South Korea remains underestimated as a top travel destination outside its east Asian neighborhood; better known around the world for political tensions with North Korea, Hyundai cars and Samsung and LG electronic devices, than for its spirited nightlife, distinctive cuisine and friendly people. Cultural exports of Korean Wave music, films and TV soap operas also have many devoted fans throughout the region, especially among the Chinese. This is not yet Bangkok or Taipei for gay nightlife, but certainly it's a place you will not regret putting on your destination map.
Korea is one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with pottery dating back 10,000 years. The modern capital, Seoul, was founded comparatively recently, in 18 BC. Now a city of over 10 million people, it is part of the world's second largest metropolitan area with over 25.6 million people. Only Tokyo, New York City and Los Angeles have larger metropolitan economies than this city on the Han River.
Leaving the nation divided and in ruins, with millions in casualties, the Korean War ended in 1953. That war followed soon after the Second World War which freed Koreans from 35 years of Japanese occupation. New automobile, shipbuilding, electronics, and other industries, helped pull the country out of poverty in little more than a generation, and create a highly competitive G-20 economy. But they were difficult years, with repressive governments, violent street demonstrations, fighting between Buddhists and Christians, and an ongoing military threat from the north. A deterrent force of 28,000 US military personnel remains stationed here still.
Prosperity brought better governments, more open media, and a more tolerant population. But evangelical Christians still burn Buddhist temples, and abhor the increasing visibility of gay people. Christian activists lay in the street at the June 2014 Pride Parade, attempting to stop the march, but Koreans have never had laws concerning sexual orientation. Acts such as sodomy, or oral intercourse were considered unmentionable in courts and other public forums, so traditional conservative society has had nothing to say about homosexuality. Consequently it is legal to be gay in South Korea, but many people prefer not to come out to family, friends or co-workers. Cultural norms are different here, so outsiders are sometimes surprised when Korean men, and especially boys, seem so sensual with one another. To locals it doesn't indicate gay identity, and sexually ambiguous K-pop stars have become mega-star idols, both here and far beyond the homeland, on Youtube. Some see their style as reminiscent of the flower boys, the Hwarang (화랑) of 6-9th century Silla, bands of youths selected for their beauty and trained in martial arts, an association tinged with homosexual connotations.
Another historical echo involves the hundreds of thousands of Koreans who make a living foretelling the future. Some date the origins to pantheistic Korean shamanism known as Muism, the old religion which Buddhists and Taoists tolerated, but Neo-Confucians, Christians and the Japanese discouraged or repressed. Mudang (women), and Baksu (men), served as links to the spirit world, giving advice and help in solving daily human problems. The Goot was among the ceremonies bringing spirits and humans together through a possessed Mudang, with singing, free-form dancing and heavy drinking the norm. The ecstatic group experience bound community members together, and restored harmony between the worlds. Modern nightclubs could be said to serve similar purposes, and this society sets great value on harmony. Koreans, it is said, still prefer intuitive, holistic understanding of a situation over logical analysis.
Korean cuisine is a source of national pride, quite distinct from that of China and Japan, known for spiciness and a rich and complex variety of flavors. As in other aspects of their culture, Koreans approach food holistically, with health and nutrition as important as taste, full of ritual significance, and mindful of etiquettes that reinforce links between people, the generations, families and society at large. Fresh vegetables, rice and noodles figure large, and meat and seafood can be somewhat more sparingly used. For meat lovers there are gogi-jip barbecue restaurants on almost every corner, some with sashimi-style slices of raw beef, served with dabs of hot pepper paste. Street food vendors offer quick and inexpensive opportunities to sample from a rich smorgasbord, and dried cuttlefish is a popular snack food. Seoul also has a wide range of restaurants offering global cuisines of all varieties.
Shopping hotspots abound. Dongdaemun, has street markets open day and night with T-shirts and sunglasses for less than a cup of coffee, along with big shopping malls with independent clothing stores offering original styles at bargain prices. At the other end of the spectrum the upscale Cheongdam-dong district has first-class fashion stores, Fifth Avenue-style. Here too the Galleria Department Store basement food court, The Gourmet 494, features some of the city's most elite and trendy restaurants and celebrated chefs. CoEx in Gangnam-gu, is Asia's largest underground shopping mall. Lotte World in Sincheon-dong, features the world's largest indoor theme park, a large El Lotte department store, and a 123-floor tower under construction, to include a 1,633-foot observatory. Times Square is another giant shopping center, at Yeongdeungpo subway station.
