So you’ve lived in Seoul for a while now and you’re sick of the weekend crowds. You want to hang out in a neighbourhood with funky little coffee shops, restaurants, and art galleries. You’re sick of running the tourist gauntlet of Insa-dong. You can’t handle Samcheong-dong’s pouting, posing couples. You’ve come to realise that Hongdae is insane. You need to go to Buam-dong.
Behind the old fortress wall in the mountains north-west of Gyeongbuk Palace, Buam-dong has all the good things that Seoul’s trendier neighbourhoods have, with the added benefit of a slightly remote, peaceful location. Buam-dong’s mountain background, low brick buildings and quiet streets make you wonder if this is Seoul at all.
There is not a Starbucks clone in sight – the only coffee shops are the sort that venerate ‘bean’ and ‘hand-drip’ as divine concepts. Most of the shops are brightly painted or housed in traditional wooden hanok, and some are so small they couldn’t seat ten customers. The focus in Buam-dong is on the product, not the profit.
Oroji is a good example of this, a tiny restaurant selling only one dish – kimchi jigae. This restaurant boasts that its stew is made without MSG or other artificial ingredients: everything is natural. It is certainly one of the best versions of the dish I’ve ever had. And the side-dishes of dried seaweed strips and eggs boiled in soy are as simple and fresh as the stew.
There is a matchbox-sized shop that only sells cupcakes (and coffee, of course!), a boutique florist, a workshop that sells hand-made wooden home-wares, a surprising number of Italian restaurants and a handful of pubs and wine shops. One business ambitiously offers “coffee, drink, beer, wine, food, design/graphic illustration, interior product, art/gallery shop, flea market” – a buffet of the boutique. But while there are plenty of choices in Buam-dong, there’s not so many that you’re overwhelmed. And the shops aren’t about novelty or exclusivity, they’re solid, familiar places that feel like old favourites immediately.
And it’s worth exploring beyond Buam-dong’s little cluster of shops to see how people live in this secluded (and expensive) pocket of Seoul. There are houses here – genuine, free-standing houses! – with little garden plots and fences. As I walked through the neighbourhood I exclaimed again and again, ‘this is not Seoul!’ The main road near Changuimun winds up into the hills, with great views of the fortress wall as its most dramatic, plunging down the steep backside of Mt. Bugak.
Buam-dong is that rare thing in Seoul, a funky, relaxing neighbourhood that hasn’t become a victim of its own success. And by being slightly out of the way it may never become one. It’s a wonder how the businesses here make enough money to survive, but that’s almost not the point. In a non-stop megacity like Seoul, peace and quite are priceless.