The K-pop lover’s guide to Seoul
The past few years have been huge for South Korean pop music.
Although the nation’s music industry has been going strong since the 1990s, more recently K-pop has managed to make serious inroads in other parts of the world.
The year 2017 in particular saw history made via the seven-member group BTS. They became the first South Korean act to top the Billboard album charts.
Last year, they won the “Favorite Social Artist” prize at the 2018 American Music Awards, beating out Cardi B, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato and Shawn Mendes.
Conventions devoted to K-pop and concerts from top-level acts have become commonplace abroad.
But many folks consider a trip to Seoul the ultimate way to experience their favorite music industry. Even stepping out of arrivals, you’ll be met by ads featuring stars and hear hits playing off in the distance. It’s becoming a cornerstone of inbound tourism for South Korea.
Just this week, the Seoul city government announced it will open the country’s first K-pop arena in 2024 to attract more foreign travel.
“We plan to start the work to construct the concerts-only complex, Seoul Arena, in September next year on a 50,149-square-meter lot near Changdong Station for completion at the end of 2023,” a city official was quoted by the Korea Herald.
Can’t wait five years? In the meantime, there are plenty of places for devotees to swing by in South Korea’s capital to get their K-pop fix. Here are a few of our favorites.
SM Entertainment is one of the biggest Korean music companies around and helped make K-pop what it is today.
Fittingly, they’ve built themselves a massive structure in the heart of Seoul targeted at K-pop superfans.
SMTOWN at COEX Artium houses a variety of attractions centered around their roster of K-pop superstars (including Girls’ Generation, Exo and TVXQ among others). Billed as a “theme park in the city,” visitors can check out six floors of Korean musical history.
The centerpiece for K-pop fans is the museum. It features a comprehensive archive along with famous outfits worn by various Korean pop artists. Visitors can also take photos with augmented versions of their favorites, or even see what a recording studio looks like.
Elsewhere, people can enjoy a variety of sweets and drinks at their cafe space (complete with impressive ice cream selection) or take in a daily show on the top floor. And of course, they have a comprehensive gift store catering to every SM fandom.
SMTOWN at COEX Artium, 513 Yeongdong-daero, Samseong 1(il)-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea; +82 2-6002-5811
Most major K-pop company headquarters are a snooze to visit. The majority are just simple corporate offices offering little for visitors, unless you don’t mind camping out in the off-chance you’ll catch a glimpse of a star.
Even the spaces boasting cafes tend to have little connection to K-pop.
CUBE Entertainment’s 20Space Cafe, however, strikes the right balance and is a highlight in the capital.
The interior is spacious and relaxing, the soundtrack made up of mellower numbers from CUBE artists such as G(I-dle) and BtoB. They even have a corner featuring some agency-related goods.
But it doesn’t go overboard and functions as a solid cafe serving up tasty non-themed coffee beverages. It’s the best space to indulge in some K-pop fandom, but also just chill.
20Space, Seongsu 2(i)-ga 3(sam)-dong, Seongdong-gu, Seoul, South Korea; +82 2-548-7720
K-Star Road features a series of statues devoted to Korean music superstars. Follow the route and you’ll encounter bear-shaped installations honoring heavyweights such as BTS, SHINee and Wonder Girls, among others.
While those will look fantastic on any Instagram page, they aren’t the real draw for this attraction.
K-Star Road serves as a gateway to Gangnam, the center of the K-pop industry. Wandering around the backstreets and side alleys dotting the path will reveal all sorts of musical points of interest, from agency buildings to cafes owned (or frequented) by the performers themselves.
Use K-Star Road as a jumping off point for a deep dive into the neighborhood. Though, hey, snap some pics with the bears too.
K-Star Road can be accessed via Apgujeong Station on Subway Line 3, exit 1.
Club I LOVE K-POP
Many spaces in Seoul offer tourists a chance to listen and dance to K-pop. Few are as lively as the aptly named Club I LOVE K-POP.
This Hongdae-based establishment plays Korean pop numbers from the 1990s until today. Given the wide range of tunes played, it attracts a diverse set of punters.
Unlike most clubs, the folks here actually take breaks at certain points. The DJ will step away and revelers sit down to drink and enjoy food.
When the tunes start up again, expect everyone to rush back to the floor (the one time this writer went, he saw a group of people flip over a table when Crayon Pop came on).
Club I LOVE K-POP, 362-2 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Hongdae street performers
You might be able to see a K-pop concert while you’re in Seoul. But if that’s not in the cards, catching a street performance can be just as good.
At night, the streets of Hongdae fill with young people dancing and lip synching to K-pop hits. Big crowds gather around these amateurs to watch them pull off the same sharp choreography of bands like BLACKPINK or NCT 127.
Besides dancers, you’ll also see rappers, singer-songwriters and all sorts of entertainers doing their thing.
But it’s the K-pop re-creations that draw the biggest crowds. Head here on Friday or Saturday night to see them out in full force.
To get to Hongdae Street, take the subway to Hongik University Station on Subway Line 2 and go out exit 8 or 9.
Gangnam Style statue
Sometimes, you need to give credit to those who set everything in motion.
PSY’s 2012 song “Gangnam Style” was K-pop’s first international smash hit. While it is mostly remembered for the horse dance attached to it, the viral sensation set the gears in motion for South Korea’s current global golden age.
Pay your respects at the statue of Gangnam Style, located outside the east gate of Gangnam’s Starfield COEX Mall. It’s a big-sized version of PSY’s hands from the famous video. Sometimes, it plays the song. An info screen next to it offers the history of it, too.
Most of all, it’s a reminder of how important K-pop has become.
Starfield COEX Mall, 513 Yeongdong-daero, Samseong 1(il)-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea