The history of tea in Korea is much longer than that of coffee and dates back thousands of years over the course of Korea’s cultural exchange with China. Throughout history, Korea has been influenced by China’s tea traditions, which were eventually adapted into a tea culture that is unique to Korea. Compared to tea, coffee is a relative newcomer to Korea, having first been imported in the late Joseon Dynasty during the rule of King Gojong. In terms of the number of years, the history of coffee in Korea is still in its beginning stages.
In terms of its influence, however, coffee has brought about drastic changes to the streets of Seoul. The city is now filled with café streets and various types of coffee. Western coffee culture continues to be transformed into a distinctly Korean style and has resulted in the birth of a whole new coffee culture, much in the same way that Korean tea customs have sprung out of the Chinese tea cultures of old.
The streets of Seoul have far more to offer in the way of coffee than just your typical Starbucks and giant coffee conglomerates. If Starbucks is known for its paradigm of sugary specialty drinks and quiet book corners, what is the legacy of the many cafés of Seoul? Read on to find out.
If you bypass Hongdae, an iconic spot of free-wheeling youth, romance, the arts, and unique underground culture, and walk along Gyeongui Line Forest Trail, you will soon come upon a cluster of exotic cafes with unusual themes. Unlike Hongdae, Yeonnam-dong is a smaller neighborhood that has a much simpler and quieter atmosphere. Interestingly enough, these two areas are located within short walking distance of each other.
Yeonnam-dong Café Street is full of local cafés that have their own color and unique vibe. For example, one café is based on a flower theme and is literally filled with fresh, colorful and vibrant flowers. It also has an open floor plan that faces out toward the street, allowing patrons to enjoy a cup of coffee together with a view of the fall sky.
If you venture deeper inside Yeonnam-dong, you will also find other unique cafés that have a vastly different feel than that of larger, modern franchises. Many of the cafés of Yeonnam-dong are housed in private homes that have been renovated into businesses, making you feel as if you are sipping a hot cup of coffee in the privacy of your own home.
Yeonnam-dong is also home to a variety of “concept cafés” including a Greek café, a Maltese Islands café, and a café based on Japanese cities. Cafés with foreign country themes are particularly interesting for the many local items and pictures that hang on the walls. There are also some cafés in the area based on the theme of food. Two local favorites are the tofu-themed café that serves tofu brownies and a tofu-only brunch and a scone café, both of which are located in the same building. These types of themed cafés are an adaption of Western franchise cafés that have been specially designed to suit the tastes of Korean customers.
Even Gyeongbokgung Station, which leads to the Gyeongbokgung Palace area, is quintessentially “Korean” in spirit. The Gyeongbokgung Palace area, located just outside the station, is populated by unique cafés that perfectly complement the regal and historic air created by the nearby palaces. A simple trip to one of these cafés housed in a remodeled hanok (a traditional Korean house) is a traditional Korean culture experience in and of itself.
Many cafés in the area serve various types of popular traditional Korean teas, including jujube, ginseng, and ginger tea in addition to coffee. A sip of one of these Korean teas is not only a welcome break from coffee but is also good for calming the mind. Traditional desserts made from Korean red beans, including patbingsu (shaved ice with sweetened red beans and other toppings) and danpatjuk (sweet red bean porridge), are just as addictively delicious as cake and muffins. Thanks to these traditional drinks and desserts, along with the wealth of historic buildings in the area, Gyeongbokgung Café Street is a favorite spot for both tourists and Seoul residents alike.
Book cafés, as the name suggests, feature walls covered in books and are the ideal place to relax and unwind. Book cafés also often hold book readings and debates, much like the old cafés of Paris. Even for people who do not participate, these debates are an invaluable opportunity to step outside your comfort zone and listen to others who might think differently than you do.
Throughout its proud history, Korea has never blindly chased or accepted Western culture. Although there are some similarities between Korean and Western café’s, Koreans have an utterly unique café culture that is all their own. Take a look at the streets of Seoul and stop by at one of the many cafés for a drink for proof.