At first glance, the industrial Euljiro neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea, might seem like the last place you’d want to be on a Friday night. You may spy a printing press supplying tomorrow’s paper or see a bright light on the fifth floor of what seems to be an abandoned warehouse and you’d hardly guess that the neighborhood is teeming with hidden bars and that the light in the distance is the hottest party in town.
In a city where gunbae (the Korean word for cheers) can be heard at all times, finding cheap beer or a green bottle of soju is hardly a challenge. For most of the capital’s history, bars have been more about inebriation than enjoying the atmosphere—catering to large parties and requiring customers to order platters of food with their booze. In the past 10 years, however, development and increasing cosmopolitan tastes have played important roles in the birth of bars as cool spaces. More recently, hidden bars have surged in popularity and Seoul’s latest hotspots can only be found via a frustrating dot game on one’s smartphone GPS.
The best hidden bars are a range of high-end speakeasies to low-key beer bars. Look for the former in posh Gangnam districts like Cheongdam-dong and the latter in the heart of quickly developing downtown: namely Euljiro and Naeja-dong. Enjoy the process of discovery and have a drink when you get there. After all, as the great Drake once said, “Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.”
One of the first hidden bars of its kind in Seoul, Seendosi is located on the fifth floor of a warehouse in Euljiro. Climbing up four flights of stairs in the dark is half the experience of getting to this technician school-turned-dive bar that opened in 2015. Filled with disco lights and futuristic furniture, Seendosi is the result of a shared vision between contemporary artist Lee Byung-jae and photographer Lee Yoon-ho. While the drinks are nothing fancy, the bar still fills up with artsy types of locals and expats alike. Make sure to also catch the electronic waterfall on Seendosi’s rooftop where smokers congregate on used church pews.'
Tucked away in Euljiro, this second-floor bar meaning “one-tenth” has the words “no soju served here” taped on its door. Hur Jun-suk, one of the bar’s ten owners, says that the discreet location was far from intentional. The 10 friends who started the bar (and split the profits 10 ways, hence one-tenth) chose the neighborhood for its inexpensive rent, never expecting that their location would make it that much more popular. Their first location serves inexpensive wine, a rarity in Seoul, and their second location next door specializes in premium beer. To make the most of the experience, order a plate of jjaphagetti, instant black bean noodles, topped with a fried egg and sprinkled with cheese.
Lit up by a neon pink sign reminiscent of ’80s Korea, Eulji Brewing is located in a tight Euljiro alley next to some questionable love motels. A two-story venue filled with graphics by local illustrators, Eulji has developed quite the following in the four months they’ve been open. Their beer selection includes several local craft brews such as Eulji’s signature Seersucker IPA, the Andong Lager, and the 304 Pluto Blonde Ale. (It’s surprisingly difficult to find local brews at trendy hidden bars about town.) Eulji fans recommend the bar’s fried chicken to pair with the beers and word has it that the graphic coasters are free for the taking (within reason).
Better known as “the refrigerator bar,” this café and bar doubles as a fruit store. Situated minutes away from the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, owner Jang Ji-ho says that posing as a fruit store was a way of making itself likeable to the older residents of the quiet neighborhood. Visitors to Jean Frigo can walk behind the cartons of fruit and through a set of refrigerator doors, where they'll find a tiny bar that seats six, along with a handful of bartenders crafting fruit platters and cocktails." Most customers choose the upstairs seating and order using a telephone booth that connects to the bar. Regardless of its gimmicks, no one would describe Jean Frigo as anything other than sophisticated.
Christened one of Seoul’s best bars for drinking alone, Dokil Jutaek is a quiet wine and craft beer bar housed in a renovated hanok (traditional Korean house) in Daehangno. While sounding like “German House” in Korean, the name also means “place to enjoy alcohol on one’s own.” Not as hidden as the others, Dokil Jutaek’s lack of visibility can be explained by its unassuming air in contrast to the rest of the loud, student neighborhood. The bar has a small courtyard for fairer weather, a few small rooms great for groups, and a bar where solo-drinkers can watch bartenders at work. In addition to a wait at the door, visitors to Dokil Jutaek can expect a dazzling selection of beers and a decent wine menu.
One of the first bars in Naeja-dong, Cobbler was opened in 2016 by renowned bartender and mixologist Robin Yoo. Housed in a hanok, the whiskey bar and craft cocktail joint takes inspiration from Robin’s childhood home in Mt. Jirisan and he personally saw to renovations of the once-rundown structure on his own. Today, its stunning vintage décor and elegant ambiance make it a popular place for nearby diplomatic officials to take their VIP guests. With no menu at Cobbler, patrons are encouraged to take recommendations from the experienced bartenders or try one of Yoo’s signatures. Every guest is served a helping of cobbler pie upon entrance and the bar’s candied walnuts are to die for.
Perhaps the only legal bar in Seoul where photos are prohibited and smartphones discouraged, Speakeasy Mortar in Hannam-dong is known for its selection of over 300 whiskies and sought-after Scotch offerings. Staying true to its speakeasy name, the bar goes through the tedious task of opening up the peephole every time a guest goes to the heavy wooden door. Although cellphones receive little signal in the bar, guests can nurse their drinks iwith the famously friendly bartenders or enjoy the bar’s jazzy playlist.
A world-class bar inspired by the 1865 Lewis Carroll classic, Alice is known for its innovative cocktails as well as its otherworldly atmosphere. While its Chungdam-dong location means that it competes with some of Seoul’s most posh bars, Alice is a proud local favorite. Visitors to Alice can follow the sign of a white rabbit down to a basement flowershop and find the bar behind a discreet white door. Instead of throwing the Alice concept at you, guests are reminded of the novel through napkins monogrammed with rabbits and over-the-top cocktails. Many a local would call going to Alice their favorite extravagance.
Located at the end of a residential street, most first-timers walk right by this barely commercial-seeming gastropub. Opened in 2014, the bar is Seochon’s first Westernized venue and specializes in craft beers, Scotch, and Western bites. Despite its Western menu, the bar itself is housed in a hanok and does its best to highlight the hanok’s features in its design. The hanok’s courtyard covered with a glass ceiling, for instance, is one of Hopscotch’s most valuable features. Having a drink there on a rainy night is truly a sight to behold and the bar’s CEO, Eric Shin, says it’s one of his favorite moments there.
Opened up by two world-class bartenders, Lim Jae-jin and Eom Do-hwan, Le Chamber is a posh speakeasy in Cheongdam-dong famous for its Instagram-friendly entrance. To get inside, you have to pull on the right book from a bookcase-door in the bar’s library-esque entrance. The bar’s interior, adorned with plush sofas and thick purple curtains, screams luxury and the cocktails at hand are as delicious as could be expected. Lim and Eom boast “classic cocktails with a twist” as their specialty and make many a drink’s ingredients, like the ginger beer, in house.