This is a little Myth Buster Post mixed with a great deal of nostalgia and a pinch of cynicism. Since arriving in Korea we were hearing so many things about Itaewon, some of it true, some of it not. So here goes- my personal experience and view of Itaewon.
Living in a foreign country can be great, but at times you just miss home, your mom’s food or a product label written in English. This is why Itaewon is such a popular area in Seoul. You can walk around and be surrounded by Koreans, but at least you recognize the names of the stores and the familiarity of it all eases some of the homesickness. Besides it being one of the foreigner hubs of Seoul, it’s also very vibrant and caters for people from all over the world. If you cannot find food, entertainment or a shop that satisfies your personal taste you are either very hard to please or what you want has not been invented. I’m not saying that everything will be exactly like home- that will be ridiculous since you are in a foreign country, but you will be able to satisfy your longing for diversity, English-speakers, and Western/Foreign food products.
Myth 1: There’s a lot of FOREIGNERS in Itaewon
NOPE, not true. Although there are more foreigners in Itaewon than say Hongdae, it’s still predominantly Korean. It is, however, the third largest concentration of Foreigners I’ve seen in Korea so far. 1st Place goes to Dongdaemun and second place to Busan. The majority of people in Itaewon, both over weekends and during the week are younger Koreans. Most foreigners come to Korea to work, which will explain the lack of foreigners in Itaewon during the week.
Myth 2: Itaewon is unsafe
This one is dicey. Crime in Korea are nonexistent compared to South Africa, but yes, it’s not crime free. I think part of this rumor comes from Koreans being scared of foreigners, and because Itaewon has more foreigners than other parts of Korea it might fuel these thoughts. I have seen people leave their phones and handbags at their tables in coffee shops when going to the restroom, however, in Itaewon I’ve seen signs warning about cellphone theft etc. Us Westerners grew up with the rhyme ‘If you see a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck’. In Korea, this is not the case. You see a coin, you leave the coin- it does not belong to you, you did not lose it so don’t pick it up. I think safety is a concept relative to your native country- compared to most places across the world I would consider Korea, and even Itaewon, to be safe.
Myth 3: Itaewon is just for clubbing and drinking
Not true! Yes, most establishments in the side streets are focussing on drinking/clubbing, but this is not the only thing you can do in Itaewon. For me the main attraction is shopping. There’s a number of Foreign food marts (emphasis on Foreign, not western). You will find numerous shops selling spices from Africa, India and the Middle East. Most shop clerks are also fluent in English, which makes shopping at popular shops easier. For the first time, I could buy the right beauty products for my skin (Korean products are amazing) because I had a shop assistant who could translate the labels for me (THANKS, Olive Young, Itaewon). The second attraction for me would without a doubt be the food. If you are craving Western Food, Itaewon is the place to find it. You can get pretty much everything you desire- even the ever popular South African Braai (BBQ).
Myth 5: Itaewon is dirty
This one is difficult. Coming from a small town in South Africa, most urban spaces seems dirty to me. That being said I’ve seen much dirtier places in Korea than Itaewon. I have to admit that the smells in Itaewon can get overwhelming…Korea has yet to figure out how to deal with food smells, and garbage being piled up in side streets for pickup can give off some terrible smells. Taking all of this into account I would not say that Itaewon is dirtier than other areas of Korea/Seoul.
Myth 6: Itaewon is the best place to shop for souvenirs
Nope! Itaewon is rather expensive. Korean traditional style gifts and souvenirs can be easily purchased at Korean Markets all over Seoul for much cheaper. If you cannot converse in Korean, you’ll be able to get English vendors in Myeongdong and Insadong.
Well, that’s that then! Itaewon is great for some things and less great for others. It all depends on your mood and what you are looking for. I’ve never skipped going to Itaewon when I go to Seoul- even if it is just to be able to speak English or to pop into one of my favorite spots for a couple of minutes.
Let me know what you think of Itaewon- I’d love to hear from you.