Known as the multicultural hub of Seoul, the trendy hangout of Haebangchon, situated in the Itaewon district, is beloved for its authentic multicultural cuisine, nostalgic atmosphere and array of outstanding cafés. Whether you’re seeking a revitalising cup of specialty coffee or a quiet spot to unwind, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for at one of the neighbourhood’s best cafés.
As any Seoulite will tell you, Korea’s capital is renowned for its booming café culture. In fact, with more than 17,000 coffee shops, Seoul’s coffee-per-capita is greater than that of Seattle or San Francisco. This is due in part to many Koreans relying on caffeine to keep them productive during their extra-long workday. Cafés are also spaces to socialise with friends or meet during sogaeting, blind dates.
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This is also true in Haebangchon, an area of the city that has evolved in recent years from a working-class hillside community to one of the most popular neighbourhoods among younger generations. Formerly abandoned residential buildings and market stalls are now being transformed into sleek and stylish coffee shops, “brewing” up an entirely new kind of café.
Tucked into the recently renovated 1960s-era Sinheung Market is Orangorang, a café specialising in house-roasted coffee. Here, baristas use freshly roasted beans to create espresso-based drinks and a variety of single-origin, pour-over coffee, all of which pair well with its famed tiramisu. But what makes Orangorang especially charming is its ambience. Echoing the rustic feel of the market building in which it is housed, the interior of the café boasts an unfinished, industrial aesthetic, but with modern elements: a touch of neon here, sleek wooden furniture there. Old-school jazz flows from the record player, creating an atmosphere perfect for a study session or an intimate date. Don’t pass on braving your way up the steep staircase to the third-floor rooftop, where majestic views of N Seoul Tower and the surrounding neighbourhood await.
European-style bakery Le Chien Blanc is the local go-to for freshly baked bread and pastries in the Haebangchon area. Baked daily in store by friendly and skilled pâtissiers, sweet and savoury items include crispy baguettes, decadent cakes and flaky, buttery croissants that practically melt in your mouth. (Take it from us: the pain au chocolat is likely the best you’ll find in Seoul.) The cosy space is a great spot to start off your morning when Le Chien Blanc’s baked goods are served piping hot, just out of the oven. Grab a seat and enjoy your selection with a steamy cup of hot coffee or tea while the comforting aromas of baking bread envelop you in a warm hug.
As its name implies, The Royal Food and Drink is a step up from your typical café. Offering coffee, brunch cocktails and smoothies as well as all-day dining, the space is buzzing with customers from morning to night, despite its off-the-beaten-path location. The Royal’s food – a mélange of healthful salads, sandwiches, desserts and breakfast favourites – is nothing short of phenomenal. (The salmon bagel and Bloody Mary are a hit every time!) But what keeps patrons old and new making the trek to the top of the Haebangchon hill is the café’s stunning views of Seoul’s cityscape. After placing your order, head straight to the second floor, where exposed wiring, peeling paint and bare walls are juxtaposed with hand-carved wooden tables. The decor is sparse, perhaps because the true visual attraction is the urban scenery. Enjoy the sunset solo with a book and an espresso, or a boozy brunch with the girls.
Run by an affable coffee-loving couple, Upside Coffee is all about the bean. Patrons adore the single-origin options on offer, which are prepared in pour-over style to bring out their respective country’s unique flavour profiles. Also popular are the La Marzocco-brewed lattes, which are served with artful designs crafted into their foamy top layer. Upside takes a no-frills approach to interior design, placing the focus instead on the beautifully presented beverages and homemade scones and cakes. Seating is limited, but there are a few spots at the bar as well as a bench out front – the perfect perch to caffeinate and take in scenes of local Korean life.
Tasty and wholesome fare paired with friendly service makes Fat Cat one of the most popular dining spots among neighbourhood residents. Expect hearty salads, sandwiches, soups and classic American-style desserts, all of which are prepared and served by staff who make it a point to interact with guests as if they were friends. The casual café also has a delightful variety of sips on offer, ranging from seasonal beverages (it’s one of the few places in Seoul to find the highly coveted pumpkin spice latte) and buzzy spritzers to locally made kombucha and beer on tap. Canopied by persimmon trees, the breezy back patio is a delightful respite in warmer months, and the window seats at the front of the café provide great people-watching views of the main Haebangchon strip.
Travel back in time as you meander into Kongbat Coffee Losteo, a quirky café that could, on first appearance, be confused for an antique store. Adorned with a medley of knick-knacks (think vintage toys, a sewing machine and even a buk, or traditional Korean drum), the space provides an atmosphere that’s quite unlike any other. Kongbat’s menu is as diverse as its decor. There are plenty of espresso-based beverages to choose from (try the decadent Vietnamese latte), but the true highlight of the expansive menu is the tea. Whole-leaf varieties such as Japanese hojicha and Taiwanese tieguanyin are truly soul soothing, while the milk tea royal and lychee iced tea refresh and delight the taste buds. Inventive cocktails are also served late into the evening should you desire something stronger.
If art is what you seek – and some would argue that making a good cup of coffee is an art form in itself – then 10000LAB is your place. Part café, part gallery, this chic space invites customers to enjoy their beverage while browsing the photographic works of Korean artist Ingeun Nam, also known as NAMIB. Airy, bright and outfitted with sleek mid-century modern furnishings, the space exudes creativity and is an ideal spot to read, journal or get some work done. Select from four different beans of various origins (the menu provides a good explanation of flavour profiles) and your preferred brewing style (hand drip or siphon), and watch the seasoned baristas masterfully prepare your cup. Non-coffee options include Kyoto uji matcha, a grapefruit smoothie and the crowd-pleasing pistachio almond latte.
Let the warm aromas of coffee and crowds of caffeine-craving expats lead you to Le Café, one of Haebangchon’s oldest coffee houses. The beloved local fixture prides itself on using only organic coffee beans that are roasted in-house, alongside a variety of teas, lattes and a small selection of pastries. Le Café’s ambience is noticeably friendly and at once inviting; the cheerful owner is always up for conversation, and the customers all seem to know one another. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited into a conversation here – that is, if you can get a seat. There are few tables, and they are often occupied, especially during the weekends. But it’s worth stopping by, if only to get your caffeine fix. Le Café also sells beans should you want to take a bag home.
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