Getting to the heart of SeoulComment on this story
If you arrive in Seoul on a weekday morning, as I did, you'd be hard-pressed to see why you should stay. The subway is full of people staring out the windows on their way to office jobs. There's diabolical, soul-sucking traffic. Breakfast is eaten on the go, grabbed from a convenience store or street stall. But at 9pm, you'll start to see what makes Seoul such a dynamic city. South Korea is booming and its capital city is where you'll witness the rapid change. It's this dizzying economic progress that has led to British Airways resuming direct links with the city after a 14-year hiatus. Non-stopflights from Heathrow start again on Sunday.
When the long workday is over, Seoulites take to restaurants and bars, coffee shops and karaoke rooms, screen-golf venues and jam-packed nightclubs. Work hard? Yes. But locals play harder. Never mind the long work hours and “company man” hierarchical office culture - it's in their free time that the locals are at their most energetic… and it all begins with a drink.
Until a few years ago, traditional South Korean spirits were the preserve of the middle-aged. But in the sort of move perfected by Brooklyn's hipsters, trendy young Seoulites have discovered for themselves soju (a clear rice wine similar to sake) and makgeolli (a milky, fizzy alcoholic beverage served in bowls). Now these two drinks can be found on cocktail lists all over town, and some bars even offer classes on how to make them. One of the best soju cocktails is served at The Timber House, a cosy bar at the Park Hyatt hotel, designed to look like a hanok, a traditional wooden house. The Blue Bell is a potent combination of premium soju, Cointreau, blueberry syrup and yogurt. It's nicer than it sounds.
For something equally refined, look no further than Seoul's poshest neighbourhood, Gangnam, which has been thrust on to the world stage by K-pop star Psy. Since the music video went viral earlier this year, it has had more than 800 million hits; David Cameron and Ban Ki-moon are said to have learned the dance moves. The song mocks the affluent lifestyle of Gangnam - it's certainly a smart and showy part of town, with its high-end shops, luxury car dealerships and dress-to-impress nightclubs. Platoon Kunsthalle, an art space constructed from shipping containers, sits somewhat incongruously in the midst of it all. The space serves as an incubator for new artists and designers and it hosts monthly night-time flea markets, design and film showcases and a trendy bar.
While K-pop dominates the airwaves (and the videos dominate smartphone screens), indie music is finally starting to get some attention. Powwow is a small, bare-bones venue where South Korea's electro, indie, shoegaze and genre-defying live music acts and art shows can be experienced in an intimate space. Here, I saw three local indie bands rock out in the basement space - it was a far cry from the polished dance moves and choreographed smiles of K-pop's airbrushed teenage idols.
For visitors, it can be difficult to get under Seoul's skin on a short visit, particularly since South Koreans tend to go out in groups and are often shy about speaking English. The best way to enjoy the city's nightlife is to jump in feet first. Don't wait for anyone to come and speak to you - it won't happen. Observe the locals, all of whom are dedicated to having the best time, and follow their lead.
When it comes to proper clubs, it's go large, or go home. Entry and drinks are overpriced, women wear the world's highest heels and the men, at least some, wear make-up. Club Ellui in Gangnam is one of the biggest clubs in Asia with a capacity of 4,000 and several levels and lounges. It's worth checking out - if you don't mind queuing - but a far better alternative is to head to Hongdae, Seoul's lively, 24-hour student area. Wandering around the hundreds of shops, bars and clubs on any night of the week is to get a glimpse into how Koreans make the most of the college experience before settling into the work/family grind. On a Hongdae street, it's not uncommon to encounter a live band, a take-away cocktail stand (drinks come in a plastic bag for portability) and at least one karaoke business.
Karaoke is an essential part of a South Korean night out - grab a few friends, rent a room by the hour, order a few beers and sing your heart out. Then on to the next bar. Karaoke rooms are everywhere - just look for signs depicting a woman singing or a musical note.
And how to remedy Seoul's relentless party culture? Hangover soup is a South Korean tradition. At Cheongjinok restaurant,I tucked into a bowl of hearty beef broth brimming with congealed ox blood, cabbage and sprouts. It's not a fry-up, but you'd be surprised at how well it works. Cheongjinok has been serving up hangover soup to Seoul denizens for more than 70 years - a lifespan almost unheard of in this tear-'em-down, build-'em-up city. It's open 24 hours a day, which is a godsend if your hangover starts when you stumble out of the bar at 4am. Its central location in Jongno, a bustling neighbourhood that's lively at night, makes it popular.
Despite a population of 10 million, Seoul runs like a well-oiled machine. The internet is the world's fastest, the subway is always on time, the public toilets are sparklingly clean. It's a city that rewards a little effort with an intensity and energy that's infinitely surprising.
If You Go...
Visiting, eating and drinking
Siloam Sauna, 128-104 Jungrim-dong, Jung-gu (00 82 2 3643 9445; silloamsauna.com).
Etude House, various locations (etudehouse.com).
Powwow, B1, 559 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu (00 82 10 2740 0783; powwowseoul.wordpress.com).
Platoon Kunsthalle, Nonhyeon-dong 97-22, Gangnam-gu (00 82 2 3447 1191; kunsthalle.com).
Timber House Bar, Park Hyatt Hotel, 606, Teheran-ro, Gangnam-gu (00 82 2 2016 1234; seoul.park.hyatt.com).
Cheongjinok, Jongno-1-ga 24, Jongno-gu (00 82 2 735 1690).
Jongno Bin Dae Dug, 57 Unni-dong, Jongno-gu (00 82 2 742 9494; jongnobindaedug.com).
Club Ellui, 129 Cheongdam-dong Gangnam-gu (00 82 10 9111 6205; cafe.naver.com/ellui)
Korea Tourism Organisation: 020-7321 2535; gokorea.co.uk - The Independent