Gangnam District: From Zero to Hero

Tiếng Việt

Expensive, exclusive and elite are the most appropriate words to describe Seoul’s Gangnam district. It’s indeed a place to see and be seen, filled with high-end real estate, luxury boutiques and glimmering skyscrapers. But fifty years ago, this area was nothing more than a vast countryside; home to rice paddies and pear farms. And everything you see today has been built since then.


Literally means ‘South of the River’, Gangnam is a wealthy neighbourhood that lies along the southern bank of the Han River. Since PSY’ song “Gangnam Style” went viral in 2012, people all over the world have heard this name. But before receiving international attention, Gangnam has always been the desire of many Koreans. Some might say it’s the true centre of Seoul because all the big-name and big-money live here.

Brief History of Gangnam

Gangnam didn’t always look like this. In 1967, the area to the south of Han River was farmlands, full of orchards and rice paddies. But it turned into a bustling business district in the 1970s thanks to various urban development projects. The banks and tech giants were the first moved here, followed by the rich and the famous. And to accommodate the needs of Seoul’s most affluent citizens, luxury boutiques, upscale restaurants and high-end residential area were built. Today, Gangnam is the epitome of opulence, and “Gangnam Style” referred to the lavish lifestyle that associated with Seoul’s elites. In many ways, the construction of Gangnam mirrors the economic rise of South Korea – from a war-torn country in the 1950s to the fourth-largest economy in Asia.

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Starfield Library

Although Gangnam seems like a place where the money talks, there are still things that you can enjoy without breaking the bank account. One of them is the public library in COEX Mall, the Starfield Library. Within a spacious area of 2800 m², visitors can freely sit down and browse through a wide selection of books. From romantic novels to scientific publications, you can find nearly every genre in three massive bookshelves that are as tall as two-story buildings. The library also boasts Korea’s largest collection of magazines of over 600 different titles, including the latest editions of many international magazines.

Starfield Library
A spacious reading room
Public concert at Starfield Library
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Bongeunsa Temple

Another place to unwind from the hustle of Gangnam is the Bongeunsa Temple. Constructed in 794 during the reign of King Wonseong of Silla, this Zen temple appears like a spiritual oasis at the heart of a bustling district. Its wooden architecture offers a stark contrast to the modern surrounding, creating an interesting mix of old and new. The highlight of the temple is the giant statue of Maitreya – the Future Buddha. At the height of 23 metres, he seems to look over all Seoul’s inhabitants, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The giant statue of Matreya, Bongeunsa Temple

Practical Information about Gangnam

  • Starfield Library is located in the southern part of the gigantic COEX Mall. To go there take Subway line 2 to Samseong Station, Exit 5 or 6. The mall is also accessible by subway line 9 (Bongeunsa Station, Exit 7). From there, it’s about 15 minutes walk to the library.
  • The temple of Bongeunsa is just a short walking distance from COEX Mall’s north entrance. To go there take the subway line 9 to Bongeunsa Station, Exit 1.
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28 thoughts on “Gangnam District: From Zero to Hero”

  1. What a great article. That library is amazing – very smart of them to place it in the mall.
    Really enjoyed the image of old and new – really transported me to the place and allowed me to get a deeper sense of the beautiful contrast this city seems to provide. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    Such a vibrant clash of colours and culture! You have captured them really well. Those windows are gorgeous…

  3. I love that library, Gangnam has a real style for sure! 😉

  4. Starfield Library is so instagramable. I wonder how to reach those books high up.

    1. A good question 🙂 I think you would need a lift, or an extra-tall library steps. A real challenge for the librarians.

  5. SueT唐 梦 琇 – Canberra, Australia – I live in Australia's capital and spent three fantastic years in China and visited nearly every province, so I have decided to write about my travels and since commencing my blog I have also decided to write about some other world travels and eating at restaurants in Australia. (www.tangmengxiu.wordpress.com)
    SueT唐 梦 琇 says:

    The library is pretty special. Loving the gardens too.

  6. Wow I’d love to go see that area one day! The photos from the temples are stunning – with all that autumn scenery. There are not that many high-rise buildings or rich areas in the city where I live in Poland so I am always attracted to skyscrapers, glitz and lights hehe.

    1. Haha we share similar taste, Pooja 🙂 Some people might argue those glitz and lights cause light-polluted. But the evening sky would be boring (even fearful) without them. I visited Hong Kong last month and I think the city would be nothing if they turn off all the neon-signs.

  7. Arundhati Basu – New Jersey, US – The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.
    Dippy Dotty Girl says:

    Ah, now I get the idea behind the title… ‘Gangnam Style’. Makes sense looking at its glitzy veneer. The Lotte World Tower is impressive!

  8. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    Thanks for taking me to parts of Seoul I didn’t have enough time to visit when I went to the city in April last year. Gangnam looks more interesting than I thought! That library looks like a really nice place to read books, or just to wind down.

    1. You welcome, Bama! The library is truly a unique place! But it is a bit noisy, especially at mid-day. So it might not be suitable for studying 🙂

  9. Angelina Hue 许以诗 – Hong Kong – Born and raised in Singapore, now living in Hong Kong. Visual storyteller who can't write fast enough to keep up with her thoughts.
    Angelina Hue 许以诗 says:

    Thanks for sharing Len. Hope to visit the temple and maybe check out the bookstore if I finally make it to Seoul in the near future 🙂

    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed the post! The library is indeed a perfect place to chill, especially if you love reading 😉

  10. This library is a dream come true! Amazing post and photos – thank for sharing this great piece of content about Gangnam district 🙂

  11. Your lead photo shows the perfect contrast between old and new Gangnam. (Nice photos by the way.) Korea’s economic rise from the destruction left by the Korean War in the 1950’s is no small miracle and Gangnam highlights it.

  12. Alison and Don – Occupation: being/living/experiencing/travelling In our sixties, (Don is now 77) with apparently no other authentic option, my husband Don and I sold our apartment and car, sold or gave away all our stuff and set off to discover the world. And ourselves. We started in Italy in 2011 and from there have travelled to Spain, India, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, South America, etc. - you can see the blog archive. We will continue travelling until it's time to stop - if that time ever comes. So far it suits us very well. We are interested in how the world works, how life works, how the creation of experience works, how the mind works. As we travel and both "choose" our course, and at the same time just let it unfold, we discover the "mechanics" of life, the astounding creativity of life, and a continual need to return to trust and presence. Opening the heart, and acceptance of what is, as it is, are keystones for us both. Interests: In no particular order: travel, figure skating (as a fan), acceptance, authenticity, walking/hiking, joy, creativity, being human, adventure, presence, NOW. Same for Don except replace figure skating with Formula One motor racing.
    Alison and Don says:

    Absolutely gorgeous photos Len. I’d love to go to Gangnam just to see that library and the view from the temple. I’ve never been to Korea. A trip to Taiwan and Korea is likely to be our next adventure, though we have no idea when that will be possible. Next year maybe. We’ll see.
    Alison

    1. Hopefully next year! Or better, the end of this year *keep my fingers crossed* 🙂 Both countries look awesome in late autumn.
      Here in Vietnam the gov already mulls over Vaccine Passport. They attempt to re-open this year for vaccinated travellers. Let’s see how this unfold.

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