The secrets of Samcheong, Seoul’s hidden neighborhood

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The secrets of Samcheong, Seoul’s hidden neighborhood


It’s easy to dismiss the business style of Samcheong-dong as being too arrogant. The neighborhood, which was under the radar for most Koreans until 3 or 4 years ago, has an odd disposition ― it feels like an isolated part of Seoul that sits away from modern development, yet it’s just a few blocks from downtown.
It’s quiet, even though skyscrapers loom over the rooftops. Shop owners in the area are not desperate for sales, hinting at a tinge of pride ― hey, their neighbor is the Blue House. They say they don’t even want a subway station in the neighborhood. The only public transportation to the area is a small “village” bus that only goes back and forth from downtown Seoul.
But in a city that has been constantly growing and developing for the last half-century, it’s a blessing to have a neighborhood that finally tips its hat at tradition.
This is one of the few neighborhoods in the city where visitors can pass an old bathhouse next to an Italian bistro in a back alley, where tradition neighbors modernity, where renovated hanok (Korean houses) mingle with minimalist establishments designed by the town’s top architects.
That’s exactly why people are fond of Samcheong-dong: The place maintains a certain arrogant veneer in order to encourage visitors to make an effort to seek small pleasures.
That pride has always been part of the neighborhood’s sentiment. Its street names are suggestive of the old money that once lived there ― “Yangban-gil” (aristocrat’s street) and “Palpan-dong” (which was named to celebrate eight ministers who were born in the area), to name only two.
After all, it’s fall. What more could you want from life than to indulge in good wine, food and art on a Sunday afternoon. Joong-Ang Daily has put together a list of art galleries, restaurants, cafe, winebars and antique shops in Samcheong-dong.


1. Arario Seoul
This hip contemporary art gallery in Seoul (the gallery has other branches in Cheonan and Beijing) is the latest establishment by the collector Ci Kim. It houses works by young and emerging Korean artists. Through Oct. 8, the gallery features “Breeding Pond,” an exhibit by Dongwook Lee, an artist who has been working on a series of human miniatures, often confined in fish cans or hung from the ceiling attached to a fishhook, like fish breeding in a pond. (02) 723-6190

2. ArtSonje Center
ArtSonje, a private art museum, aims to host art exhibits in the “here and now.” Currently, the place features “Made in America,” contemporary American Art after 1970, ranging from abstract expressionist paintings to pop art. Inside the museum, there is “Dal,” one of the first Indian restaurants in Seoul that has a separate vegetarian menu. (02) 733-8945

3. Kukje Gallery
For a commercial gallery in Seoul, Kukje has been rather public-friendly, showing works by major international artists familiar to many Koreans, such as Frank Stella, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois and Bill Viola. Currently, it is showing Candice Breitz, an artist who explores cultural stereotypes and visual conventions represented in the media, followed by an exhibit of Jean-Michel Basquiat, starting Oct. 12. Aside from art, the gallery’s cafe and a restaurant, “The Restaurant,” is a hot spot frequented by tasteful young Koreans. (02) 735-8449

4. Gallery Kong
The gallery, run by a former curator, is cozily tucked away on a hill leading up to the Blue House. It focuses on works of contemporary artists working in Paris and New York.
Currently, the place features “White Vessel,” an exhibit by the Korean photographer Kim Su-gang, who works with everyday items such as pencils, buttons, thread and clothespins. The artist’s recent series of black-and-white photographs concentrates on white vessels that border between painting and photography. (02) 738-7776

5. Gallery Hyundai
Hyundai is probably one of the first commercial galleries in Seoul to represent the works of major Korean artists. Through Sept. 30, the gallery is displaying the works of three modernist painters: Kim Whan-ki, Kim Tschang-Yeul and Lee U-fan. (02) 734-6111

6. Gallery Sun Contemporary
Sun, a branch of Sun Art Center in Insa-dong, is quickly turning into Seoul’s new art mecca. Currently it’s hosting an exhibit by the mixed-media artist Kwon Doo-Hyoun. (02) 720-5789

7. Gallery Ihn
This gallery on the way to the Blue House stages works of contemporary Korean artists. Currently it is hosting an installation by Yang Ju-hae, “Code, Barcode Episode.” But more importantly, the gallery is on a road that has the best walking route in the spring and fall, lined with cherry blossom and autumn leaves, though there is a chance you might get interrupted by the guards from the presidential house. (02) 732-4677

8. Geumho Museum
Geumho is a corporate museum that mainly hosts the works of certified contemporary artists, but is more conservative in taste compared to its neighbors. Through Sunday, the museum features “Who Are You,” an exhibit of Korean pop artists including Nancy Lang and Lee Dong-gi. (02) 720-5114

