Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Buam-dong 부암동 and the Best Coffee Shop in Seoul

When looking to have a classy afternoon of coffee and shopping, many Seoulites head to Samcheong-dong (삼청동), an upscale neighbored next to Gyeongbok Palace (경복겅). Filled with boutique clothing stores, independent coffee shops, marvelous little restaurants, and timeless traditional Korean architecture, Samcheong-dong is a great place for a weekend stroll (Anguk Station, exit 3). However, it’s an extremely popular area. On any given weekend afternoon it will be overrun by crowds looking to shop, or tourists hunting for a meal after a walk around the palace.

If you’re looking an equally charming area without the crowds, try heading over to Buam-dong (부암동). Not as developed as Samcheong-dong, Buam-dong is a small neighborhood with a lot of character and a quaint atmosphere not often found in Seoul. It’s located between Inwangsan and Bukhansan, two mountains, offering great views at every turn. It’s also known for an eclectic mix of hidden galleries, classic restaurants, and superb coffee shops, including the famous Sanmootonge (산모퉁이), which is arguably the most beautiful café in Seoul. Buam-dong receives a lot less crowds since you cannot get there directly by subway, but here are simple bus directions!
  1. 1.     Go to Gyeongbokgung Station (line 3), get out at exit 3.
  2. 2.     Go straight about 100 meters to the second bus stop, take green buses #1020 or #7022 and get off at the Buam-dong Community Service Center 부암동민주센터. It’s only 6 stops away and it will be announced in English.
Places to go: 

To get to the first four places on my list, go to your right when you get off the bus and walk straight up the hill for 2 minutes or so until you hit Espresso Club (pictured below on the left). Known for serving up some of the best cups of coffee in Seoul, Espresso Club is also at the base of the road that takes you to most of major destinations on Buam-dong.


Espresso Club is the brick building on the left. You can stop in there for a taste of some of the best coffee from around the world! If you want great views and coffee however, head up to Sanmootonge.

Sanmootonge (산모퉁이) 
1.    According to the internet, this coffee shop was made famous by its appearance on the Korean drama Coffee Prince. However, even if you are like me and have never seen a Korean drama (it’s true), you’ll still be impressed. Located in a lovely brick house with magnificent views of Seoul and what I’ve deemed the Korean “Hollywood Hills”, Sanmootonge has just the right amounts of style, class, and quirk.


The coffee is a bit pricey at 8,000 won but it’s good quality, and of course you are really paying for the seat. Try to go early (before 1 pm) so you don’t have to fight K-drama fan girls or couples taking selfies for a seat on one of the balconies or in front of a window! The gallery downstairs is also worth checking out.  


Directions: Once you hit Espresso Club, turn left and you’ll see a fork in the road. Stay left and keep walking; soon you’ll hit a small bend where you’ll see a white building with a large brown sign for Santoomonge, pointing you uphill. It’s about 10-15 minute walk uphill, but there are great views and architecture along the way. Additional signs along the hill will keep you on track!




Jaha Sonmandu (자하손만두)

This is a famous mandu (만두) or dumpling restaurant. Known for its fantastic tteok mandu guk (떡만두국), or rice cake and dumpling soup, this restaurant also has a beautiful minimalist interior, perfect for dates, birthdays, treating yourself, and other special occasions. While certainly pricier than every day street mandu, regular dishes only cost about 6,000 to 15,000 won; 12,000 won for the tteok mandu guk. As a huge mandu fan, I think it’s well worth the visit!   


Directions: It’s just a little up the street from Espresso Club. Turn left at Espresso Club, then stay right at the fork, going a little up hill. You will see Jaha Sonmandu almost immediately on your right. 

Gyeyolsa Chicken, 계열사 치킨 (formerly “Cheers Chicken”)
Gyeyolsa is one of the most famous chicken restaurants in Seoul and is known for its traditional Korean fried chicken. Traditional Korean fried chicken is distinguished by a very thin crisp shell. The chicken is served on platters with large home fries. There is no English menu, but it’s just the first item on the menu, 후라이드 (which is Hangeul for “fried”). If you’re feeling more adventurous, another popular dish you’ll see many people ordering is the second item on the menu, 골뱅이 국수or snails with noodles! Get here by noon if you want to avoid the lunch rush!  


 Directions: It’s also just a little bit up the street from Espresso Club. Stay to the left at the fork. It’s located down on the lowered sidewalk to your left. 

Changuimun Gate and Seoul Fortress
if after all that eating you’re in need of some exercise, make a right behind Espresso Club and walk straight for just a minute and you will come to the Changumin Gate (the oldest of the fortress gates) Through the gate you’ll find one of the entrances for the Seoul Fortress which you can hike (yes that large fortress you can see from Sanmootonge).


Ivy and Shortcake
If you want to explore another part of the Buam-dong area, make a right at the base of Buam-dong (when you are facing these shops). A few minutes down are some other neighborhood favorites.


One of the first places you’ll see walking down the street is Ivy, a small yellow café with only 3 seats. Apparently it can be rented out at night to small groups for 50,000 won. After Ivy you’ll see Shortcake, which is a popular cupcake shop. While probably more sought out for its cute décor than the cupcakes (I agree with the assessments I’ve read that the cakes are a little dry) Shortcake is still pretty good! In a city with a lack of cupcakes, I don’t get too choosey! The frosting on my Oreo cupcake was quite good. 

Left- Ivy, Right- Shortcake interior and Oreo cupcake!


Keep walking past Shortcake and you’ll come to a rotary intersection. You have to cross the street to get down to the pedestrian intersection. If you go to the right you can get great views of the mountains and visit some other interesting shops.  I didn’t get a chance to go left, but it looked like there were a few interesting things there as well. Really you could spend an afternoon exploring, which I would encourage you to do if you have the time.

August
With limited time, my friend and I decided just to check out nearby August (to the right of the rotary), which is an interesting vintage shop filled with clothes, house ware, and other knick-knacks. The owner was very friendly; she used to live in L.A. and speaks English very well! 


 Pro tips for Buam-dong (and in general):
  1.  Wander down small streets, take long walks, and let yourself get lost. The neighborhoods surrounding Gyeongbok Palace, particularly Samcheong-dong and Buam-dong, are filled with hidden coffee shops and galleries. There are tons of great places and little treasures to discover.
  2. Taxis are cheaper than you’d think. If you start the day checking out Gyeongbok Palace or Samcheong-dong, which I would recommend, a taxi to Buam-dong from there will only cost about 6,000 won. In general, travel between major destinations in central Seoul isn’t too pricey, especially if you are splitting it with friends. Even going all the way from Hongdae to Gangnam is only about 15,000-20,000 won depending on where you are.
  3. Coffee shops are empty before noon. For most Koreans, coffee shops aren’t for morning pick-me-ups, but places to be seen in the afternoon. If you want to avoid crowded coffee shops in Samcheong-dong or Buam-dong, you don’t have to get there too early. Coffee shops start to get really crowded around 3 or 4 o’clock. 

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