10 Hidden Gems in Seoul

By Margarita Maslova A student of the Korean language who has been living as an expat in Seoul for the past six years.

Updated: 04 February 2020

Edited by Elodie Troskie

Having been in this spirited and dynamic city for almost 6 years, I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like to be a visitor in Seoul. But each time I uncover just the tiniest little unknown corner, I feel like one again! The unrestrained joy of being in a city this full of energy is nothing short of magic, which is why it is rapidly becoming a beacon on the horizon for tourists everywhere, but don’t think that means for one second that the city has nothing new to offer. And within all this, there are hidden gems just waiting for you to uncover. As a visitor gone local I’ve spent long hours exploring the city on the hunt for the hidden attractions in Seoul, the peace that is so rare a find, and the city’s best kept secret treasures – all of which fall far off the beaten path. So if you’re looking for things to do in Seoul that mean an escape from the widely known attractions, here are my recommendations for the best 10 hidden gems in Seoul!

French Village

Content page entry image French Village

Possibly the last thing you would expect to stumble upon among the chaotic streets of Seoul is a French Village; and yet here is Seorae Village. A little unexpected, rather off the beaten path in Seoul and 100% French. Almost half of the French population in Seoul resides in this hidden little spot, and while that’s not saying all that much – since that population is fairly tiny – they have certainly left their mark. Also known as the French Village, or little Montmartre, Seorae Village is a small neighborhood in Banpo-dong made up of a large French ex-pat community. While strolling around this leafy, peaceful part of Seoul, you might feel momentarily transported to Paris, as you stop by the corner patisserie and are surrounded by the scent of baking croissants, or as you pass the French school, Lycée Français de Séoul. It’s the ideal place to go if you’re interested in meeting fellow travelers from Europe, or you’re looking for some good French wine – something you are unlikely to find anywhere else in Seoul! Every summer the Banpo Seorae Korea/France Music Festival takes place in the village as a celebration of the two cultures that co-exist in the neighborhood.

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French baked goods at Jean Boulangerie

Content page entry image French baked goods at Jean Boulangerie

Once you’re wise to the existence of the French Village, and the multitude of cafés and restaurants it’s home to, French cuisine isn’t hard to find. Jean Boulangerie – a small, independently owned café – is one of the hidden gems in Seoul. While the scent of baked goods and custard cream might seem distinctly foreign, coming here is as authentic as it gets. One of Jean Boulangerie’s secrets is the red bean paste bread, an inspired fusion of Europe meets Asia. You’ll need to specifically request it at the counter since it’s not displayed on the menu. The freshly baked scones and cinnamon buns are equally tempting in the morning and make for a delicious breakfast or snack on the go. If you want to see the place at its best pop in around midday during the week when you’ll catch the place at its quietest. Jean Boulangerie is located in Gwanak-gu and is open from 7 am until 10 pm every day.

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Subway markets

Content page entry image Subway markets

If you’ve been to Seoul, and Korea for that matter, you might have noticed that we have a thing for shopping. But before you run to the nearest luxury shopping center, I have a better suggestion. Scattered across the city, like little pockets of shopping heaven, are underground markets that sit adjacent to the subway stations, offering the perfect opportunity to shop like a local. At these markets, you’ll find anything from clothes, accessories, and shoes to cosmetics, electronic accessories and souvenirs to take back home. As is the case at these local markets there is wiggle room for negotiation with vendors, but the prices are usually so low that you’ll walk away with armfuls of bargains without even having to haggle. A favorite among locals, these underground markets promise a far superior experience when it comes to authentic shopping, not to mention better prices. If you plan shopping come prepared with cash as there normally won’t be card facilities.

Spicy chicken stew at Gyerim

Content page entry image Spicy chicken stew at Gyerim

Seoul is a culinary paradise and there are unknown gems dotted across the city like confetti. Gyerim is one such place. Not to be confused with a guesthouse by the same name. Gyerim is such a secret a spot, it's almost impossible to find! Named after a small woodland in Gyeongju National Park, this restaurant is located in the Jongno neighborhood and has been around for 50 years. Patrons who frequent here want one thing; the original spicy chicken stew that has been Gyerim’s specialty for decades. It’s no big mystery as to where the fond nickname ‘garlic bomb chicken stew’ comes from as you’ll quickly discover when your plate arrives with garlic garnishing the size of your fist. Put your worries of fresh breath aside! The unbelievable flavor punch packed by this culinary jewel comes at a price, and an OTT amount of garlic is the not-so-secret trick to perfecting the restaurant’s stew. To get to the perfect stew, the kitchen staff peel up to 10kg daily. This needs to be on your list of places to eat while you're here.

