In Search of Gangnam Style in Seoul

While I was above the clouds at 35,000 feet, South Korea suddenly infected the world below. Hours later, I landed, checked into my Gangnam hotel, and followed a link to K-Pop sensation PSY’s viral video. Annoyed, I clicked “close” on my browser after about the twentieth viewing. I go to Gangnam twice a year for business. Gangnam style? What does that even mean?

Gangnam is really at the heart of Seoul, a modern district just south of the Han River. There’s money here, and the song parodies the über-cool, the posh and the posers, who come out to see resident celebrities in the upscale Apgujeong neighborhood and perhaps pretend to be one for an evening. It’s where the latest and greatest clubs come and go. It’s where fashion lives.

But with the abundance of Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin Robbins and fast food joints it might not seem terribly unfamiliar to a Westerner. Starbucks blends in amid a dozen other coffee franchises just a short gallop from one another on every block.

The main thoroughfares such as Teheran Road are treats to the eye: gleaming glass and steel, slick architecture, a few Big Brother video screens of commercials, all the high-end brands, Samsung Town. Gangnam generally feels more “business” than “tourist attraction.” Fresh men in fresh suits, young women off to the office teetering in heels and impossibly short skirts.

So when “Gangnam Style” came out, I had to look at Gangnam anew. Would I go here as a tourist? I decided Gangnam is a bit like… wait for it… a mullet. Business in the front, party in the back?

All day long it’s the office world, but at night the ties come off, couples walk arm in arm, friends bustle about or get in line for the latest hot restaurant or club, and the big bosses leave the office (thus allowing the underlings to exhale and leave too) and head out often to get drunk.


Standing in line for… Blue Ketchup? A franchise of “booking” clubs where the wait staff drag the lady wallflowers over to meet the guy wallflowers. Welcome to Seoul social life.

Step a half block off Teheran Street and the fun begins. Korean grills with vacuum-like vents dangling over the tables are everywhere. Dine on ogyeopsal, grilled pork belly (the best is from Jeju Island), and wash it down with a bottle of potent soju, perhaps mixed with Cider, a Sprite-like soda, or knocked back in shots with conviction (see drunk bosses in the previous paragraph). The meal might set you back less than $15 USD with all the sides you can stand and a bottle of Bokbunja (a sweet black raspberry wine) for another $10 or the less tasty but equally unpredictably potent soju for a bit less. But bring a friend – Koreans don’t dine alone. (Though I’ve managed to beg my way in a couple times out of 100.)


The rare half-order of ogyeopsal. Not sure why they can’t serve 2 of the standard 3 slices (intended for 2 people), price it accordingly, and thus serve single diners without cutting a slice in half and thus spoiling the inventory until another solo weirdo comes in.

The folks I know working down there are anything but high society and work under great pressure for not-so-great pay. So it’s no surprise that street food still rules. Look for the carts pulled up at the corner, surrounded by plastic-windowed canvas to keep out the chill, serving tteokbokki, tube-shaped rice cake swirling in a bright red sauce that blazes a trail down your throat, Korean burgers, or an assortment of fried foods. While fashion icons Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach own the streets, the average Korean goes underground to look for bargains – literally. Gangnam subway station itself is a small maze of shops spilling out their wares for lunch-hour shoppers.

But in many ways then, Gangnam could be like several other areas of Seoul when you rub off the pretense. Prices are a bit higher, of course, especially in Apgujeong, and at the southern end you have COEX with its huge exhibition halls and the usual mall environment. For tourist attractions there isn’t much other than a nice park in Seolleung right out from Exit 8 at the station of the same name. For some pocket change you can walk among the trees, hear some birds, and see the tombs of two kings and a queen from the 15th and 16th centuries. I typically stay at a Korean business hotel in Seolleung, which offers some of the lower rates in Gangnam. (Check Trivago.com to get a current price.)

Other than my favorite restaurant, which recently went out of business, the only other thing I love in Gangnam is a place that is hardly Korean: The unlikely dive bar Woodstock and its collection of vinyl and CDs for requests and at least one good craft beer on tap.