Homo Hill is in Itaewon, and the name speaks for itself. Among the hundreds of gay bars in this city, those located in this foreigner-friendly queer enclave at the center of Yongsan-gu district are the most likely to have staff and customers who speak English. People from everywhere in the world come here, including young American and Korean soldiers out for a lark, partly because Hooker Hill is nearby. American MPs can stop those who might be servicemen out after curfew, so have ID handy if you look the part.
Jongno in the central Nagwon-dong neighborhood, remains the gayest area of Seoul. The many, mostly small bars here cater to Koreans, but they're not unfriendly to foreigners who can get by without the use of their mother tongue. These tend to be traditional sit-down establishments, often requiring you to order food with your drinks.
The Insa-dong shopping street in Jongno is a center for Korean traditional arts and crafts, among the many shops and tea houses. Nearby alleys are lined with a multitude of evening street food tents (pojangmacha) catering to crowds of men both gay and straight, most in party mode. A number of tents by exit 4 of Jongno 3 Ga (종로 3 가) near many of the gay bars, serve up anju food and cheap drinks for an animated throng of gay men, late into the night. Changdeokgung Palace, one of Five Grand Palaces built by kings of the 15th century Joseon Dynasty, stands in a natural park setting in Jongno.
Hongdae, a university district, is full of clothing boutiques, cafes, street food tents, American fast food chains, urban arts, galleries, theaters, indie music culture, and student bars with cheap drinks and energetic young dancers who know all the moves. The area is also home to two lesbian bars, the Pink Hole and Labris; no guys allowed and not easy to find unless someone can show you the way. Club MWG is easier, see below, home to Meet Market, a lively LGBT and friends dance party hosted by the Butch-hers every month or two.
Gangnam, the Beverly Hills of Seoul, and Sinchon, another student area of cinemas, cafes, bars and shops for a mainly younger crowd, are two more neighborhoods with LGBT bars, and other businesses.
Incheon International Airport (ICN) serving the Seoul National Capital Area is the city's main international hub and one of the world's largest and busiest airports. It replaced Gimpo Airport which now takes mainly domestic and short international flights such as those from Japan, Taiwan, and China. From either Incheon International or Gimpo airports, take the AREX rapid transit line, a 43 minute trip on the Seoul Subway from Incheon to the downtown Seoul Station.
Buses depart Incheon International Airport for Seoul or Gimpo Airport at 10-15 minute intervals during flight operation hours. Limousine Bus service to Seoul costs under US$10, with deluxe service for under US$15. Purchase tickets at the Transportation Information Counter near exits 2, 4, 9, 13 at Arrivals, or at the bus stops.
There are also buses and connections to points across the country. Taxi stands are located on the arrival level (1F) of the passenger terminal, between platform 4D and 7C. See the airport website for full details.
The city is connected by rail to every major city in Korea, and to most by KTX high-speed trains, with normal operation speeds of over 186 mph (300 km/h), from 4 main stations in the capital.
Seoul Metro has nine major subway lines running 250 km (155 mi), and one additional line planned. Ten more subway and light rail lines bring the total system length to 981.5 km, with 617 stations. Modern, clean and easy to use it's considered among the best public transportation systems in the world.
All lines use T-money smart cards, smartphones, or credit cards for fare payments. Transfers are permitted, at no additional charge, to any other line within the system. Signs and voice announcements are in Korean and English, with some stations also providing information in Japanese and Chinese. The Seoul Metropolitan Government operates four kinds of bus services across the city.
The Won is the currency of the Republic of Korea with the code KRW, and the common abbreviation ₩. The won's value has only fluctuated between ₩1009 and ₩1160 per US dollar in two years, up until the August 2014 rate of ₩1017 to the dollar. ATMs are everywhere, and most businesses accept credit cards. As always before leaving on an overseas trip, consult with your home bank.
Media and Resources
Queer Korea "your go-to source for all things queer in Korea" has nightlife business listings, events, TV and cinema coverage for the LGBT community.
TravelGayAsia is an online travel guide listing gay bars,nightclubs, saunas, spas, beaches, shops and more, in Seoul, Busan, and 48 other cities in 13 Asian countries, plus Australia and New Zealand.