9. PKM Gallery
Run by a former commissioner of the Venice Biennale, this is a modest contemporary art gallery that displays emerging Korean artists. Currently, PKM is hosting “Three Stories,” installations by three Korean artists: Ham Jin, Sanggil Kim and Youngwhan Bae. (02) 734-9476

10. Tibet Museum
This is a private museum set up by a collector of Tibetan art and ornaments from his journeys around the world. Items include seals, costumes, vessels and exotic trumpets. Admission is 5,000 won for adults, 3,000 for children. (02) 734-8149

11. Owl Art and Craft Museum
This museum, which started three years ago, displays an obsessive collection of up to 2,300 owl objects from about 80 different countries. There are thermometers, cigarette lighters, ashtrays, phones and even piggy banks, drawn from owl images. The entrance fee is 5,000 won, which includes a cup of coffee or tea. (02) 3210-2902

12. Hakgoje
The gallery mainly houses antique Korean artworks, mainly calligraphy and paintings from the Joseon Dynasty. For the past few years, the organizers have focused on the idea of “learning the old and creating anew.” (02) 720-1524


13. Seoul Selection
This shop, cozily positioned near the entrance of Samcheong-dong, sells Korean CDs, DVDs and English books on Korea (literature, cookbooks, children’s books, restaurant guides, photography, Korean culture and Korean language-related material). Every Saturday at 11 a.m., Korean movies with English subtitles are shown. (02) 734-9565

14. Jeongdok Library
Jeongdok Library has been in Samcheong-dong for as long as the neighborhood has existed. The place, surrounded by bamboo and pine trees, is popular among students cramming for exams. After a major renovation this summer, it became the ideal spot to read and doze off on a leisurely fall afternoon. (02) 2011-5799

15. Jinsun Book Cafe
Technically, the place is more of a restaurant than a book cafe. It carries up to 3,000 books, but Jinsun’s selling point was its classic Western food, before authentic European cuisine entered the market. The outdoor garden is cozy and pleasant year-round; coffee and tea comes with main meals. (02) 723-5977

16. Naeseoje
This place, which is on the main road leading to the prime minister’s residence, is hard to miss, as the shop has a green gate and bold-yellow characters reading “Book Cafe.” It’s a small space, but carries up to 2,500 books, mostly related to culture and arts. (02) 730-1087


17. Organic Coffee
Organic Coffee, which is right on the corner of a small alley that leads to Jeongdok Library, is a small shop that roasts and sells organic coffee certified by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. It charges 24,000 won for 250 grams of beans. (02) 733-7972

18. Bean’s Bins
This place has won the hearts of culinary buffs for its waffles and roasted beans. The tables are tightly clustered in a small space, leaving little room for privacy. On weekends, there’s a long line, but the coffee, which is freshly brewed from beans roasted in a machine imported from Germany, is modest in cost and luxurious in taste. (02) 736-7799

19. Aroo
The cafe, which is known for its Japanese-style pastries, offers a cozy space for light deserts. Coffee refills are free; birthday cakes are available on advance notice. (02) 736-2390

20. Linga Longa
This cafe, located discreetly off the main road, offers an eclectic mood, decorated in a provincial atmosphere. There is a wide selection of herbal teas; coffee is roasted in the shop. (02) 730-3223

21. To Go Coffee
“To Go Coffee,” which is a few minutes’ walk from the ArtSonje Center, is a chic coffee shop selling light snacks, including sandwiches, muffins and seasonal smoothies. In side displays, the owner sells an eclectic collection of ceramics and accessories. Pay attention to the shop’s designer-made chairs by Jean Prouve. (02) 720-5001

22. Seoul’s Second Best Place
This is one of the most famous teashops in Seoul. One of its best-selling items is its red bean porridge, which is served with chestnuts in a rice cake bowl sprinkled with fresh dates. (02) 734-5302


23. La Cle
This cafe is famous for its live jazz performances, Thursday through Sunday at 8:30 p.m. until 11. Admission costs 3,000 won during shows. Wine starts at 40,000 won per bottle. (02) 734-7752

24. Dugaheon
For classic wine enthusiasts, Dugaheon is good news. Originally a traditional Korean house, this place has a cellar in the shop’s basement that carries up to 5,000 bottles in good condition. There are 320 types of wine in stock. (02) 3210-2100

25. Romanee Conti
The place is one of the first wine bars in the neighborhood and was one of the first traditional Korean houses to be renovated for business, setting a trend. Aside from its originality, it has a cozy fireplace and view that looks down on the neighborhood, located on a hill slightly off the main road. Every month, a different brand of wine is sold on discount. (02) 722-1633

26. Felice Gatto
This place originally opened as an Italian bistro, but found fame as a wine bar. It has wines from France, Australia and Argentina and is open until 2 a.m. In the evening, the bar plays movies. (02) 737-2728

