Seoul’s colossal, constantly shifting nightlife scene is a study in contradictions. On the one hand, Koreans play with the same focus and dedication that drives their work, meaning the city’s watering holes are vibrant just about any night of the week.
Local alcohols are cheap and there are few restrictions on where you can purchase or consume them. Bars and clubs remain open until the wee hours, and many restaurants will serve booze to inebriated patrons around the clock.
Excellent public transit, largely trouble-free streets, and the lack of a social stigma against drunkenness—visitors will notice a lot of teetering and flushed faces some evenings—encourage people to get out and have a good time.
The capital’s growing cosmopolitanism has also injected new diversity into the party circuit. From street-side tents to sophisticated wine bars, folk pubs to mega-clubs, jazz bars to hookah lounges, there are places to imbibe for almost any taste and budget.
There are definitely places where after-dark haunts are concentrated—the student-driven Hongdae district, club-heavy Gangnam and Apgujeong, the Western saloons of Itaewon, and Insa-dong’s rural-style pubs are among the more prominent examples—but in reality it’s pretty easy to find somewhere to take in some music, dance, or imbibe regardless of what part of Seoul you happen to be in.
At the same time, cultural quirks and social norms mean Seoul after dark sometimes doesn’t feel as freewheeling as other places. The Korean proclivity for formality and sticking to existing groups can make it difficult to mingle with the locals.
Some nightspots impose upward age limits, and a few will even turn foreign guests away at the door, usually out of concerns about the language barrier more than anything else. Many bars require patrons to buy snacks to accompany drink orders. The only truly safe place to seek out a casual, obligation-free pint is the foreign warren of Itaewon.
But like so much else in the city, Seoul’s nightlife is a work in progress, advancing regularly by leaps and bounds. If a place or experience is not your style, just turn the corner—or come back a bit later—and you’ll probably confronted by something totally different.
© Jonathan Hopfner from Moon Seoul, 1st Edition