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Top 5 must visit cafes in Seoul, Korea that might not show up in your social media feeds

Sinleedoga’s picturesque Hanok courtyard beckons visitors with its tranquil ambiance and timeless charm. This photo was taken Feb. 23, 2024. In the warmer months, the courtyard overflows with vibrant greenery. JENNA ZAZA/THE STATESMAN

This new feature in The Statesman will be written by our writers currently in Stony Brook University’s study abroad programs. It will feature their experiences and tips for studying and traveling abroad.  

South Korean cafes are increasingly gaining popularity on social media for their diverse selection of trendy, aesthetically pleasing and delectable drinks and desserts. From tantalizing treats such as mochi souffle pancakes to adorably-presented drinks, these cafes have become a sensory delight that attracts both coffee fanatics and tea drinkers with each mouthwatering post. Whether you are planning to study abroad or go on vacation in Korea, here is a curated collection of five must-visit cafes in Seoul that might not pop up on your social media feed. 

1. Sinleedoga (신이도가) 

This cafe embraces the architecture of traditional Korean-style homes called hanoks

These homes, first built in the 14th century, were adorned with exquisite exposed wooden elements such as beams and pillars, as well as an elegant tiled roof with soft peaks. Often, the homes were built surrounding a courtyard with access from all sides of the building. 

Sinleedoga is easily one of the most beautiful cafes on this list. Its entryway, where patrons meander through a tranquil landscape of rocks and soft lighting, beckons customers into a realm of serenity and tranquility. As they cross a quaint wooden bridge just beyond the entrance, guests are immediately transported back to the Joseon Dynasty.

At the heart of Sinleedoga lies an enchanting courtyard with a mesmerizing fire pit that transforms into a gentle waterfall during the warmer seasons. Seating arrangements line the floor-to-ceiling windows, offering a perfect view of this outdoor sanctuary.

Sinleedoga offers more than just an immaculate atmosphere. They also serve excellent drinks and snacks such as salt bread and various flavors of cake slices. However, it’s their hazelnut latte that steals the spotlight. With each sip, the creamy sweetness of milk, the boldness of espresso and the rich nuttiness of hazelnut harmoniously blend, leaving an irresistible craving for another sip. 

2. Farmer’s Cafe (파머스카페)

Stepping into this cafe is akin to leaving behind the bustling city of Seoul and the outside world, immersing oneself in their own social sanctuary. Plants of all types, from voluminous floor plants to cascading hanging plants, fill the space, with branches sprawling along the window seats. The cafe’s dimmed ceiling lights and strategic placement of subdued warm lamps create an enveloping atmosphere of cozy comfort, inviting patrons to unwind and linger in its embrace.

The best part of Farmer’s Cafe is its resident cat, who soundlessly sleeps in his various beds spotted around the cafe or, if you’re lucky, on an empty seat next to you. 

Farmer’s Cafe offers the usual array of drinks such as americanos and vanilla lattes, but do not be disappointed by the absence of speciality drinks. The iced americano strikes a perfect balance between bitterness and watered down, a rarity for Korea’s most popular drink, regardless of the weather. Most, if not all coffee shops, will advertise their iced americanos on a street banner. The honey butter toast is simply the epitome of a cozy warm delight. The thick, fluffy bread combined with melted butter and a drizzle of honey leaves an unforgettable sensation of indulgence and ease. 

Farmer’s Cafe’s indulgent honey butter toast on a white plate (left) and their resident cat sleeping on one of his many beds (right).  JENNA ZAZA/THE STATESMAN

3. Margaret Cafe (마가렛 연남)

Margaret Cafe’s interior capitalizes on its large front windows, shining an entrancing light on the desserts and adorable animal decor including a pastel-colored bunny and ceramic pig statue. The first-floor seating area is reminiscent of a Mediterranean-style setting with its iconic lengthy red floor tiles and airy light wooden tones. Its clever design creates an illusion of spaciousness, offering a welcoming retreat resembling that of a sunlit coastal villa.  

Among this list, Margaret Cafe has the most mouth-watering desserts, spanning from trendy square-shaped croissants to pumpkin scones. Sometimes, when bakeries prioritize the aesthetics of their desserts, the resulting flavors or textures are lackluster. However, Margaret Cafe knocks aesthetic and taste out of the park.