27. Fatum
The way to find Fatum is to stop in front of Woori Bank, cross the street and walk up the hill through a long stairway. It sells coffee and wine, in a minimalist interior. (02) 739-9888

28. Jazz Story
This is an old landmark of the neighborhood that has appeared in numerous TV dramas. After a decade, it still hasn’t lost its value as a nostalgic setting for people who went to school in the ’80s. The place is hard to miss, made up of patches of wooden panels and with live jazz performances at night. (02) 725-6537


29. Qwymin’s Table
The place, run by a painter, offers some fine Pan-Asian and European dishes in a casual setting. Recommended dishes include seafood rice, which is served on a hot pot, and seafood bouillabaisse. It’s got a sunken garden in the middle, making it a favorite spot for couples to take photos. (02) 736-7320

30. Samcheongdong Sujebi
This is a classic Samcheong-dong landmark. All directions in the neighborhood seem to require it as a focal point. For 20 years, it has had the same menu: pancakes as an appetizer and sujebi, flour dough with a soup base made of anchovy and clams, as a main dish. (02) 735-2965

31. Bar 0101
Bar 0101 catches eyes with its curious mural of a woman wearing an oxygen mask. The orange plastic chairs are not so cushy, but steaks are modestly priced at 33,000 won. (02) 723-1259

32. Cheong
This is a modern-style Chinese restaurant that offers authentic food in a romantic atmosphere. It looks down on a Korean-style garden that belongs to Woljeon Museum, which is next to the establishment. Set menus are available for lunch and dinner. (02) 720-3395

33. Eight Steps
The restaurant, run by an Italian chef, offers Pan-European food, set in a traditional Korean house you see after climbing up the eight stone stairs. It includes tapas, steaks, pasta and fabulous homemade chocolate cakes. (02) 734-9466

34. A Midi
This is a tasteful French restaurant based on seafood ingredients. It was originally set up by “A Table” (02-736-1048). Lunch sets, including seafood bouillabaisse as a main entree, are highly recommended. A Midi has only two tables. Reservations are required. (02) 736-8667

35. Onmaeul
This is a small Korean restaurant that specializes in home-made tofu. It offers a variety of tofu dishes, including soft stew, which has a milder taste than what’s served in most other restaurants. The side dishes are simple but clean, and the stew is served hot on the portable gas stoves installed in every table. (02) 738-4231

36. Suware
This is one of the neighborhood’s classic Italian restaurants. It still hasn’t lost its reputation for serving the kind of pasta Koreans like. All dishes use fresh ingredients that are about half the price of similar dishes in hotel restaurants. (02) 739-2122

37. Yongsusan
This is known as the place to bring potential in-laws. Indeed the restaurant, which serves authentic Korean food, is ideal for formal dinners on comfortable budget. The set menus start at 20,000 won, including seafood skewers and hot pots. (02) 732-3019

38. Nunnamujib
If you think Samcheong-dong is all about style, check out Nunnamujib, one of the oldest establishments in the area. It offers authentic versions of the kind of winter snacks that are prepared in North Korea. Wholesome dumplings go for 5,000 won, minced marinated meat for 7,000 won. (02) 739-6742

39. Gojoseon
Gojoseon is an underestimated outpost of Korean cuisine, mainly due to its location ― hidden in an alley. Its set menus, which include simmered pecans, seaweed pancakes and roasted pine mushrooms, offer an artful range of menus prepared in the style of royal cuisine. Lunch set menus start at 15,000 won. (02) 732-7355

40. Bukchon Kalguksu
The place offers North-Korean-style dumpling stew, perfect for the fall season. Mushroom stews come with three large dumplings, noodles and many mushrooms in a beef broth. (02) 739-6339

41. Meokshdonna
It’s easy to forget that this neighborhood is a school district. With Pungmun Girl’s High School in the area, the street is home to a number of cheap snack eateries that cater to schoolgirl stomachs. Meokshdonna is one of them (the places, not the stomachs). Be sure to try favorite junk food such as rice cakes, fish paste and noodles. (02) 723-8089

42. After the Rain
This Thai restaurant and bar is a few blocks away from the ArtSonje Center. The portions could be little more generous, but it serves fresh seafood dishes. (02) 730-2051

43. Gourmet
Gourmet is a bakery with a wide variety of pastries and cheeses. A new establishment renovated from a Korean house by the well-known architect Hwang Du-jin, it’s located in the same building as Wood & Brick and Gaheoheon, an Italian bistro. (02) 737-1134


44. Origin Asia
This place sells antiques from China and Europe. On the basement floor, another shop called GiGi offers designer-made chandeliers, furniture and accessories. (02) 722-0277

45. Brocante Antiques
Brocante sells antiques from Korea and Southeast Asia. The items range from statues to ethnic accessories, often displayed out on the streets as if it were a garage sale. (02) 720-7672

by Park Soo-mee
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