Food in Seoul is cheap by international standards and invariably excellent, while the number of restaurants is nothing short of astonishing – there’s almost one on every corner, and many more in between. Korean food has a well-deserved reputation as one of the spiciest around; if you’re looking for something a little blander you can stick to the ever-growing choice of restaurants serving global cuisine, or breakfast at one of the many bakeries strewn around the city (note, however, that Korean bread is rather sweet for many foreigners’ tastes). Restaurants are usually open whenever you’re likely to require food, and some are 24hr; if you do get stuck, head for one of Seoul’s seemingly infinite number of convenience stores – large chains include 7-Eleven, Mini Stop and Buy the Way – which sell drinks and fast food. All have hot water for instant noodles and small tables outside for eating; partaking in this highly Korean activity will endear you to any passing locals. For something even more authentic, head to one of Seoul’s many markets, those at Dongdaemun and Namdaemun being the most popular. Also note that the consumption of food and drink have long been entwined in Korea; many bars, including some of those listed from, serve meals every bit as good as you’d find in a restaurant.
Seoul’s excellent choice of restaurants is growing more cosmopolitan with each passing year. They run the full gamut from super-polished establishments in five-star hotels to local snack bars where stomachs can be filled for just W1000; even in the cheapest places, you may be surprised by the quality of the food. With much of the national cuisine alien to most foreign guests, it may be easier to head for the food courts in department stores and shopping malls, where you can see plastic versions of the available dishes. Also popular are snack chains serving basic Korean staples.
Many parts of Seoul have their own particular culinary flavour. Most popular with tourists are the streets around Insadonggil, where restaurants almost exclusively serve traditional Korean food in an equally fitting atmosphere. Then there’s cosmopolitan Itaewon, where local restaurants are outnumbered by those serving Indian, Japanese, Thai or Italian food, among others. Student areas such as Hongdae and Daehangno are filled with cheap places, while Gangnam is also popular with local youth, and trendy Apgujeong with the fashionistas.
Cafés and tearooms
There are a number of major café chains knocking around, including Pascucci, Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. In theory, all have wi-fi access, but you may need a Korean ID number to get online; with no such identity restrictions and power sockets aplenty, branches of Tom & Toms are best for the internet-hungry and open 24hr, though the coffee itself is poor. Far more interesting for the visitor are the thousands of privately run ventures, which reach heights of quirky individuality around Hongdae and Samcheongdong. Prices tend to be W3000–5000 per cup, though you can usually double this south of the river.