Seoul gleams with glass skyscrapers and is filled with centuries-old architecture, but if you know where to look, it has a secret intimate side. Miles of twisting back streets can lead to a tucked-away cafe, a delectable new restaurant, or a whole neighborhood ripe for exploration. You need just take the initial step.
Locals go to two under-the-radar neighbourhoods in particular for their insider cachet: the downtown industrial center Euljiro, which is studded with back-alley bars and cafés, and Sinheung Market, an ancient street mall that’s receiving a well-deserved renovation.
In these two locations, venturing off the major highways to explore will reward travelers with cocktail bars, restaurants, and other nightlife venues that defy their cozy limits with their outsized personalities.
In Euljiro, a neighborhood adjacent to the central business district in Seoul, you’re likely to collide with one of dozens of grizzled, beard-bearded motorcyclists transporting stacks of fresh newsprint or machine cogs through these narrow streets still densely populated with print and manufacturing businesses.
Turning down the correct alley and pushing the appropriate door might lead you to a wine bar with a balcony ideal for stargazing. This enclave’s enchantment has earned it the moniker Hipjiro, where tucked-away drinking places and casually elegant cafes attract native Koreans and visitors alike.
The more difficult it is to discover a location, the more fashionable it is likely to be. However, regardless of where you go, the clothing requirement is often casual; this is one of the finest aspects of lounge life in Seoul.
Vinyl vibes and disco shine
The music-centric lounge the Edge is easy to miss, since it is marked simply by a little sandwich board and a red beacon, but it is definitely worth the cautious ascent of steep metal steps evocative of New York City fire escapes. The Edge is half record store and part bar, selling coffee by day and beer and drinks by night, with a DJ frequently keeping the rhythm. There is less of a see-and-be-seen feel and more of a watch-and-chill-with-friends one. Sit among the record boxes at the rear or at the bar in order to observe the disco ball. Soak in its radiance while nibbling on a dish of meat and cheese or sipping a Negroni with a cold-brew coffee accent or a Scotch ale.
In order to accommodate larger appetites, the proprietor, Antoine Le Toumelin, inaugurated a restaurant two stories below, also named the Edge, with a similarly laid-back atmosphere last autumn. Check the lounge’s Instagram to view the lineup of DJs for the upcoming weekend (Samjin Building, 8 Eulji-ro, 12-gil, third floor).
In the hamlet of Haebangchon (commonly abbreviated HBC) in the Yongsan neighborhood, the decades-old Sinheung Market is being renovated. The collection of mom-and-pop stores along twisting passageways has been freshly repaved, and a canopy of neon lights has been strung above it to attract curious drinkers and daring eaters. Still, inviting people here feels almost like a betrayal since it is so quaint and cozy that you want to keep it a secret. However, news is spreading: lines and wait times at the area’s cafés, roasteries, wine bars, and cocktail lounges are growing longer. Visit throughout the week for extra elbow room.