Entertainment in South Korea: Drinking in Seoul
Where to drink and what to drink in Seoul, South Korea
John Duerden takes us on a tour of Korean drinking culture and the best places to drink and party in the capital Seoul
Drinking in South Korea is something that can't be avoided and it can be hugely enjoyable. The locals are among the biggest drinkers in Asia and any visitor to Seoul can find packed drinking holes on any night of the week.
What the Koreans drink
Beer: Korean draught beer is cheap but not that great.
The big three Korean beers: Cass, Hite and OB, are fairly similar - gassy, cold and wet. Bottles of Korean beer can be had as well as draught and many places will sell overseas bottled beer but not that many serve overseas draught beer.
Soju: small bottles of rice wine can be dangerous stuff. At around 20%, it can flow especially when served at barbecues and restaurants. Buy a bottle at a supermarket and soju costs around a dollar and only about three times that in a pub or restaurant.
Makkoli: A rice wine that is not as popular as soju but you can see older men sitting outside convenience stores or by the river with big plastic bottles of the stuff. Makkoli (Makgeolli) is known for guaranteeing a headache in the morning; Makkoli is often consumed in more traditional drinking houses along with seafood pancakes.
Where Koreans drink
You can often see the sign in the window with the word 'Hof' in English or 호프 in Korean and these are the bread and butter of the Korean drinker. These are basic pubs selling draft beer - Korean beer may not that be of the highest standard but it is cheap and goes well with Korean food. In most places you are expected to order some food - everyone does. This can range from fried chicken to egg roll to sausages to spicy soups that are kept warm on a portable stove brought to your table and often eaten with soju.
All places will have menus and some of them will even have English translations or pictures. These places, where you sit at tables which often have buzzers on them to summon staff if not, you have to shout 'yogiyo' to get their attention, stay open late, often until the last customer leaves. Most won't open until around 5pm however.
Bars - As the name suggests, bars in Korea are trendier and more expensive than the hof. Bottled beer, wine, cocktails can be had and expensive side-dishes.
Pojang macha - these are outside, basically not much more than a tent but beloved by many. Here people sit on plastic chairs, eat street food (often fried squid and other fried food) and drink soju or bottled beer. They are heated in winter and often the scene for serious drinking.
Drinking Etiquette in Korea
Nobody has an empty glass. As soon as a drink is drained, friends (and especially in a work's outing) colleagues move to fill it with beer, soju or whatever else is on hand. Cheers are said often and drinking games, especially among younger patrons, are common and fun. You pay as you leave.
Entertainment Areas in Seoul: Where To Drink in Seoul
You can find hofs and restaurants all over Seoul and all over the country but if you are free in the capital for an evening, there are a few areas worth considering.
Itaewon: Itaewon is the most international area of the city, on the doorstep of the American military base. Once regarded as dirty and dangerous, it is now gentrified and full of international restaurants, bistros and bars. Increasingly popular with Koreans, this is where you can find western-style pubs where you can pay for each drink as it comes and prop up the bar if you so desire. If you want a pint of Guinness and a kebab at the end of the night, Itaewon is the place to go.
Hongdae: in the north-west of the city in the university district and full of bars, pubs and nightclubs. Korea's independent music scene can be found here and there are clubs to suit every kind of music taste. Full of young people with something of a bohemian vibe, it can be an exciting place to spend Friday night (and the last Friday of the month is club night where a few dollars gains entry into a whole host of clubs) and a relaxing place to visit for a drink and a late lunch on Sunday afternoon.
Sincheon: Literally, just down the street from Hongdae. Sincheon manages to pack more restaurants and pubs into every square meter than anywhere else. Sincheon doesn't have the vibe of Hongdae but it is never quiet.
Jongno: The traditional downtown. Here is a place full of salarymen and women after work where parties go out to eat and drink, then to drink, then to a Karaoke and then either home or back to the pub. Check out a temple or two, perhaps have a stroll down Insadong and then hit the pubs.
Gangnam: Gangnam means south of the river but it also means the area around Gangnam Station. This is the newest and richest part of Seoul and full of sleek skyscrapers and rich young people. At one time, the action was confined to the north side of the station but it has spread south. Here you have lots of salarymen but also students and many from other parts of Seoul all here for a good time. Don't stay on the main drags as all the fun is to be had on the side streets.
Apgujeong: This is not far from Gangnam but it trendier and more upmarket. Here are the expensive nightclubs and trendy bars. This is where David Beckham went out when he was in the city and this is where the movie and pop stars are to be found.
Hyehwa/Daehangno: Another university district in Seoul but on the north-eastern side of downtown. Hyehwa is full of the requisite pubs and restaurants but is more artsy than most with numerous independent theatres around as well as jazz clubs and live music. When you finish shopping at the huge 24 hour markets in Dongdaemun, Hyehwa is a short taxi ride away.