A Brief Intro to Itaewon

Now the heart of Seoul's expatriate community, Itaewon -- wedged between the southern slopes of Mt. Namsan and the Han River -- got its start in the early 20th century, when it was a residential district for Japanese colonialists. The Japanese would leave in 1945 following their defeat in the Pacific War, but they'd be replaced by the Americans, who would set up shop in the massive Japanese military compound in Yongsan (now the U.S. Army Garrison -- Yongsan).

Itaewon, located next to the base, became a GI playground, and over the ensuing decades would acquire a well-deserved reputation for rowdiness and seediness.

Times, however, have changed. Dramatically. Over the last decade, Itaewon's streets have grown increasingly cosmopolitan -- today, you are just as likely to meet a Pakistani laborer or a Chinese tourist as you are a U.S. soldier. High atop a hill in the heart of the neighborhood, Seoul's largest Islamic mosque looms majestically, while below, shoppers and fun-seekers of all colors and nationalities flock to the area's famous shops and foreign eateries. Koreans -- who used to avoid Itaewon like the plague -- now flock here in droves; on a weekend, you can find countless Korean couples and families strolling about its streets, taking in its exotic sights, tastes, smells and sounds.

As part of the transformation process, Itaewon has been gentrifying. If seedy dives filled with questionable characters and women of easy virtue are what you're looking for, you'll still find them a plenty, but they've taken a back seat to much more upscale establishments catering to Seoul's cultured class. Where once country-western clubs and pickup joints held sway, classy European bistros, elegant wine bars and quaint cafes now reign. Depending on whom you ask, this is either the tragic loss of Itaewon's "traditional" identity or a long and badly needed improvement in the neighborhood's culture.

Anyway, if you're looking for a night on the town, here are some places you might want to check out:

◆ Kabinett (Tel.: 02-790-7034): Another upscale recent addition to the Itaewon culture-scape. Kabinett -- located next to the Itaewon Hotel -- is one of the best wine bars in Seoul, offering boutique wines at reasonable prices.

◆ Buddha's Belly (Tel.: 02-796-9330): Located in an alley behind the Hamilton Hotel that's seen a lot of development in recent years, Buddha's Belly mixes great atmosphere, fine wines and exotic Thai cuisine.

◆ Three-Alley Pub (Tel.: 02-734-3336): Located in the alley in back of the Hamilton Hotel, this foreign-owned European-style pub is popular with Seoul's expatriate community. If you'd like a beer and some good old-fashioned pub grub, this is the place to come.

◆ Gecko's Terrace (Tel.: 02-749-9425) and Gecko's Garden (Tel.: 02-790-0540): These two sister nightspots are actually quite different. Gecko's Terrace, on a second floor overlooking Exit 4 of Itaewon Station, has Guinness on tap and lots of good pub food, including Guinness steak pie. On a weekend, though, it can get quite crowded. Gecko's Garden, located behind the Hamilton Hotel, is a Spanish-style tapas bar that's particularly nice when its warmer.

◆ Hooker Hill: Adventurous travelers looking to sample the "old" Itaewon will probably want to check this neighborhood out. Leave Exit 3 of Itaewon Station and swing a right at the fire station. You'll eventually find an alley climbing up a hill lined with decidedly dodgy bars and clubs. Definitely not for the faint of heart. There's no telling when this neighborhood, too, will disappear, so it's probably worth seeing. A local specialty is the soju kettle, Korean soju mixed with fruit juice and served in plastic soft-drink bottles -- Polly's Kettle is a good place to score it. King Club, a hip-hop club at the bottom of the hill, has been open for decades, and has been notorious for about as long. Also near Hooker Hill is "Homo Hill," one of the few gay-friendly neighborhoods in Korea.

By Robert Koehler, Seoul Metropolitan Government / Apr. 19, 2009 16:36 KST