Reconnecting Hongdae

My mother has worked as an art teacher for most of her career, putting her talent to use teaches others to develop theirs. When I was in elementary school, I used to take summer school at the local church (basically day-care for Christians). My mom was the art teacher and after one summer I swore, never again. It wasn’t that she wasn’t a great teacher, she was (and is). It’s more that it was a babysitting class which I got regularly from her at home.

It wasn’t hard for her to make her way to Hongdae because, as I later found out, she’d attended the school as a student. It was a complicated matter calling and finding out where she was and where we were before I recommended a meeting point. When we got there, we realized that my mom got there early and then wandered off to someplace else. When we finally did meet, we stopped for lunch so my girlfriend and I could have a meal before setting off for the day.

Gummy Bear

We started in the heart of the university itself which isn’t as large as I had first imagined. I was relying on my mom to show us around but nearly 40 years had warped the landscape and her memory. Only a few buildings remained from my mom’s memories and the rest were either considerably easy to spot and new structures or hidden behind bushes and tight corners.

Space No Trace?

We walked through some of the back alleyways surrounding the school and were greeted with buffet of street art. Each corner had a scrawl or a symbol which would lead to a painting and then further on to murals and the like. I guess it isn’t a surprise to see this much street art as Hongdae is known for their arts program.


It was nice to see my mom and girlfriend talking and generally having fun in each other’s company. I was busy wandering around and falling behind so when I finally jumped back into the conversation my mom was talking about her brief stint as an animator with Hanna Barbera Productions. She was explaining some of the hoops that she had to jump through in order to get the animations correctly and the amounts of frames necessary to get the smallest scenes to look right. By the time she’d finished explaining all this to my girlfriend, anyone could guess she didn’t stick with the job.


We took it in for a few hours until our feet began to hurt. There were alleys, dead-ends, walls behind walls and lamp posts lining a street that someone had thoughtfully painted with Super Mario power-ups. Eventually the streets seemed to get longer and the hill was beginning to feel steeper and we called it a day.

I was surprised how well everything went considering I hadn’t seen my mother in a year, she hadn’t ever spent this much time with my girlfriend before, and this would be the first time we walked around Korea like this in… ever. Looking back, even the hills didn’t seem that bad and the stairs were manageable although a bit tricky and precarious at a few points. All in all, a pretty awesome day.


Hitting the Language Barrier, Stomach First

It’s impossible not to be drawn to Hongdae if you live in Seoul. While I’m not one for the nightlife, the area is always teeming with interesting cafes and promises of interesting events around each corner. Whether it’s the Santa Walk in the wintertime, the sporadic live performances from aspiring musicians, or the strange and often poorly planned events by the local students (they set up walls for anyone to draw pictures on, on a rainy day) there’s always somewhere to go and something to see.

This particular night, my girlfriend and I had a particular goal in mind. Food.

After enough trips to Hongdae, you realize that the nightlife centers on restaurants. There are clubs aplenty with long stretching lines and crowds waiting for entry, but the same can be said for the restaurants. It isn’t strange to see a crowd waiting for seats at the Charlie Brown cafe’ or lines forming for some of the more popular restaurants on the main street. Regardless of whether you come for the clubs or for the shopping, you’re always in for a good meal.

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A Cat Themed Day in Hongdae

Day 3

I woke up late. At least, later than I had hoped. I wanted to spend two hours at the gym, 30 minutes jogging outside and maybe another hour or so playing video games before I left.

But I woke up late.

It wasn’t my idea to go to Hongdae, not that I didn’t want to go just that it wasn’t my idea. I guess when we got there, my heart just wasn’t in it. We went to eat a Greek restaurant that I had passed by countless times before and had always wanted to try but it was closed. Underneath it on the first floor was a goulash place that I had never noticed but I sensed that my compatriots weren’t in the mood for goulash. So instead we went to a fried chicken restaurant that I had seen, but never carried an interest for. For $25 I got a meal that tasted like it should have cost ten.

When we entered the restaurant it had been cloudy and now that we were finished eating (and ready to explore Hongdae) the skies were darkening and the air was wet with the promise of rain. I felt pretty damned gloomy, so gloomy that I didn’t notice that my girlfriend and her sister had stopped and were looking up at a cafe. I walked back to where they were slowly, as the streets had begun to flood with streams of water funneling through from the sudden but unavoidable rainfall. When I got back to where they were standing, my feet were soaked inside my shoes and I was  starting let the gloom get to me. I looked up at the sign they had been ignoring me for.

“Cat Cafe”? Continue reading


Shops line half the streets and restaurants line the other half.

