Seoul Safari: Off-your-feet Micro-tourism
A Seoul veteran's day of rest and relaxation in Chungmuro.
Meet Beata: She’s a 25-year-old American manager for Exxon living in Japan who loves jjimjilbang, shopping and Korean BBQ.
When Beata told us she’d be staying in Chungmuro this weekend, we were intrigued. Sandwiched between the shopping meccas of Myeongdong and Dongdaemun, Chungmuro is gritty, industrial, and rarely featured prominently on the pages of tourist guidebooks. And while Beata’s hostel came with rave reviews from customers (nearly all Japanese tourists), it sits squarely in the midst of a busy industrial street (literally—the building itself functions as the divider in a back-alley boulevard).
But the more that we took Beata’s needs into consideration, the more we realized Chungmuro was exactly the right place for her all-day Seoul Safari. For one, Beata’s a Seoul veteran, having been here four times before. She’d also planned several days of backpacking around the Korean countryside before arriving in the capital. She wanted to use one of her three days in Seoul for some power-shopping in Myeongdong (less than 10 minutes away by foot) and possibly also Dongdaemun (10 minutes in the other direction). Being on both line 3 and line 4 gave her the option to swing down south for some Apgujeong high-class rolling or eastward to Hyehwa for more cultural pursuits (and shopping). With all this backpacking and shopping and traveling planned, Beata admitted that she was looking forward to a more slow-paced day.
Enter Seoulist’s very first hyper-local Seoul Safari: Centered in a single neighborhood with no public transport required and 5 minutes or less of walking at a time, it’s an off-your-feet micro-touristic experience.
It’s perhaps not quite as thrilling as other tours might be (we never thought we’d find ourselves recommending Paris Baguette, for example) but represents an everyday itinerary focused less on sightseeing and more on the hyper-local experience. Let’s begin, shall we?
Beata’s hostel, Metro Spa Cabin, is actually better described as a vamped-up jjimjilbang reminiscent of Japanese capsule hotels. Sleeping quarters are gender-segregated and feature cozily-enclosed cedar-scented bunked “beds” (single 32,000 won/night, double 41,000 won/night). This might actually be the closest to sleeping in a treehouse you can get in Seoul.
Metro Spa Cabin is 60 meters (200 feet) from exit 4 of Chungmuro Station. Walk until you see the Paris Baguette Cafe in the tall white building on your left that recalls Soviet-era architecture. Duck into the covered pathway just to the left of the building, passing a flower shop, blanket vendor and hanbok (traditional Korean dress) store. You’ll see signs for a “Sauna” in English, Korean and Japanese. Follow them to the fourth floor of the building. At the end of this rabbit’s hole is a really cozy place, we promise.
Jung-gu, Chungmuro 4(sa)-ga 120-3, 4th floor
First off, sleep in and/or enjoy a long, hot morning bath—you’re in a jjimjilbang, after all! Like all jjimjilbang, Metro Spa Cabin has a small cafe where you can order noodles, stews and other simple fare for pocket change. But if kimchi jjigae isn’t your idea of breakfast, stock up on Paris Baguette bread the night before. Plus, Shin’s Coffee, recently-opened right next door, offers simple treats, decent coffee and a clean modernist interior for a caffeine-laden start to your day.
One of Chungmuro’s main draws is the Namsangol Hanok Village, whose entrance is right across the street, by exit 4. In the early 90s, five hanok of varying social classes, from peasant to nobility, were moved here and the park and gardens were constructed. Though not exactly an accurate representation of a typical Joseon-era neighborhood, the hanok have been meticulously restored and the village offers a wide variety of cultural activities like mock Joseon-era weddings, traditional music concerts, and traditional children’s games. If you’re really feeling up for a walk, the park is a lovely place to wander and enjoy the babbling brook, graceful hanok woodwork and lush foliage (be forewarned: weekends this season draw picnickers in droves).
We recommend making the rustic Gwaneojeong Pavilion your destination, heading a bit further up the right-hand path and settling in for an hour or so of well-shaded reading, journaling or day-dreaming. Be sure to take off your shoes before stepping in, and keep in mind that consuming food and drinks are not permitted within.
Note: Namsangol is closed every Tuesday.
A leisurely lunch
Beata is a huge fan of Korean dramas, so a menu straight from Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace) is a natural first choice. Korea House, adjacent to Namsangol, has two special lunch set menus (30,000 and 45,000 won respectively) for a sumptuous and artistically-arranged feast.
Jung-gu, Pil-dong 2(i)-ga 80-2
She also loves super spicy food, and since jjukkumi (tiny octopus doused in red pepper sauce) is about as spicy as you can get, head over to Bul-jjukkumi (“Fire Jjukkumi,” a nod to just how spicy it gets) for lunch. Recommended by a local camera shop owner, Bul-jjukkumi’s interior is small and unremarkable, with options for both table and floor sitting. It’s a bit further than five minutes from our last stop, but at 6000 won a pop, the fresh and flavorful entrees are well worth it. Spicy pork (chaeyuk-bokkeum) is a tasty non-seafood alternative here. During weekday lunches, this place is packed to the gills with employees of local businesses and the nearby Maeil Business Newspaper, so head over closer to 1pm to avoid waiting.
