14 of Seoul's quirkiest bars
In an area of overpriced cocktail bars and sticky-floored “hofs,” (or beer in South Korea) Rainbow, near Gangnam Station, comes like a breath of fresh air. Or rather, like a waft of pungent, sweet-smelling hooka smoke. Stepping into Rainbow reveals a dimly lit mishmash of fountains, Thai art, peace signs made of fairy lights and shoeless, floor-lounging clientele. Throw in plentiful mid-priced cocktails and a playlist that mixes Bob Marley with Engelbert Humperdinck, and the result is a virtual student commune right in the heart of brightest, brashest Seoul.
Getting there: From Gangnam Station, leave via exit 6, walk 250 meters, turn left at Giordano, turn right at Dunkin Donuts and Rainbow is on your right.
In Korea, drinks in ziplock bags have become as much a part of rock festival culture as camping, mercurial weather and iffy toilets. And if Vinyl owner Moon Hyun-jung is to be believed, it all started at her pint-sized cocktail bar in the Hongdae area. “I got the idea after seeing people in Taiwan drinking iced coffee from bags,” she says. “A lot of places do it now, but I was the first!” Today, Vinyl remains an essential warm-up point for a night of revelry in one of Seoul's most happening areas. And if the bijou interior is packed out (10 people usually does it), Moon is on hand to sell her fruity cocktails from a take-out window facing the street.
Getting there: From the front of Hongik University, cross the road and turn left. Keep walking for around 200 meters and Vinyl is on your right.
Quite what the owners of Oi had in mind is difficult to say. In its concrete, cave-like interior, polystyrene rope dangles from the ceiling, dusty chandeliers give off an eerie glow, and luminous string is suspended between walls like laser tripwires. Another bar with hookahs and a prohibition on shoes, Oi's hokey new-agey ethos (“The Story of Beautiful Nature...”) is offset by excellent cocktails, a young and lively crowd, and very loud dance music.
Getting there: From the front of Hongik University, cross the street and follow the road that runs along the back side of the playground. Keep walking for 5 or 10 minutes until you find the Adidas store on your right. Oi is roughly opposite on the third floor.
The lights are dim, lilting French jazz hovers in the background and water trickles from a fountain onto a pool strewn with petals and marked by Indian figurines. With a few early evening guests reclining on cushions on the floor, a tattooed, seemingly kohl-eyed woman serves drinks from behind a small opening cluttered with palm frond leaves. Inspired by India but with a distinctly Hongdae boho vibe, Nabi is about as mellow a bar as you could hope to find.
Getting there: Facing Vinyl, turn left and take the first right next to the 7-Eleven. Go straight, turn left at Gr8 hookah bar and keep going till you see the Sexy Pig restaurant. The stairs leading down to Nabi are marked by a small white sign right next door.
Today, K-pop usually means feminine guys or scrawny women singing and dancing to instantly forgettable electro-fluff. But it wasn't always thus, and the fabulously retro Gopchang Jeongol has the proof. Amid pictures of mop-topped Korean rockers, and walls clogged with decades-old clocks, radios, speakers and LPs, Gopchang Jeongol cranks out a constant stream of classic Korean rock, invariably eliciting big grins and impassioned sing-alongs from its faithful punters.
Getting there: Come out of exit 4 of Hongik Station, take a right and keep going to the end of the road. Take a left and walk until you come to a roundabout, take the first right, and keep walking until you almost come to the end of that road. Gopchang Jeongol is on your left.
In a country increasingly succumbing to a “wellbeing” craze, the purportedly healthful properties of makgeolli have helped propel this most traditional of Korean tipples back into the limelight. Today, bars devoted to this zingy, off-white rice wine are springing up all over Seoul, and few are as charming as Moon Jar. Eschewing traditional Koreana in favor of an interior approximating a French cottage, Moon Jar sells a selection of “President” and “Luxury”-grade makgeollis, along with makgeolli cocktails and excellent side dishes.
Getting there: Facing Dosan Park in Sinsa-dong, take a right and carry on to the end of the park. Turn left, go straight to the end of the park, cross the road, keep walking and Moon Jar is on your right.
It has London Pride at the bar, bangers and mash on the menu and Travis and The Beatles playing on the sound system. But anyone thinking Kim Hong-gu, the owner of Sir Raymond, in Garosugil, is a long-term resident of the United Kingdom (or even much of an Anglophile) is in for a surprise. “I just chose this theme because it has a backyard, like most British houses do,” he says. Though Kim's Korean take on an English boozer could never be mistaken for the real thing, the promise of malt whisky by the glass and Premier League soccer on a big screen is enticement enough.
