These irresistibly cute activities will surely make you fall in love with Hongdae, the Korean capital’s youth-culture hub
South Korea’s capital is best known for its more conventional attractions: historic palaces, theme parks and sparkling shopping destinations. But there is one particular district where charming is a way of life, adorable is served to you in a cup, and cool reigns supreme. Welcome to Hongdae.
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Hongdae is situated right in front of Hongik University, best known in the country for its excellent fine-arts program, in the Mapo district of Seoul (gu is Korean for “district”, so this area is referred to as “Mapo-gu”). In the early ’90s, when property costs were still low, young artists — many straight out of university — set up ateliers around the area. It gave rise to a creative vibe that drew more students to Hongdae; clubs and bars began to sprout around the ateliers, and soon the area became a haven for the city’s youth culture, where young artists could freely express themselves through art (and then sell their artworks) amid booming house music. Two decades later, most of the ateliers have been converted to cafés, but those years of celebrating creativity have definitely left their mark.
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An abbreviated version of Hongik Daehakgyo (“Hongik University”), Hongdae is now eye-candy land. Streets are lined with coffee houses, each one a shining example of the area’s cute-above-all ethos. At night, the clubs come to life. On the second and last Friday of every month, partygoers jump from one club to the next for the price of one, filling Hongdae’s streets with runway-ready locals who look every bit as stunning as Korean drama stars. If that’s not reason enough to go, we give you 10 more reasons why Hongdae should be high on any Seoul visitor’s itinerary.
Let your inner kid out to play
Just across the road from the university is a monument to the spirit of play, the Hongdae Playground (406 Seogyo-dong). There are colorful slides, swings and monkey bars on one side of the park and, like most areas where students gather, the walls around the playground are covered in graffiti.
Music is a big part of the park’s buzzy atmosphere, and live performances are a regular feature, especially at weekends. Young musicians bring their own microphones and amplifiers, set up in any spot, and just start singing. Or rapping. This weekend musical gathering has become so popular that record-label reps looking for the next K-pop star have made it a frequent stop on their scouting route.
Flea markets also add to the fun, with stalls selling original art and crafts by students and local artisans. Choose from a variety of quirky and cute wares: baseball caps with LED lights, hipster socks with wolf or dinosaur prints for only KRW1,000 and chunky, faceted rings. There are also food stalls where you can sample the best of Seoul’s street food, like the spicy rice cake (tteokbokki) or the 32cm-tall ice cream.
All these form the perfect cocktail for the ultimate urban weekend idyll: people sit on benches enjoying street food, couples hold hands while swaying to the music, and students dance around without a hint of self- consciousness in the neon colors of fashion brand K-Star. A stroll through the park — perhaps an hour or so at the playground — is the perfect introduction to Hongdae: relaxed, anything-goes fun.
Have your own K-pop concert
As an unspoken rule, the first date in Seoul is usually at a noraebang, the local term for karaoke. Among the many noraebang that pepper the district and the rest of the city, Luxury Su (367-39 Seogyo-dong; +82 2 322 3111; skysu.com) stands out with its dollhouse façade and tall windows. A garden pathway welcomes you as soon as you enter, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s going to be a polite, buttoned-up kind of evening.
After you leave your shoes at the lobby, you will be escorted to a private room, which is rented hourly. Flashing lights and glass floors lead you to a wildly pink room — pink walls, pink armchairs, pink curtains — where you can sing your heart out with wild abandon. The thick book of songs contains mostly Korean and English pop songs. If you’re a regular to karaoke joints, then working the control panel or remote control won’t be a problem. Choose a song, key in the corresponding number, and press “Reserve” or “‘예약.”
Free ice cream and unlimited popcorn top off the experience at this bubblegum wonderland. Parts of the drama, My Name Is Kim Sam-soon — tagged as the local version of Bridget Jones’s Diary — were shot here, so be ready anytime for a Koreanovela moment at this noraebang.
Travel back in time
All things retro have reincarnated as the ultimate in hip. A spacious industrial warehouse that’s been converted into a café, Café aA (408-11 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; +82 2 3143 7312; aadesignmuseum.com) boasts all original mid-century pieces, which means designer chairs from the 1940s and ’50s straight out of catalogues or the TV series Mad Men. Even the faucets and doors are vintage pieces from the owner’s private collection.
A slow-paced meal at Café aA makes for a chilled respite from the busyness of Hongdae’s streets. Start with the crisp Classic Winter Salad and partner it with the aA Cream Omelet Sandwich. Make space though for the Classic Tiramisu, which is unbelievably fluffy and light, while a Korean Plum Iced Tea will perfectly refresh the palate.
The brunch crowd is refined but relaxed, murmuring faintly above coffee and salads, enjoying the warmth from the large windows that give them a view of the patio.
Learn to converse in Korean
Canadian couple Simon and Martina Stawski moved to Seoul in 2008 to become English teachers, and went on to document their (usually funny) encounters with Korean culture over a YouTube channel called Eat Your Kimchi.
In time, the channel grew a cult following, which led to Simon and Martina quitting their day jobs and focusing on becoming full-time bloggers living off the channel’s revenues. Recently the couple have partnered with another channel, Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK), and put up a dessert and coffee shop. A few minutes’ walk from the Hongik station, You Are Here Café (Donggyo-ro 25-gil; +82 2 336 9632) is in the quiet part of Hongdae, and has been designed to look and feel like someone’s real home.