The pumpkin scone, completed with a dollop of cream cheese-based pumpkin frosting, is perfectly sweet and moist, offering a balanced flavor profile in each bite. However, their iced hazelnut latte was overwhelmingly sweet, making it less of a coffee and more of a blast of sweetness straight from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. 

4. Check & Grow (채그로)

Check & Grow is for book lovers. This cafe spans multiple stories, each with a unique library set-up. The sixth floor is called “the garden” because of the sprawling plants nestled in every possible crevice. On the third floor is a library dedicated to books written in English, furnished with warm-toned wooden furniture and stacks of books lining the walls. Each floor offers an unobstructed view of the Han River, making it the ultimate cozy environment to enjoy a coffee while watching the sunset on the river and exploring the endless possibilities of a new book. However, the best floor is arguably the ninth. 

Stepping into this library requires one to remove their shoes; this request may be surprising, but it’s all worth it as a gentle warmth envelops their exposed feet. The floors are heated, which offers a sanctuary from winter’s chill. Climbing up to the loft, customers can recline on scattered cushions on the floor, surrounded by an ambiance of serene tranquility and a floor-to-ceiling view of Seoul below. Soft, melodic tunes often fill the air, creating the ideal space for reading, working or simply basking in the stillness of the moment.

While drinks here tend to be some of the most expensive in Seoul — with an americano costing a whopping 6,000 South Korean won (approximately $4.51) compared to the typical price of around 4,300 South Korean won (approximately $3.23) — the price is justified by the generous portion size, nearly equivalent to a Starbucks venti. 

The honey americano is a must-order, as the sweetness from the honey masks the bitterness of espresso, leaving a mildly sweet coffee with a smooth and dream-like consistency. 

5. Sway Coffee Station (스웨이커피스테이션)

Sway Coffee Station caters to coffee connoisseurs rather than the average coffee drinkers. This cafe strives to appeal to “coffee travellers,” with tables disguised as luggage and intricate dark wood paneling on the walls. While its aesthetic differs from the previous airy cafes, Sway’s coffee justifies the change and makes the trip worth every penny. 

Upon ordering Korea’s coffee of choice, an iced americano, the barista presented a refreshing and exciting change by asking which blend I wanted for the espresso. For an iced americano, one can choose between the house blend or the Ethiopian Bentienka blend. 

The Ethiopian Bentinenka iced americano has to be one of the best americanos in all of Seoul. Its unparalleled smoothness and exquisite complexity elevate the coffee experience to new heights. With each sip, the blend’s nuances unfold, revealing deep chocolatey undertones harmonizing with lighter notes of nuts and fruit, creating a truly multi-dimensional taste adventure. 

After discovering some must-visit cafes, it’s important to know some basic Korean phrases commonly used at cafes. Typically, when you walk into the establishment, the barista will greet you with “어서 오세요” [eoseo oseyo], which means “welcome in,” or “안녕하세요” [An-nyeong-ha-se-yeo], which means “hello.” These phrases are simply welcoming you in. 

Many menus at cafes tend to either be in English or have English translations, so don’t worry too much if you cannot read the Korean alphabet, hangul. As for desserts or food, you can point to the item you would like in the display case and say “주세요” [juseyo], or “please give me,” and use your fingers to signal how many you would like. 

Lastly, most coffee chains like Mega Coffee or Paik’s Coffee have kiosks where you can order virtually instead of going to the counter, and often there is a button to change the language to English.

While the local cafes on this list might not show up on your Instagram Reels, unlike the popular Rain Report cafe in Itaewon that utilizes sound and rainwater mechanics to give the illusion of a rainy atmosphere while inside the cafe or the buttery heaven of the croissant cafe Nudake Sinsa in Gangnam, these five are definitely worth a visit.

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About the Contributor
Jenna Zaza
Jenna Zaza, Arts & Culture Editor
Jenna Zaza is The Statesman's Arts and Culture Editor. She is a second-year journalism major with a minor in Korean studies and on the fast-track MBA program. When she is not writing, she is probably reading a book with a cup of coffee in hand.
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  • G

    Gary MintierMar 20, 2024 at 10:31 pm

    Headed to Korea for three months to show our children and grandchildren the place we served in the Peace Corps. Articles like this help us give them a view of the new Korea while we try to show them the old.

    Reply
  • J

    JIMar 20, 2024 at 4:30 pm

    I also highly recommend to visit “spring 1919” Cafe in Miryang!! Every visitor can get extraordinary experience 100% for sure!

    Reply