The Café Culture of Korea
When it comes to South Korea, people either know a great amount about its culture or very little. But one thing that has begun making an introduction in the Western world is Korea’s café culture. Other than its more than 1,000 Starbucks stores nationwide, South Korea has gained recent recognition for its unusual “themed” cafés. Ranging anywhere from the somewhat familiar Hello Kitty café to the more bizarre meerkat café, Korea has shown that the sky's the limit when it comes to the possibilities of how to enjoy a cup of coffee.
A Brewing Culture
Despite the immense popularity that coffee receives in South Korea today, the beloved drink was only introduced to the country 121 years ago. In fact, for thousands of years, no one in Korea had tasted coffee. That is until 1896, when Emperor Gojong became the first Korean to give the drink a try, having been introduced to it by the German sister-in-law of a Russian ambassador. It was this woman, Antoinette Sontag, who eventually, with the help of the Emperor, opened up Korea’s first café.
But many Koreans couldn’t join in as coffee-drinkers until later years, as it was more of a luxury to be enjoyed by the elite. When instant coffee was introduced by Americans during the Korean War, this slowly but surely began to change, eventually easing up on obtainability during the 1960s and allowing the lower classes—for the first time—to become coffee-drinkers themselves.
In the 1970s, cafés—known more commonly as dabang (다방)—grew increasingly popular among Korea’s youth. They became favored spots for university students and couples alike, and often provided musical entertainment. As the coffee culture in Korea continued to grow, the variety and quality of coffee made and served increased. And by the late 1980s, a whole new endeavor in the coffee world was introduced: themed cafés.
Seoul’s Signature “Themed” Cafés
Although coffee culture in the Western world is commonly associated with artistry and creativity, in South Korea these two subjects collide in an unexpected and refreshing way. In fact, the café experience itself plays a big part in the way Koreans enjoy their coffee. This seems to have led to an increase in themed cafés, which has in turn lead to an increase in coffee consumption. And, in recent years, a few of these themed cafés have begun catching the interest of many visitors to Korea, earning the country more tourist attractions than ever before.
Perhaps Asia’s most notable themed cafés are those that serve coffee in the company of pets, more commonly cats and dogs. But in Seoul it’s not unusual to come across cafés in which one can enjoy their coffee in the company of other, more exotic animals. While the Bauhaus Puppy Cafe in Hongdae and the Lily Cat café in Myeongdong might be just what any animal lover would enjoy, for those who want an even more interesting and bizarre experience, a visit to the Meerkat Cafe and Thanks Nature Cafe in Hongdae will offer visitors the chance to drink coffee in the company of sheep, raccoons, meerkats, and arctic foxes!
As previously mentioned, art and coffee tend to go hand-in-hand, but it is especially so in Seoul. Among the many themed cafés, there are quite a few that offer more than coffee and cats. The Peach Gray café, for example, is rather popular for their massive pancakes, but they also serve a variety of drinks, watercolor paints, and an endless supply of paper to color in. For those with a more serious artistic side, however, the Takeout Drawing café might stand out a bit more. They work as both a coffee shop and an art museum, offering a menu of food and unusual drinks. They also serve as a housing place for artists and their work!
But, for those who aren’t all that interested in painting, Seoul also possesses another popular spot: the Get & Show Lego café in Hongdae. Here, one can spend their time savoring a nice cup of coffee while building Lego creations for only around 10,000 won an hour. There is also a café in Gangnam, Cafe Oz, which provides visitors with the chance to play board games with friends. A bit more popular years ago, these board game cafés are now said to be fading out. But, if one looks hard enough, there are still quite a few to be found!
The English-Speaker’s Oasis
For new and returning visitors to South Korea, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check out the You Are Here café in Hongdae. Created by Eatyourkimchi and Talk to Me in Korean, this café allows travellers a place to learn some of the Korean language as well as to find out places to go and things to do in Korea. It was first opened back in 2014, and they now serve a variety of snacks and drinks, including cakes and milkshakes, not to mention the Korean lessons!
A Taste of Adventure
All around Seoul, locals and visitors alike are provided with a vast array of cafés to choose from. Sometimes a quick brew at home does the trick, but when simplicity isn’t on the agenda there’s nowhere to be like South Korea. The café experience isn’t just about studying for exams or stopping by for a quick drink. It’s an opportunity to slow down during a busy week to enjoy the little moments, alone or with company. The tastes, the sights, the smells and sounds, can all make a difference between a good day and a bad one. One of the only problems with such a large café culture, however, is choosing one café from the thousands of others!