Nestled between Inwang and Bugak mountains, Buamdong is a peaceful backwater neighborhood located in the center of Seoul, shielded by nature from the neon and concrete that drench the remainder of the metropolis. Boasting only a single bus stop, Buamdong is not the most convenient place to visit. It’s this very remoteness, however, that has allowed the area to preserve its unique charm, seemingly unchanged by time.
Though not as expansive or as vibrant as other areas in Seoul, visitors rarely tire of wandering the sleepy artsy community and exploring its miniature cafes and quirky galleries. It’s subdued sophistication, gorgeous homes and amazing city views provide the perfect atmosphere for a relaxed getaway from the “bbali bbali” (“hurry, hurry”) that the city is famous for.
The solo bus stop is the starting point for exploring Buamdong. Heading uphill, passing along traditional neighborhood institutions — a dry cleaner, a florist, a barbershop — one quickly begins to feel the timelessness of the area.
Located just minutes from Cheong Wa Dae, or the Blue House, the official residence of the President of the Republic of Korea, the area remains to be heavily guarded and uniformed soldiers bearing arms can be spotted throughout the vicinity. Despite the military presence, Buamdong remains to be a place of tranquility.
For hikers, the Changuimun Gate is an entry point for trekking the Fortress Wall of Seoul (or nearby Inwangsan) which requires a passport to be accessed. Built of granite and wood in 1396 when Seoul was established as the capital of the Joseon Dynasty, the current gate dates to 1740. It is also the location where North Korean spies killed the local chief of police during an assassination attempt on the Korean president in the 60s.
For those confined by time, a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood is preferred to a trek up the wall, and an ideal way to boost your energy for the hilly walk is with a cup of coffee. Fortunately, there are many independent cafes to choose from in the heart of the neighborhood, none of which even remotely resemble the franchises that remain to be customary trademarks of the Korean capital. (I’m looking at you, Starbucks.)
From the Coffee Prince to the Coffee King
Coffee connoisseurs should be sure to stop at Club Espresso located just next to Changuimun Gate. The renowned cafe, open since the 1990s, is famous for serving up the best hand-drip coffee in all of Seoul using quality beans from all corners of the globe in a cozy building reminiscent of an American ski-lodge. This is the place for coffee connoisseurs to go for a caffeine fix.
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Those that prefer a bit more privacy should continue up the hill beyond a slew of obscure restaurants and old-fashioned mini-marts that are adorned with imaginative murals. The route will lead past the Campus Crusade for Christ to an unassuming traditional refurbished structure that has the ability to spark the curiosity of anyone who passes by it. Seong Pil-gwan, a classical musician, opened Art for Life upon his return to Korea after performing with the Paris Symphony for a number of years and continues to run just about every aspect of the restaurant. Bedecked in scribbles and photographs, every inch of this mysterious little space appears to tell his story.
Serving up tasty Italian fusion fare in smallish portions, Art for Life is not a place to pig out. Instead, it is a place to unwind, to forget about one’s worries, to lose oneself in fettuccine and good wine and, on Saturday nights, enjoy a jazz performance from local musicians. So, grab a spot in the garden, let Pil-gwan recommend you his best and get away from it all.
Yet Art for Life isn’t the only place to escape reality. Sanmootonge(산모퉁이) is known as a filming location to K-drama fans, a snuggle spot to couples, a resting stop to local hikers and an urban respite to the weary. The cafe is set in a lavish mansion (one of the many in the neighborhood) and offers breathtaking vistas of the Fortress Wall of Seoul.
Patrons can sit under umbrellas on the cafe’s terrace or in one of its beautifully adorned rooms, so long as they arrive early enough to avoid the midday rush. The lower floor is a gallery of whimsical artwork, antique toys and unique furniture, and is not to be missed.
Fans of the TV drama The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince will also appreciate the photographs of Hallyu stars Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun-hye in various scenes filmed in Sanmootonge. Similar to the coffee shop in the popular drama, the cafe’s baristas are quite handsome and serve beverages and cheesecake with cheeky smiles. Prices, like the hill on which the cafe sits, are steep, but the views are well worth it.
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A more peaceful spot to enjoy a beverage is Sanyoohwa (산유화), located just beyond Samootonge and the grand homes that neighbor it. Although this unique establishment is primarily a cafe, it is also the workshop of the owner, Park Chang-suk, a well-known hanbok designer that has dressed dignitaries and celebrities.
She serves up a delicious Western brunch, patbingsu (shaved ice with various toppings) and a variety of traditional teas (try the omijacha!) Additionally, a number of wares, including beautifully dyed scarves, are on sale for a reasonable price. The charm of this cafe made it the perfect filming location for KBS drama The Discovery of Love.
