Was BrewDog Itaewon the only reason we went to Korea in the first place? Well, no. But it was probably the final nudge that drove us into visiting the country after several years of talking about it. And after a weekend in Busan bookended by horrendous weather, you'll be pleased to hear that our week in the capital is blessed with glorious sunshine throughout. It's a week that takes in two hotels, five palaces, and countless bars, cafes and restaurants. Plus, just like Busan, there's a bridge that needs to be named and shamed for its FILTHY LIES about a light show. (But that'll have to wait for another page: this one is just looking at the bars, restaurants and hotels.)
There's an odd clash of cultures going on here, seeing the usual collection of booths, tables and steps in an environment with various flavours of Asian pop playing in the background. It's a decently sized room, with a diverse mix of locals and Westerners in it, giving the lie to our initial concern that it may just be an expat hangout. It's interesting to note that unlike the Tokyo bar, there's not so much racial mixing at the tables, with each group largely keeping to themselves.
We pay the bar three visits during our week in Seoul: on a Monday, Friday and Saturday night. Monday is inevitably the quietest of the three, and it's the night when we take advantage of their food menu, an amusing clash between East and West. There's fish and chips on the menu because that's what British people eat, but there's also an Asian spiced version of the buffalo cauliflower wings which lives magnificently up to expectations. Friday nights are more buzzy, with a couple of very obvious post-work pissups taking place: Saturday night is buzzier still, though nothing like the frenzy of the Itaewon meat markets just around the corner. The beers are a fine mixture of BrewDog classics, local brews from the likes of Amazing, Tetrapod, Ambition and Nuba (frequently in collaboration with the bar itself), surprises from further afield like Pohjala from Estonia, and - best of all - things they've brewed themselves, because this is the second BrewDog Outpost brewpub after Tower Hill (and before Manchester). Based on the evidence of their NE Session IPA and their pale ale, they're doing a much better job of it than Tower Hill have to date.
Maybe that isn't so surprising round here, though: Seoul has a thriving craft beer scene, and quite a bit of it appears to centre on brewpubs and brewery taps. We get through a few of these during our week in town: we stumble across a terrific pair of them, Artmonster [37.573588, 126.990447] and Caligari [37.573327, 126.990582], almost by accident in a backstreet while looking for a more traditional bar called Brew 3.14 [37.574454,126.98982] (so called because they also serve pizza). Around the other end of Itaewon from BrewDog, we have an enjoyable nightcap at the brewery bar of Magpie Brewing [37.539435,126.98746], after a supper of makgeolli rice beer and pajeon spring onion savoury pancakes at Damotori Makgeolli [37.54125,126.98695] (no English menu, but the waiters are ridiculously helpful). And in fashionable Gangnam (where Gangnam Style appears to be shorthand for 'far too many Japanese restaurants and a Starbucks on every corner'), we amuse ourselves by being the only Westerners drinking at the brewery bar of Korean-American beer geeks The Booth [37.494006,127.02778], weirdly located on the second floor of a residential apartment block. It's followed by dinner at the nearby Beer Room [37.500880, 127.028482], a rather good western-style restaurant (spag carbonara for me, risotto nero with prawns for her) with a splendid range of beers, including some from Gorilla Brewing which we'd encountered in Busan just a week earlier.
The one precaution you should take if planning a similar period of bar-hopping is to make damn sure you know when your last metro leaves - as The BBG points out, when people talk about Seoul being a 24-hour city, that only really applies to Itaewon, less so to other parts of town, and not at all to the underground system.
So where is it we have to get the metro back to at night? Well, you know us, it's rare that we stay in the same hotel for too long. So our first three nights are in the northern part of the city, in a traditional courtyard home repurposed as a guesthouse, called the Haemil Hanok [37.576748,126.99152]. This is the one time that GPS navigation fails us badly, as we end up approaching the building from the back and get totally lost. Once we find the right spot to enter from (the alleyway a little across the road from the CVS shop, detail fans [37.57654,126.99108]), we get to the front door only to find a 'back in ten minutes' sign on it accompanied by a phone number. After 20 minutes we come to the conclusion that this is a stalling tactic, bite the bullet (and the roaming charges) and phone the number. The woman at the other end of the phone appears to speak zero English. Oh, look! It's become an adventure.