Utopia-Asia also has a guide to Seoul, along with other towns in South Korea, and they cover cities in 20 countries throughout the region, with maps, and a loyal network of "utopians" who leave comments about all the bars and bathhouses.
The Seoul LGBT Film Festival (SeLFF) screens for a week in early June each year, focusing on the diverse lives and desires of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals living in Korea.
The Cinematique in Seoul, presents 300+ films each year: international, classic and indie films; documentaries based on historic, political, and social events; the SeLFF; famous Japanese films free of charge; and third Fridays, new independent Korean short films. Many foreign films have both Engllish and Korean subtitles.
Other art-house cinemas in town showing foreign and classic films and hosting various festivals include: Cinecube, in the Heungkuk Life Insurance building; Arthouse Momo, in the ECC building, Ewha Woman’s University; Sangsang Madang Cinema, an indie landmark in Hongdae; and the Media Theater i-Gong in Mapo-gu, screening experimental films that focus on women and minority issues.
The Korea Queer Festival early each June includes a Pride Parade followed by afternoon all-ages no-alcohol events and all all-night dancing until 5am in Itaewon. The Korea Queer Film Festival (KQFF) takes place over four days during the following week.
99film is an independent queer film studio based in Seoul with online releases of some of their recent productions. For a look at some other gay films of the past decade see the QueerKorea cinema pages.
Waegook Tom is a blog by a young British expat, now living in Taipei, who lived, worked and loved in Seoul for several years.
For impressions on Seoul of a lesbian American expat who spent two years here, see an article in Here/Queer.
The Kimchi Queen is a blog/online magazine with gay lifestyle news, upcoming events, music, movies and entertainment reviews.
NineMonsters is a gay social media app with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region, English-language options, and automatic translations to and from several Asian languages including Korean.
AngloInfo Seoul, a global English-language expat resource, covers everything you need to get around Seoul, including health care, banking, local transportation and entertainment from people who live, work and play here.
Visit Seoul has general tourism tips on what to see and do, where to stay, eat and shop, plus events listings and other basic info. Their helpful guides to Korean foods range from an exploration of hansik and traditional vegan/vegetarian fare, to the city's best restaurants by district or national origin, and which Mapo alley to find the best marinated beef and pork ribs.
Visit Korea has general tourism information for all the ROK, including the cities of Seoul, Busan, Gyeongju and Sokcho, as well as Jeju Island, the largest volcanic island in Korea.
Seoulistic has food tips, cultural activities, entertainment listings, and reviews. Their food section covers topics such as Foods for the Brave, Hangover Cures, Korean Table Manners and Drinking Etiquette, Mega Awesome Patbingsu, the best Galbi (BBQ), Hanok, and Kimchi, Fun Snacks, The 7 Spiciest Foods, plus 30 Foods You’ve Never Heard Of.
Ksoulmag, an English-language online zine, focuses on Korean Wave, K-pop bands, and other aspects of popular culture.
Seoul Magazine covers travel, people and culture, dining and nightlife, shopping and lifestyle topics.
Korea.net, an online news and information site, has events listings plus government resources and contact information.
The Korea Herald, the Seoul Times and the JoongAng Daily that comes with the IHT, are the main English language dailies in Korea. Targeting Koreans who want to improve their English, they are also the main print information sources for foreign residents.
See South Korea’s Gay March Forward, an August 2014 article in DailyXtra.
For some restaurant, shopping and hotel/ guesthouse suggestions see our gay Seoul maps and listings pages. For some photos see our gallery pages, and for things to see and do, click through to the events and activities pages.
Almaz (136-6 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), gay neighborhood warm-up cocktail bar/lounge, before the clubs hangout.
Always Homme (Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), Homo Hill cocktail bar, tourists and expats mix, younger locals; open during the week, and late on weekends until 5am.
Barcode (41-1 Myo-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), 2nd floor gay cocktail bar, mostly Korean older guys, English-speaking staff, free WiFi.
Bar Friends (88-2 Nakwon-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), Korean men's bar behind Nagwon Shopping Arcade, some foreigners, English spoken.
Cakeshop (34-16 Itaewon-dong, Yongsang-Gu, Itaewon), underground industrial-style basement, large dance-floor, sea of lounges; Future House, UK Bass, Garage, Disco, Hip Hop, RnB and underground genres, international DJs; periodic v.o.g.u.e. gay dance parties.
Club Gray (Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), large, popular Friday/Saturday gay dance club across from Pulse, younger crowd, open until 6am.