Getting there: From Apgujeong Station, leave via exit 5, walk straight for 15 minutes, turn left at Kraze Burger and turn left again at the lane opposite Starbucks. Sir Raymond is on your right.
Though a certain ambivalence remains in South Korea toward its giant easterly neighbor, those feelings certainly don’t extend to Japan’s food and booze. Particularly popular among the gustatory imports are sake and odeng, a kind of fish sausage known in Japan as kamaboko, which is sold across the capital in its ubiquitous orange food tents. In Garosugil’s Jeongdeunjib, however, patrons can help themselves to pronged odeng from pots in the middle of each table (hence the prominent fishy pong) and wash it all down with one of the many hot and cold sakes on offer. In sharp contrast to much else in Garosugil, Jeongdeunjib has won many admirers because of its studiedly down-at-heel setting.
Getting there: From Sinsa Station, leave via exit 8, walk for a couple of blocks, turn left onto Garosugil and Jeongdeunjib (Korean sign on a basic wood and brick exterior) is about 20 meters along on the right side of the street.
Au Gout Des Autres
It is a South Korean wine bar named after a French movie, owned by a former club promoter, and housed in a Japanese-style house from the 1950s. Yet of all the bars on this list, Au Gout Des Autre has perhaps the most simple, unaffected charm. Located in a dozy area opposite the Sungkok Art Museum, Au Gout des Autres boasts an exceptional selection of wines, good European fare and lilting jazz music (live on some Wednesdays) in a setting that gives an inkling of what life would have been like in South Korea of yore.
Getting there: Leave Gwanghwamun Station via exit 7, go straight and take a right into the alley next to the Salvation Army Hall. Then follow the road to the Sungkok Museum, and Au Gout des Autres is opposite.
With a basement location just behind Samcheong-dong's main drag, this charming confection of aged wood paneling, creaky furniture and sepia-tinged pics was once a photo studio that doubled as a hangout for intellectuals during South Korea's military rule. Now one of the few regular bars in this part of Seoul, La Cle's beers, wine and simple foods are accompanied every night from 8:30 by mellow local jazz bands.
Getting there: Walk right up the main Samcheong-dong Street until you get to the Felice Gatto Italian restaurant. From there, cross the road, and take the lane on your left. La Cle is about 50 meters along on the left.
Also in Samcheong-dong is this relative veteran -- a cozy little wine bar with a solid selection of Italian food and an excellent choice of wines, available only by the bottle. Any curiosity about the providence of this place's name is quickly answered on arrival, by the presence of a vast rock protruding from much of the rear wall.
Getting there: Walk right up the main Samcheong-dong Street until you get to the Nescafe Cafe. Cave is in the basement.
It may have art nouveau stylings, be owned by a former shoe salesman and mix Thai food with Korean grog, but what really sets Harue Pocha apart is its status as a cut-price bar and eatery in Cheongdam-dong, Seoul's gilded home of Bentley showrooms and Chanel boutiques. Selling an array of curries, noodles and shellfish, Harue Pocha manages to be both classy and completely welcoming, a trick that reputedly sees it pull in a regular cohort of South Korean celebrities.
Getting there: Take a taxi to the old Mnet Media building, take the lane between that building and Tom N Toms Coffee, walk up to the junction, take the first right, then the first left, and Harue Pocha is on your right.
Of all the bars on this list, the recently opened Off might seem the odd one out. Located in an unremarkable part of town, its muted interior and leather armchairs speak more of a private members' club than of a pioneering bar. Yet as Seoul's first ever purpose-built malt whisky bar, that is just what Off is. In a country where whisky means Ballantine's, Off's admirable collection includes Glenfiddich, Laphroaig and even Auchentoshan.
Getting there: From Gangnam-gu Office subway station, leave via exit 1, take the alley adjoining KFC, go straight until you get to the Brownstone building, turn right, and Off is on your left.
For all its reams of drinking establishments, few places in Itaewon stray too far from the regular boozer/wine bar template. Bungalow, though, is certainly one of the quirkier propositions. Located in the lively alley behind the Hamilton Hotel, Bungalow “Tropical Lounge” sprawls over three floors, with patios, private rooms and, most popular of all, a rooftop 'beach' complete with sand and deck chairs.
Getting there: From Itaewon subway station, leave via exit 2, turn left, turn right, walk straight and Bungalow is on your left.