To get here from Namsangol Hanok Village, cross the street and pass exit 6, walking 130m until you see The Korea Times on your left. Turn left here, walk 140m to a busy pedestrian intersection—wing a right (almost a U-turn) at Mapo Mandu (마포만두) and Bul-jjukkumi will be 40 meters down the alley on your right.
Jung-gu, Cho-dong 53-20 | Map
Photography aficionados take note: Chungmuro also happens to be densely packed with photo and printing shops! RJ Koehler has an excellent guide to photo shops in the area here.
Treat yo self
Naturally, there is no better way to rid oneself of fatigue and road dust than a little spa pampering. Once lunch has sufficiently digested, head back to Metro Spa Cabin for the one hour basic course (it’s best to make this reservation before you leave in the morning). For 32,000 won (42,000 for non-guests), you’ll get just over an hour of a spa soak, body scrub, full-body massage, facial and shampooing. Of course, at that point, you have the option to extend your stay and relax in the sauna for as long as you like.
Though it breaks the 5-minute walk rule, we also like Hugo Spa by Myeongdong Station exit 9. Try out the basic facial (1 hour, 55,000 won) or the foot care package (70 minutes, 55,000 won), or go big with the four hour luxury treatment (335,000 won). Call in advance to make your reservation.
Jung-gu, Chungmuro 2(i)-ga 62-10
Dinner: 30-year-old Ddoong-bo Meat Restaurant
With the arrival of dinnertime, it’s time to feed Beata’s addiction to Korean barbeque. One of Chungmuro’s most well-known restaurants is the oddly-named Ddoong-bo Meat Restaurant (뚱보통고기). The prefix “뚱” references owner Song Pil-su’s generous frame (뚱뚱이, or ddoong-ddoong-ee, means “fatty” in Korean) and the suffix “보” is a verbal tic that gives off a feeling of friendliness. Open since 1981, Ddoong-bo keeps its menu simple with three kinds of pork: Moksal, steak-like neck meat (200g for 11,000 won); galbi, ribs (300g for 11,000 won); and ggeopdaegi, slices of skin and fat (220g for 9,000 won). They’re best known for moksal, so don’t pass that up, but if you’re feeling a little extra hungry, ggeopdaegi is a crunchily sweet addition to the grill.
Once you’ve ordered, they sear your meat over red-hot charcoals outside before bringing it to your table grill. Result: you don’t walk out smelling quite as much like smoke and meat as you do at other meat restaurants here. Plus, it cooks a little more quickly, and you can wrap the steaming morsels up with lettuce and fixings before hunger compels you to start eating raw garlic (we’ve all been there).
Wash it all down with a bottle of cold soju, preferably with the help of a friend or two.
Ddoong-bo is just around the corner from exit 5.
Jung-gu, Pil-dong 1(il)-ga 3-19 | Map
Catch a flick after dinner
In addition to photography and printing, Chungmuro is also known for its role in Korea’s cinema industry. Once considered the mecca of Korean film, Chungmuro’s reputation as a cinematic destination has faded some, as evidenced by the closing of classic theaters like Geukdong Theater and Skara Theater. But some memories live on in places like Movie House, a cafe/theater created by two grandfatherly cinema buffs (one of whom is a director). The older generation of film industry greats still gather around here—you never know who you might be sitting next to in this neighborhood.
Jung-gu, Cho-dong 61-1
Movie House is a bit of a walk, but Daehan Cinema, a neon confection of lights and modern lines, sits just down the street from dinner (there’s also an entrance from the subway). Grab a bag of popcorn, put up your feet, and let the characters on screen do the running and jumping while you enjoy the silver screen in Chungmuro like generations of Seoulites before you.
Tip: On weekend evenings, it’s best to stop by and pick up your tickets earlier in the day.
Right by Chungmuro exits 1 & 2.
Jung-gu, Chungmuro 4(sa)-ga 125-18
Last but not least, head back to Metro Spa Cabin, get nestled in your timber cubby, and get a full night’s beauty sleep before another busy day of traveling.
Metro Spa Cabin | Jung-gu, Chungmuro 4(sa)-ga 120-3, 4th floor. 02-2277-8490
Korea House | Jung-gu, Pil-dong 2(i)-ga 80-2. 02-2266-9101~ext. 3
Bul-jjukkumi | Jung-gu, Cho-dong 53-20. 02-2266-3208
Hugo Spa | Jung-gu, Chungmuro 2(i)-ga 62-10. 02-3789-4750
Ddoong-bo Meat Restaurant | Jung-gu, Pil-dong 1(il)-ga 3-19. 02-2267-1801
Movie House | Jung-gu, Cho-dong 61-1. 02-2277-2877
Daehan Cinema | Jung-gu, Chungmuro 4(sa)-ga 125-18. 02-3393-3500