A PLACE JUST LIKE YOUR HOME
Daehangno (“University Street”) is at its best in autumn.
Seoul National University, Korea’s top university and the institution from which the neighborhood takes its name, was relocated long ago, but several universities still remain. Come on a fall weekend and you’ll find yourself tripping over the countless young couples who fill the streets and cafés, all here to take in the neighborhood’s romance and youthful energy.
What really gives Daehangno its spirit, however, is its culture. This is Seoul’s “theater district,” home to about 40 theaters, mostly small and medium-sized spaces that make up with warmth what they lack in size. Even the streets transform into open-air theaters—pop by landmark Maronnier Park, for instance, and you’re likely to find some performance going on, whether it be buskers or break dancers.
There’s plenty of history here, too. Overlooking the neighborhood is Mt. Naksan with its medieval city walls. Munmyo Shrine, hidden on the campus of venerable Sungkyunkwan University, was an important Confucian shrine and is one of Seoul’s most overlooked gems. Various other reminders of Korea’s past, including colonial-era hospitals, the home of Korea’s first president, and even a hanok district office are hidden in the alleys, beckoning to be found by the industrious urban explorer.
Daehangno’s history as a center of learning stretches back all the way to the Joseon Dynasty. In 1398, the Seonggyungwan—old Korea’s top center of Confucian learning—was founded here (it lives on today in the form of Sungkyunkwan University, where you can find the old school’s Confucian shrine). During the colonial era, the Japanese founded Keijo Imperial University, which was rechristened Seoul National University (SNU) after Korea regained its independence in 1945. Thanks to SNU, cafés and teahouses flooded in, and the youthful vibe even survived the school’s move to its current location south of the Hangang River in 1975.
Maronnier Park was built in the heart of the former campus right after SNU’s departure, and the school’s old main hall became home to what is now Arts Council Korea. Theaters, museums and galleries soon followed. As a result, Daehangno developed a reputation as a place of free artistic expression. In 2004, Seoul Metropolitan Government designated Daehangno its second “culture street,” after Insa-dong.
During the Joseon Dynasty, Mt. Naksan marked the eastern boundary of the royal capital of Seoul. The city has long since spilled over its old borders, but the old city wall still snakes along the ridge of Mt. Naksan. Much of the mountain has been turned into a park, and it is particularly pleasant at night, when the old walls are lit up. The views of downtown Seoul alone justify the visit. go You can walk to the park from Hyehwa Station, but you could also follow the trail from Dongdaemun Gate.
Tucked away in Sungkyunkwan University campus, this old Confucian shrine is one of Seoul’s best-preserved specimens of Joseon Dynasty architecture. The shrine was founded in the late 14th century, but rebuilt in 1601. It displays the natural, rustic simplicity so prized by old Korea’s Confucian elite. The complex is divided into two sections: a shrine for Confucius and several other Chinese and Korean Confucian scholars, and another courtyard with an old classroom and student dormitories. Take note of the giant gingko trees in the classroom courtyard—they are five centuries old.
The heart of Daehangno, this pleasant little urban park doubles as an outdoor performance space. When the weather cooperates, there’s almost always some sort of street performance going on here.
Arko Art Gallery & Arko Arts Theater
Built by pioneering Korean architect Kim Swoo-geun in 1979 and 1981, respectively, these modernist brick landmarks played an important role in transforming Daehangno into a center of arts and culture. Exhibits at the gallery are free, but performances at the theater do charge admission. FYI Gallery is closed every Monday. Phone number of the theater is (02) 3668-0007.
Ihwa-dong Art Project
In 2006, local artists began beautifying the run-down, almost claustrophobic working-class neighborhood on the lower slopes of Mt. Naksan with wall murals, sculptures and other works of public art. It’s a fun place to stroll about. go Short walk from Ihwa-dong Intersection, near Exit 2, Hyehwa Station, Line 4.
There are roughly 40 small and medium-sized theaters in Daehangno, largely centered around Maronnier Park. These theaters host a wide range of mainstream and experimental drama and dance performances. Admission is usually quite reasonable. Very little is performed in English, which might put some visitors off, but dance performances tend to cross language barriers well.
This hanok estate (and it’s surrounding gardens) on the slopes of Mt. Naksan was the home of Rhee Syngman, Korea’s first president. It’s a beautiful place that now serves as a museum, but you need a reservation to visit.FYI To reserve entry, call (02) 741-0815. Admission: Free.
Chang Myon House
This old home of late Prime Minister Chang Myon mixes Korean, Japanese and Western styles. Chang briefly led Korea as a democratically elected prime minister before his government was overthrown in a coup in 1961.
In keeping with the cultural character of the neighborhood, the local government office was built as a Korean-style hanok. It’s a pleasant little spot with a nice courtyard garden.
Daehangno is home to several examples of colonial architecture. The most spectacular is the old Daehan Hospital (1907), with its Baroque clock tower. Located just in front of SNU Medical Center, it’s now a medical museum. Another lovely building is the old National Industry Institute (1908), a German-style wood hall on the campus of Korea Open University. One interesting work is the modernist former main hall of SNU (1931) in Maronnier Park, designed by Park Gil-ryong, one of Korea’s first practitioners of Western architecture.
eat There are about 500 cafés in the Daehangno area. A Daehangno institution, the venerable Hakrim Dabang (T. (02) 742-2877) is a coffee shop that has been in operation since 1956. The coffee’s good, and the atmosphere is even better. You’ll be inundated by restaurants, too. There’s a good variety of Korean, Western and more exotic cuisines available. One popular Korean eatery is The Bob (T. (02) 764-9288), which serves family-style Korean meals in a modern setting. For good, cheap Korean food, try Hyehwa Dolsoe Ajeossi (T. (02) 765-7399), where the specialty is tteokbokki (fried rice cakes) topped with pizza cheese, as well as donkkaseu (Japanese-style pork cutlets). For something a bit more exotic, try the kebabs at Istanbul (T. (02) 744-9790), a very good Turkish eatery. FYI go Hyehwa Station, Line 4
SNU Medical Center’s Cancer Center has a rooftop garden with great views of nearby Changgyeonggung Palace. Seoul Performing Arts Festival (SPAF) The Seoul Performing Arts Festival might have begun in October, but it continues until Nov. 14. This means there will be even more going on in Daehangno during the first half of the month. Expect a lot of performers from overseas, too. Chunnyun Jazz Bar Chunnyun Jazz Bar is widely regarded as one of Korea’s best live jazz bars. If you’re ordering wine or beer, you’ll need to pay 5,000 won admission, but if you’re eating a meal, the admission fee is waived. T. (02) 743-5555.
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