Gangnam-style is so passe! These days, in the Korean capital, it’s all about partying Hongdae-style. Join Olivia Toye on a rollercoaster ride that rocks right through the night…

Hongdae is just north of the river in central Seoul, and recently it’s overtaken its steroid-pumped comrade Gangnam to become the city’s major hive of electric creativity and night-time activity for locals and tourists.

Hongdae has recently overtaken its steroid-pumped comrade Gangnam to become the city’s major hive of electric creativity and night-time activity…

By day it’s a concoction of trend-conscious fashion stores selling variations of the same 90s cuts to a generation of image-obsessed Korean youth, endless street food stalls vending sauced and battered chicken, and the almost intimidatingly trendy rummaging through vintage basements. And when they’re not buying clothes or nibbling at deep fried tit-bits on sticks, these same youthful clientele are drinking coffee by the bucket load.

Get ready to party with the hipsters of Hongdae, Seoul
Get ready to party with the hipsters of Hongdae, Seoul

Hongdae is a start late finish late kind of neighbourhood. Chaotic mornings do not exist here; shops aren’t open until gone midday and don’t close until after midnight, so naturally everything is shifted into the night. Expect to see locals crammed into the hundreds of cafés sipping on an obscurely flavoured latte, or bustling around the streets with a takeaway cup in hand well into the twilight hours.

“We don’t really do bars in Hongdae, its cafes and food and then clubs,” a local told me.

What you shouldn’t expect in Hongdae is bars apparently: “we don’t really do bars in Hongdae, its cafes and food and then clubs,” a local told me after I inquired about their favourite haunts. Unsure of where our blurry night might start, never mind end, I followed what little know-how I had gleamed so far… to a graffiti-covered kids playground in the centre of Hongdae.

Pre-drinking in a Playground

A kids’ playground sounds like an unusual place to kick off your night out, but as we approached the dodgy looking park there were hoards of people standing around drinking the fluorescent green bottles of Soju – the Korean pre-drink of choice, rigs were set up and impromptu performances and rap battles were gearing everyone up for their Saturday night. Clearly this area was all about the social, so we followed suit and bought a huge bottle of CASS Korean beer and two small Sojus, paying homage to our younger days when a bottle of cider in the park was the only place you could actually drink.

…as we approached the dodgy looking park there were hoards of people standing around drinking the fluorescent green bottles of Soju… and impromptu performances and rap battles were gearing everyone up for their Saturday night.

Get the party started on a Saturday night...
Get the party started on a Saturday night…

As more people dropped by the park to kick start their night, we struggled to place the jumble of attendees. It seemed that we had tapped in on a demographic mash-up, including the favourites of the night; born and bread artists from Seoul JayC and R2, “…like star wars you know R2 D2!” Some things are universal despite a language barrier.

Hanging out with two Korean rap stars
Hanging out with two Korean rap stars

Once the alfresco beers were laid to rest, we decided to check out another type of live music performance popular in Korea – jazz.

Jazzing Up The Night

We found the dimly lit Club Evans up three flight of suspect stairs, oozing with booze fumes just a few streets down from the main drag of clubs. It was rammed and dark in that saloon style that jazz clubs often are, and there was a range of drinkers on display. The suited and booted, the young and trendy craft beer in hand, and the seasoned jazzers down the front at the small round tables. It was a hypnotic atmosphere of impressive riffs and shouts and woops from the audience. It was a top find but so far a world away from the Korean night out we had expected. Still the night was young. It was only 2am.

Good Evans above!
Good Evans above!

Onto the next… we chatted with a young Korean couple sat next to us, they recommended Bar 다. So from one dingy hide-away to another…

Secret Seoul

They had told us to walk down Hongdae Street and look for a dodgy staircase next to a chicken stand, easier said than done in between the stalls and night-time crowds, or maybe the extra bottle of Soju had something to do with it. We found it eventually, clambered up the white rickety stairs into an atmosphere that was so far removed from the neon-lit chaos outside we stayed for several – also thanks to the extensive selection of beers and whiskey. There’s a smoking balcony (more like a chopped in half fire escape, also a little rickety probably not for the nervous type) overlooking the madness of the shopping streets below. As much as the locals go crazy for a club crawl it was clear that hidden away spots like Bar 다 were for the slightly less outrageous – yet incredibly boozy – side to Hongdae.

Always a good sign...
Beer and whiskey = always a good sign

If you’re after something different for the final venue of the night, you do have choices in Hongdae. Endless K-pop banger clubs like NB1 or NB2 are a favourite with the locals and tourists alike, hip-hop and R&B basement joints seemed a popular one too. If all else fails you can look around and see the Max Creamy Beer signs jutting out of restaurant walls, they serve pints and snacks well into the AM. Koreans love food, all day, all night.

But really you end where you begin in Hongdae. It’s gone 5am and the Koreans show absolutely no sign of slowing down, perhaps now we understand why they drink so much coffee. An attempt to balance out the their love for late nights and neat spirits? On a way home we detoured through the area for a last-leg people watch.

Perhaps the reason why they don’t do mornings is because they get absolutely legless, or “Koreeean drunk!!” as one of the wobbly ladies we were chatting to exclaimed.

Slightly blurry ourselves we wandered back through the streets, still full of soju-downers tripping over themselves onto the next stop. Perhaps the reason why they don’t do mornings is because they get absolutely legless, or “Koreeean drunk!!” as one of the wobbly ladies we were chatting to exclaimed. Hongdae is vibrant, full of drunk students yes but equally full of surprise spots to drink your night away, and it is 100% the place to go if you want a taste of alternative Korean nightlife – and a hangover.

The next day around 11am we headed to the bakery nursing a whiskey-induced headache… for coffee of course. There were cohorts of giggling drinkers stumbling about the morning-after-the-night-before streets, they definitely hadn’t made it to bed just yet.

Enjoyed this? Then check out what happened when Urban Travel Blog partied hard in Dubai, experienced the alternative side of Ljubljana and tried to keep pace with the Madrilenos in Spain. All our nightlife adventures here.

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