It’s true, much in Gangnam is about keeping up appearances; note the abundance of plastic-surgery and skin-care clinics. But the national frenzy of fans running out to ride invisible horses en masse reflects a sense of humor and inhibition, and a youthful joie de vivre that a traveler would do well to take part in. Just don’t expect to spend a lot of time there.
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The popularity of this song, video and dance in South Korea is not overstated in the least. Concerts with tens of thousands of horse-riding teens were happening while I was there in late September/early October. And even at the education fair there was spontaneous dancing. It was rather insane.

MORE PHOTOS FROM GANGNAM:

Trademark infringement? UnHEARD of in Asia! (kidding. rampant.) But apparently this CNN Cafe did it the legal way and is decorated inside with assorted CNN memorabilia which you can admire over a cup of cappuccino. And CNN is on the TV. On this particular TV was a perpetual loop of a recent CNN story… featuring Gangnam Style’s PSY. On an endless loop. Forever. Oppan Gangnam Style, sexy lay-day. Oof.

Lunch with some education counselors in Gangnam. While Seoul is a bit pricey (not quite Tokyo pricey) I am always impressed by how affordable traditional Korean food is. A lunch special here with the unlimited sides wasn’t even $10 USD and wasn’t crappy fast food either. If it were Italian or second-rate Mexican you’d see those expected big city prices.

“When it’s time to relax… one beer stands clear” Again, this just doesn’t feel like I’ve traveled very far from Milwaukee sometimes. The beer may stand clear, but I stand clear of that beer while on the road. (Hm. And at home, come to think of it.) For Korean craft beer head to Itaewon.

Right off the main streets in Gangnam, the side streets and back alleys are filled with restaurants and “hofs” (in Korean 호프) which are Korean style bars for beer and soju that also serve overpriced food which you are expected to order with your drink. This is why I like Woodstock (above) so much – you can just come for the beer and no one looks at you cross-eyed.

Other Korea Posts on the Mad Traveler blog

7 thoughts on “In Search of Gangnam Style in Seoul

  • November 20, 2012 at 12:53 am
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    Gangnam has style, sure, but the “real” Woodstock bar, the most fun, and the best variety of food and drinks are in Sincheon, which is a neighborhood across town that sits right in the middle of three universities! To get there, go to Ewah woman’s university or to Sincheon station!

    Cheers!

    Ryan

    Reply
    • November 28, 2012 at 11:11 am
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      Thanks for the comment, Ryan. I’ll have to check out the real Woodstock in April!

      Reply
    • August 23, 2013 at 9:10 pm
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      there are obviously multiple “woodstock” bars in Seoul, even in Gangnam. I guess most people know the one on Seocho side of Gangnam station, which does lack character in my opinion. But there’s also one on Yeoksam-dong side, which is much nicer in every respect. I used to live just around the corner, which of course helped, but I’ll go back there any time I visit Korea in the future. It’s a bit hard to find, since there’s no large sign at all, but you can see it on google maps or maybe facebook as of recently (www.facebook.com/Woodstock.Music.Bar.Gangnam)
      cheers!

      Reply
      • August 23, 2013 at 9:35 pm
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        Thanks for the tip. I’ve probably walked right past it on business before. I’ll check it out in October.

        Reply
  • May 20, 2013 at 6:02 am
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    I can’t wait to explore Seoul. I’m moving to Suwon next month and Seoul is going to be one of my first weekend trips, followed closely by a trip to the DMZ.

    Reply
    • May 20, 2013 at 4:10 pm
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      I hope to get to the DMZ in October when I go back. Have fun! Eat some great food!

      Reply
    • August 23, 2013 at 10:07 pm
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      Suwon’s not too bad – you can try some archery at the old castle there, which is quite impressive. Supposedly there’s also a German brew pub in Suwon, but I never got around trying it — always got stuck at Woodstock in Gangnam, Yeoksam….

      Reply

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