If London is a city that never sleeps, then Seoul is a city that barely blinks. By day, its streets are packed with a population of shoppers and office workers; by night, neon lights cast a vibrant glow over its thoroughfares, now thronging with people in search of the city’s famous street food – and a good time. Alongside its world-class street eats, you’ll find a burgeoning music scene that has fans of K-Pop making pilgrimages from across the world, meaning buzzing jazz bars packed every evening and gig venues humming into the early hours. And, of course, a visit to the ubiquitous karaoke noraebang is regarded as an absolute must. Whatever you’re after, we’ve tracked down the best places to catch live music in Seoul.
For K-Pop: SMTown Museum
Unsurprisingly, K-Pop is huge in Seoul. Billboards are plastered with Korean pop idols, the sugary-sweet music spills from every shop and the city’s government has just announced plans to open a dedicated K-Pop arena in 2024. If you can’t wait until then, head to the Gangnam district, south of the river. K-Star Road leads into the neighbourhood, and its pavements feature enormous cartoon-style statues known as GangnamDols that honour Seoul’s K-Pop royalty. Inside the building of record label SM Entertainment, SMTown Museum is a monument to the genre, with six floors of musical history, a spangled archive of the best stage outfits, and hologram concerts. Yes, really. But to catch the best of the biz in the flesh, queue for free tickets for live television broadcasts such as KBS’s Music Bank, M Countdown and MNET’s Show! Music Core. Just remember to register first, arrive to the studio early and take snacks.
SMTown Museum, 513 Yeongdong-daero
For Indie: DGBD, Hongdae
Named after Hongik University, Hongdae is Seoul’s student district, so expect it to be thronging with a population of young people out for a fun time. Cheap rent in the area made it the centre of Seoul’s subculture, and its streets heave with more than 40 underground music venues, many of which have nightly concerts. But perhaps more importantly, this is the area where the avant-garde subversive message of K-Indie was first to develop, in direct contrast to the rise of commercialised K-Pop. A legendary club on the scene is DGBD, where Korean punk pioneers Crying Nut first came into the spotlight. It’s a dark, gritty and, dare we say it, grimy (but in a good way) venue, and unless you fancy your chances in the mosh pit, stick to the back.
DGBD, 23 Jandari-ro, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; +82 2 322 3792
For jazz: Crazy Horse, Gangnam
Gangnam is also Seoul’s fashion district, with hipster bars heaving with the cool crowd after a long day of shopping. Crazy Horse is one such trendy establishment, hidden behind an unassuming wooden stable door, and offering a cocktail menu as carefully curated as its list of artists from home and abroad. To get on stage here, artists have to audition, so you know the music will be good. Crazy Horse is open every night of the week until 2am, but at weekends you have to pay to get in – we promise it’s worth it.
Crazy Horse, 546 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu; +82 2 511 9436
For karaoke: Su Noraebang
Found on almost every street corner, karaoke bars in Seoul range from dingy to diva. The Hongdae district is particularly packed with noraebang (private booth bars) where you can rent rooms by the hour. There’s a huge amount of music to choose from, and if you’re anything like us you’ll need a vast amount of alcohol to get involved. Quite often you can order snacks and drinks to come to the booth, although in some places you’ll need to bring your own. The best noraebang even have costumes to really get you in the mood, and we particularly like Su Noraebang (with locations around the city), where you can sing along in multiple languages.
Su Noraebang, 367-39 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu; +82 2 322 3111
For new music: Café Bitter Sweet Sound, Hapjeong
As Hongdae district becomes more commercialised, musicians are trickling into nearby neighbourhood Hapjeong as the place to get their music heard. Lanterns and soft fairy lights take the place of the ever-present neon, streets are lined with cafés, and romantic rooftop bars abound. Café Bitter Sweet Sound hosts Jazzhop nights that are primed for dancing – and you can enjoy the music with coffee if you like, unlike most other places, which require you to buy an alcoholic drink.
Café Bitter Sweet Sound, 25 Eoulmadang-ro 5-gil, Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu; +82 70 7523 1152