Club MWG (362-12 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Hongdae), progressive house dance club, Meet Market LGBT and friends dance party sponsored by the Butch-hers, every 5-6 weeks; singers, burlesque, locals/ expats mix.
Club Octagon (152 Nonhyeon-dong, B1/B2, Gangnam-gu), gay-friendly mixed dance club, good sound system, pretty people, stage shows.
Club XL (136-13 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), Friday/Saturday gay club, mostly men, good sound system, beefy go-go dancers.
Coyote (168-1 Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu, 2nd fl, Jongno), gay men's cocktail bar, wide range of mixed drinks, campy comfort, booth seating, celebrity walls.
Escape (34 Donui-dong, Jongno-gu, 2nd fl, Jongno), intimate gay cocktail lounge, WiFi, English-speaking staff, useful information about Seoul's gay scene.
G2 Club (58-1 Nakwon-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), bear-popular gay karaoke bar where shots of soju can help build your vocal confidence; special dance parties, K-pop nights.
GQ (147 Nakwon-dong, Jongno-gu, 2nd fl, Jongno), neighborhood bear bar, friendly staff, older guys, games/darts, free WiFi.
JL Cultures group has gay events in Seoul, including an annual June party at Pulse and Le Queen, see their facebook page for upcoming dates.
Le Queen (Itaewondong 123-3, Itaewon), Friday/ Saturday gay dance parties, drag and vocalist show bar, go-go boys, special events.
Lovestar (92 Nakwon-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), friendly gay cocktail bar, bear-popular, snack foods, free WiFi.
Mino (111-2 Nakwon-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), gay cocktail bar, snack foods, mostly Korean men of mixed ages, friendly staff.
Owoo (109-1 Nakwon-dong, Jongno-gu, 4th fl, Jongno), Nordic-style gay bar, café meals, mixed mostly local crowd with some foreigners.
Oz (Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), small Homo Hill gay bar next to Always Homme, mostly older guys.
Poten 410 (171-6 Gwonnong-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), gay cocktail bar, snack foods, open-air patio seating with views.
Pulse (Itaewon, Yongsan-gu, 127-3, B1, B1, Itaewon), large underground men's dance club, stripper poles, go-gos, performance stage; lots of eye candy but mostly Korean for Korean scene.
Queen (Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu 136-42, Itaewon), gay dance club, good-looking crowd, K-pop and Western music, special theme parties, patio bar.
Shortbus (175 Myo-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), tiny gay bar, lounge/house music, locals and foreigners mix, free WiFi
SOHO (Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), Homo Hill video/dance bar, young crowd, locals and foreigners mix, theme parties, friendly staff, patio.
Trance (136-42 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, B, Itaewon), Friday and Saturday gay basement bar, drag shows and other entertainment.
Viva (12-1 Jongno 3-ga, Jongno-gu, B1, Jongno), basement gay bar, 30s mix, live music, movies, theme party nights.
Wallpaper (103 Ikseon-dong, Jongno-gu, Jongno), small but popular gay karaoke bar.
Why Not? (137-4 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), small upscale gay dance club; young K-pop cover groups, drag shows.
Saunas, Cruising, Massage
Equus (137-62 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, GS25, Itaewon), men's cruise club, prison area, cabins, S&M room; bears nights.
Harmony Seoul (Itaewon Station, Exit 3, Yongsan-gu, Itaewon), men-for-men massage spa, attractive young staff with online photos.
Hyundae Sauna (131-36, Iteawon-dong, Yongsan-gu, 2nd fl, Iteawon), 24-hour gay sauna, pool, lounge, internet room, videos, cabins, dark room, free snacks.
Julian (130-34 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu, 4th fl, Itaewon), gay cruise club, sleeping bunks, dark room, Korean locals.
Prince (Sinchon Station), 24/7 men's cruise bar, playspace, private cabins, maze, showers; mostly locals but foreigners welcome.
See Utopia-Asia for a more complete list of gay saunas and gay-frequented jjimjilbang, the traditional Korean overnight sleeping facilities.
For gayer massage options see: 501 Mania (Jongno), 24-hour in-house or out-call massage, online photos; Black Out (Itaewon), massage by Leo; GiSeng (Jongno), on-site or out-call services; and The Park (Itaewon), men-for-men, hot "trainers" on-site or out-calls, online photos and reservations, open 1pm-4am daily.