The Unique and Surprising Cafe Culture of Seoul

  • 11 min read
Korean Cafes

There are many countries that are famous for coffee cultures – Italy, Brazil, and Ethiopia to name but a few. These countries are infamous for coffee. Who doesn’t have fantasies of sitting under the Italian morning sun and enjoying the atmosphere of a bustling street corner (albeit while standing)?

Cafe Culture of Seoul

As with everything though, there are also some overshadowed experiences that are barely ever discussed, despite arguably being as great. Korea, and more specifically, Seoul, has a coffee culture that is one of these. Not as established, not as traditional, and definitely not as famous, but worth experiencing. In this post I want to look at the unique cafe culture of Seoul.

Dating back to 1896 when King Gojong first tried coffee, it has gradually become more popular and spread throughout the country. Once enjoyed only by royals and high classes. Coffee is now enjoyed by all and a complete culture has been formed around it. While initially enjoyed as a western experience, a unique twist has occurred over the history of coffee in Korea. A unique twist that can only be experienced in Korea.

Cafes in Korea

Now, I am no coffee connoisseur. I am, however, someone who enjoys coffees a lot. Someone who would happily spend the morning in a cafe discussing nothing of real importance with a close friend. I am not here to say whether Korean coffee is good or bad – it can be either or. What I want to look at is the culture itself. What is it all about? How did it happen? Why does it even exist?

I must begin this by saying that in Korea everything passes as a cafe. When I say everything, I mean to say EVERYTHING. Many of these ‘cafes’ even seem to serve drinks as an afterthought. However, it is important to understand this Korean definition of the word cafe before we get any further. From here on out the word ‘cafe’ basically just means somewhere that serves typical cafe drinks – even if the drinks are second to another attraction.

One of my favourite cat cafes in Wolgok followed by a happy meerkat at Meerkat and Friends.

If you are still trying to grasp exactly what I mean then let me help you out a bit. Let me list a few Korean cafes that are not only not rare, but in fact rather common: cat cafes, flower cafes, board game cafes, virtual reality cafes, and even toy cafes. None of these cafes are rare within Seoul, and except the possible exception of toy cafes, I would even go so far as to say that they are very common.

This begs the question ‘are they actually cafes or rather just social meeting locations?’. This is one of the most important things to understand about Korean cafe culture – a cafe can be nearly anything.

Types of Cafes in Korea

Of course, no city would be complete without the traditional kinds of cafes. Chain stores dominate the streets, Ediya, Tom N Tom’s, Starbucks, Coffee Bean… You can’t walk ten feet without seeing a chain coffee store. Much like any city. But another aspect that truly surprised me about Seoul is just how many small, independent cafes exist. Not only are these cafes common, but they are good! 

I live next to a cafe that grinds its own beans (where they come from I don’t know, I’ve never thought to ask), and when you order coffee you can watch the whole process of its creation. The quality is impeccable. These little gems of cafes exist all over Seoul, and combined with the chains and the aforementioned cafes they create a truly rich and diverse cafe culture within a city that is never associated with words such as ‘cafe’ or ‘coffee’.

In Korea, there are three types of common cafes: chain cafes (Starbucks, Coffee Bean, etc), independent cafes (non-chain cafes), and Korean cafes (usually places where coffee is not the main attraction – cats cafes, flower cafes, etc). There are also many traditional tea houses which serve coffee as well as tea, however, these are less common. They are usually found in more tourist-focused areas. Insadong, Bukcheon Hanok Village, and Gwanghwamun are a few areas they can be found.

How Did This Culture Come About?

I think that Cafes in Korea can be identified as social hangout locations rather than places to enjoy coffee (although both can go hand in hand) and this is an important distinction. With the lack of outdoor areas that typically exists within cities and the fact that most youths live at home until their mid 20’s or older, places that can be enjoyed with friends or by oneself are essential. It is from there that this idea of cafes has sprung up from. Not only that, but dating in Korea is taken very seriously. One thing that you will quickly notice is that there is never a lack of couples enjoying the wide variety of cafes. The fact that it’s hard to find privacy when dating increases the popularity of these cafes as it is somewhere that can be enjoyed away from parents and family.

It’s at this point that you may ask me ‘why not just browse a mall instead?’ I think that the key here is that cafes offer environments where it is normal just to sit, relax, and take your time. Nearly every time I meet a friend there is a cafe mixed in somewhere – It’s just what you do when you want to sit for a while. Since cafes are one of the few places where you can meet friends and sit and relax, they have become incredibly popular.

But… Why serve drinks?

