Koreans love going out, whether it’s with family, colleagues, social acquaintances or old study friends, making Seoul a truly 24-hour city – day and night, it simply hums with life. Those wanting to drink or dance can choose from myriad bars and clubs, with each area of Seoul having its own particular flavour. The city also has a thriving theatre scene that’s surprisingly accessible to foreign visitors.
Bars and clubs
Clubs pumping out techno, trance and hip-hop to wiggling masses; loungey subterranean lairs filled with hookah smoke and philosophical conversation; noisy joints serving up live jazz and rock; neon-tinged cocktail bars in the bowels of five-star hotels. After a lengthy gestation, Seoul’s nightlife scene is finally wide open, and the drinkers themselves are becoming ever more liberal. It wasn’t so long ago that drinking in Seoul was pretty much a male-only affair, taking place in restaurants or at a “hof”, the ubiquitous faux-Western bars that are still winning the battle for street-space, but are increasingly being looked over in favour of more genuinely Western ideas imported from overseas. That said, there are some more local elements that can be factored into a night out: Korean friends are likely to drag you before long into a noraebang singing room to belt out your favourite songs amid a cacophony of castanets.
Most of the action is concentrated into just a few areas. Of these, Hongdae is by far the busiest, its streets lined with bars, clubs and restaurants, and full every day of the week from early evening on. Almost as busy at the weekend is Itaewon, which has some of the best bars, clubs and restaurants in the capital. Its traditional popularity with American soldiers from the nearby base has resulted in a mass of “sexy bars” (expensive venues where the bar-girls wear bikinis, hot-pants and the like, and the customers pay for their company) and brothels, many lining “Hooker Hill”. The side street leading from this (“Homo Hill”) has become the most popular gay area in the whole country, with some excellent bars.
Korean cinema has become the subject of growing worldwide attention and acclaim, but because almost no films are screened with English-language subtitles, it’s probably best to hunt them down in your home country.
Wherever you find yourself in Seoul, you won’t be too far from the nearest cinema. CVG and Megabox are the two major cinema chains; foreign films are shown in their original language with Korean subtitles. There are also a few arthouse establishments catering to foreigners.
Theatre and live music
Seoul’s wide array of traditional performances and musicals are particularly popular with foreign travellers. Seoul has a few venues where you can hear more highbrow offerings such as jazz or classical music.