Though some people consider Korea’s capital a rather straight-laced city, they’ve clearly never been there after dark. While days may remain businesslike and formal, come 9 p.m. Seoul’s citizens let loose and flock to the thousands of bars, karaoke rooms, and nightclubs spread across the city. Some districts turn into nightly carnivals of takeout drinks, street food, and never-ending parties, but there are also more placid places to listen to some tunes with a fine whiskey or champagne. From boisterous to basic, Seoul’s got dozens of options to entice the nightlife inclined.
You can bet that in a city of around 10 million people, there are going to be a lot of bars. Add Korea’s lively drinking culture to the mix and chances are you can find at least one bar on any street, in any neighborhood in Seoul.
Ranging from upscale to down-to-earth, here are just a few of Seoul’s unique watering holes:
- Cobbler Bar: Set in a hanok (traditional Korean house) in a labyrinthine area near Gyeongbokgung Palace, the upscale yet homey Cobbler Bar has no menu. There’s a wide range of whiskies, and the cocktails consist of whatever ingredients the bartender dreams up that day.
- Flower Gin: For possibly the most beautiful cocktail you’ve ever tried, head to Flower Gin in Itaewon. This teeny-tiny gin bar-cum-florist has flower infused and topped gin and tonics that are almost too pretty to drink.
- Charles H: For a more sophisticated (albeit pricey) tipple, the speakeasy-style Charles H bar at the Four Seasons Seoul offers classic and creative cocktails in a subterranean, art nouveau setting. Come dressed to impress and ready to pay the bar's cover charge.
- Sangsu-ri: This low-key, whiskey-filled establishment walks the line between trendy and under the radar. Well before South Korea’s whiskey trend kicked off, Sangsu-ri’s owner was already a passionate lover of the amber liquid, and imports his favorite bottles from Scotland.
- Mike’s Cabin: This trendy pub in a Hongdae basement is decorated to look like a log cabin, and the wide array of games (beer pong anyone?), bar snacks, and international beverage options makes it a popular hangout for young expats and university students.
With the prolific drinking culture that permeates South Korea, most restaurants stay open well into the night. While most dining establishments in Seoul are open until at least 11 p.m., many in the busy nightlife areas stay open until 3 a.m. to cater to boisterous revelers spilling out from the bars and clubs. Some are even open 24 hours a day!
Among these late night eateries are Korean cafes, fried chicken joints, barbecue restaurants, and pizza places, not to mention hundreds of street food vendors, and the domestic and international fast-food eateries like Lotteria, McDonalds and Burger King. If you can't find any open restaurants, make like a local and grab an instant ramen from one of Seoul’s thousands of 24-hour convenience stores. You can microwave and eat it on the spot. All that said, don’t panic; there's always some where to get a meal in South Korea’s capital city.
Night clubs are big business in Seoul, with the majority situated in the university district of Hongdae, or south of the Han River in the fashionable Gangnam area. Most clubs charge a cover and have strict dress codes, but if you like to party until dawn—or later—it’s well worth it.
- Club Octagon: Set on two levels, this massive, warehouse-sized space in Gangnam is constantly rated one of Seoul’s best clubs, and is stomping ground of some of the biggest names in K-Pop. A strict dress code is well-enforced, and the entry fee is more expensive for foreigners.
- Club Arena: Occupying two basement floors separated into hip-hop and EDM zones, Club Arena in Gangnam is one of Seoul’s most exclusive clubs. The blackened decor lit with laser lights showcases a young and beautiful crowd often made up of models, TV stars, and sports celebrities. Arena is also considered an “afterclub” which means the partying continues well after dawn—and some days until nearly noon.
- Cakeshop: Though smaller than some of its massive rivals, what Itaewon's Cakeshop lacks in size it makes up for in experience. Rated “Best Club in Seoul” by Seoul-based 10 Magazine, Cakeshop is known for featuring sets by well-known artists like Shlomo and Nosaj Thing. Cakeshop is open from Thursday to Sunday.
- NB2: Considered the best party in the best club in the best nightlife district in all of Seoul, NB2 has a lot to live up to. But it meets and exceeds expectations as this uber-popular club blasts hip-hop nightly until 6 a.m. Needless to say, there’s often a wait to get in.
While Seoul is increasingly known for it's the hundreds of K-Pop acts, there are very few live music venues for a city of its size. But that's not to say there are no good options for live music. In fact, over the past few years jazz bars of different calibers have sprung up all over the city making it possible to see live music any night of the week. Rock, heavy metal, and other genres are harder to find live regularly, but there are always special shows and concerts happening around the capital on any given weekend.
Check out these regular live music venues to get your groove started after the sun sets.
- All That Jazz: All That Jazz opened in Itaewon in 1976 making it the grand-dame of all Seoul’s jazz clubs. The SoHo loft-style space has live jazz seven nights a week, accompanied by an Italian-inspired menu, and an extensive international wine and cocktail list.
- Club FF: For live rock performances, you’ll want to check out Club FF in Hongdae. This grungy-chic basement-level bar and music venue is characterized by indie bands, dance parties, and all-you-can-drink happy hours. There’s a modest cover charge on weekends.
- The Timber House: This cosmopolitan cocktail lounge on the lower level of the Park Hyatt Seoul in Gangnam is one of Seoul’s best hotel bars. Along with a grand piano and nightly live vocal performances, there’s also a substantial vinyl library and turntables. In addition to the music and elegant ambiance, the bar also offers Japanese sakes and Korean sojus, plus a rare whiskey, and vintage wine and champagne menu.
Singing at a norae bang (karaoke room) is the nighttime activity that rules them all in Seoul, so if you’ve never been to one before you’re in for a real treat.
Literally found in every neighborhood, norae bangs can range from super luxurious to downright dingy, but all are rented privately so there’s no need to worry about singing in front of complete strangers. Every norae bang features the main components needed to belt your heart out: microphones, lyrics flashing across big-screen TVs, and Bible-thick books filled with thousands of the most popular karaoke songs to choose from (fun fact: Let it Go from Frozen is one of the most-requested norae bang songs of all time).
Upscale singing rooms will also add flashing disco lights, canned applause, electronic scoring systems, plush furnishings, and sometimes a variety of loaner musical instruments. In order to participate in the silliness, you may find it necessary to consume copious amounts of beer or soju, which you can usually buy from the front desk.
Tips for Going Out in Seoul
- Subways close at midnight, but taxis and some bus lines run 24 hours.
- Taxis are generally easy to find and hail on the street, but may be busy on weekends in popular nightlife areas such as Hongdae, Gangnam, or Itaewon.
- Taxis fares incur a late night surcharge of 20 percent between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.
- A form of Uber is available in Seoul, with a fleet of English-speaking international taxi drivers available through the regular Uber app.
- There is no official closing time for bars and clubs, and many stay open until 6 a.m. Afterclubs often stay open until noon!
- While most bars and clubs welcome foreigners, a few have been known to discriminate against non-Koreans (unfortunately there are no anti-discrimination laws in Korea).
- Tipping is not common in Korean culture, and some people will even be offended if you try to tip them.
- There’s no law prohibiting public drinking in Korea. In fact, a popular pastime is gathering with your friends at convenience stores to drink beers or soju on picnic tables or plastic chairs set on the sidewalk outside. Cocktails sold in portable bags are also prevalent in all the major nightlife areas.