Take subway line #2 (the green line) get off at HongIk University (홍대입구역) Station and right off the bat, you’ll notice a different atmosphere. The area gives off a sense of rebellious youth which is all the more surprising considering the traditional nature of Korea. While Hongdae is similar to many other college areas the fact that it is an Arts university means it attracts a different crowd. Street art can be found everywhere (along with signs of tagging) giving a “hip-hop” feel to the area. It’s pretty common to walk around on summer nights and find indie groups or aspiring students performing around tight circles; some of which is decent while others simply aren’t.

Street vendors are everywhere, just so's you know.

The shops here are open during day and into the night. Some of the styles here can lean towards the more eclectic but a lot remains to be explored. With clothing shops lining the street and wares changing out as often as they can, it’s really a random draw as to what you’ll find in this area. The wares you find here (don’t often but can) reflect the majority population here, which are students of the Arts. You’ll also find a 1300k (looks like “Book” but is pronounced as it sounds) here which sells a smattering assortment of trinkets and assortments that you’ll find in other trendy areas as well.

When you need a boost of energy the Snoopy Cafe, Hello Kitty Cafe, Cat Cafe, Dog Cafe are just a few places I know of to give you a dose of caffeine. In this area, there’s no reason to go to a Starbucks or Coffee Bean (but they’re here for you, just in case). Taco Bell (one of only two in the country), a Greek restaurant (the only one I’ve seen in Korea), Sushi in Sushi (decent sushi buffet) and Subway (sandwiches) can be found to satisfy your hunger after walking these long streets if you’re looking for different fare from what you’ll usually find in Korea which is Korean food.

But it isn’t the atmosphere, food, or shopping that draws a heavy portion of the foreign crowd here it’s the nightlife. Clubs are scattered throughout the area, many of which house parties or video shoots for K-Pop idols. What sets these clubs apart from the rest in Korea is the obvious western slant, as these clubs are populated (sometimes overwhelmingly) with foreigners they don’t tend to conform to what Koreans define as a “club”. For the most part, you won’t find “booking clubs” or anything like that here, those can be found anywhere else. Here the clubs are closer to what they are back home (hot girls who’ll turn you down… yep, the memories). Unfortunately, another part of the foreign slant is the cover charge which is closer to some of the clubs you’ll find back home as well. If you’re looking for a Korean-styled bar or eats, Hongdaae will definitely accommodate with alleys and streets paved with them but the center of the nightlife here is definitely in the clubs.

Whether you’re looking for a good time or just some time to kill, Hongdae is always good for at least a few hours of your time.

RIP Tiger Bunny, you were an awesome sight. Now you've been covered by some black dude holding a shoe.


A lot of the back alleys around the area are home to some interesting street art. While it may not be everyone’s favorite past time to walk around taking photos of walls, for those of you who do it’s definitely a good use of one or two hours. In fact, sometimes small classes of photography students are seen walking the back alleys taking pictures for projects.

Cafe Hopping

Walk around any populated metropolitan city in the US and you are sure run into several Starbucks, a Coffee Bean and a few smaller specialty or home-run places.

Walk four blocks in any direction in Seoul and only the rare few will find less than ten. Angel-in-Us, Twosome Place and 나무그늘 cafes line the streets next to Starbucks and Coffee Beans. There is more variety in cafes in Korea than in fastfood or restaurants for that matter.

Dr. Fish
She looks worried, and for good reason; Dr. Fish is going to eat her. Photo taken inside 나무그늘 (강남역, Gangnam Station Line 2; click for more info).

Why? Maybe it could be due to saturation of western culture or an evolution of the asiatic affinity for tea but does it really matter?

Korea has taken cafes and coffee shops and turned them into a new enterprise making Starbucks look outdated and out of fashion. I’ll admit, I still grab a venti Frap or a large Black Forest blend every once in a while, but nothing compared to when I had my feet cleaned by fish after sipping a sweet potato latte or found myself in one of the many themed cafes like the Charlie Brown Cafe (홍대입구, Hongdae).

Entrance to the Charlie Brown Cafe in 홍대입구. Located close to the park in front of the university. Click for more info.

Cafe hopping in Korea is a pasttime of its own ranging from the chains and “mom n pops” to upper eschelon chique and hundreds scattered in between. Finding a favorite isn’t hard and you can spend a long time ordering the same things and drinking in the western influenced but completely different ambience, but if you cafe hop like me…  good luck visiting the same place for longer than a week when you try the next drink around the corner.


Try looking up “Cafes in Korea” on google for a decent top ten. While they may not be top destination sites on their own, I’ve dropped by a few when I make trips to the area. Also, Dr. Fish is not to be missed.