Itaewon 이태원 is known for being the foreigner hang out attracting ex-pats and tourists alike. A place where many feel a little freer to dress, act, and talk like they would then in other areas in Korea. Walking around Itaewon, it is easy to see why this eclectic neighborhood is a safe haven for those who are outcasts in Korean society (including LGBTQ+) despite its seedy reputation.
On the surface, this neighborhood may seem all party and no heart, but everything that makes Itaewon what it is today is rooted in its history. Since the Joesan Dynasty, Itaewon has been the home of foreign embassies, military bases, and a place of rest between Seoul and the rest of Korea. Being on the city’s outskirts, it became a place of exile for women who were victims of sexual violence from the Imjin wars.
In more modern history, the Itaewon became the place of settlement for immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Itaewon was home to the US Yongsan 용산구 Base for decades. So many businesses catered to the needs and tastes of the soldiers, creating a cultural haven for foreigners. It wasn’t just the access to commodities from around the world that attracted people to Itaewon. People came seeking a safe place where they could be themselves amongst people who held similar ideals. Specifically, the LGBTQ+ community who have zero protections under Korean law (Korea has no anti-discrimination laws) were/are able to live (slightly) more open than anywhere else in Korea.
Itaewon’s reputation was not the greatest before the US-occupied Yongsan Base. Still, the base played a massive role in creating Itaewon’s seedy reputation. The primary reason is that the US military members treated people horribly, especially women, when they are off duty. Still today, many people, Korean and foreign alike, avoid hanging around the military because they be acting all levels of stupid, including being verbally and physically abusive while under the influence of alcohol and lying about being married.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, Itaewon became a haven for violence and prostitution. It would be unfair to blame it all on the base without acknowledging the role of police negligence and the war on prostitution in Korea. The war on prostitution peaked in the 90s when it was outlawed, causing many brothels to move where they would be less bothered by the police.
More recently, the US has moved its military base out of Itaewon, the city government created a special tourist zone in the area, and the gentrification of Itaewon has started. Although this is great for Itaewon’s reputation, it has had some significant consequences for its community.
In May 2022, as I write this, there have been a few major controversies with some of the clubs in Itaewon not just denying entry for foreigners but the bouncers becoming physically aggressive in situations where only words are being exchanged. It is nothing new for foreigners in Korea to be denied entry or services at clubs, bars, and restaurants but becoming more prevalent in Itaewon. This has led to the BIPOC community who get denied entry where other white foreigners can go in Korea to create their own ‘Green Book.’
The implications of more businesses in Itaewon openly discriminating against the community that has taken refuge here are not good. The fear for many is that Itaewon will lose its soul and force people to find another place where they feel comfortable being themselves.
If you want to go in-depth into the history of Itaewon, I highly recommend you listen to both episodes on Itaewon by The Darker Side of Seoul Podcast.
So you know the history and the reputation but still want to explore Itaewon?
I don’t blame you. When you walk down the street here, you feel like you are strolling through several countries across the globe. You can hear several different languages being spoken between artists Busking. At the same time, you can see people in drag or dress as their true selves in the aesthetic of punk, goth, or even more scandalously clad than what is the norm for Korea. Itaewon is unlike any other place I’ve been to in Korea. It is well worth experiencing a late-night stroll down the streets.
How can I do justice to someplace I’ve only spent 3 days in? I feel my recommendation won’t do the variety of foods, bars, and things to do in Itaewon justice, so I will show you a few of my favorites so far.
My favorite restaurant in the area is Linu’s Barbecue 라이너스바베큐, and it’s the southern American kind. Don’t forget to stop and grab a Shwarma or Kabab wrap and Baklava at any of the turkiesh resturants in the area.
Cafes litter the streets, and they are all delicious. I have to say I Doughnut Care (Ai Doughnut Care) 아이돈덧케어 is my favorite so far, serving americanos and this black sesame cream doughnut which was to die for. Also, in the more gentrified area, there is a Starbucks Reserve for those who are Starbucks lovers.
If you are a cocktail and wine lover, I recommend getting off of the main strip for some bars with chill atmospheres. Walk along Noksapyeong toward Mamasan and stop at any of the bars along the way. Then down the street a bit, off to the left, there will be another street full of bars and restaurants called Snheung-ro. It’s marked as part of the tourist zone with a tan coloring on Naver maps. My faveriot spots to chill include Southside Parlor, Coley’s, Hustle, Black List, and if you want an american dive bar vibe check out Route 66.
Besides bar or cafe hoping Itaewon is home to the Samsung Leeham Art Museum리움미술관. This free museum limits the number of people per day, so reserve your spot ahead of time. I wanted to go to this museum before I Knew it was in Korea. The modern art exhibit curation is unlike any museum I have ever been in. The museum is thought-provoking not only because the audio guide is so thorough but because each level has a theme and a question that makes you think of the collection as a whole. It’s definitely worth a few hours to wander around.
Next time you are in Seoul, I hope you are able to enjoy Itaewon as much as I do.
I Doughnut Care (Ai Doughnut Care) 아이돈덧케어 – 2,800 KRW-5,000 KRW – 서울용산구이태원로20가길 4
Linu’s Barbecue- 라이너스바베큐– +15,000 KRW– 서울 용산구 이태원로 136-13
Southside Parlor– 서울 용산구 녹사평대로 218 4층
Coley-서울 용산구 녹사평대로 214
Hustle-서울 용산구 이태원로 134 (이태원동) 3층
Black List-서울 용산구 이태원로 134 (이태원동)
Route 66-서울 용산구 이태원로 164-1
Samsung Leeum Museum of Art- 리움미술관- FREE– 742-1 Hannam-dong Yongsan-gu Seoul
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