After cafe hopping, venture on down the road to explore a tranquil Buddhist temple and homes typical of Korea in the 1970s. Here, children still play in the streets, greeting visitors that pass, and women spend their afternoons squatting, chatting and peeling the day’s vegetables. The old-fashioned road leads into the entrance of Baeksasil (백사실), or Baeksa Valley, the gem of Buam-dong. (The entrance is just down the street from the temple and to the right. Keep an eye out, as it’s easy to miss!)
The natural valley dates back to the Joseon Dynasty, when it was the site of a villa of a renowned nobleman of the time. At the turn of the twentieth century, its quiet serenity provided much inspiration to a number of writers and artists that resided in the area.
Nowadays, it is undoubtedly just as beautiful with its lush canopy of trees, engraved boulders and trickling streams. With easy trails and plenty of places to rest, Baeksasil is the ideal locale for a private picnic or family outing. Just remember to pick up snacks and use the bathroom near the bus stop, as there aren’t any facilities near the valley.
When hunger begins to set in, there are a number of restaurant options to choose from back near the entrance of Buam-dong. Jaha Sonmandu (자하손만두) is a casual Korean restaurant located next to Club Espresso that specializes in various types of mandu (dumplings).
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The place has been around for some time and has become something of an institution, thanks to its beautifully presented hand-made dumplings stuffed with tender beef and pork, or shiitake mushrooms and cucumbers. The tteok mandu guk (rice cake dumpling soup) is a colorful twist on the classic and the traditional ceramic bowl in which it’s served only enhances the dish’s aesthetics.
Across the street is Gyeyeolsa Chicken (계열사치킨), one of the best spots in the city to try chimaek, a dish made popular by the hit drama My Love from the Star. The combination is an unpretentious one: Korean fried chicken (hence the “chi”) and beer, or maekju. But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of chimaek.
Here, tender chunks of chicken are twice-fried to give them each a thick, crispy shell. Sides of fried potato wedges and a spicy chili dipping sauce complete the meal. Although the place is usually packed and the servers are a bit on the bossy side, the chaotic atmosphere only makes the dining experience that much better. You’re guaranteed to leave with a full belly and a smile on your face.
For those with more traditional tastes, opt for rice cakes at Mi Jeong Dang (미정당). Unlike customary tteok (rice cake) shops that sell an ordinary assortment of chewy—and often flavorless—snacks, Mi Jeong Dang makes artisan cakes to order. Created with all-natural ingredients, the tteok are topped with delicate flower buds or dried nuts and fruits marinated in a sweet sauce of spices and sugar.
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Art to Inspire
A visit to the Seoul Museum is a great way to finish off an afternoon in Buamdong, though it does require about a twenty minute walk from the bus stop. (Grab a cab for a quicker trip.) The museum, which was opened in 2012, boasts six floors of temporary and permanent contemporary art exhibitions featuring local and international artists, some of whom were Buamdong residents themselves. The museum’s in-house souvenir shop sells a wide range of memorabilia inspired by its art collection.
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Seokpajeong(석파정), a former noble villa and garden that dates back to the mid-1800s, sits atop the museum’s rear slope and is undeniably an art form in itself. The building, which was assembled skillfully with an unsurpassed craftsmanship, harmonizes perfectly with its scenic surroundings–unique rock formations and towering pines. Although once off-limits to the public, it can now be accessed from the third floor of the museum.
Few restaurants in Seoul offer a dining experience as memorable as Seokparang (석파랑). As one of the city’s most historic dining spaces, this distinguished establishment is known for its hanjeongsik, or Korean table d’hôte, and has catered to a number of local and international dignitaries. Each course of the restaurant’s set meals is served in a brass vessel that emphasizes the aesthetics and balance of the dish’s ingredients.
Some of the exceptionally distinctive items include songitang (pine mushroom stew), eomandu (fish dumplings), and jeonbok galbijim (steamed abalone and ribs), all of which were once favored by royalty and only served in the dynastic courts.
In fact, the recipes of these exact dishes have been passed down through palace kitchens over the years. To complete the dining experience, Seokparang is set in a traditional hanok and surrounded by a tranquil garden that makes diners temporarily forget that it’s the present day.
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After dining like royalty, hail a taxi or catch the bus just outside the restaurant to get back to Gyeongbokgung Station, where you can opt to head back to your hotel, or grab a drink in charming Seochon Village. More Information
To Get There: Take the Seoul subway to Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3). From exit three, walk straight until you reach the second bus stop. Take bus number 7022, 7212, or 1020 (all green buses) to Buam-dong Community Center (부암동주민센터) (15 minutes).
Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.
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