Koreans drink and party like no other country. Alcohol is a central part of business culture in Korea. It’s a sign of respect to drink with your boss, and it’s commonly believed that drinking with co-workers strengthens the bonds and develops better working relationships. However, drinking doesn’t just occur after work. It has seeped into all aspects of the culture. University students love to rage, young company workers spend fancy nights out on the town, and older folks often have drinks with dinner. In Korea, certain types of drinking establishments have sprung up and they are quite different from nightlife in other countries, but none the less they are all equally (if not more) fun!
The word ‘hoff’ comes from German. In Germany, there are beer houses called ‘Hoff Houses”, which are similar to pubs. Koreans have borrowed the word and changed the meaning. Hoffs in Korea are drinking houses, but they are more of a cross between a restaurant and bar. They have tables and booths where groups sit together. There is no bar to drink at and you are served by a waiter/waitress. At hoffs you must order ‘anju /안주’, food that accompanies drinks. These places usually only serve Korean beer, soju and makgeolli (Korean alcohol). Hoffs are cheap to drink at and make up for costs by slightly overcharging on the food. The quality of hoffs ranges immensely. You can find places with delicious food, cocktails on the menu and unique decor. You can also find complete dives with musty couches and fried nuggets of who knows what? Regardless, a good hoff is a great place to start the night. Find a local one in your neighborhood and make it your ‘home’ bar.
àTip: If you’re planning on hoffing around, don’t eat before you go. Although anju is meant to nibble on while drinking, the portions are often huge and you can order delicious Korean-style menu items.
How do you feel about drinking in a tent? I feel pretty good about it. Pojangmachas (called pochas for short) are the street version of hoffs or the drinking version of street vendors, however you want to look at it. But don’t worry, you won’t have stand on the street chugging soju because you’ll be sitting inside a cozy little tent. The owners prepare a variety of Korean dishes for anju and you can order the typical Korean beverages: soju, beer and makgeoli.
àTip: Pojangmachas are a fun mid-evening stop when you’re feeling peckish but want to keep on drinking. They are also great if you’re running low on funds from all the other places you’ve been to that night. They are super cheap!
Noraebang translates to ‘singing room’ in English. Think: karaoke inside a room with all your friends. You aren’t singing in front of a busy bar and you have total control over the songs you sing. It might sound a bit strange at first, but it’s a good time! Noraebangs again range in quality from luxury noraebangs to basement dumps. The luxury noraebangs have fantastic features like balconies in the room (so you can serenade your friends from above), or huge round couches and stages. Noraebangs can be found in every corner of Korea. They’re a good place to go for a night out when you’re not in a big city. The town may not have much, but rest assured - they will have a noraebang!
Tip: Lots of noraebangs don’t sell alcohol. Either look for ones that do or bring in some beers yourself.
Booking Clubs/Night Clubs
Night clubs are NOT what westerners know to be night clubs. Night clubs in other countries are called dance clubs in Korea. Night clubs in Korea (also known as booking/부킹 clubs) are a very unique and extremely Korean experience. If you’re a woman, this is a place you go to get “booked” and if you’re a man you come here to “book” women. Koreans don’t like to approach people in public so this place solves that problem. Women arrive and head to an open, club-style room with music, a dance floor and tables. Men rent little rooms and fill them with bottles of alcohol and plates of anju. The men ask the server to bring women to their room. The men tell the server what type of woman they are interested in physically. The servers go to the dance area and scout for women they think would be suitable, and ask the woman if she would like to go. If she says ‘yes’, they take her to the men’s room. That’s the booking part. Then if she is disgusted by the gents awaiting her, she can simply leave. If for some reason the men don’t fancy her, they can ask her to leave. It’s a dog-eat-dog world for picking up, but it does work and it can be fun. The best booking clubs are in Gangnam.
àTip: Bring an open mind. The whole process can seem degrading for both men and women. Don’t plan on finding your one true love here. It’s mostly about hooking up. If you’re a woman, don’t get too drunk. These places aren’t dangerous but they are risky. Take care of yourself.
