Multicultural Seoul

Seoul has made something of a habit of seeing its constituent quarters undergo rapid, wholesale changes, but Itaewon's recent renaissance has been rather spectacular.

American military personnel first arrived at the nearby Yongsan Army base in 1950 at the outset of the Korean War. As the army presence solidified over the following decades, bars, shops, and non-Korean restaurants started to spring up servicing not only soldiers, but also the many foreign diplomats and businessmen who made Itaewon their home base.

Since the turn of the 21st century, Korea's first openly gay celebrity has come out of the closet. The upshot: many of the old brothels became gay bars, part of hooker hill was renamed "Homo Hill" and Korea suddenly had a gay district in Itaewon, giving this conservative country a much-needed shot in the arm.

It was to do the same in culinary territory - at the same time as its gay scene was taking off, the Itaewon dining landscape underwent a quantum leap, graduating from pizzerias and curry houses to fine-dining establishments and adventurous fare from lands as diverse as Brazil, Bulgaria and Lebanon. Many of the customers were locals, and so were many of the proprietors.

Today, the rebirth of Itaewon and nearby Gyeongnidan and Haebangchon as vibrant, commercial areas boasting chic restaurants and cafes, Itaewon neighborhood has come on in leaps and bounds, making an astonishingly rapid transformation from seediness to style.

The main Itaewon stretch from Hangangjin Station to Noksapyeong Station and surrounding side streets are now lined with some of the best and innovative dining options as well as nightlife spots in Seoul. International fashion houses such as Comme des Garcons and a new cosmopolitan wave of foreign schooled chefs, sommeliers, designers and returning Korean-Americans are opening up businesses in Itaewon.

For people seeking a serene, laid-back hideaway from nearby Itaewon, Gyeongnidan is worth exploring. The main drag is a narrow street that starts from the Army Central Finance Accounting Center near Noksapyeong Station and ends near the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Mount Namsan. Though its grey cement houses and rough pavement might not look inviting at first, the street has a number of local cafes and bars offering a variety of appetizing dishes and a refined ambiance. Drink locally brewed beer at Magpie's, get your coffee fix at Chansbros or if you're young'n'hip, go stand in line at Standing Coffee. However, If coffee is not your thing, treat yourself to a freshly squeezed lemonade at Ohana and don't miss the 'free homemade mini-scones happy hour' every Tuesday to Thursday, 10.30am - 2.00pm.

These days, Haebangchon is a residential area that is gentrifying quickly, and it is quite typical to see women out with their children, expats out for an afternoon or couples in comfortable outfits having brunch or early dinners on weekends.