A tour of Yeonnam-dong in Seoul

I’ve recently moved to a new neighbourhood in central Seoul. Yeonnam-dong (연남동) is a small corner of the city made of twisty streets, walled by 4 storey buildings. Traditionally a Chinese-Korean area, it was segregated in the 1970s by the Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, who distrusted migrants and decreed that they couldn’t own property, isolating Chinese-Koreans there instead. Today it’s beginning to gentrify. It’s on the border of uber-popular Hongdae and Sinchon, both student-heavy neighbourhoods, and it’s near an exit of the airport railroad, making it popular with tourists and hipsters.

Yeonnam Mafia, a beer and fries place, an increasing popular trend in SEoul.

I moved to Yeonnam-dong because I got an instant good feeling from wandering the alleys. Unlike much of Seoul, it hasn’t been invaded by giant thoroughfares or malls and its old, low-level houses are being replaced with other houses rather than the ubiquitous 20 storey blocks that sprout most places. I have no doubt that older residents are being displaced by the new development. But Hongdae is now such a retail centre that landlords are kicking out residential tenants to build shops. In Yeonnam-dong, they’re building guest houses and small apartments instead.

Tearing down…

And building up.

And sometimes, rather than tearing down the old houses, they’re renovated instead.

The best feature of this neighbourhood isn’t even built yet. Yeonnam-dong abuts the old Gyeongui railway between Seoul and Pyongyang, which is being turned into a 10 km park. If you look on google street view, you’ll see it’s been a wasteground lined with grey metal panels for at least 4 years. However, the first section should be finished by the end of the year. This may not seem significant if you live in a city with public spaces, but most of Seoul is concreted over, and good luck finding a place to sit down. So a park, even an over-designed one, is a rare amenity.


This also means that the businesses nearby, currently tiny restaurants and bars, will soon have a pleasant green view instead of grey hoarding. Assuming on-street parking is banned, no sure thing in such a car-friendly city.

Restaurants facing the soon-to-be-park.

But that’s another great thing about Yeonnam-dong. Its streets are too narrow to accommodate many cars. Giant cars = status here, but Yeonnam-dong was designed prior to that, which means that the SUVs and full-sized sedans can only move one at a time through my neighbourhood. I rarely step aside to let them pass.

Good luck finding a passing lane.

There’s only one small road that sees constant traffic, partly because it’s wide enough to pass parked cars:

But mainly because it opens up to an intersection heading east, which is inaccessible from the west otherwise:

Sending a constant flow of cars down a tiny residential street because they can’t get to the thoroughfare otherwise is terrible traffic planning. But this kind of unpleasantness doesn’t extend very far into Yeonnam-dong. The streets get narrower and narrower:

Until my street, which is blocked by a well-placed telephone pole:

Result: my neighbourhood is quiet at night.

Which makes it great for cafes. These are mainly lined along the main streets but are beginning to creep in.
A vintage cafe. That 1980s-era pencil sharpener is yours for $120.

Deep inside Yeonnam-dong, a model-making workshop for all your Gundam needs.

Cafe Fishcamp and some local strays.
I don’t think that cat needs a leash, but it doesn’t appear to be bothered.

A little further afield

Yeonnam-dong is surrounded by many equally small – though not as pleasingly serpentine – neighbourhoods. However, it wouldn’t be Seoul without some enterprising developer lining the old railway bed with towers:

I like towers, but Seoul’s lack the audacity of Hong Kong’s – supertall and close together – or the uniqueness of New York. They’re tall enough to block the sun, short enough to be nondescript, and designed like the gridlocked metropolis I subjected my Sims to in Sim City 4. There are reasons they look this way, which are too complex for a short paragraph. However, thankfully this row is on the opposite side of the park.

A spooky abandoned restaurant. If you look closely someone’s scrawled “Fuck You” in big black letters on the glass.


Some graffiti on the park hoardings by exit 6 & 7 of Hongik station, across the road:


Happy Thanksgiving

Chuseouk, the harvest festival, has emptied Seoul of half its inhabitants and made the city (relatively) quiet. Tired of choosing between tinned meat and shampoo as a chuseok gift? Now you don’t have to:


The markets are full of rice pastries, but I don’t like the chuseok ones: they’re small, hard and slimy, with dry peanut paste in the middle. I prefer the soft red bean ones. That said, they’re quite popular at this time of year, and apparently improve considerably with steaming:

Finally, 4 is unlucky, 13 is not: