The Jongno district in Seoul is the city’s historic center — home to its royal palaces and the eponymous avenue that Korean monarchs once paraded down. While this makes it a major draw for tourists especially during weekends, it still hides plenty of secrets.
Tiny alleyways and hidden shops preserve a side of the city that hasn’t changed in decades, while local artists and entrepreneurs have recently rediscovered the neighborhood, capitalizing on an appetite for nostalgia by renovating old buildings and injecting them with modern style. It’s this mix of past and present that captivates Korean-American Terrence Kim and informs the designs of IISE, the streetwear brand founded by him and his brother Kevin in their parents’ homeland three years ago. Taking a break from the studio, Terrence shows us his top picks for food, shopping and inspiration in Jongno.
9AM: Buzzy start at Hanyakbang
You almost have to turn sideways to squeeze down the alley that leads to Hanyakbang, one of the cafés in Jongno’s industrial Euljiro neighborhood. Styled like a dabang, or teahouse, from the early 20th century, it has stained-glass lamps, a table made from wood that dates back to China’s Song dynasty (960–1279) and a beautiful set of mother-of-pearl-inlaid doors mounted on the second-floor wall. The antique chic hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Gucci just shot a lookbook here,” says Terrence. Sip one of Hanyakbang’s signature hand-drip coffees while you embrace its timeless charm. 16-6 Samil-daero 12-gil
10AM: Digging for treasure at Dongmyo Flea Market
“You get to see a lot of characters around Jongno — all these ajeosshis,” Terrence says, using the term for an older Korean man. “They’re well-dressed. Everyone’s got their own style.” While the Dongmyo Flea Market has tons of vintage clothing on sale — along with art, comics, old electronics and just about anything else you could think of — Terrence mostly comes to soak up the atmosphere. “There’s an old-school feel about the place,” he says. “It’s invigorating, seeing the city’s past in this format.” For more one-off vintage finds, head to Nangye-ro 27-gil. Sungin-dong
Noon: East coast cooking at Gangneung Donghwa Garden
For lunch, there are bowls of wonjo jjamsoon at Gangneung Donghwa Garden. “It’s a spicy seafood stew mixed with tofu — quite a rare dish,” says Terrence. The restaurant’s original location is in Gangneung, a city on the east coast famed for its pillowy tofu. “I’d never heard of or seen this dish in the first five years of living in Korea, but the original branch had become so successful that they opened an outlet in Seoul recently.” 40 Namdaemun-ro 9-gil
1PM: Putting things on ice at Sojukdoo
A common dessert of choice among locals is bingsu, or shaved ice topped with mango, cookies, cheesecake or other sweets. “I like almost every kind,” says Terrence, “but I usually go with the traditional topping.” That would be pat, or sweet red beans. Sojukdoo, which is housed in a hanok (traditional tile-roofed house), serves only heaping variations of bingsu with the classic ingredient. “It’s so milky, like snow,” he says. As for the best approach to eating it: “I don’t mix it up; I go from top to bottom.” 58 Bukchon-ro 5-gil; sojukdoo.com
2PM: Finding inspiration at Changgyeonggung palace
Built in the 15th century, Changgyeonggung often goes overlooked by visitors who head to better-known, historic palaces, but its construction is as grand as any. “When I first saw this kind of architecture, I thought aliens built it,” Terrence says. “It looks almost futuristic to me.” The palace has also inspired some of IISE’s streetwear designs. 185 Changgyeonggung-ro
4PM: Creative motivation at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
“Seeing other people’s work is motivation,” says Terrence, and he makes a point of frequently attending exhibitions to see how other creatives express themselves. Bukchon, the area northwest of Gyeongbokgung palace, is home to numerous galleries, but its marquee exhibition space is the new branch of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which opened in 2013. The museum displays the works of famed Korean video artist Nam June Paik, as well as those of other contemporary artists from Korea and abroad. 30 Samcheong-ro; mmca.go.kr
7PM: Chicken soup for the soul at Jinokhwa Halmae Wonjo Dakhanmari
Tucked in a tiny alley a half-block south of Jongno street is Jinokhwa Halmae Wonjo Dakhanmari (or Grandma Jin Ok-hwa’s Original Chicken Soup). A minute after you place your order, a huge pot is placed on the table’s burner, and the soup is boiling away. As satisfying as the soup is, the secret’s in the sauce — a potion of hot pepper, vinegar, mustard and soy sauce that you mix yourself and use as a dip for the servings of boiled chicken, potatoes and rice cakes. 18 Jongno 40-ga-gil; darkhanmari.co.kr
8PM: Wrapping up the day up at Nomad
Much of Jongno’s charm is in its no-frills, turn-back-the-clock atmosphere, and there’s plenty of that at Nomad, a hole-in-the-wall bar that specializes in makgeolli (unrefined rice wine). Decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and graffiti scrawled on its walls, Nomad offers a cozy place for visitors. “The last time I was here, there was a group of really drunk older guys, and one of them grabbed a guitar that was laying around and started jamming and singing old Korean songs,” says Terrence. “The place was packed with young people and they all joined in. That’s the kind of fun you stumble into in Jongno.” Insadong 16-gil
. . .
Meet Jeon Hoal-chul, owner of Nomad
How long has Nomad been around?
Jeon: About seven years.
Jeon: I ran a makgeolli blog with that name, and when I decided to open the place, I just carried it over.
What would you recommend as a snack to go with makgeolli?
Jeon: Our haemul pajeon (seafood and green onion pancake), regular pajeon (green onion pancake) or kimchijeon (kimchi pancake). The kimchi variation is made with really old kimchi, which gives it a good, strong flavor. The fried tofu and kimchi is really good too. It’s one of our most popular dishes.
. . .
The neighborhood between Dongmyo Station and Sindang Station is a beautiful mess of markets, including the Dongdaemun stationery and toy market, the Dongdaemun shoe market, the Hwanghak-dong kitchen market and Jungang Market, one of the city’s largest wet markets. Any visit to Jongno should include a few hours spent wandering through them.
. . .
Gallery-hopping in Bukchon
Kukje Gallery is one of Seoul’s most esteemed galleries. It represents some of the most prominent Korean and international artists. These include postwar artist Ha Chong-hyun and American Neo-Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. 54 Samcheong-ro; kukjegallery.com
Perrotin Seoul is the local branch of the French gallery that represents such names as French photographer and graffiti artist JR, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and Korean painter Park Seo-bo. 5 Palpan-gil; perrotin.com
Arario Gallery Seoul focuses on introducing contemporary Korean artists to a wider audience, as well as exposing Korean art lovers to artists from South and Southeast Asia. Bukchon-ro 5-gil; arariogallery.com
This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Smile magazine.