As much scene as bean
Anyone who's ever been to Seoul knows that space is at a premium. Small flats are the norm, and people generally live with their parents until they get married. Combined with the (nearly ubiquitous) long hours at the office, this results in a pressing need for a 'third space' - somewhere to relax, meet friends and further romantic relationships. The solution: countless cafes that recaffeinate the sleep-deprived population while offering a refuge from both home and work.
While chain coffee shops abound - everything from Starbucks to A Twosome Place, a Korean chain that's a popular meeting place for young couples - the best of Seoul's cafes are the independents. Some hold multitudes; others have only a few seats, but all give as much attention to decor and atmosphere as they do to the coffee.
The Korean passion for good design and anything 'cute' means that the city is dotted with unique, funky coffee bars that are the perfect place to experience local life.
Here are five to start with.
63-19 Samcheong-dong, tel: + 82 (2) 733 3006
The central neighbourhood of Samcheong-dong is known for its beautiful traditional Korean houses (bukchon hanok), whose interiors are now home to art galleries, independent shops and charming cafes. Woodside Coffee is a bright and cheerful yellow on the outside with wooden beams and clean white walls on the inside. Located up a small alley and perched above Samcheong-dong's main street, it offers a warm atmosphere in the winter and a small but breezy courtyard for summer. Park yourself by the windows, indulge in a Belgian waffle and sip a macchiato as you enjoy the view. Woodside has the curved eaves and gently sloped roof of a pagoda and - like virtually every other cafe in the country - very fast Wi-fi.
Myeongdong Theatre, 35 Myeongdong-gil, Jung-gu tel: + 82 (2) 3414 5323
Myeongdong is one of Seoul's shopping and tourism hot spots, bursting with massive television screens; stores selling everything from iPod cases to leggings; barbecue restaurants, and an energy on a par with anywhere else in the city. After an hour or two in the melee, respite can be found at Cafe Lilac. This flower-themed cafe (it even smells like lilacs) is inside the Myeongdong Theatre and has a small patio from which you can observe the streetlife. Popular orders here include the mocha latte and the omija cha, a traditional Korean 'five-flavour' tea that comes in a round bowl painted with delicate flowers. Bright, pretty and full of enthusiastic shoppers, Lilac Cafe is the city's best alternative to an actual flower garden.
50-6 Myeongdong, 2nd Floor, tel: +82 (2) 310 9116
This cafe, close to Cafe Lilac, combines two of the things residents are most passionate about - trends and food. Goodovening has taken the cupcake craze and gone crazy. This turquoise-accented space is on the second floor, overlooking one of Myeongdong's bustling streets. Jars of sweets line one wall, the sharp colours complementing the luscious cupcakes that offer a sugar rush and aesthetic experience in one. Oversized modern graphics and appealing photos are part of what gives this place its 'cute' vibe, along with cupcake names such as Lemon Bee and Coco Bird. Often full of tourists from Japan taking photos of themselves with a turquoise-iced treat, this cafe is popular and deservedly so.
97 Jeokseon-dong, Jongno-gu, tel: + 82 (2) 739 3303 The cafe barely seats eight, but the wooden furniture, floor and bar, plus the strings of fairy lights, make it cosy, not claustrophobic. If you're looking for a place for a t?te-?t?te or simply seeking a break from the main streets (it's also a couple of minutes from Gyeongbokgung Palace, a must-see historical sight), this place is for you. Castor Pollux is tucked into a little warren of side streets with low buildings that evoke an older Korea. Green tea, sweet potato tea, yogurt smoothies and juices, along with a small selection of alcohol and the usual assortment of coffee offerings are on the menu, along with baked goods and a friendly smile.
Photo Concept Cafe
79-1 Pirun-dong, Jongno-gu, tel: + 82 (10) 2038 9091
Bright and clean, this small, two-storey cafe is filled with Scandinavian-inspired furniture and warm lighting. Black-and-white photos with white backing stand out on the chocolate walls and snips from contact sheets are clipped to strings hanging in the window. An interesting selection of postcard-sized photos are for sale, along with excellent strong espressos and cappuccinos made with Illy coffee. Grab a chair on the cafe's diminutive ground floor under the shelves holding photo books, cameras and coffee paraphenalia, or venture upstairs for some uninterrupted one-on-one time with your sweetheart in true Korean style.