Since my arrival in Korea, I’ve spent my weekends exploring the different neighborhoods of Seoul. I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground but of all of them, one has remained my favorite. Hongdae is known by most for its amazing nightlife and I have to admit that’s what initially kept me going back there so often. I spent many a night with former co-workers in the bars there last year. But, these days, I’ve been spending many an afternoon wandering its alleys and soaking up all the hipness the area has to offer.
When visiting Hongdae, I usually follow the same route, headed in the direction toward the club area. But, on Saturday, I decided to take a left after exiting the subway station and spent a delightful three hours discovering a new side of the neighborhood. I couldn’t find any street signs and I’m not sure if this specific part of the area has a special name, but what I did stumble on were streets and alleys that oozed quaintness. Charming cafes were painted in pastel tones and potted flowers welcomed their patrons at the door. It also seems that putting an old-fashioned bicycle in front of a business solely for the purpose of decoration equates to instant charm; I saw at least ten of them on my walk. There were many coffee houses with patios and balconies, which is quite a find in Seoul. Upon peeking inside the cafes, I noticed the interiors were just as cute at the facades and couples and groups of friends chatted away at wooden tables over lattes.
A patio with lots of character outside of a Rastafarian bar.
An overstuffed teddy lures customers into this shop, full of vintage nick-knacks.
Taking a short walk across the neighborhood, I headed to the Hongdae Playground. There’s always something fun going on there, and I’m dying to check out the headphone dance parties held there on the weekends. On Saturday afternoons during the warmer months, the ‘Free Market’ takes place; students of Hongik University (famous for its art programs) and artists in the area gather to sell their handmade jewelry, painted shoes, and other really cool, unique pieces. There are caricature and sketch artists willing to draw up your portrait for a few bucks, as well. Bands play in the performance area and since the playground is small, you can hear the music from streets away. Not to be missed are the waffle sandwiches stuffed with different flavors of ice cream for 1,000 won (less than a buck) at a nearby stall. Before Frommer’s or Lonely Planet can do it, I’m going to say that Hongdae Playground is to Seoul as Yoyogi Park is to Tokyo. Sure, it’s a lot smaller, but it’s nevertheless an environment that fosters personal style and unusual antics. The highlight of my trip to the Free Market on Saturday was an old man, probably in his 60s, who twirled into the playground, capturing the attention of all. Wearing a red shirt showing his stomach, short denim overalls, black tights, fingerless gloves, and a red beanie, he performed some very unique dance moves possibly inspired by Richard Simmons. Such a sight would never be seen- or enjoyed- in other areas of the city.
Vendors sell one-of-a-kind pieces at the Free Market at the Hongdae playground.
Hongdae is a place for personal expression, much like that exhibited by this colorful gentleman.
Despite the trendy bars, the excellent shopping, and the delicious food to be had in Hongdae, my favorite thing about the neighborhood is that it’s super hip. It’s very much a headquarters for artists and underground/independent musicians. So many Koreans dress the same, have similar hair styles, and act conservatively; it’s really quite boring. But, in Hongdae, unique, personal styles can always be seen and those wandering the areas are less apt to be conformists. I get excited when I see mohawks or tattoos, as such styles go against the grain of the expectations of Koreans. Likewise, it’s great to see people with an identity, caring less about what others think and more about doing what makes them happy. Especially when they’re in their 60s, rocking a funky getup, and dancing along with life.