This Is Why You Want To Experience Seoul’s Nightlife
Quite simply, it rocks and will probably suck you in. On a recent trip to the Korean capital, my friends and I found it utterly impossible to break the cycle of pre-dinner drinks, delicious Korean food, bars and street food, followed by an early afternoon wake-up call. We had every intention of sightseeing-filled days, a trip to the North Korean border to see the DMZ, wandering the city palaces and more, but in the end we succumbed primarily to the night.
Luckily, we live close and were only traveling on a quick 90-minute flight over from Shanghai on a Chinese New Year getaway. Coincidentally, Korean New Year falls on the same day, meaning some sights were closed, and others, such as traditional palaces were bustling. With such cheap flights available anytime, the pangs of guilt for seeing the inside of more bars than museums were assuaged with the knowledge we could return again on a whim.
Seoul’s extensive airport bus system divides the city into quadrants, and then stops just about anywhere you may be staying, hostel or hotel, quickly and directly. Although Seoul is a vast metropolis, the city’s easy-to-navigate subway system — which is the third-largest in the world by passenger volume — can take you just about anywhere, and even far enough outside the city to see mountains and to camp.
Most visitors gravitate towards the district of Itaewon, located near a large U.S. military base, and known locally as something of a “ghetto” due to the large number of immigrants and foreigners. To say that Itaewon attracts a varied assortment of people would still be an understatement. In addition to the military personnel, young Koreans abound, and English teachers come from all corners of the city for a night out. “Homo Hill,” a collection of gay bars on a steep street is a central fixture. “Hooker Hill,” just two streets over, is a separate (but equal) sight unto itself, despite recent government attempts to crack down on the brothels. Pool bars, hookah lounges, catchy K-pop tunes, Döner Kebab and cheap, delicious Soju are all at your fingertips in Itaewon. A bit sweeter than vodka due to the sugar added in the distillation process, a bottle will only set you back $1-$3 from a convenience store, and just a bit more at restaurants.
Perhaps even more importantly is the abundance of street carts selling delicious grilled meats and snacks well into the night. Sweet grilled chicken skewers are a must, as are the delicious fried dumplings, known as mondu. The atmosphere remains vibrant and convivial, with the occasional skirmish to be seen between some military boys who let loose a little too hard on their day off. In the extremely safe city, Itaewon’s police branch must be the busiest. These fights are generally easy to see coming and avoid however, so it’s relatively easy to stay uninvolved.
Then there is Hongdae district, which is a whole different plate of kimchi. Certainly the best nightlife and people-watching district the city has to offer, the area offers a much more typically Korean atmosphere, although equally raucous. As opposed to the bars that dominate Itaewon’s scene, Hongdae, located near a major university, trends more towards clubbing, live music and karaoke in addition to the bars, restaurants, and street stalls.
Like most places in Asia, karaoke in Seoul means renting a room with friends to belt out some power ballads, not performing on a stage in front of strangers. While not always the best method for meeting new people, it’s a fun way to get warmed up for the rest of the night to come. Food options abound, so come early, hungry, and be prepared to stay until the subways open around 6 a.m. If you have an aversion to Red-Bull and get caught in the no-zone of 12 a.m. to 6 a.m., taxis in Seoul are surprisingly cheap. Even a 30-minute late-night ride to the other side of town will only set you back around $20.
To rejuvenate, sometimes you just need a vacation where eating and drinking counts as sightseeing. If you’d like to make it sound even more cultural due to lingering catholic guilt, call it building understanding through analyzing the local country’s culinary tradition. If that’s a concept you’re comfortable with, Seoul cannot possibly disappoint.
About the Author
Kyle Long is the Chief Running Officer of UnTourShanghai.com, an urban adventure tourism company specializing in jogging sightseeing excursions and custom culinary and food experiences in Shanghai, China.
[Nightlife by Martin Bengtsson/Flickr]
Published on March 23, 2011