Who lived off coffee as a student? Everyone, right?
Well, actually I didn’t. Give me a cup of earl grey, hot chocolate, or a smoothie! But fact remains that everyone has ducked into a café or coffee shop at some point (probably Starbucks), looking for a temporary fix. Or enough caffeine to not-sleep the next 72-hours. Whatever gets you through the current project.
In South Korea, Seoul
It’s a little different.
I’m sure there are coffee enthusiasts out there who disagree. But the question to be asking is not: Is the coffee good?
More likely, someone will say: Hey, I heard the desserts are good there! The questions being asked are: Want to have tea? Want to hang out with your friends somewhere? Want to study outside of home? Want an after dinner dessert? A cute date location? Meeting spot? To cool off in the summer, or warm up in the winter?
Seoul’s answer = cafés. coffee shops. and if you’re feeling fancy, tea houses.
If I had to choose one thing to bring home from Seoul, it would be the abundance of cafés and coffee shops. They are just conveniently everywhere. The sheer number shocked me when I first arrived as a lost freshman in a new country. As a sophomore, I really appreciated the places to study. As a senior, I had a lot of fun discovering the hidden (and absolutely delightful) cafés near campus. The difficulty wasn’t in finding places to go, it was choosing which one to go to. And the best thing is that you can find something that suits you exactly.
If you’re a big name fan
No worries, Starbucks is here! I’m not sure what Starbucks is like in other countries, but in Japan and Korea, you could always look forward to season specials. (and someone please tell me if secret menus exist for Seoul stores)
<- Like this Cherry Blossom White Chocolate in Spring
I’m not really a fan of pink, but magic happens in the details! The packaging alone makes these seasonal drinks worth instagramming. The hot chocolate was also perfect for warding off the spring time chill. Of course, the best chocolate is white chocolate! Who needs cocoa, sugar is perfectly good to drink.
If you’re looking for local brands
Seoul has its own series of chain coffee shops popping up all over the city. Anyone who has been to Seoul probably have seen names like Ediya Coffee, The Coffee Bean, Holly’s Coffee, Angel-in-us Coffee, etc. local brands. I don’t recall seeing a lot of pastries being sold, but Beansbins Coffee has waffles with a very generous offering of whip cream, and A Twosome place has pretty good cakes.
(okay, this isn’t a Beansbins waffle. But it comes pretty close.)
There is even Paris Baguette, which…. is actually a bakery. But bigger stores sometimes have seating areas where you can enjoy your bread or pastry, and they sell drinks as well.
And my favourite kind of place
Cafés! Seoul has an array of cafés, all with their own unique interior and beverage/food presentation. I’d say cafés are usually prettier than coffee shops, smaller but with their individual flair and ambiance.
The photo is taken at a café near Apjugeong’s Garosugil street. These are all hand-made displays of chocolate!
Most cafés tempt with an assortment of cakes or tarts. Some offer only one type of ‘dessert food’, like waffles, or bing-su. Bing-su is a popular tea snack/dessert, traditionally shaved ice topped with red bean and small chewy rice cakes, layered with condense milk or grain powder. It has almost become its own food category. Because people enjoy this dessert so much, shops are coming up with their own variants. I’ve had a lot of bing-su with fruit toppings. Some recipes swap out the ice shavings with actual ice cream; the bing-su becomes “silky”. Next time I’m in Seoul I have to try the milk tea flavored one!
Sweet and cold – saved me from the summer heat!
Over the past few years, my friends have brought me to their favourite haunts. Most of them are in the Sinchon/Edae station area (near Yonsei University and Ehwa Women’s University). Here are a few that I fell in love with:
shut your pie-hole!
no, no, i’m just kidding.
This café is tiny but with a very warm and cozy interior. My friends frequent this place for their pies. Located off-side Sinchon, behind the bars and restaurants and away from the main road, it offers a quiet space for a catch up, or even a mini birthday celebration.
Rooming Café is located closer to the heart of Sinchon, near U-plex Mall. You get a clear view of the students milling down below, and the night view is spectacular, even if it’s just of a street. I’ve studied here a couple of times – they even have a conference room for people who come in a group.
I usually get their green tea latte. It’s on point.
Ehwadabang! (in hangul이화다방) Located along the main shopping street in Idae (short for Ehwa Women’s University).
Now this is truly a café for studying. It even has an area where tables have in-laid plugs for laptops, and individual lighting for each seat. I only wish I got a photo of the entire place! The floor is laid with bricks, and wooden tables are accented with hard leather chairs. The ceiling lights are attached to exposed, painted-over metal beams.
If you love the industrial rustic look with a softer edge, this café is perfect.
There are also cat/dog cafés! Although I have yet to verify, the tourist hotspot Myeongdong should have a cat or dog café. The only one I’ve been to is called ‘Table A’, located near Ehwa Women’s University, and only a few minutes’ walk from the Sinchon Train Station (not to be confused with the subway station).
If you’re interested in cats, you could go read the short blurb I wrote for the Cultural Arts and Theatre Society (CATS) that I was a member of. We had an outing to film for our promotional video; since cats are our unofficial mascot, a cat café is very necessary to visit.
Now, tea houses:
For people with a more refined taste…. Or simply anyone wanting to a more traditional tea experience, here are two places I’ve been to that I think is worth checking out.
The first is a rooftop tea house/café located in Gangnam. Hanjigrim Café (in hangul 조수정 한지그림 갤러리 카페). Only a block from Samsung station (exit 4), you’d be hard pressed to imagine a place like this exists. Sitting above a traditional Korean art gallery, it’s a small garden out of time, surrounded by the glass and chrome of modern day Korea.
If you want to know more about the café, you can find more detail here.
Hmm, what if you want a hint of Korean history and literature to go with your tea? There’s nothing better than to visit this refurbished residence of the late Korean writer Lee Tae-jun. Renamed Suyeonsanbang (in hangul 수연산방). Located in Seongbuk-dong, skirting Seoul city, the tea house sits within an enclosed courtyard. The surrounding neighbourhood is quiet, with a mix of older houses and newer architecture. To get there, you can take a bus from Hyehwa Station, an artsy and cultural area students like to hang around.
Red bean and pumpkin bing-su + a twelve grain soupy dessert
Tea houses are on the pricier side. It might traumatize a poor student’s wallet. But if you’re in the country for a few days and looking for a more local flavor, something not too ‘touristy’, I really recommend visiting one.
In any case…
Here concludes a precursory look at Seoul’s cafés and coffee shops and tea houses. I love that there is a variety and range in dessert spaces, especially since you can tailor your destination to a specific purpose. The only problem I have is deciding where to go – and when my drink or food comes, I’m too busy taking photos of it to dig in!