Seoul's Best Nightlife Districts

In the past three decades Seoul has developed a half dozen world-class nightlife districts.

by Jack Song



Seoul's Best Nightlife Districts

ven in this age of Samsung flat-panels and cellphones, many visitors still see everything Corean (Korean) through the filter of M*A*S*H reruns and stories told by Uncle Joe who served in Corea way back when. These prejudices offend Seoulites who take pride in their nation's status as the world's 12th largest economy and the seventh biggest trading nation. It leads the world in shipbuilding, LCD displays, memory chips and consumer electronics. In auto technology it's rapidly closing the gap with Japan.

     Seoul is home to 12.5 million, making it one of the world's top-10 cities. If you've never been out of the U.S., you've never seen a city as colossally endless as Seoul. Living alongside all those educated, energetic, affluent and exceptionally well-groomed Seoulites are around 170,000 expats from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, South America, Japan, China and other parts of Asia. Many are executives for foreign or Corean corporations. A surprising number are Corean Americans. There are also about 1,500 young Americans teaching English in Seoul, as well as a rapidly growing population of foreign college students and professors.

     So, yes, Seoulites are used to seeing foreign civilians of all races.

A view of Seoul from the hills north of downtown. The neon district of Myeongdong is in the lower right center. The hill at the center is Namsan. Beyond that lies the Han River, and to its south, the city's newer Gangnam (South of the River) area. Photo courtesy Korea National Tourism Organization


The 8th Army Legacy

     What about all those G.I.s who loom large in western images of Seoul? Only about 12,000 of the 32,000 G.I.s remaining in Corea are stationed in the Seoul area, mostly Yongsan. About a quarter of them are women. Since a few highly publicized incidents in the early 1990s and in 2002-03, G.I.s have been under a strictly enforced curfew requiring them to return to base before midnight. In any event, G.I. salaries don't afford more than an occasional evening on the local economy.

     To finish off the topic, if you want to seek out the remains of this endangered species, head over to the Itaewon district which adjoins the main U.S. base in Yongsan (an area sandwiched between Namsan — the big lush hill at the heart of downtown Seoul — and the Han River to the South). A couple of alleys off the downhill side of the main Itaewon strip do retain something of a military camp town feel. You will find some sleazy bars in which pros do their best to help G.I.s blow their paychecks on a night of blind-drunk stupor.

     But those are hardly the kind of places most visitors want to spend their money on during their Seoul stay.

Itaewon Strip

     Walking quickly back up to the main drag, you will see that today Itaewon is really an international district lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and clubs. Not unlike Tokyo's Roppongi, it attracts westerners who feel more comfortable in numbers and Coreans who enjoy an international crowd.

     After dark Itaewon is a lively boulevard that offers diverse nationalities the chance to party together without anyone feeling out of place. Lately, as the U.S. military presence has diminished, most of its establishments have refocused on catering to mostly civilian crowds. Among them are places like clubs like Helios, J Bar and Limelight. A few of the clubs are run by the Russian Mafia and feature Russian and other caucasian women catering to the local demand for exotic flesh.

Deluxe Hotel Clubs

     Hotel clubs enjoy better crowds in Seoul than in most international cities. Business travelers seeking a controlled, exclusive ambience tend to patronize the clubs located inside the city's four dozen deluxe and first-class hotels. Just a short taxi ride up Namsan from Itaewon is the Grand Hyatt which houses J J Mahoneys, a magnet for visiting American executives and like-minded Coreans. The drinks are pricey, but the service is impeccable and the bands performing on stage are top notch.

     If you're looking for something just as upscale but friskier, check out Areno up around on the north slope of Namsan in the Seoul Hilton. Wednesday nights are model nights. You can rub shoulders with an international contingent of lanky models mingling with Seoul's sleekest metrosexuals and gays. For a reliably classy hotel club smack dab in Seoul's throbbing epicenter, coast downhill past Namdaemun (South Gate) and Namdaemun Market to O'Kim's in the basement of the Westin Chosun. Suits and ties abound there in an urbane 30/70 mix of foreign execs and Corean yuppies.


     From the Westin Chosun you're just across a traffic-choked avenue (by way of a busy, well lit underground shopping arcade) from Seoul's most storied neon district. Myengdong (literally "Bright District") packs more pedestrians per square meter than any place you've ever seen with the possible exception of Tokyo's Aoyama/Harajuku. Every vertical space seems covered with plate glass or neon. Not surprisingly, over the past half century Myeongdong has become romanticized in songs, paintings, movies and TV dramas as the playground of the young and carefree.

     What's more, being situated at the geographical heart of Seoul's old epicenter (in the days before the rise of the districts south of the Han River), surrounded by ancient palaces and the soaring headquarters of Corea's top chaebol (conglomerates), Myeongdong is an ideal base for day or night sightseeing.

     This memorable bright-lights district lies between the Lotte Department Store on the northwest, the big gothic Myeongdong Cathedral (built in 1898) on the east, and the subway station on the southeast. This pedestrian haven comprises an east-west four-block mall called Myeongdong Gil (Myeongdong Street) from which sprout a dozen bustling alleys. Myeongdong's 15 or so square blocks host about two hundred coffee shops, cafes, pubs (called "hofs" in Corea) and restaurants. The rest is given over to trendy fashion boutiques catering mostly to young women. The ubiquitous coffee shops sell 8,000 won ($7.00) cups of coffee that pays for the privilege of soaking in the uniquely tasteful or cutesy decor while checking out idlers at other tables, or gazing down through the plate-glass windows at the throngs in the alleys below. PAGE 2

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“Myengdong packs more pedestrians per square meter than any place you've ever seen with the possible exception of Tokyo's Aoyama/Harajuku.”

No part of Seoul boasts as many neons or as steady a stream of pedestrians around the clock as Myeongdong ("Bright District").
(Copyrighted photo used by permission of Charles Ian Chun at

Apgujeong-dong is Seoul's Beverly Hills, even down to its own Rodeo Drive lined with famous brand-name boutiques. It also features ritzy clubs and bars after dark.


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