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Seoul is one of the biggest metropolises in the world, with millions of residents and annual visitors.
It’s a one-stop-shop for anyone wanting to experience Korean food, but without the time or budget to leave the city.
In this Seoul food guide, you’ll discover five neighborhoods of Korea’s biggest city, and the foods they’re known for.
Who you choose to bring along on this adventure is up to you, but Korean food is notoriously communal, so the more the merrier (and the more side dishes you get to try).
From fresh seafood in Noryangjin and street food in Insadong to pastries in Gangnam, allow me to show you the best of Seoul’s food scene, one neighborhood at a time.
Come for the… late-night Korean barbeque & fancy pastries.
Made infamous by Psy’s Gangnam Style, Gangnam is indeed a real place. I know, I was surprised, too.
It’s been called the Beverly Hills of Seoul, containing some of the fanciest chocolate shops and patisseries in Korea, as well as an array of barbecue restaurants open til sunrise.
The luxury apartments attract families indulging in sweets in the afternoon, while the nightlife attracts twenty-somethings trying to soak up the beer after the club.
Such is the way of Seoul, and nowhere expresses the two sides of Korea better— or in more excess— than Gangnam. Family-friendly shopping by day, and party central by night; foodie capitol, always.
What to eat in Gangnam
It’s undeniable that there’s good barbecue throughout Korea, most of it pork-based. But with so much competition, Seoul is the spot for samgyupsal (삼겹살, grilled pork belly), dwaeji galbi (돼지갈비, marinated pork ribs), and a bowl of mulnaengmyun (물냉면, cold buckwheat noodles served with veggies and half a boiled egg) to cool you off afterwards.
In Korea, BBQ is cooked over open coals, and you guessed it, served with an array of side dishes. The choices of banchan vary by restaurant, but you’ll always get lettuce, green onions, and kimchi (fermented spicy cabbage).
If you have a hankering for something other than pork, ask your guest house about restaurants which serve hanu (한우, Korean beef; of the same caliber as Kobe beef, but cheaper) or dak galbi (닭갈비, spicy chicken cooked in a big pot with carrots and cabbage and onion). Wherever you go, just don’t forget the soju.
On the pastry side of things, French-style bakeries dominate the scene.
Don’t be fooled by chain shops Paris Baguette and Tous Les Jours, however. Head straight for UNAS, one of many delicious pastry shops in Seoul. Nearly hidden on the third floor of a massive building in northern Gangnam, the intricate pastries are worth the hefty price tag.
Cacao Bean chocolatier is pretty close by, serving up some of the smoothest truffles in Korea.
Be sure to save room, as well, for a bowl of bing su (빙수, shaved ice served with fruits and whipped cream and condensed milk on top).
Things to do in Gangnam (other than eat)
Explore CoEx Aquarium, look around Bongeunsa Temple, and have a free Korean liquor tasting at the Sool Museum.
Every January, you can also visit Seoul’s 4-day chocolate festival, the Salon du Chocolat.
Come for the… fried chicken & cute cafes.
As Seoul’s trendy university-populated neighborhood, Hongdae is the spot for more budget-minded travelers or those wanting to witness the ways of Korea’s youth.
There are nightclubs, cafes, and chicken joints galore.
I’m usually in Hongdae for the last one (and the cheap Thai food), but I’ll let you in on a few other hidden gems.
What to eat in Hongdae
Bypass the street food in Hongdae, unless you have a mad hankering for a midnight kebab, because the highlight of Hongdae is the abundance of fried chicken. Head straight to Noona Holdak (누나홀닭) off the main strip.
There you’ll find sliced grilled chicken, as well as the ever popular fried options. Ask for yangnyum chicken (양념치킨), a sweet and spicy fried creation that’s popular across Korea.
If you opt to dine in, be sure to order a domestic beer and enjoy a meal of chimek, slang for fried chicken and beer (coming from chicken + maekju [beer]). Other delicious chicken spots include Oksang Dalbit (옥상달빛) and Kyochon (교촌).
For those of you seeking lighter fare, keep an eye out for Coco Bruni or Bread Comma, two nice cafes to pass a few hours in. Seriously.
On the weekends, Koreans will spend all afternoon in a cafe, so come before you noon if you want a seat.
Things to do in Hongdae (other than eat)
Visit the trick eye museum, shop for vintage clothes, and take in the ill-contained chaos of university life on the weekends.
Come for the… International food.
The area between Hangangjin, Itaewon, and Noksapyeong metro stations is notorious for the overwhelming number of foreign restaurants and residents.
Those who are craving a taste of home, or basically anywhere else, should base themselves in Itaewon. No judgement here.
The cuisines of every country we visit won’t appeal to us, though I always recommend giving a few dishes a try. But if you’re absolutely certain that Korean food is not your thing, yet you still want good eats in Seoul, read on.
Bonus: these days most everyone speaks English to some degree in Itaewon.
What to eat in Itaewon
Camp out in Braii Republic for what will likely be an addictive taste of South African food; they also serve South African wine and Amarula, if you’re looking to up the ante.
Cheese Flo is my pick for contemporary cuisine, with house-made cheeses and a wide selection of wines.
Coreanos is a Los Angeles transplant just like its owner, churning out the perfect blend of Mexican-American and Korean cuisines.
Mi Casa is my go-to for Spanish food and wine, especially when I’m craving authentic patatas bravas or creme catalan.
Finally, Morococo is a relatively new addition to Itaewon’s international food scene, but the small Moroccan cafe has been packed since the beginning, especially popular for their large vegan menu.
