Eleven years ago I took a job in strategy and operations at Deloitte. I wanted a year off first, so I went to India to do a social-enterprise fellowship. While I was there, a Korean TV show – think The Voice meets The X Factor – saw a video of me singing and asked if I wanted to take part. I moved to Seoul from Boston, was a contestant on the show for nine months and then got a record deal. That was the end of Deloitte. Until 2020, I was pretty much living here full time.

These days, I spend half of my time here and half of my time back in the US. I love Hannam-dong, the heart of the city. It’s right under the Namsan, the mountain with the big tower on top of it, and in a very central location: Pace Gallery, Whistle and Leeum Museum of Art are all within walking distance and I love that there are trees and greenery – you get the sense of a city, but also a small neighbourhood. A lot of artists were quietly living here when I first moved, but in the past few years it’s exploded in popularity. Still, it feels like home. 

Eric Nam in Namsan Baekbeom Square park
Eric Nam in Namsan Baekbeom Square park © Taemin Ha

I’d visited Seoul as a child – my parents are from Korea – but the first visit I remember properly was during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. There was an electric energy about it. Initially I thought that was a World Cup thing, but every time I went back it was there. Things change quickly here. There’s always construction happening, and bars, shops and restaurants are constantly moving. People are forced to be creative in a tough market, and the city is very experimental as a result. Koreans appreciate things that are tastefully done and done with intention. We have a knack for saying, “This is cool – let’s make it even better.”

Namsan Baekbeom Square
Namsan Baekbeom Square © Taemin Ha
Namsan Baekbeom Square, with the Namsan Tower in the distance
Namsan Baekbeom Square, with the Namsan Tower in the distance © Taemin Ha

One mainstay is café culture: Seoul has the most cafés per capita in the world. In order to compete, people put a lot of attention into interior design. There’s been one all over my Instagram feed recently – Saladaeng Temple, a water café: it mimics rain and there’s a river inside. But for really good coffee, I go to Milestone or Anthracite. Both are very simple, although they always have crazy lines. 

Korea has the best food in the world, period. Not only because Korean food is great, but also because we’ve got so good at making Korean versions of dishes. At first I missed US staples like burgers and Italian and Mexican food. But now when I miss a pasta dish, it’s from a restaurant in Seoul. There’ so much more to Korean food than grilled ribs.

“Like something out of Midnight In Paris”: Soko bar
“Like something out of Midnight In Paris”: Soko bar © Taemin Ha

When I want Korean BBQ, I go to R Gogi in Cheongdam, a neighbourhood I think of as the city’s Beverly Hills. All the luxury stores have their flagships there – and also Boontheshop and 10 Corso Como – and it’s where all the celebrity glam teams are. I don’t have BBQ often, so when I go, I want the best. R Gogi serves Hanwoo beef: the owner goes to auctions and bids on the most prized cows. He also makes incredible accompaniments: thinly sliced marinated green onions, hearty stews and omurice – fried rice with an egg wrap and gravy. 

The interior of Soko bar
The interior of Soko bar © Taemin Ha

But my favourite restaurants are the no-frills Korean places, one of them being Jang Sarang in Jung-gu, Seoul’s historic centre. They have comforting things like bulgogi, which they make old-style – what they call basag, meaning crunchy-crispy. They flatten the beef so it’s really thin. I also love the perilla-seed sujebi. I don’t even know what perilla seed is! But it’s so good: a sesame-ish thick stew with hand-pulled dumpling noodles. It warms you up. 

Koreans take whisky very seriously. There’s a bar I go to near my apartment called Soko that’s like something out of Midnight In Paris. You go down a seemingly random staircase into a dimly lit room where all the waiting staff are dressed in tuxedos. 

Namsan Baekbeom Square
Namsan Baekbeom Square © Taemin Ha

If I get up early, I’ll go for a walk up the mountain. It’s a cool way to take a big glance at the city. From there you can walk to the river, where there are lots of parks. I like to go with friends, take a picnic blanket and grab some beers and food from a convenience store, which are crazy here. Most have ramen-making machines that add the exact amount of water you need and cook it for you. You can even add an egg or a piece of fried chicken. 

Seoul really is a city that never sleeps. I’ve had friends say, “I thought New York was crazy – Seoul is crazier!” There’s always something happening. 

House on a Hill, Eric Nam’s third studio album, is out now

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