Songdo, the world’s first ever smart city, is one of the most affluent areas in South Korea. Built on 500 tons of reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea, it’s a high-tech, half-finished city right by Incheon International Airport. It boasts upscale housing, the tallest tower in Korea and beautiful development projects including the Tri-Bowl, Central Park, and the NC Cube/Canal Walk – but as one of the youngest cities in the world, it becomes a ghost town at night.That said, it’s nice to take advantage of the peaceful, calm vibe of the city before it gets flooded with more people in the years to come.
I should know, having worked there for a little under a year.
Here are a few pointers if you’re planning to make the move to Songdo.
Meeting People in Songdo
Real talk: making friends in Songdo is a lot tougher if you’ve got limited Korean language skills. Why? Because unlike Seoul, the expat community in Songdo is relatively scarce, and as a result, you’ll have a limited scope of ESL teacher / traveling business folk friends to choose from.
If you’re new to the community and your Korean language skills are lacking, be sure to check out OinK, an online Facebook group for foreigners, or head over to the local expat bars.
The Language Barrier in Songdo
My friends in Seoul have gotten by for years without speaking much Korean, but outside of Seoul, it’s a much bigger challenge (rightfully so; the world doesn’t owe us service in English). Unfortunately, I made the ignorant decision to “wing it”, as I had previously done when I lived in Hong Kong – and as a result, I had to depend on my bosses/ co-workers/friends and students to translate stuff for me 95% of the time. If you don’t have the time to learn Korean before you arrive, at least learn the alphabet, which is widely considered one of the easiest alphabets in the world ( this comic helped me learn it in under 30 minutes). You can (and should) easily learn some survival phrases too.
Be smarter and more culturally savvy than I was; learn some Korean before you arrive.
Transportation in Songdo
If you’re looking for cheap transportation and a cheap thrill, ride a local bus. Nearly all bus drivers believe in braking suddenly, burning red lights and shutting doors on people.
Taxis and Ubers
Taxis are ridiculously cheap for local trips, so my co-worker and I often grabbed a cab home instead of public transportation. Most cabbies are usually pretty sweet; some will even try to practice their English with you and teach you some Korean along the way. It’s worthwhile to check out Uber as well. Good times all around.
If you’re looking to get out of town, Incheon International Airport and Gimpo aren’t too far away. Check out Skyscanner’s “Flexible” option or Google Flights to find the cheapest flights at any given time.
The Bar Scene in Songdo
Here’s a fairly exhaustive list of the most popular foreigner-friendly bars in or around Songdo:
A fairly big bar in the Songdo area run by a super friendly English-speaking Korean man. They have occasional open mic nights and are the only bar I know of in Songdo that serves veggie burgers.
Owned by a super chill American expat named Aaron, this local bar in Yeonsu-dong is a popular hangout among the foreigner/ local crowd.
Standard Mexican fare and a friendly staff make this a fun place to have dinner and drinks before heading upstairs to O’Malley’s Pub.
Bistro Constance has a pretty good wine list ( a hard find in these parts), and their pizza and pasta are satisfying.
O’Malley’s was my regular spot when I lived in Songdo. Karen, my favorite bartender in South Korea (maybe the entire world), always greeted me with hugs, shared her fruit snacks with me, gave me tons of free tequila shots and even let me DJ. She, her husband Tom and their staff are spectacularly warm, and it truly is the kind of bar where everyone knows your name. If you visit one bar in Incheon, definitely make it O’Malleys (and give Karen a big hug hello for me).
Cheap Shots hosts an open mic night on Wednesdays that is usually jam-packed.
This small bar in Songdo is run by a couple of super friendly Kiwi expats is the number one bar in Incheon on Trip Advisor. The area is a little dead and it’ll be tough to get a cab home, but it’s definitely worth checking out for it’s cozy, laid-back vibe.
A popular spot to get in-house craft beer in Songdo, with pretty good pizza (for Korean standards, anyway).
Standard dance club in the Arts Centre district. I spent twenty minutes here at the end of a drunken night with a Canadian and two French expats. From what I remember, it was rather meh.
My advice: if clubbing is your scene, ditch Incheon all together and head over to Hongdae, Itaewon or Gangnam.
The Vegan Scene in Songdo
HAHAHAHAHA just kidding. There is no vegan scene in Songdo – at least not when I was there. I was the vegan scene in Songdo. With the exception of High Miso in Bupyeong, the Veggie Delight option at Subway’s and side dishes (banchan) at Korean barbecue joints, vegan resources are sparse. As a result, I usually prepared my own food at home, including vegan bibimbap, gimbap, and japchae. I used to get yachae juk and yasai korokke takeout on occasion, though chances are they probably were not completely vegan. Every other weekend, I’d make the four-hour roundtrip trek to Itaewon, where I picked up vegan goodies from the Canadian-owned Sprout.
As you can see, my experience living in Songdo ranged from heaven to hellfire, with a hundred anecdotes in between. But one thing is for certain: Songdo built my resilience, made me more creative, and gave me insight on the struggle of being a linguistic and cultural minority. It was an experience that truly shaped my character and made a stronger, wiser woman; and though it was a little lonelier being far from the major expat circles, I wouldn’t trade my experience for all the Seouls in the world.
Have you ever worked or lived abroad? Share your stories below 🙂