine neighborhood for those seeking trends. Itaewon is no longer the “foreign ghetto” it used to be. All of the old dive bars that were once full of foreigners (aka white people)…..are now trendy, fairly expensive restaurants and lounges.

There’s actually realllllllly good foreign food here. My friend Gemma runs Fat Girl’s Food Guide which is the go to source for all foreign food in Itaewon and Seoul, so definitely check that out. If you’re looking for Korean food, it’s simply just not in Itaewon.

Itaewon does have cheap guesthouses…..but it does not have good transportation. It is only connected to Subway Line 6, which means you’ll have to do a transfer or two on the subway to get around. It is on the other side of Namsan from Myeongdong and that area, so a taxi is easier. There are buses in Itaewon, but they don’t really go where you need them to as a tourist.

Gangnam

Shout out to my hood! Gangnam is where I’ve called home for the past three years now. Gangnam technically means South of The River, but for tourists it’s simply the Sinsa/Nonhyeon/Sinnonhyeon/Gangnam Station corridor and the surrounding areas. Gangnam has the best transportation to literally everywhere in Seoul (a bus to anywhere!) and has all the same food and nightlife options as Hongdae….

BUT……..

As a tourist, it’s much harder to navigate. This area just doesn’t see many tourists. Mostly business men with translators and corporate contacts. Since it’s a business area, to most visitors, they only see the offices and main streets (which are quiet after 6 PM). The real neighborhood and restaurants are in the back streets. There are some great places, but you’ve gotta know what to look for…..and some language skills help, too.

Also, as a tourist, Gangnam is kind of far. To get to any tourist area, it’s going to be about 30-40 minutes one way on the subway. Yes, there are buses, but at rush hour the traffic can be bad and the buses PACKED.

Hongdae

Hongdae is kind of THE go to area for all tourists now. That doesn’t mean it’s a shitty tourist neighborhood…but it’s because it’s the most vibrant. There is ALLLLL KINDS of food, shopping and nightlife open all day and all night. Daytime is a bit more quiet, but at night time Hongdae is on 100.  There’s literally all kinds of Korean food, street food, dessert cafes, you name it! The bars and clubs are open every night and somebody is always out.

Hongdae is on Subway Line 2 which runs a circle around the city. This means that you can get to central Seoul in just 20-30 mins or so depending on which stop you use.

Hongdae is also on the AREX line, making it easy to get in and out of the city to ICN and GMP airports. There are also a large number of AirBnBs and guesthouses keeping the accomodation costs down.

Up Next: One Day Layover and Tour Ideas for a Quick Seoul Visit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Gangnam Life

Since the blog is fresh, I wanted to take the time to share a little bit more about myself, my social life, etc.  As I mentioned, I live and work in Gangnam near Seonjeongneung Station. I work as an after school English teacher at a nearby school in the afternoons. It’s a nice 20 minute walk to work.

Gangnam literally means “South of the River,” the River being the Han River that divides Seoul. The northern part of the river is older Seoul, where everything began. Gangnam development only really began in the 1970s (ish) as it was allllllllllllllllllll farm land then. It was developed specifically to be the new business area.  Gangnam is technically Gangnam-gu (gu = District), Seocho-gu, and even Songpa-gu, so what Seoulites consider Gangnam is quite large.

Gangnam itself is about 1-1.5 hrs from Incheon Airport depending on traffic/where you’re coming from. To Myeongdong it’s about 40 minutes by bus. To Hongdae, 45 minutes by subway. Gangnam is in the Southeastern area of Seoul.

The best part? You can literally get ANYWHERE in Korea from Gangnam. Well, except Jeju. Express Bus Terminal is in Gangnam, offering buses to other cities like Busan, Gyeongju, and Daegu.  The SRT high speed train also opened recently at Suseo Station, allowing us to get to the same cities by high speed train. It’s closer than KTX for us and even slightly cheaper.  Gimpo Airport is only 30 minutes by Line 9 Express, but bring your patience, because Line 9 is craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazy crowded.

Allllllllll the major businesses are here, so it’s teeming with office workers during the day. It’s also known as the place for THE best education in Korea, so there are many families packed into high-rise apartment complexes and small apartments surrounding the schools.

Gangnam is viewed as the “fancy, super expensive” neighborhood, which it can be, but that is not my Gangnam! I happen to think of my neighborhood as VERY normal, but better in some ways. It’s extremely clean with Nazi-like trash men, street sweepers, trash trucks, all that stuff.  Not only do the trash men sort the household trash for collection, they even go as far to sweep the streets of leaves and general debris every morning!