We're shown into our cabin - one of three or four all facing out onto an open courtyard - and have the important facilities signalled to us in sign language by the little old lady who answered the phone. Her last action is to push a laminated A4 sheet into our hands and run away. On this sheet, we're told in English: 'First Sorry. I am the mother/father of the manager who manages this place. My daughter now went to the hospital to have a babybirth. I can not speak English...' This is followed by some brief notes about breakfast times, checkout times and the like. Being cynical, it strikes me that this would be a fiendish method for running a hotel all year round while putting the least possible amount of physical effort into the job. Certainly there's no sign of the rooms being entered by anyone else during our three day stay, despite them having no locks on the doors. (The front door of the Hanok is pretty solid - like many others in the area, it's a traditional hardwood gate with an incongruous computerised lock fused onto it - but once you're inside, you're totally reliant on the honesty of the people in the adjacent cabins.)
The traditional sleeping arrangements don't come as a surprise - we've slept on futons on the floor before, obviously - but we quickly realise that a futon on top of a tatami mat is very different from what we have here, which is a futon on top of a hardwood floor which has underfloor heating you can't turn off. Still, stacking two futons on top of each other gets us around that problem. The trickiest issue we encounter comes on the first morning, where breakfast turns out to be a single take-it-or-leave-it dish, and it's chicken congee. With a lot of help from our Korean phrasebook we manage to tell the old lady that The BBG doesn't eat meat, and then there's an awkward silence for about ten minutes or so as none of us seems to know what to do next: eventually we nod some mumbled apologies and head off for a nearby cafe. To be fair, the house mum sorts it out for the rest of our stay, with a vegetable soup for day two and fried egg and rice for day three. We do feel slightly guilty that everyone else staying at the Hanok has to have the same meat-free breakfast because of this. But only slightly.
On balance, despite the basic nature of the room, the insistence that we should leave our shoes outside at night (we sneak them back in while nobody's looking) and the way the hot water completely disappears on our final morning, we have a certain fondness for the Haemil Hanok by the end. After all, it's a few minutes away from one of the most useful metro lines, and we're only really using it as a base for our daily travels. But there's no denying the relief after three days when we pack up and move across town to the Imperial Palace Boutique Hotel [37.535314,126.99825]. Yes, I admit it, part of the reason for us choosing it was that it's just a couple of minutes down the road from BrewDog Itaewon. But it's actually quite a swish affair, close enough to the main drag of bars to be exciting, while far enough away for us not to be kept awake at night. (If anything, our main concern is the building work taking place directly in front of our bedroom window when we first check in, but thankfully they're working to standard office hours.)
It's a terrible cliché to get excited about simple hotel pleasures after a few days of more basic accommodation, but we still do anyway: fast wifi, a fancy telly, a bed with a mattress, daily room cleaning and so on. (You might initially assume that the incessant cleaning of the ground floor toilets is part of that, but we quickly work out it's something more subtle: they say the lobby toilets are being cleaned from 11pm to 7am to stop people on Itaewon bar crawls coming in for a cheeky slash.) In fact, the single greatest innovation at the IP is an easily rented pocket wifi router, giving you full Internet access anywhere in the city for under two quid a day. It turns out to be an absolute lifesaver on our final full day in Seoul, as you'll see in a future post.
Say what you like about the Hanoi Hilton (as I'm sure I've accidentally referred to it at least once or twice), but it was the only hotel we stayed in on the entire holiday that included breakfast as part of the deal (whether you wanted it or not). As mentioned earlier, on our first morning there we retreat down the road a little to a cafe called Tea Story [37.572555, 126.991641], which gives The BBG coffee and pastries to make up for her earlier disappointments. Once we're in Itaewon and have to fend for ourselves, we end up breakfasting in a variety of chain cafes along the same street as the hotel: Holly's Coffee [37.534559, 126.994234] (Danish and bagels, mouse running around in foliage outside), The Coffee Bean [37.534803, 126.998468] (pancakes and muffins, accompanied by a jazz piano version of The Blue Danube smashed into 4/4 and syncopated to buggery), and TSP 737 [37.534968, 126.997252] (croissants and minimalism, a carefully disguised upmarket version of the more conventional chain A Twosome Place).
