Last summer, Korea started singing along to “Gangnam Style,” by the Korean pop star PSY. By October, my nephews in Maryland had joined the chorus. A couple of months ago in Chongqing, China, I saw women exercising by doing its signature horse-riding dance in a public square.
The thoroughly global hit (its video.youtube.com/watch? v=9bZkp7q19f0) is currently YouTube’s most watched video ever, with over 1.3 billion views) has made Gangnam, a 15-square-mile district of southeast Seoul known for packed nightclubs, pricey boutiques and ubiquitous plastic surgery clinics, into a newly magnetic destination.
I normally avoid such spots — a matter of both budget and preference — but during a recent trip to South Korea, I couldn’t resist the challenge: Would it be possible to spend three days in a Seoul district defined by opulence without hyperextending my budget?
Not only was it possible, it was easier than pretending to ride a horse. And if you take the time to deconstruct the song, you’ll realize why: This is an upscale neighborhood where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a tube of lipstick, you can spend an afternoon pretending to be rich.
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In the video, PSY pokes fun at the poseurs who arrive from more humble neighborhoods. But because they are there, businesses have responded. Yes, there are expensive restaurants and high-end boutiques beyond a normal person’s means. But there are also plenty of opportunities to eat, drink, dance and shop for very little. Call it Gangnam Frugal Style.
My visit coincided with the Lunar New Year, which Koreans tend to spend with family; that reduced crowds but left some attractions, like the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum, closed. (“Who cares,” said Youngpo Hong, a student and one of my local sources. “I have a kimchi museum in my refrigerator.”)
But most of Gangnam was still open for business, especially the area around the Gangnam Station subway stop, where a honeycomb of crowded, neon-lit, mostly pedestrian alleys are home to restaurants, bars and clubs — stacked vertically to around five stories.
The shopping districts closer to the Han River were also active, as were a handful of cultural attractions, including the Bongeunsa Temple (bongeunsa.org; free admission), a tranquil hillside Buddhist retreat, and the tranquil park housing the Joseon Dynasty tombs (admission, 1,000 won, or about 95 cents at 1,055 won to the dollar).
See and be seen
It would be a reach to call any part of Gangnam “hip” — an invisible anti-hipster perimeter wall keeps anyone not in line with prevailing high-end fashions across the river in Hongdae — but the hottest spot right now is Garosu-gil, a tree-lined shopping street near the Sinsa subway stop packed with cafes and boutiques.
PSY makes multiple references to coffee in the song, and no wonder: The quantity of cafes on and around Garosu-gil is mind-boggling. I decided to start my exploration of the area with a quick survey. Though the coffee is generally good, most customers seem to care little about fair trade or single origins; the point is to see and be seen.
The best example of this in Garosu-gil is Coffeesmith (coffeesmith.co.kr), a monstrous, multitiered space barely nicer than a decent Starbucks, but so popular with Seoul’s stilettoed, Americano-drinking populace that even with the reduced holiday crowds, it was hard to get a table.
Shopping options are divided into high-end spots along the main drag offering Korean brands — good for browsing — and small boutiques featuring more offbeat items. A faux-rustic shop called Farmer (thefarmer.co.kr) was full of handmade accessories for women; colorful earmuffs, hats and hair clips, many under 10,000 won, dominated during the freezing Seoul winter.
Here’s the bad news for shoppers: Garosu-gil is too adored for its own good, and a global invasion has begun. As of my trip, a four-story outlet of the Southern California brand Hollister was the latest; inside, I found throngs of twenty-something fashion lemmings browsing as a sound system blared the lyrics “Oh it’s so cliché … ” Exactly.
Solace can be found at one of Gangnam’s cheap eating options. Just about every meal I had was less than $10. There is a variety of jajangmyeon — Korean-Chinese takeout spots — but also more upscale places, like Sawore Boribap, where bargains can hide in otherwise upscale menus.
For example, the boribap, or barley rice, mixed with vegetables and red pepper paste, is just 8,500 won; and a haemul jeon, a delicious seafood pancake more seafood than pancake, is 7,000 won. As in just about all Korean restaurants, under-order rather than over-order; the small side dishes collectively known as banchan, free and refillable, pick up the slack.
Drinking and clubbing
For drinks, Youngpo took me to a few “beer warehouses,” newly popular spots that pare the drinking down to its essentials. The warehouses are virtually service-free; at Cube, a spare space with soft neon lighting and a video projected on the wall, there was really just a cashier and someone to bus tables — you take beer (starting at 3,500 won) yourself from refrigerated cases.
My last night called for full-on clubbing, but at the hottest Gangnam clubs — Octagon and Eden, for example — admission can be 30,000 won (about $27.50) or more and the scene bruising to egos of those over 30. Both Rob and Youngpo agreed: The solution was Bam-gwa Eu-mak Sa-I (“Between the Night and the Music”), where the weeknight cover is a more reasonable 10,000 won (about $9).
Located down a flight of stairs in one of the Gangnam Station alleys, its exposed pipes, grungy floors, 2,000-won drafts and infectious ’90s K-pop “oldies” drew an unassuming but fun crowd. In other words, just the sort of place where someone exhausted from days of straining toward affluence can let loose — although preferably not to the point of horse dancing.