Seoul has no shortage of unique neighborhoods worth visiting and it is certainly not at a loss for places to go drinking. However, there is only one true place where the youth of South Korea go en masse for so many of their desires and that place is Hongdae. Taking its name from the Korean abbreviation for the local art university, Hongik University, Hongdae is a great place for restaurants, cafes, art, live music, clubbing, lounge drinking and shopping. There are neighborhoods all over the city dedicated solely to each of those activities, but none have all of them, nor at such great accessibility.
The streets of Hongdae are lined with an unbelievable concentration of great restaurants, cafes and fashion boutiques.
Exiting from Hongik University station‘s exit 9 will give you a face full of Korea’s different subcultures. University students wear trendy American-style varsity jackets. Musicians have their instruments strapped to their backs. Club kids will have their frameless glasses and cut-off jeans. Exit 9 is the launching point for everyone’s night and on Saturdays it can take minutes to walk up the short flight of stairs.
Rillakuma takes a breather on “Meat Street,” a block with over 30 Korean BBQ restaurants.
One block out of the station is the so-called “Meat Street,” a one block corridor with over 30 tabletop, fire wielding, Korean BBQ restaurants. Serving up the standard samgyeopsal
, kind of a BBQ-style bacon, as well as most other parts of commonly eaten animals all to be dipped into the all too delicious ssamjang
, a sauce of garlic, soybeans and chili paste that is unique to Korea.
Street musicians line the street between Hongdae Station and the main nightlife areas.
Venturing on from Meat Street will take you right past Hongdae’s famous street performers and buskers. Musicians, comedians and magicians all compete for pedestrians’ attention, but everyone knows Hongdae is the musician’s playground. More than just sidewalk space for one-man acoustic cover machines, it is a testing ground for Korea’s indie music scene, with many acts going on to sign major record deals. Bands have their own regular spots with dedicated fans cheering loud enough to be heard for blocks around.
People passed-out and drunk is not an uncommon sight in all corners of Hongdae.
Most people come to Hongdae for the nightlife. Reasonable prices give the area an advantage over Gangnam
. Restaurants are packed with laughter as people pour each other shots of soju
, Korea’s drink of choice that, despite rarely being consumed outside of the peninsula, is one of the most consumed liquors in the world. Bars become so dense that they stack one on top of another with a speed dating bar on top of a darts bar on top of a cocktail lounge in the same building.
The two versions of Hongdae Playground: on the left, the Free Market during the afternoon and on the right, the late-night hangout spot.
One of the best places to drink after dark, when the weather is good, is in the playground right across the street from Hongik University. Koreans and expats alike grab a beer from a neighboring convenience store or Korean rice wine from the Maookli Man’s push cart, take a seat on the bench or the graffiti covered jungle gym and just hang out, often accompanied by an eclectic mix of street music. Additionally, on Saturday afternoons the area turns into the family friendly Hongdae Free Market
, featuring arts and crafts vendors as well as live music.
Afternoon window-shopping is fantastic with the latest in international design and fashion.
There is really so much more to Hongdae than what I’ve mentioned, such as dog cafes, amazing basement comic book shops, narrow streets with over 50 women’s clothing boutiques and a huge concentration of great Japanese restaurants. Hongdae is one of the best places in Seoul to explore, there’s always something new to see or do as it is constantly in flux.
Now is the best time to get to Hongdae and experience it all as the neighborhood is changing on what seems like a monthly basis. As the neighborhood exponentially increases in popularity, rent is raising, pushing out businesses that have been in the area for decades in order to make way for international coffee chain locations. Many of the smaller cafes and music venues that built the area’s reputation have been pushed to adjacent neighborhoods like Hapjeong in order to keep their heads above water. Regardless of corporate takeovers, Hongdae absolutely remains my favorite neighborhood in Korea and is accessible at any hour on any day.
Check out previous “Kimchi-ite” stories on Korean culture, food and eccentricities by clicking here.
[All photos by Jonathan Kramer]