Here are a few shots of my hood. The main streets around it are covered in offices, businesses, traffic. What you’d expect as it’s the newer part of Seoul.

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Sunny Afternoon in the ‘hood!

When you move off the main street, you find tons of residences all around you.  The giant apartment towers/family complexes are self serving with everything in one central location. Most single people live in small buildings with several one room apartments. The streets are narrow and dense with buildings and car traffic.

Somehow, despite all of this, my neighborhood is PIN DROP quiet. Like I still don’t know how it manages to be this quiet. People are all around, but you wouldn’t know it!

 

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Typical Gangnam Neighborhood Street (Not Sure Who Put Up the Soju Cut Out, But I Love Them)

There are several meat restaurants, izakayas and Korean style bars in my neighborhood. I stay around my house when I want a quiet night out. Fried chicken, meat, seafood, it can all be had within a short walk.

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My Neighborhood Pork Place

 

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Moksal, Pork Neck, which has a nice, crispy fatty edge. Perfect with just a dash of salt! Real meat needs nothing else!

And below are just two of my favorite Japanese places nearby. Yes, I know, it’s Korea, but Japanese bars and food are verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry popular. The first place is a nearby izakaya that nails the decor!

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100 for Authentic Vibe!
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Nagasaki Jjampong – The broth is similar to Japanese Pork Ramen, but it’s full of seafood, noodles and DELICIOUSNESS.

Below is a Japanese “fish cake” bar. This place is always so busy I couldn’t get a seat for almost two years….only ten seats in total! By cake, I mean they form fish and flour together. In Japan, they call it kamaboko. In Korea, we call it Odeng or Uh-Mook.

 

 

BUT for true nightlife, I head just one (express) subway stop away to Sinnonhyeon Station. THIS is real Gangnam nightlife. And not douchey club Gangnam. Normal Koreans, meeting friends, eating, drinking, singing the night away.

My next post will be devoted to my home away from home (and where I do most meetups and tours), Sinnonhyeon Station!

The Beginning (Or, Who The F Is This Guy?)

Well, finally, the website has actually started! It’s been a long, lazy, stressful, challenging year….but I did it, folks. In really slow baby steps.

While the purpose of The Real Seoul is to meet visitors and show them an amazing time, I do have to tease you with blogs, blogs, blogs: amazing food write ups, activities, and other things that are The Real Seoul.

But first, before all that, I want you to know me. Where I come from, how I got here, all that. So let’s do this!

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My name is Michael Hollifield. I’m 33 (34 in just two weeks to the day). My last home in America was Atlanta, GA, but I grew up in Spartanburg, SC. I moved here in August 2011 on a whim. I was previously working in marketing in and loved it. But, I worked for a small business and was laid off. It was a perfect time as my apartment lease also ended. I searched around the world for teaching jobs.

Did I care about teaching? Absolutely not. I just wanted to live in a new country. In all my search, it turned out that my friend’s co-worker previously worked at the same academy in Korea that wanted to interview me.

I moved to the suburbs of Seoul and worked at a kindergarten and elementary school English academy for three years. It was hard, I busted my ass, but every day I loved life here more and more.

In 2014, I moved to Seoul for a change of pace. I lived in Itaewon, studied Korean, and prepared to apply for business school by taking the GMAT.  I got another teaching job. Unfortunately, after two years of trying, the business school plan was not meant to be.

As I stayed here year after year, I realized that I needed more than teaching. That I really wanted to make Korea my forever home.  So, I started the process to become a true resident of Korea and get a residency visa that allows complete freedom and independence.  More on that later.

So here I am, residency visa in hand. It’s fresh, too, from August! I’m still teaching by day, but I’m focusing more and more on this website and business every day.  Once I realllllllly get going, say in one year, I hope to make this my permanent full time job and say goodbye to teaching!

I currently live and work in Gangnam. Yes, that Gangnam. I LOVE my neighborhood. Not for Gangnam Style, not for fanciness. But it’s the best damn neighborhood in Seoul. I can live cheaply, eat cheaply…. and have the best transportation options, cleanest streets and quality infrastructure at the same time! I can’t wait to show off my neighborhood to you.

Oh and since you might have come here for Gay Nightlife info….yes, I’m totally gay. Living with, obviously, a Korean boyfriend! We definitely still go out to the gay bars and I absolutely can show you a great time there.

It is my goal that you love Seoul as much as I do in the short time you are here. That I can share with you what I love and what Koreans are so damn proud of. That you can love soju as much as I love soju.