Why not just have a board game room? Firstly, hot drinks are loved by all. Board games are made infinitely better with a nice cup of tea of coffee. As is a study period in the infamous study cafes. However, more importantly, drinks allow a universal payment method that doesn’t need to be monitored. Ninety percent of the cafes in Korea will charge for overpriced drinks – drinks that are a requirement to enter. These drinks include all other prices though. They will allow you to use the board game cafe until you are board (See what I did there?), play with cats until you are tired, or allow you to read as many books as you want. The drink price is also the entry and time fee. No need to monitor the number of board games used, or the time spent.

Jeffrey Flower Cafe in Hyehwa serves some amazing drinks and has a beautiful atmosphere.

Something that I noticed while passing through all of these cafes is that they are primarily enjoyed by the younger generations. Sure, there are traditional tea houses and some middle-aged and elderly, but the vast majority of the cafes are filled with younger locals. This is something that I believe can be attributed to globalisation and the (in some cases) idolisation of western cultures that has appeared in Korea. The want to visit Europe is something that I hear from nearly every young Korean. While visiting Europe is costly, difficult and often out of reach though, experiencing a piece of the culture at a local cafe isn’t.

So, why does this unique culture exist?

Speaking in terms of the ‘cafes’ coined above, I would have to attribute the culture with the need for social meeting locations. In my country if I want to play a board game with friends, it is simple. We go to someone’s house and play. In Korea though, this isn’t as possible for a multitude of reasons. This drives the success of board game cafes. VR cafes can be attributed to the same reason. Flower cafes are fantastic and beautiful dating locations – another social requirement as dating at home is often out of the question. 

Further, these cafes allow one to experience the attractions without investment. A pet is a LOT of work. Board games are usually quite pricey, especially if you only play once or twice. VR requires an expensive setup. For people who may not have the money or motivation to get these things themselves, the cafes are once again perfect. However, we have to look further than just Korea’s themed cafes. What about the more traditional cafes?

Now, I have only lived in Korea for around two years. While I have experienced and seen a lot in that time, I definitely do not know the history of cafes in Korea. I have done a lot of research while writing this article however, and these are my findings. Korea is a very ‘trendy’ country. That is to say, that trends have a lot of influence within Korean society. Chains such as Starbucks came to Korea over 20 years ago. Not only does Starbucks bring coffee though, but it also brings the western feeling. I don’t know anyone who visit Starbucks for the drinks – I know people who visit for the atmosphere.

Western Experience

This new ‘authentic’ western experience brought customers. The ‘trendiness’ of those customers brought more customers, and this trend has continued until today. Coffee since then has become a massive part of Korean society. As a student I often see 80% of my class with take-out coffee in hand! Coffee also has an addictive element which is worth mentioning. Possibly a reason why the trend hasn’t stopped and won’t stop anytime soon.

Don’t believe me? Simply look at which city has the most Starbucks in the world. Why? because Starbucks is trendy.

Korean Coffee

Up until this point I have only discussed cafes. There is, however, another factor that must be mentioned in an article about cafe culture though, and that is the coffee itself. Korea is famous for its instant coffee. While instant coffee usually has a reputation for being bad (as it often is), Korean instant coffee is becoming quite decent. Brands such as Maxim, Kanu and Nescafe dominate the stores of supermarkets. Some of the more premium products are definitely not bad! Especially for instant.

Not only is instant coffee popular, but so is RTD coffee. Maxim especially is famous for its RTD coffee – coffee which just needs water. Sugar is already included (and very plentiful) and you simply pour it into a cup and add water. This coffee is hated by many foreigners, but it’s really not that bad once you get used to it. However, it is well known that it is terrible for your health, the amount of sugar is very significant. In supermarkets, you will usually only find instant and RTD coffee. Other types of coffee are usually found at only speciality stores (except pod coffee which is very popular recently).

The cafe drinks can vary a lot in quality. But as with everywhere, some are good and some are bad. (Second image) a flower cafe in Seoul!

Cafes usually provide a consistent quality of coffee and at decent prices. Americanos can often be found as low as 1000KRW and other drinks will often take you up to 5000KRW. It is important to keep in mind that if you want good coffee, visit a traditional cafe. The themed cafes are very hit or miss. Sometimes you will get fantastic coffee, while other times you will wish you went somewhere else.

Is the Korean Coffee Culture Worth Experiencing?

And should the Korean coffee culture be considered with other, more famous, countries coffee cultures? The answer to both of these questions is most definitely: Yes. Korean coffee culture is very unique to every other culture I have experienced. However, that uniqueness adds to its attraction. While it may seem obvious – you have to visit Korea to experience the Korean coffee culture. It’s most definitely worth visiting.

There is a lot that couldn’t be covered in this post. I would have loved to cover some specific cafes and their specialities. However, as I am currently not in Korea it isn’t possible right now. You can believe me when I say that Korea has a lot to see and do in terms of cafes and coffee though. This is a country, and Seoul is a city, that every coffee lover should visit.

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