Quirky cafes

Content page entry image Quirky cafes

From cafés that let you dine among furry friends to those with food almost too cute to eat, unconventional eateries are an abundance in Seoul. While you may be familiar with the concept of cat cafés, a trend that originated in Japan, Seoul has taken things to an entirely new level with the more exotic variations, one of which is the Raccoon Café in Hyewha. The name doesn’t leave much to the imagination; it’s a café where you can enjoy your coffee while in the presence of mischievous creatures who are as cuddle-worthy as they are likely to steal your cake. If you prefer to enjoy your coffee in the company of more civilized patronage you might opt for one of the many places who have domesticated cats or dogs as their guests of honor. If fluff is not your jam – particularly when paired with tea – no need to despair. There’s plenty of opportunity for teatime that involves all the cute with none of the fur. Head to Hello Kitty Cafe in Hongdae, an explosion of Hello Kitty – from the cookies to the cake stands, everything is themed. The pink décor, cutesy merch, and frilly touches make this the ultimate kawaii hangout, made for insta-snaps!

Miss Lee’s Cafe

Content page entry image Miss Lee’s Cafe

I may have just mentioned quirky cafés, but Miss Lee’s is unique enough to warrant a write-up of its own! Set in the lively Insadong with a pedestrianized main street, teahouses, and interesting shops. Miss Lee’s is a stumble into authentic Seoul as you’ve probably never seen it. The youthful and trendy patronage reflects the surrounding neighborhood, and the nostalgic menu offers old-school eats that are sure to surprise and delight. A traditional lunch for school children (and their specialty) the doshirak is a vintage lunch tin filled with white rice, kimchi pork, Korean sausage, topped with a fried egg before being sprinkled with seaweed. The idea is to take the tin and shake it up, mixing all the contents, just like Korean school kids used to. Once you’re done with lunch you can take the time to write a love note and pin it to the wall, where it will live on among thousands more. The love notes aren’t the only part of the café to be graced by fame; Miss Lee’s has been the setting of several Korean reality tv shows and K-dramas.

The Dongdaemun Second Hand Book Street

Content page entry image The Dongdaemun Second Hand Book Street

Nothing beats the charm of discovering a good book, well-worn with the evident enjoyment of those who owned it before you. The Dongdaemun Second Hand Book Street is a small street, yes, an entire street dedicated to books! Bookworms can spend hours rifling through thousands of used books and magazines. This market has many rare finds and limited editions that you’re unlikely to see in mainstream bookstores, and at a fraction of the price too! Of course, the majority of the books here are in Korean – which may make for great souvenirs, but probably not the best reading material for English speaking travelers. If, however, you persevere and dig through the immense collection you’re sure to find more than enough international reading material. The Dongdaemun neighborhood (of which the book street is just a part) is one of the most popular areas for shopping in the city, so your shopping adventures can extend well past the bounds of books. There is also a night market – one of the great things to do in Seoul at night – which means you can continue browsing long after dark. To get here, hop on Subway Line 1 or Line 4 to Dongdaemun Station.

Brew 3.15

Content page entry image Brew 3.15

Possibly one of the best things about partying in Seoul – apart from rounds and rounds of soju – is the time of night when a round of chimaek is called for. Only in Seoul do you find a word that so perfectly combines two of my favorite things – chicken and beer! When those midnight munchies kick in, and you’re overheating from all the dancing, nothing in this world will seem as sweet as feasting on a plate of Korean fried chicken, washed down with ice-cold beer. No need to wait for midnight either, since fried chicken and craft beer is always a good idea. Brew 3.15 is where you’ll find the best fried chicken around. They boast a wide range of good Korean beers and craft beers and offer a yummy selection of homemade sauces that you can mix and match into the most finger-licking combo. These can either be used to marinate or dip your fried chicken in – either way, you won't be disappointed.

Starfield Library

Content page entry image Starfield Library

Take a library, and drop it into your favorite futuristic sci-fi and boom; you have Starfield Library. The Starfield has been open to the public in Gangnam since 2017, and completely free of charge since. For book-lovers this is a dream come true, offering more books than you’d be able to get through in several lifetimes, but even those who aren’t fond of reading will find it worth the visit. It’s proven to be very popular among foreigners looking for some reading material and (understandably) the odd selfie. Home to the biggest collection of international magazines in Korea, modern e-book technology and comfortable, quiet reading and working space. Open every day from 10 am until 10 pm, this is the best place to take a relaxing break from your shopping spree and kick back with a book. The library also hosts monthly cultural events and live performances – all of which are free to attend, so keep your eyes peeled for new announcements! 

The Simone Handbag Museum

Content page entry image The Simone Handbag Museum

If the sight of a genuine Louis Vuitton makes you weak at the knees, and you have more handbags than possessions to put in them, you’re in for a treat! The Simone Handbag Museum is entirely dedicated to handbags – the first of its kind in Asia. You’ll see about 300 bags on display, divided into contemporary and historic, with some of the bags dating back as far as 1550. Apart from the displayed bags, the museum also sells bag materials and presents design workshops, offering a working space for new Korean designers to work, free of charge. If you fancy yourself a budding handbag designer you’ll get the chance to craft a leather bag of your own in the DIY section. Apart from having almost enough bags for every day of the year, what makes the museum even more interesting is the unique architecture of the 10-story building. The building’s exterior resembles that of a handbag itself – something you might not pick up on if you’re just walking by on the street. If you look at it from a higher angle, however, you’ll be able to see the “straps” of the bag clearly. The museum is open from 10 am to 7 pm every day except Mondays.