Seoul's bustling sprint slows down to a strut in Hongdae. A Sunday stroll from brunch to the craft market invariably features mini-dresses and zoom lenses moving in photo-shoot choreography. The nation's top art school, Hongik University, gives its name to a district full of vinyl-spinning basement bars, shoe-packed boutiques, cook-at-your-table barbecue and hand-drip coffee. While the streets maintain a calm during the week, the weekend brings a storm of local and expatriate fun-seekers. Minivans transform into wardrobes and graffiti become scenery - because in this northwestern neighbourhood, the sidewalk is a catwalk.
Shops and restaurants here combine chic with cheap, and come in every variety: Reggae shares an alley with classic rock; unpretentious pasta neighbours with high-class sushi; and a single building houses import beer, Japanese bar food, a hair salon and noraebang (karaoke). A carousel of construction turns boutiques into bars and back again. Just like their fashion-obsessed residents, these streets remake themselves every season.
Most of Hongdae lies within the public transit triangle of the Hongik University (line 2), Hapjeong (line 2 and 6) and Sangsu (line 6) metro stations, with much of the nightlife between Hongik and Sangsu, and the best dining and coffee-sipping toward Hapjeong. Addresses and street names are just coming in vogue here, so do as the locals and rely on landmarks. And bring your camera.
Markets, Hongdae Children's Park, directly opposite the main gate of Hongik University
Hongdae Children's Park is a werewolf - friendly by day, fierce by night. On warm-weather weekends, it hosts the Free Market on Saturday and the Hope Market on Sunday, where craftspeople offer handmade wallets and jewellery at half the boutique price. Be on the lookout for Asirang, whose wood-carved cellphone charms make for a uniquely Korean souvenir. When the moon rises, browsers give way to revellers, as a mix of locals and foreigners take advantage of Korea's liberal open-container policy. Drum circles, dance parties and improvised bars appear, and neighbourhood B-boy crews show off their moves.
Jenny's Café, Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong, 404-22 1F; 02-3141-7817
Entering Jenny's Café is like walking into the home of your coolest, closest friends. "This is our living room," says Min Soo Kim, general manager, pointing at photos of the chefs' childhood and travels abroad, "and you are my friend." The open Italian kitchen breathes an air of easy honesty, and that earnestness comes through in the crunch of house-baked bread, the crispness of fresh greens, even the softness of the house wine. A weekend-friendly lunch special combines its signature pasta with appetizer and beverage free of charge.
LEARN THE LIQUID
The Fox Drinking Wine, Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong, 402-14 2F; 82-02-3143-7191
Journalist-cum-barkeep Su-Yeon Lee has written a book on wine and the wine wisdom pours out of her. Ms. Lee's cheeses are perfect playmates for the 400-odd bottles in her collection, and corner-bar coziness lends itself to decanted decadence.
Club Evans, Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong, 407-3 F2; 02-337-8361; clubevans.com
Get there early, as the crowd swells quickly for what might be the best jazz in the country. Stay late for the young musicians cutting their teeth after the main acts have finished. Fleet-fingered pianist Choi Yoon-Hwa performs at the club weekly and praises the simple space's acoustics as the audience praises her playing.
18 Grams, Mapo-gu, Sangsu-dong, 316-13 1F; 2-324-0065
Named for the amount of coffee powder in a double espresso, 18 grams is the cream of the cappuccino in a neighbourhood packed full of cafés. Guests are greeted with a bean menu to select from - Guatemalan and Ethiopian one day, Yemenese and Indonesian the next. The staff studies the bean, which reveals different flavour profiles in hand-drip or espresso form. Presses, mills and other caffeinating paraphernalia line the walls, items of worship in an arabica-based belief system.
BRAND NEW VINTAGE
Volkswagen, Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong 345-1; 2-334-8817
Bursting with Americana, the curiously titled Volkswagen is as quirky as the eponymous bug parked in the display window. Among meticulously arranged licence plates and baseball memorabilia, you'll find a selection of worn-in, off-the-rack Korean-sewn clothing for men and women. Owner Roh Yong Ho has kept the store for a decade - equivalent to a century here - and his carefully effortless personal style is reflected in every item. The German slogan on the side of the building is a perfect fit for the neighbourhood: In diesem Platz gibt es immer etwas neues, or "in this place, there is always something new."
WHERE TO STAY
245-5 Seokyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul; 02-330-7777; hotelseokyo.co.kr
This hotel is right in the heart of Hongdae, steps away from fashion-market madness. Around for 35 years, it offers both Western and Korean ondol rooms, which have heated floors with mats but not Western-style beds. Rates from $180.
Eoulmadang-gil; 070-8279-0835, 017-711-0835; annguesthouse.co.kr
For the budget traveller, Ann's Guesthouse offers the same great location at a much cheaper price. Ann greets you, and her warmth will make you feel right at home. DMZ tours and folk theatre performances can be booked through her. Rates from $18.
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