We don't just use cafes for breakfast: a couple of them end up being useful pitstops at various times on our travels around the city, although we tend to drink a lot of tea there rather than coffee. For example, there's the Jeondeong Theater cafe [37.565851,126.97282], which not only gives us a wide range of fancy teas, but also gives us access to wifi over which we can, um, book advance tickets for the theatre because the box office is temporarily closed. Similarly, De Dear Coffee [37.575625, 126.997552] is conveniently located in between two of the major palaces (Jongmyo Shrine and Changgyeonggung), and is a handy place to stop off for a quick lunch of filled rolls and iced tea. (Curiously, at one point while we're there, someone else walks into the shop and is told that they've run out of coffee.) For a more traditional teahouse experience, though, head for Insadong - past the first branch of Starbucks in the world not to have its name on the front in English - and examine the gargantuan menu at the Dawon tearoom [37.574571, 126.985623], located in the grounds of the Kyungin Museum of Fine Art, where we relax over ginseng and hovenia dulcis leaf teas.
Lunches tend to be an ad hoc affair, and we stumble over a couple of good places more or less by accident. There's a katsu joint called Tonkatsu & Uchi [37.575890, 126.990446] on the main road close to Haemil Hanok - "we've just come from Japan," sighs The BBG - but the food's decent and turned around pretty fast. We take a stroll out to what's described as Food Street, which has a huge array of restaurants crammed into a very small space, but hardly any of them cater to English speakers. Seochon Giwajib [37.576530, 126.970261] has a picture menu, and we can recognise noodle and clam soup and dumpling soup, so that works out just fine. (Also offered to the guys at the next table: ribs that look like the ones Fred gets in the closing titles of The Flintstones.) A shopping trip for a new jacket for The BBG fails to get her anything good for under six figures, but the food court in the basement of Lotte [37.564639,126.981628] has plenty of lunch options, like the mushroom bibimbap and fried prawns from Seorae Village Seorae Sikdang. Our best Seoul lunch, though, has to be at Parc [37.537454,126.999710] close to the Leeum art gallery, where a bunch of talented young hipsters claim to make food like their mums used to. That means aged kimchi rice with a poached egg for me, and fried tofu with soy sauce and garlic for her, with the usual soup and rice accompaniments where necessary: The BBG thinks this was possibly the best meal of the holiday.
Similarly, our dinners tend to be driven largely by the area of town we're in at the time, but this time there's a little more planning involved. We suspect as soon as we enter N Seoul Tower that we'll have to eat there, and its fancy Korean joint Han Cook [37.551186, 126.988221] doesn't disappoint - the prices for the mains of beef bulgogi and fish initially seem a little high, but then you discover that unlimited trips to the buffet are included, and that's before you factor in the inevitably spectacular views. If you're wandering along the fashionable Cheonggyecheon canal walkway and looking for somewhere to stop off and eat, there's an interesting collection of places around the backstreets of Insadong, with Joheun Ssiat [37.574620, 126.985082] offering us a reasonably-priced veggie bibimbap and spicy pork 'n' rice. The one other dinner worth highlighting comes on our final night, when The BBG gets a craving for sundub, the Korean hotpot dish that we first discovered in, of all places, Tokyo. The restaurant we've been tipped off for in Daehakno turns out to be closed on Sundays, but the nearby Yetnal Nongjang [37.582580, 126.999601] does the job beautifully with a seafood sundub for her, beef bulgogi bibimbap for me, and our first soju of the holiday after all that beer.
Which I think is roughly where we came in, and I haven't even begun to talk about anything in Seoul that doesn't involve eating, drinking or sleeping. That's going to require one more post...
[to be concluded]
[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern†, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, Dog Eat Dog/Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku†, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton†, Berlin, Warsaw†, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong†, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks, Tower Hill, Edinburgh Lothian Road, Milton Keynes, Canary Wharf, Brixton, Paddington, Dalston, Aberdeen Union Square, Peterhead, Le Marais, Outpost Manchester, Perth, Edinburgh Airport]