Tables with umbrellas on the lawn by the entrance set the mood — you almost feel like you’re about to pay a good friend a visit. Inside it’s bright and airy, and there is a standard-sized classroom where you can learn Korean while sipping on a Raspberry Oreo Milkshake topped with pink whipped cream. The café offers weekend courses and study sessions run by the team at TTMIK. It’s best to call first so you can join the Korean language-class meet-ups.
Go crazy for cute stationery
There is a local term for cute, “aegyo,” and it means making adorable expressions similar to those baby faces that K-pop idols make (it’s also a way of flirting, so when in Seoul, get your aegyo on).
Stationery chain Artbox (364-26 Seogyo-dong; artbox.co.kr) is the most aegyo of all — there’s no getting out of here without a purchase or a silly smile. The store stocks everything “aww”-inspiring, from notebooks and umbrellas to backpacks and even calculators. Many of these pastel-colored goodies feature animal faces, blooms and even faux-fur.
Korean sweethearts like to wear the same style of shirts (sometimes they even carry the same bags or pens), and Artbox is a monument to this contagious, childlike sweetness. You’ll often see couples throwing in his-and-hers items into one shopping cart. It’s aegyo to the nth power.
Bring out the adorable in ewe
When it comes to aegyo, no neighborhood pushes the envelope as far as Hongdae. You’ve heard of cat and dog cafés, but Thanks Nature Café (486, Seogyo-dong, Seogyo Prugio Apartment Store B121) lets you sip coffee and eat waffles beside two lovable sheep you’ll want to hug, squeeze and bring home with you.
The place has a very organic feel, with rustic tables and chairs, and photos of animals on the wall. The outdoor area has a tree at the corner with lamps and Tivoli lights hanging from its branches. Beside it is a small pen where the two sheep, Bocksil (ram) and Mongsil (ewe), live. The entire set-up makes you feel like you’ve just stepped inside a barn in the middle of Hongdae’s shopping malls, and you’ll just want to kick back, relax and enjoy the pastoral atmosphere.
Bocksil and Mongsil are well trained and tame. You may pet them and even feed them — just ask for permission beforehand. Sometimes they are let out of their pen and your knees will just turn to jelly when they start playing: baadorable.
Say hello to a kitty in a cup
The ubiquitous pink bow hangs on the café’s signage, so you can immediately recognize it even from a distance. Hello Kitty Café (18 Wausan-ro 19-gil; +82 2 334 6570) has moved to a bigger location, but it can still get pretty crowded inside, which just goes to show how popular this kitty and all its reincarnations (Hello Gothic Kitty, Hello Korean Kitty) have become.
It’s an all-pink affair, from the walls to the crew uniforms. The Hello Kitty bedroom is a toy set come to life, and is quite a sight to behold. The café serves delicious yogurt ice cream and good coffee with Instagram-able latte art that’s drawn using a Hello Kitty stencil. The gift shop sells Sanrio merchandise, so if you’re a fan, this is the place to score some rare finds.
Indulge yourself in a patisserie wonderland
Coco Bruni (Hongdae Mapo-gu, Donggyu-dong; +82 2 334 1875) is one of the most stylishly designed coffee houses in the area. A sculptural rendition of its rather strange but pretty logo — a girl riding a bird — is perched at the top of the entrance. Birdcages converted into lamps hang from the ceiling, and the walls are enlivened with découpage cut-outs from books: the effect is like walking into a fairy tale.
But the café pays as much attention to its chocolate and pastry creations as it does to its beautiful interiors and its coffee. The long pastry chiller is the café’s main attraction, with delicately decorated cakes (such as the exquisite Marron Tarte) and chocolates (try the Chocolate Praline) on display. Coco Bruni takes its cuteness seriously, and the result is both calming and magical.
Have fun with your cocktails
Vinyl (61-1 Wausan-ro; +82 2 322 4161) is one of the district’s hidden gems and a local favorite for date nights. It’s a bit tricky to find, so keep an eye out for a huge robot sign. The front of this small bar also has its main attraction on display: cocktails in radioactive colors packed in clear, Ziploc-like bags, hanging as if in a hospital’s IV unit.
It always helps that the bartender is friendly and accommodating, so you don’t need to feel confined to standard cocktails. Feel free to tell him what you like, and what flavors you’re in the mood for, and get creative (the bright pink Cranberry Twist and Peach Orange are oddly refreshing mixes, for example). The bohemian vintage interior with low mood lighting is equally relaxing and perfect for long conversations; and when you’re ready to explore the city again, you can always take your drink with you.
Snuggle up at a midnight screening
There’s something very romantic about midnight screenings — the allure of going on a final adventure just as the rest of the city drifts to sleep. CGV (153 Yanghwa-ro; +82 1544 1122) is a 24-hour cineplex located right at Hongik station’s Exit 8, directly connected to the railway transit area. A marquee hangs above the ticketing area, immediately setting a classic, movie-along-the-boardwalk vibe. A quote from the film Love Actually — “To me you are perfect” — in electric blue neon illuminates the fire escape, and a café called Twosome is just across the organic popcorn section if you feel like lounging.
Other floors of the cineplex are also worth exploring — each one is done up in its own creative theme, and every now and then you’ll find projectors showing artsy animation. There are some surprising design details, like Lego pieces sealing off a crack in the wall. The cinemas are small and cozy, so be prepared to snuggle up — and don’t forget the big tumbler of organic popcorn.
Also read: Seoul city guide
This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Smile magazine.