A pub crawl in North Korea? Tour operator offers St Patrick's Day party like no other

Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea - Chris Petersen-Clausen
Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea - Chris Petersen-Clausen

Some cities dye their rivers green (looking at you, Chicago), others light up the sky with emerald fireworks, but across the globe, St Patrick’s Day is universally celebrated with a drink or two.

And it seems in North Korea it is no different.

Although the Foreign Office advises against visiting North Korea, in March 2020, Cambridgeshire-based Smiling Grape Adventure Tours will be taking guests to Pyongyang for a St Patrick’s Day pub crawl, after Kim Jong-un gave permission for the celebration.

As part of a five day trip to the reclusive state, visitors will visit around six different drinking locations on March 17, including a bowling alley and a diplomat’s club for expats.

North Korea has a reputation for brutal totalitarianism, but Matt Ellis, director of the tour operator, is keen to show another side to the country’s people.

Speaking to Telegraph Travel, Ellis said: “Taking customers to community drinking spots to actually meet the locals is a good way to get insight into people’s lives and different cultures. Alcohol helps to bring down the barriers slightly, which helps.”

Would you go for drinks in the North Korean capital? - Credit: AFP
A North Korean pub crawl would give a greater insight into the lives of the population Credit: AFP

North Korea’s microbrewing culture will be a particular focus of the tour. "Due to all the sanctions with the missile launches, they don’t have much petrol to distribute beer around the country, so they make it anywhere they can,” said Ellis.

While Ellis emphasises the friendliness of the North Korean people, there will be safety precautions. A comprehensive pre-departure introduction to the country stresses the importance of not upsetting North Korean beliefs or customs. “If you’re asked to bow in front of statues of leaders, you have to bow,” he said.

There’ll also be two western guides on the trip, to “rein in anyone who gets a bit loud.”

The British Foreign Office warns against all but essential travel to North Korea, adding that those that do usually visit as part of an organised tour. "If you decide to visit North Korea, follow the advice of your tour group and the local authorities," it says. "Failure to do so could put your personal safety at risk."

See here for more on the debate of whether it is ethical to visit the oppressive nation.

Should North Korea be a bridge too far for you, there’s still plenty to wet the whistle of the more adventurous drinker. Read on for the wildest places to quaff a glass or two around the world - and some slightly less wild alternatives for the more staid among us.

Tubing in Vang Vieng

Tubing in the rural Laotian town of Vang Vieng used to be dangerously wild. Backpackers would rent rubber tyre ‘tubes’ and float down the shallow waters of the Nam Song upon them to a hodgepodge of riverfront bars to consume copious amounts of cheap rice whisky and ‘happy shakes’ - to disastrous consequences.

Luckily, the Laos government intervened in 2012, shutting down the town’s tourism activities. After a hiatus, Vang Vieng has been reopened as an eco-paradise, rising from the ashes to take its place as the nature-heavy destination it should always have been. Explore its green rice fields and blue lagoons, then finish the day with some new, improved tubing. It’s still a pretty wild experience, just far less dangerous thanks to tour leaders and a more relaxed vibe.

Less wild alternative: Get to know the local tipple with Backstreet Academy’s lao wine making workshop.

Vang Vieng, Laos - Credit: istock
Vang Vieng, Laos Credit: istock

Subcrawling in Glasgow

The gritty, riotous nightlife of this Scottish city has never been one to disappoint, but should the Bukowski-themed bars and ear-ringing gigs begin to pale, turn to Sub Crawl. This is one of Glasgow’s most notorious pub crawls, centered around the city subway. Participants purchase an all day public transport ticket (£4) and whizz from Buchanan Street to Cowcaddens on the circular route, covering fifteen different pubs along the way. Needless to say, this isn’t one for the faint of heart.

Less wild alternative: Scotland’s Malt Whisky Trail is a slightly more grown up way to taste the alcoholic delights of the country.

Bourbon Street in New Orleans

New Orleans is the wild west of drinking in the United States. Drinking on the streets is legal here, and anything goes - you can be savouring dainty Sazeracs in gilded bars one minute, drinking street Hurricanes the next. Bourbon Street, named after the French family, not the liquor, is the zenith of this. Lined with bars - some dating back to the 1700s - it's made for crawling. Some are more worthwhile than others, but Bourbon "O", Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop and Channing Tatum's bar, Saints and Sinners, should be on your list.

Less wild alternative: Gallivanter runs a ‘more sophisticated’ version of the traditional Bourbon Street bar crawl, that goes into the history of the cocktails you’ll be tasting.

