If you know anything about Seoul, or even Korea in general, you’ve probably heard something about Itaewon. Or perhaps, you’ve at least heard UV’s Itaewon Freedom. This article is here to try and inform you about the ‘cultural melting pot’ of Seoul, and possibly put a few rumours to rest.
Earlier this year, I flew out to Korea and lived there in Itaewon for a month. Whilst not a huge period of time, I learned plenty about the local area during it, and hopefully I can impart that knowledge to you guys. So if you’re heading out to Korea any time soon, here’s the low down on Itaewon.
“There are many foreigners”
This is the token phrase you will hear in relation to Itaewon. However, whilst there are more foreigners in Itaewon than other areas of Seoul, Itaewon is actually still predominantly Korean – at least during the daylight hours of the week. The image that Itaewon is a ‘little America’ comes from the early days of the military base located there. According to Koreans, as little as 5 years ago, Itaewon wasn’t a great place to be because of this. The area would be full of soldiers partying at the weekends. Now however, there’s many a ‘foreigner’ out partying at the weekend, but just as many Koreans – although that depends where you go.
During the week, the streets of Itaewon are near foreigner free, as most foreigners are in Korea to work and therefore, are then at work during that time. But come to the area in the evenings and the weekends, and every second person you walk by is boasting a strong American accent. Few Brits are to be found in Korea unfortunately. If you go to a club, the crowd is quite mixed; ranging from near completely ‘foreign’ to almost entirely Korean. Bars/pubs however, are definitely the location of choice for the local foreigners – which included myself a few times!
An amusing thing I noticed, was that the fast food restaurants in the area were definitely where the foreigners were at. One lunch time I found myself craving a KFC so I popped down to one located near the station, and found that the only Koreans in there were the staff, and a woman married to an English man. Oh our culture’s love of all things fast and fatty.
So despite the claims that Itaewon is bursting with foreigners, that’s not quite the whole truth. You can also easily find as many, if not more, fellow foreigners in places such as Hongdae or Myeongdong.
“Itaewon is unsafe”
Often times you’ll hear talk that Itaewon can be a dodgy area, that Itaewon is to Seoul as Brixton is to London. However, I never actually encountered any trouble in Itaewon, even walking through the streets during the night. Upon first arriving, and consequently getting lost, I managed to get help from both foreigners and a few Koreans and I found my way, no advantages taken. The area isn’t quite as glam as other areas of Seoul though, it’s slightly less polished look can give off the feeling that it may be unsafe.
But I would argue that it’s no more unsafe than your average UK city. That’s not to say that you will be guaranteed 100% safety, as of course, bad things can happen wherever you go. But to put your minds at a little more ease, if you are visiting Itaewon, you don’t need to be on high guard. Just exercise caution as you would anywhere else, and you’ll be just fine. The area I would say to watch yourself around, would be Seoul Station. The area is the centre point of Seoul, and always bustling with people, so as a result I’ve bumped into a few less than savoury people whilst alone there at night, so best to drag along a friend if you’re there late.
“Itaewon is just for partying”
This is something that’s a little more true than the others. Itaewon is definitely a clubbing hotspot, as alluded to previously. Many Koreans – and foreigners too – come from outside of Seoul for the weekend just to party in the likes of Itaewon and Hongdae – perhaps Gangnam if they’re more well off.
The high street and side streets of Itaewon, are indeed littered with clubs, pubs and bars, all with signs to entice you to join them. “Free WiFi” being a favourite of mine, as most of Seoul already has free WiFi. There’s a Wetherspoons-esque pub in Itaewon too, where all the staff wear kilts. Having grown up in Scotland, that was another thing I found a lot of amusement in. Although my friend’s offers to ask to take a photo with them were politely declined.
Itaewon is said to boast and host a variety of types of clubs, including gay bars and clubs for trans* people. Something that is unusual considering Korea’s conservative ways, but most definitely a good thing. You can also find Hong Seok Chun’s restaurant in a small street off the main road of Itaewon. Hong Seok Chun being the only openly gay man in the entertainment industry. His restaurant is said to be frequented by a number of his idol friends, including most notably, Kim Jaejoong.
Something you’ll notice if you stay in Itaewon, is that many Koreans do believe in these stereotypes of Itaewon. So if you’re a ‘foreigner’ getting off the train at Itaewon, expect the “but of course” judgement faces. It’s not anything unbearable, although a little bit cringey when it happens.
Another thing is that there are shops and restaurants in Itaewon – and other areas of Seoul – that try to take advantage of the fact you will crave food from home at some point. There was a shop advertising ‘international brunches’ or something along those lines, and I saw a little UK flag and thought, let’s check it out. Only for them to try to sell me fish and chips for £15, yes, £15! So if you’re craving a bit of food from way back in the UK, best wait until you get back.
So to conclude, all is not as it seems on the surface of Itaewon. I did indeed enjoy my time there, however I do think Itaewon is best experienced as a place to visit rather than a place to stay, and so I would recommend staying in another area of Seoul. If you’re still not entirely convinced, feel free to ask around! And if you’ve stayed in or visited Itaewon before, please share your experiences with us in the comments section. Also, if you’ve got any questions, fire away!