It’s 2am on a Saturday night in Seoul and the local watering hole is a packed house. You can hardly find a seat but eats are cheap and drinks are even cheaper. This magical hotspot is not one of the city’s trendiest bars, but one of the neighbourhood's surprisingly buzzing convenience stores.
Whether you want to cool down under air-conditioning indoors, enjoy a cool breeze outdoors when the sun goes down in Seoul, or warm your cockles from the cold of a Korean winter night, there is never a bad time for a convenience store adventure. Grab a drink from the fridge and have a seat – it’s better than the hottest club in town. Here's our guide to enjoying a night out at a Korean corner shop.
Convenience stores like CU (pictured) are popular party spots and a good place to drink on the cheap © Sorbis / Shutterstock
The culture of Korean convenience stores
Inspired by the Japanese conbini, convenience stores all over Asia are treasure troves of delicious snacks, postal services and emergency essentials. In South Korea, convenience-store drinking was reborn with the 2013 beer boom and the shops often double as alehouses offering amazing imported beer deals and bottles of soju (Korean distilled spirits) that cost less than ₩2000 (US$1.80). Real bargain busters will head straight for the extra large bottles of local lager, which most often comes in a 1.6L plastic jug. Combined with in-store ramen cooking stalls, relaxed vibes and hangover-combating ice cream, a Korean convenience store is a cheap drinker’s dream.
Most Korean convenience stores have tables for you to linger at, drinking into the night © Sorbis / Shutterstock
And Korean convenience stores are not rare finds: there are about 40,000 of them dotted around the country. GS25, Emart24, Ministop, CU and 7-11 are popular franchises to look out for, but smaller, independent marts or ‘supers’ offer many of the same basics. Only one or two people ever work at a franchise and, unless you behave very badly, there’s no pressure to leave in a hurry. Many have tables either inside or out for lingering. The expectations may differ at an independent mart, depending on the preferences of the owners (often a grandma or grandpa sitting in front of a television).
Instant noodles – ramen in Korea – are the most enduring convenience store snack food © Hahna Yoon / Lonely Planet
What to eat
Korean convenience stores are a great place to try out fad foods but ramen (Korean instant noodles) and kimbap (rice wrapped in seaweed, similar to a Japanese maki roll) are two mainstays. The Nonshim Shin brand is a classic, but if you’re looking to test your spice levels, try the Buldak Bokkeum Myun, rumoured to be the world’s spiciest instant noodles. Triangle kimbaps are small bites that pack a lot of flavour. Michelin-star chef Yim Jungsik purportedly eats them twice a week and recommends the tuna-bacon-mayonnaise flavour.
Most convenience stores have a cooking area where you can make ramen, microwaved meals, coffee and drinks © Sorbis / Shutterstock
What to drink
From small bottles of whiskey to decent French wines, Korean convenience stores are usually stocked with pretty much anything you might want. Many people stick to the basics of soju and beer, as deals are common, particularly on beer (sometimes you can find imported beers for cheaper than you would in their home countries). If you’re feeling something local, flavoured soju (grapefruit is very refreshing!) has been all the rage in recent years, while bottled craft brews are now becoming more widely available at convenience stores in bigger cities like Seoul and Busan.
Beer selection: everything from local Korean beers to imported craft beer © Hahna Yoon / Lonely Planet
Seoul’s top five convenience stores
While pretty much any one of Seoul's convenience stores will do for beer and vibes, there are some standouts boasting phenomenal views and impressive beer selections. You can’t go wrong with locations along the Han River or shops that call themselves ‘convenience-store pochas’ – pocha is Korean for a 'drinking cart'. Here’s our round-up of standout convenience stores in the capital.
Emart24 – Chungmuro 2-ga
This Emart24 takes the prize for the best under-the-radar views. Located just north of Namsan, you do your shopping on the first and second floors, and the third floor has a rooftop for café-style seating. Air conditioned and equipped with free wi-fi, shoppers are welcome to use the space and enjoy the view. The standout feature of this location, by far, though, is the fourth floor rooftop, furnished with a wooden porch swing overlooking the N Seoul Tower. With the world at your feet, you’ll forget all it took was a convenience store purchase to get you in.
Location: 298 Samil-daero, Jung-gu
Convenience with a view: this branch of Emart24 has a rooftop overlooking Namsan © Hahna Yoon / Lonely Planet
CU – Itaewon Freedom
This convenience store has two main purposes: pregaming for all the hot clubs in Itaewon and baggage storage. Located amidst a strip of a dozen of Seoul’s hottest clubs, this outlet of CU has plenty of beer and over a hundred lockers. This might not sound like a sexy attraction for a convenience store, but if you’ve ever had to struggle with a club coat check refusing to take your big bags or extra items – you’ll know the value of being able to access a 24-hour locker. A great option to store anything you don’t want to lose on a big night out.
Location: 13 Itaewon-ro 27-gil, Yongsan-gu
Some people call this a convenience store and others give it its proper term: bottle shop. However you label it, Woori Super is the place to go if you know your hops and are looking for a good time. Located between Seoul craft beer legends Magpie and The Booth, Woori Super is highly acclaimed for its selection of bottles and surprise finds. They also offer a selection of potato crisps, popsicles and other favourite guilty pleasures and usually have a crowd outside all summer.
Location: 7 Noksapyeong-daero 54-gil, Yongsan-gu
GS25 – Han River Some Sevit
Located within a cultural complex built on a floating island, this GS25 overlooks the Han River where it meets the Banpo Bridge. Revellers can enjoy their convenience store spoils on the deck of the futuristic glass building that’s also home to the best seats for the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain – 380 nozzles of water lined up along the bridge that synchronise water, lights and music at scheduled times. Even if you miss the show, the complex is lit up with LED lights that make for a beautiful reflection on the water.
Location: 683, Olympic-daero, Seocho-gu
This convenience store has views of the Han River © Hahna Yoon / Lonely Planet
CU – Su Noraebang Hongdae
In 2016, famous karaoke venue Su Noraebang noticed that lots of their customers were sneaking in snacks and alcohol. Capitalising on the fact that their clientele was hungry and thirsty after a round of singing, they decided to incorporate a convenience store. Although only non-alcoholic beer is on offer (so far), they do have ice cream, snacks and other cool beverages to accompany rousing renditions of the Backstreet Boys and Madonna.
Location: 37, Wausan-ro 21-gil Mapo-gu
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