Chatting bars serve both male and female clientele, but not both at the same time. Men go to chatting bars to sit for hours talking and drinking with beautiful women who work there. Women do the same, but they chat to men instead. They are outrageously expensive and it’s expected that you buy drinks for both you and the person you are talking to. They want to make it seem natural, like you aren’t paying for a conversation. Koreans tend to go when they are feeling sad or depressed about something in their life. People claim that it’s soothing therapy to talk to a ‘hot’ stranger about life’s problems.
Tip: Apparently it’s easy to get semi-addicted to these places. Just remember that the people are working and as genuine as they seem, you don’t know them.
Specialty Jibs (Houses)
These places are the equivalent to wine bars. They specialize in a certain type of Korean alcohol. Makgeolli Jibs /막걸리집 are common. They serve varieties of makgeolli- Korean fermented rice wine from all over Korea. They pair the drinks with special foods that go well together. Makgeoli jibs often serve jeon /전 (savory Korean pancakes), steamed pork, steamed squid and grilled fish, traditional foods that complement makgeolli. There are some specialty jibs that service different kinds of soju or homemade soju cocktails mixed with freshly squeezed juice.
àTip: If you’re not a fan of makgeoli, give a specialty makgeoli house a try. The flavors are much different from the brands they sell in the hoffs and restaurants. You’re bound to find something that suits your palate.
Dance bars are a generally accommodating option. Men can dance, woman can drink and everyone is happy at the end of the day. Hongdae and Itaewon are stocked with them. Gangnam is not.
Dance clubs/Mega clubs
Gangnam has all the best mega clubs. They bring DJs from around the world and pack them with beautiful people. Don’t wear jeans or flip flops. Drinks are pricey and there always is a cover charge of at least 20,000KRW, but they are a must to experience at least once. If you’re into electronic music, head to a mega club.
Lounges are nice for quiet conversations and good drinks. Wine and good liquor tends to be over priced because of import taxes, but it’s a nice change to have a delicious glass of vino or a quality gin and tonic once in a while. Some lounges are like mini dance clubs. They will have a live DJ and a small dance floor, plus tables for sitting and chatting.
If you like sports, a good beer or lively game of billiards, you’ll enjoy a typical pub for your night out. You won’t find many Koreans, although that is changing now that Itaewon is getting a makeover. Cities outside of Seoul also tend to have foreigner owned and operated expat bars to accommodate for the expat community. Look for one in your neighborhood for tastes of home.
Hookah bars are becoming more and more popular among Koreans and foreigners alike. They are popping up here and there. They aren’t overly priced, and you’ll be able to choose from a variety of shisha flavors and alcoholic drinks.
Hoffs, drinking restaurants and pochas are very cheap. In general, drinking local beverages is the way to save money. Mega clubs, lounges and booking clubs can be very expensive with average drink prices at over 15,000KRW. It’s easy to drop a few hundred thousand won in an evening if you’re not careful!
Most dance and music places charge cover ranging between 5,000KRW and 30,000KRW depending on locations and the specific club. Pubs, hoffs and lounges usually don’t charge cover but most dance bars and dance lounges do. The location of the establishment will affect the price. Gangnam is always overpriced while Hongdae tends to be cheap. Other not-as-popular nightlife areas, especially near universities, are cheap.
Without a doubt one of the most alluring things about nightlife in Korea is that it never stops. Most places have a policy that they close when the last person leaves. If they do have a closing time it’s almost always after 4am. In Itaewon, there are some foreigner pubs and bars that don’t follow the general rule and close early (around 2am or 3am). There are some places that are known to be after-hour locations, located in Itaewon and Gangnam. They have gained that reputation for being busy late, and not because it’s the only place to go in the early morning.
There are always dress codes at mega dance clubs. You can’t where flip flops, jeans or caps. Girls should be in heels, even nice sandals or dressy flats won’t cut it. Dress codes sometimes are enforced in Itaewon at dance lounges and the clubs there.
Aside from those places, anything goes. Koreans tend to dress up when they go out and foreigners can look sloppy in comparison. As long as you don’t care, wear whatever you want. If you want to blend in a bit, wear something slightly nicer. In Hongdae the styles vary and can be very artsy. If you like to express yourself through your clothes, it’s a perfect place to test out any new fashion.
Party Districts in Seoul
The Party Veteran Neighborhoods
Three neighborhoods in Seoul have developed a reputation for being the best places to go party. They are always busy, they have tons of fantastic nightlife options and you’re bound to have fun. If you take partying really seriously, try to “do the hat trick” and visit all three districts, Gangnam, Itaewon and Hongdae, in one night. Each neighborhood offers something different, which is again another reason to do a grand tour as often as possible. The great thing about Seoul’s nightlife is that you’ll never be bored and you can always change your location!
PSY made Gangnam famous with his song ‘Gangnam Style’. Foreigners around the world want to know what the deal with Gangnam is. It’s simple: it’s a ritzy district with fancy-pants neighborhoods. You can spot celebrities from time to time, you can blow your entire paycheck on one designer item and you can party all night (and day) long. PSY gets it right in his song. He talks about men in Gangnam who act like gentlemen during the day and turn into wild party animals at night. Women from Gangnam are beautiful ladies, yet when the sun goes down, they go crazy! Gangnam is made of up separate neighborhoods (called dongs /동). There are great places to party in each dong, but in general, Gangnam is known for glitzy mega clubs, expensive Japanese-style drinking establishments and lounges.
Don’t miss the following places in Gangnam:
The Hongdae party district is located nearby four top universities in Seoul: Yonsei University, Ewha Women’s University, Hongik University and Sogang University. For this reason, the area is packed with students who love to party! It’s cheap and it’s eclectic. There is something for everyone in Hongdae, from small hole-in-the-wall joints to large music halls, to foreign-style pubs and a giant park where people gather to drink outside. You won’t find the pretentious crowd from Gangnam here. You don’t need to wear dress shoes nor are cover charges much more than 20,000KRW (in fact, they’re often much less). It’s easy to spend your whole night in the Hongdae area club-hopping and it’s all within one compact neighborhood.
Itaewon was known as the grimy foreign area where American military would come to get hammered and roam around freely. Although you’ll certainly catch sight of the military personnel, the area is changing fast and for the better. Behind Hamilton Hotel, classy restaurants, intimate lounges and interesting bars are popping up daily. There are a few long standing dance lounges as well. There are also plenty of options in Itaewon, especially for foreigners who miss quality beer from home, sports games on TV and good ol’ fashioned bar games like pool and darts. On the other side across from Hamilton Hotel, there is Homo Hill and Hooker Hill. Hooker Hill has seen hard times as the government cracked down on prostitution recently while Homo Hill is blossoming. There are gay and lesbian dance bars and lounges on this hill.
New Recruit Neighbourhoods
The old veterans aren’t the only fun neighborhoods for partying in Seoul. In fact, you can pretty much drink anywhere and everywhere in Korea, including at 7-Eleven. It’s unbeatably cheap and they have a great patio (aka: plastic tables and stools parked on the curb in front of the store). There are also some smaller districts that haven’t quite earned the reputation of the veteran hoods but they are certainly worth mentioning and visiting.
Hyewha is a neighborhood not only for drinking. It’s full of artists, play houses and craft shops. There are lots of quirky places to drink and specialty drinking houses there. You can start your night with a play or a show and then move on to eat and drink. It’s not particularly cheap like Korea University, but it’s not expensive either. Another perk of Hyewha is that it’s busy without being crowded as Hongdae or Gangnam always are. There are universities in the neighborhood, yet it’s not overrun with kids.
Korea University Area
The best thing about drinking near Korea University is that it is so cheap, probably the cheapest drinking around. The atmosphere is pretty standard. There are lots of hoffs and Korean-style drinking places. There aren’t foreigner pubs or dance bars. It’s full of students who go to Korea University or another school from nearby. Drink here to start the night or if you live near in the area.
This is another area similar to the Korea university area. There are tons of students from Konkuk stumbling around and there are lots of Korean drinking places. Noraebangs account for every second shop. The atmosphere is bright and vibrant and the prices are hard to beat. Once again it’s a good area to hang to start off the night or to meet Korean friends. If you live on the east side there isn’t a better place to party (aside from Gangnam, of course!).
Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.