Bourbon Street, New Orleans - Credit: istock
Bourbon Street, New Orleans Credit: istock

A Monopoly pub crawl in London

Bring the boardgame famous for family rifts and broken friendships to life in London. It runs far less chance of squabbles over who owes who rent, and will take you through 26 of the city's more distinctive boozers - one for every property. Starting on Old Kent Road and ending on Liverpool Street, participants hop their way between warren-like Fleet Street pubs and swanky Pall Mall wine bars. Find the full itinerary here.

Less wild alternative:The Liquid History Tour takes guests on a guided amble through London’s streets, with stop-offs in at least four historic pubs.

Alternative Ulster

Say "Ireland" and "drinking experience" and Dublin is generally what leaps to mind. But Belfast's craic shouldn't be missed. Cathedral Quarter, the former literary heart of the city, teems with characterful pubs looking out onto cobbled streets and art-filled walls, all with some kind of story attached. The atmosphere is vividly alive, with city residents still firmly holding court in the buildings - though tourists are warmly received. Start with The Dirty Onion, Harp Bar and Kelly's Cellars, before seeing what else you can stumble upon.

Less wild alternative: Northern Ireland's craft gin scene is booming. Sample some local offerings on Taste & Tour’s Belfast Gin Jaunt.

Cathedral Quarter Belfast - Credit: istock
Cathedral Quarter, Belfast Credit: istock

Leuven's ultra long bar crawl

This Flemish Brabant city has a repuation for being the beer capital of Belgium. An impressive feat in a country obsessed with the amber nectar. The Dijle river that runs through the city used to be the water source for myriad microbreweries built along the banks. Though these have since disappeared, the taste for variety remains in Oude Markt, a large square in the city centre filled with 50 different bars. Dubbed the 'longest bar in Europe', the student population has taken advantage and a crawl through the beer-filled rooms is now a trademark of the area.

Less wild alternative: Head to Bruges for a beer walk through the fairytale-esque streets.

The tiny bars of Tokyo

The district of Shinjuku is infamous for its bright lights, red light district and Golden Gai: a motley collection of fantastical, ramshackle bars. The area has remained largely untouched since post-war days and now squeezes 200 bars into its six tiny alleys. Some can fit 30 punters through their doors, others can only fit five, and each one is akin to falling down a rabbit hole. Bar themes are rampant, and range from grass-covered walls, to troll toys and hospital gowns. 

Less wild alternative: The izakayas (a type of Japanese pub) of Tokyo offer a more chilled out way to experience the city’s drinking culture - and the yakitori served alongside your beers help keep you the right side of merry.

Golden Gai, Tokyo - Credit: getty
Golden Gai, Tokyo Credit: getty

Pina Coladas in San Juan

While it’s certain the Pina Colada, that most coconutty of rum-based cocktails, originated in Puerto Rico’s capital, there’s some dispute over who did the honours. The Caribe Hilton claims it invented it, as does Barrachina restaurant, and a host of other establishments. Do your own investigation and work your way through them, being sure to ask the bartenders for their own take on the story of the country’s national drink.

Less wild alternative:For a slightly more structured tour, Flavours of San Juan run a rum tour around the city’s cocktail bars.

Vodka distilling in Antarctica

There are few experiences more surreal than doing shots in Vernadsky Station, surrounded by nothing but miles of pristine snow. The active research station was originally established in 1947 by the British as 'Base F', but sold to the Ukraine in 1996. Visitors on a cruise to the White Continent can swing by for a pitstop in the station's bar, the most southerly in the world. Decked out like a British pub, complete with dartboard and pool table, it serves vodka distilled on-site by the Ukrainians themselves, available at $3 a shot.

Less wild alternative: Drinking a cocktail onboard your cruise ship as you watch the white-coated land drift by.

Tacos and tequila in San Miguel de Allende

Getting to know Mexico means getting to know its best-known liquor, tequila. And the place to do it is San Miguel, a city so stunning that in 2008 it was recognized, along with the Sanctuary of Jesus of Atotonilco, as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Taste of San Miguel run a Tacos and Tequila experience that pairs tequila-laced cocktails with local bites.

A less wild alternative: Learn about the smoky art of mezcal on a tour in Oaxaca with Academic Tours of Oaxaca.

San Miguel de Allende - Credit: getty
San Miguel de Allende Credit: getty

Communing with spirits in Moscow

Vodka and Russia might go hand in hand, but there's plenty of ways to booze your way through Red Square and the Kremlin. A nation of hard drinkers, a Moscow night out is unashamedly spirits-heavy. Book onto Urban Adventure's More Than Just Vodka night for three hours of berry-flavoured nastoika, learning how to shot vodka the right way, and zakuska appetisers.

Less wild alternative: The Museum of Russian Vodka in St. Petersburg will give you a look into the national drink without leaving you the worse for wear.

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