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10 Coolest Neighborhoods in Asia for the Indie Traveler

by Marla Miniano-Umali
September 3, 2019

Often a mix of traditional and modern, gritty and polished, and carefully curated and effortlessly thrown together, a hip neighborhood transcends cookie-cutter attractions and instead relies on its inherent charm to attract stylish tourists in search of a contemporary, alternative hangout.

Of course, if it’s an Instagrammable spot you’re looking for, those abound in cool urban neighborhoods’ every nook and cranny. From inspiring cafes to fascinating thrift stores to undiscovered galleries to unassuming mom-and-pop shops, each corner makes for both a pretty picture and a great story to tell back home. Feel like you’ve been let in on a secret when you make your way to—and wander around in—these unique streets and districts buzzing with a palpable creative energy.

Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

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A former farming village, Shimokitazawa has transformed itself into a bohemian enclave with a thriving art and music community reminiscent of Brooklyn in New York City. Thrifters and sustainable shoppers will love its plethora of vintage shops selling secondhand clothes and accessories, while people-watchers can feast their eyes on the fashionable tourists and locals sauntering around in avant-garde threads and Pin-worthy outfits. Keep an eye out for used record shops and independent bookstores, too.

Everton Park, Singapore

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A trendy district that blends old shophouses with fresh business concepts, Everton Park has been dubbed the new Tiong Bahru and offers everything from organic beauty treatments to artisanal desserts, a dapper barber shop and a gourmet bistro, and colorful murals lining the maze of small streets. Famous stops include Nylon Coffee Roasters, Kew Organics Facial Bar, and Ji Xiang Confectionery, which sells authentic Chinese pastries perfect for pasalubong.

Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

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You’ll never know for certain where a few hours in Sheung Wan will take you, thanks to its narrow, winding roads and mishmash of establishments. Hunt for trinkets and knickknacks in the curio-rich Antique Street and Cat Street (don’t forget to use your haggling powers!), then load up on fresh produce and deli goods at the historical Graham Street Market. Also tucked in neighboring Central near Sheung Wan’s boutiques and cafes is PMQ, short for Police Married Quarters, a buzzing retail hub and events space for local startups, young entrepreneurs, and up-and-coming designers.

Ari, Bangkok

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Comfortably far from the crowded tourist attractions of Bangkok is Ari, a laid-back residential neighborhood with a happening food scene. Make the trip specifically to seek out the cult-fave Thani Khao Mudaeng, which serves their famous stewed pork and legendary crispy pork belly, then save your appetite for a sampling of Thai delicacies at the street food night market in Soi Ari. In between, fuel up on caffeine and creativity at FabCafe, an artists’ co-working space with branches all over the globe.

Koenji, Tokyo

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Japan’s eclectic hipster culture comes alive in Koenji, where vintage boutiques, cozy cafes, and sentos (public bathhouses) converge to create a lively yet nostalgic atmosphere. Part of a special ward called Suginami City, Koenji is defined by an array of delightful eateries and welcoming watering holes, plus its underground music scene, where punk and hardcore fans get their fill of the action—easily earning its nickname as the “coolest neighborhood in Tokyo.”

Nagore Square, Penang

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A hidden gem nestled in George Town in Penang, Nagore Square is home to heritage architecture, Nyonya shophouses, intricate murals, and an abundance of al fresco dining and drinking hangouts. A good spot to experience Malaysia’s nightlife, Nagore also happens to be an animated melting pot of international cuisine. Sample its exciting flavors at What the Duck Cafe along Jalan Nagor, and Pik Nik, which is popular for its waffle burgers.

Prawirotaman, Yogyakarta

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Peppered with impeccably designed boutique hotels that call Balinese and Moroccan accommodations to mind, this Java, Indonesia neighborhood still manages to remain relatively under the radar, elevating its cool factor even more. Head to Il Tempo del Gelato for the best ice cream in Yogyakarta, and lifestyle hub ViaVia, which has everything from a restaurant to a yoga studio to a sustainable travel and tours center.

Nakazakicho, Osaka

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With rows upon rows of repurposed Showa-period houses that survived the war, there is a current of badassery that runs through this Japanese neighborhood. A haven for kitschy arts and crafts stores, specialty cafes, and chic retro boutiques, Nakazakicho is always a pleasant surprise to those who stumble upon it after strolling through sophisticated Umeda nearby. Make sure to visit Iromura, an enclave of small galleries and studios that celebrate talented local artists and showcase their work.

Hapjeong, Seoul

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A treasure trove of everything that characterizes the quirky Korean way of life, this trend mecca is an alternative to the more often-frequented Hongdae. Swing by to feast your senses on a plethora of energizing stimuli building up to a creative crescendo: from well-dressed locals to stylish shopkeepers, restaurants with charming tiny terraces to romantic low-lit bars, and outstanding pop-up shows and performances you might catch if you’re lucky.

Daan, Taipei

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It’s no easy feat to be a hip district in the already too-cool-for-school Taipei, but Daan—with its quaint but modern cafes, picturesque tree-lined streets, and interesting curated shops—effortlessly passes with flying colors. Spend a dreamy afternoon here just soaking up the slow but inspiring pace of the city from a park bench, try your hand at tea-making, shop for flowers from a half kilometer’s worth of stalls, or warm your belly with dumpling and noodles on Yongkang Street.

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About Marla
Marla Miniano-Umali is the former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan Philippines, Candy Magazine, and Summit Books. She has written four YA novels and two short story collections, and co-authored two poetry anthologies—including the travel-inspired The Maps that Contain Us. She likes long drives, snack pit stops, and adventures on and off the page.

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