South Korea's economic outlook for the year is bright and shiny. Photo: Tom Coyner

Seoul, like Bangkok, Shanghai and Tokyo and other Asia megalopolises, is renowned for its nightlife and the South Korean capital is dotted with after-dark ‘hoods.

The trendy Hongik University area is known for live music and clubs; the foreign ghetto of Itaewon is the place for non-Korean wining and dining options; and the ritzy Cheongdam district in Gangnam is famous/notorious for its opulent, upscale and high-priced offerings.

But there is also a pulsating nightlife zone – a block of neon-drenched bars, restaurants and karaoke rooms – directly adjacent to the staid downtown central business district: Jonggak. Though set in a hub of banks, company HQs and embassies and overlooked by office towers, Jonggak is a “youth” entertainment district, where most visitors are in their twenties and suits and ties are definitely not de rigeur.  

As such, restaurants here keep their prices down, offering traditional foods, such as ddeokbokki (rice pasta in spicy sauce), dumplings, fried chicken and surprisingly inexpensive grilled meats.  At least one barbecue restaurant here is able to offer amazing prices on its pork by raising, butchering and retailing within the same company. While bars offer great sound systems, live music is almost non-existent, keeping entertainment costs down.  

In short, this is an accessible and economical place to celebrate life’s joys or drown its sorrows in copious shots of soju (Korea’s infamous grain spirit),  kettles of makgeolli (a milder but more flavorsome rice brew) or jugs of beer – be it cheap local lagers or more upmarket craft ales.

Jonggak represents a continuation of youthful entertainment that has long resided in this part of the capital. Until half a century ago, the center for merrymaking and potential revolution was the nearby Mugyo-dong, now a largely eviscerated district several blocks away.  

Its heyday came to a halt when then-president Park Chung-hee ordered bulldozers to eliminate the district’s hotbeds of student resistance to his regime under the guise of modernization by constructing an elevated highway that wiped out most of the bars and small restaurants.  

The highway was a spectacular eyesore.  As a result, youth, and the businesses that serviced them, migrated over to Jonggak, in the alleys next to Boshingak, the city’s giant bell, set inside a large traditional pavilion in a gated garden. (Boshingak is also known as Jonggak – whence the district takes its name.)  

In a 2005 move that many believe paved his path from Seoul City Hall to the presidential Blue House, then-mayor Lee Myung-bak tore down the elevated highway and the underlying Cheonggyecheon Stream was resurrected in one of East Asia’s most successful urban regeneration projects.  

The scenic, 10.9-kilometer green lung has breathed new life into Jonggak. Many dating couples now combine the bright lights of the boozers and eateries with romantic strolls along the attractive watercourse.

Jonggak is easy to get to. Jonggak Station is in the very center of Seoul, served by Line 1 of the Seoul subway.

Exactly what it says on the sign. Photo: Tom Coyner
As dusk settles over central Seoul, the lights come on in Jonggak. Photo: Tom Coyner
Youth gets its kicks in Jonggak. Photo: Tom Coyner
Cozy pubs and raucous restaurants are key features in Jonggak. Photo: Tom Coyner
Multilingual marketing in a Jonggak restaurant. Signage proclaims: Even foreigners like our cuisine [in Korean]; Koreans love this lovely food (in Chinese); Koreans like our gourmet food [Japanese]; Real taste of local in SEOUL [unusually comprehensible English]. Photo: Tom Coyner
Kimchi and sesame leave wraps wait for the meat to return from the griddle. Photo: Tom Coyner
Tabletop barbecue is served. Photo: Tom Coyner
A couple wander past tents advertising fortune telling from both the Eastern (saju) and Western (tarot) traditions. Photo: Tom Coyner
Snacks are served at an after-dark tent in Jonggak. Photo: Tom Coyner
Jonggak – also known as Boshinggak – is the bell pavilion from which the district takes its name. Photo; Tom Coyner

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