Editor’s Note: Though the community is rightfully still mourning the Itaewon tragedy of October 29, destinations should not be defined by an isolated incident. More than that, Koreans are remarkably resilient.
As a kid who spent summers in Seoul, I was fascinated by Itaewon. I loved scouring the neighborhood’s humble stalls for clothes, and watching my mom test her bargaining skills. (Haggling is expected and the cultural norm.) Kid-friendly street snacks like hotteok (crispy, chewy pancakes with a sweet filling) beckoned with their irresistible aromas. And as a young Korean-American who struggled speaking even conversational Korean, the sights and sounds of off-duty soliders from the former U.S. military base Yongsan Garrison were oddly comforting.
Clearly, a lot has changed since then. Yongsan Garrison is gone, but replacing it is a more robust and diverse presence of expats and international travelers. There’s also endless restaurants, shops, and nightlife welcoming people from all backgrounds and walks of life—which is why Itaewon has long been a social hub for youth and the LGBT community. Now, the vibrant neighborhood is also home to one of Korea’s buzziest lifestyle hotels, Mondrian Seoul Itaewon.
Opened in August 2020, the property offers a stay unlike any other in South Korea’s capital city. For starters, the design envisioned by acclaimed Singapore-based interiors firm Asylum is downright dazzling. As I entered the building after an exhausting 11-hour flight from Honolulu, I was greeted with Blind Spot, a gleaming and versatile day-to-night lounge that makes an unforgettable first impression with its soaring ceilings, oversized digital art canvas curated by Niio—the hotel’s contemporary art collection represents ten creatives from all over the world—and abundance of inviting seating.
While my high-floor corner room skewed snug—there was no desk, or enough space to spread out for Sun Salutations—I appreciated the soft palette, smart layout of everything like the dreamy, low-slung bed, and Malin+Goetz toiletries. Another perk? How quiet my accommodations were, which is appreciated after exploring a city as hectic as Seoul. There’s also a comprehensive fitness center, golf simulator, sauna, and sparkling indoor pool (a strong selling point for Seoul hotels) if want to keep up your fitness and wellness regimen on the road.
Socializing over food and drink takes top billing at the Mondrian, as evidenced by the lineup of distinct restaurants and bars. Standouts include the all-day Cleo, a light-filled space turning out globetrotting flavors, from enticing Korean breakfast sets of bulgogi, soup, and kimchi to Mediterranean kebabs and assorted mezze such as hummus and muhammara. Though Blind Spot might be best known for its whimsical cakes, the coffee program is equally noteworthy. (Even basic lattes are finished with intricate logo microfoam art.) Up on the roof, Privilege Bar merges unparalleled views of Seoul’s glittering cityscape with creative cocktails like the signature Sun & Moon, a citrusy concoction of pisco and roasted barley garnished with crackly moon-shaped candy.
But believe it or not, one of the best parts of staying here is the basement arcade chock full of hip businesses. One afternoon, I scored Lobster Bar’s savory and spicy mussel spaghetti for lunch under $10. Afterwards, I treated myself to a chic haircut by my talented friend Jin Park, the owner of Cloe Hair Salon. Between Arc N Book and Keek, I scooped up armfuls of thoughtful souvenirs. For a late-day, pre-dinner nibble, I grabbed a signature squishy-sweet corn bread from Taegeukdang, an offshoot of Seoul’s oldest bakery. In short? Mondrian Seoul Itaewon is one of those rare Seoul hotels where staying in can be as much fun (if not more) than going out.