Coffee is hot in Seoul. I suppose there was something foretelling about the fact that one of the first people I met here was an Ozzie barista who couldn’t stop gushing about the coffee culture in Seoul. Dotted along the two minute walk between our beloved Lazy Fox hostel and Hapjeong station, there were ten opportunities to get a coffee.
And the concentration of cafes certainly didn’t wane outside of our nook in Hongdae. As those who spent more than three minutes walking the streets of Seoul with me will tell you, my factoid of choice was that there are more Starbucks in Seoul than in any other city in the world* (I hear it now exceeds 300). That includes London and New York. That’s crazy.
*I’d previously met a gang of lovely people while on Jeju Island and, hearing they were in the capital, arranged to meet up with them for the arvo. One of us said “let’s meet in the Starbucks in Insadong!” and blindly, we all thought this was a GREAT idea (a recognisable logo should have worked in our favour as only one of the five of us could read Hangul, the Korean script). We ended up in three different Starbucks, patiently awaiting the arrival of the others. Note to self: don’t arrange to meet someone in a Starbucks when you have a 99.6% chance of getting it wrong and a 100% chance of having to drink the Starbucks bean, knowing a craft coffee is only metres away… Woe betide me, because the nomad’s life is HARD.
Hyperchains aside, the coffee culture in Seoul is alive with little independent and celebrity-backed cafes. It’s a bit of a trend for K Pop stars and their families to open up cafes all over the Korean capital to provide the already-hyped-up fangirls their caffeine fix. The nearest thing I experienced, however, was the ridiiiiculously overpriced cafe in Gangnam’s SM Town. It’s a kind of destination theme park for fans of the artists signed to SM Entertainment (you can read more about it on my write up for Intercontinental Hotel Group’s Rewards Club). My Girl’s Generation ice cream was the equivalent of £6 and utterly inedible but hey, the selfie equity was off the hook.
It was the independent, artisanal roasters who won my heart over: Belief, Ikokox and Bauhouse.
I was actually completing a few freelance projects while I was away and obviously had a bit of blogging and photo editing to do. I needed a safe haven where I could bring my laptop, order a world-class latte, battle a soju hangover and stare wistfully out the window as I tried to write something. Looking through the window on the way to dinner one night, said Ozzie barista had gone all googly-eyed over their coffee machines, so I figured this was a safe bet for at least requirements #2 and #4.
Belief serves up the best latte I’ve ever had. It was so good, in fact, that it warranted a daily return trip. The happy-go-lucky baristas would always sing-song “ann-yeoung hass-eyo” in unison when I came in and came to know my order, such was the frequency of my visits. They were rolling around laughing when I walked around taking photos (it’s BEAUTIFUL in there), bless.
For Seoul – hell, for anywhere – Belief Coffee is huge. The basement is laid out a bit like a university lecture hall but also has long, oak tables for the bigger groups. It’s clearly designed for working lunches for students and professionals. Upstairs is more traditional for a coffee shop and you’d see the more relaxed, sociable clientele chatting over a macaroon and THE BEST COFFEE IN THE WORLD. Did I mention I like their coffee?
Hipsters get a bad rap in London. I think it’s mainly because they plough in with their lovely, creative business ideas and plonk them in whatever affordable (i.e. to-be-gentrified) area they can find. Cereal Killer cafe owners, I’m looking at you, with your £4 bowls of cereal in Tower Hamlets, a place where hardly anyone can afford that.
That sounded way me accusatory that I meant it to, sorry guys.
Seoul’s a little more sensitive, and Ikovox Coffee is a shining example of that. Literally, it shines. Because it’s all metal. Because it’s (subtly and tastefully) decked out like a military base. Because it’s in Itaewon. Which is the old American army base in Seoul. I got there eventually.
Stellar coffee, chilled out vibes and a tasteful nod to the history of its location. Get your Americano here (sorry…).
Ok, you’re obviously not going to a dog cafe (DOG CAFE) for the coffee. But the coffee was drinkable and the dogs are adorable. I’m a big dog person myself, so nothing scares me; but if you prefer to be around smaller, more placid canines, there’s a cornered off room for you too. You’ll be missing out on the giant Alaskan malamute though. He’s a freaking bear.
Despite having visited the city three times in the closing months of 2015, I barely scraped the surface of the coffee culture in Seoul. Like I said before, I’ll be going back and although I’ll be squeezing in a couple of Belief lattes, I’ll be on the hunt for my next favourite spot.