Things to do in Itaewon (other than eat)
Wander Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, climb up to Namsan Tower, and relax in a Korean sauna at Itaewon Land.
Come for the… traditional Korean cuisine & street food.
Known as the traditional district, Insadong is basically a one-kilometer stretch of traditional Korean food and drinks, and Made in Korea kitsch.
On the weekends, it’s packed as full of Koreans as it is of foreigners.
Be sure to go down the side streets and keep an eye out for unique souvenirs. Don’t be afraid to barter, either.
What to eat in Insadong
Insadong is the place to indulge in the street food that makes Koreans think of home.
Even in small towns, snacks like like dak ggochi (닭꼬치, chicken skewers), hoddeok (호떡, glutinous rice cake fried & filled with cinnamon honey), and odeng & ddeokbokki (오뎅 & 떡볶이, fish cakes & spicy rice cakes) are common street snacks.
Sold in markets and on every street corner during the winter, if you’re looking for the best of Korea’s street food be sure to head for either end of the Insadong strip.
This is where most of the stalls are set up, and some of them will even have covered seating during the coldest months.
Some of the best Korean foods are not to be had on the streets, however, so I urge you to duck into a restaurant as soon as you see one of the following dishes.
First is samgyetang (삼계탕, Korean chicken soup made with ginseng), always served with a variety of banchan (반찬, side dishes). It’s said that the more banchan are served at your meal, the more respect you are being shown.
Next up we have soon dubu jjigae (순두부찌개, fresh tofu stew), a soft and spicy tofu dish full of fresh vegetables.
Last on the list is bulgogi jeongol (불고기 전골, Korean-style beef hot pot), a beautiful communal meal that’s prepared right at the table and proudly rooted in ancient Korean Royal Cuisine.
Luckily for us all, even if you can’t read Korean, most restaurants will have a translation in English and some pictures. Since the vast majority of Koreans eat in groups, the vast majority of restaurants also specialize in just one or a few dishes.
Things to do in Insadong (other than eat)
Have your picture taken in a hanbok (Korean traditional clothes), drink afternoon tea in a traditional cha jip (tea house), and shop for souvenirs down the winding alleyways.
Come for the… Seafood.
I’d be bereft to leave out the wide variety of seafood options in Seoul.
Personally, I’m not one for seafood, but much of Korea’s foods are based on seafood.
Some of it is raw, and a lot of it has a strong presence. Koreans can get nervous when foreigners try their food for the first time; it has a reputation for being smelly and unappealing.
I’m not sure who told them this, but such a gross generalization deserves to be overturned, though the fish market probably won’t help.
Much more popular with locals than with tourists, Noryangjin fish market is the best place for seafood in Seoul. The neighborhood is blatantly famous for the seafood hub, a largely indoor experience that challenges the limits of your sense of smell.
There is such a wide variety of seafood sold here that many tourists arrive with a nose plug on and just snap away pictures. Just be sure you’re polite.
What to eat in Noryangjin
Buy your dinner, and then head upstairs to have it cooked at one of the bevy of BYO seafood joints for a small fee.
The vendors have just about everything, from lobster and blue crab to penis fish. It’s a delicacy, trust me.
A popular dare to visitors is to try “live octopus,” sannakji (산낙지), a freshly-killed octopus prepared raw and eaten while still writhing around. And Koreans are worried we think the food smells while it’s wriggling around!
If that seems a little extreme, ask around about haemul pajeon (해물 파전, seafood pancakes) and be sure to share.
In the second-floor restaurants, chefs are ready to prepare your sashimi, boil your crab, and grill your fish, or any combination therein. These restaurants also provide side dishes and offer drinks and rice & soups at reasonable prices.
The service charge ranges from a few bucks to ten bucks a person, but for the freshness of food you picked yourself, it’s a worthy investment.
Things to do in Noryangjin (other than eat)
Poke around Sayookshin Park, take pictures at Yeoido Hangang Park, and gape at all the crazy sea life taking up temporary residence in the Fish Market.
Basic Korean Lesson
Before you go, there are some Korean phrases you’ll want to keep tucked in your back pocket, more out of politeness in most cases.
Thank you and hello are the most important of all of these, and unfortunately, there’s not a shorter version that’s still polite.
Just be sure to make it clear that you don’t actually speak Korean, because otherwise you’ll get lots of rapid-fire questions.
Feel free to just speak in your native language to them if they start speaking rapid-fire Korean; that seems to best explain a lack of Korean.
Hello // An-nyeong-ha-se-yo. (안녕하세요.)
Thank you // Gam-saahm-ni-da. (감사합니다.)
It was delicious, and I ate well // Jal meok-guh-seum-ni-da. (잘 먹고습니다.)
How much is it? // Eol-ma-yeh-yo? (얼마예요?)
Do you speak English? // Yeong-aw jal-hae-yo? (영어 잘해요?)
I don’t speak any Korean. // Han-guk-aw jal-moat-hae-yo. (한국어 잘못해요.)
This, please. // Ee-gaw ju-say-yo. (이거 주세요.)
One beer, please // Maek-ju ha-na ju-se-yo. (맥주 하나 주세요.)
Where is (this place)? // [Name of place] eo-di-ay ee-seo-yoh? [Name of place] (어디에 있어요?)
Which food do you want to try on your trip to Seoul?
Max Gandy— aka Dame Cacao— is a chocolate writer based in South Korea. She’s passionate about helping you understand and find better chocolates. It’s been said that she recognize craft chocolate bars like most people recognize Kardashians. Follow her chocolate travels on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.