South Korea’s capital runs on caffeine, with cafés front and centre on almost every city block, and the ubiquitous Starbucks brand alone boasting a presence of 1,750 branches in the country. Other coffee shops such as elegant Antique, one of the trendiest joints in Seoul’s hip Yeonnam-dong neighbourhood, make a name for themselves by capitalising on an Instagrammable retro aesthetic. But if you’re seeking authentic old-world charm, here are five establishments that date as far back as the 1940s where you might find it.
A slice of the old Myeong-dong
Nostalgia lingers in the air at Gamoo, an unlikely find amid the maze of cosmetics stores and boutiques that line the alleys of touristy Myeong-dong. The place used to teem with celebrities and CEOs, recalls proprietor Choi Gyong-yong, who started work there as a server 40 years ago.
While the fixtures have been modernised, the opulent chandelier from Gamoo’s heyday still hangs proudly. Its signature drink remains Viennese coffee served in China cups. Another staple is sanghwatang (a traditional herbal tea) with raw egg.
Be sure to check out the fourth-story view of the Chinese Embassy garden.
Getting there: Head out of Exit 6 of Myeong-dong Station and take the next alley over on your left.
Eulji Dabang (1985)
Return to 1980s Korea
Korea’s first cafés were originally dabang — literally, “tea houses” that happen to serve more than tea. They sprung up in Seoul before WWII, originally catered to elites and served up instant coffee. According to Korean-American writer Cecilia Hae-jin Lee, dabang hit their stride during the 1960-1980 period, when they began drawing people from all walks of life.
Eulji Dabang, a relic of that era, has rebounded thanks to the attention of Korean boy band BTS, which staged a retro-style photoshoot here in 2021. A pink sign in front now marks the dabang as a shrine to the boy band. The well-lit interior is cheerfully kitsch, replete with artificial flowers and plush orange seating. Expect a strange collision of worlds here, where elderly longtime male patrons might be found alongside giddy female BTS fans.
The caffeinated drink of the house is cold instant coffee, which is simple and sweet but refreshing. Other offerings include hot ginger tea, ginseng tea, jujube tea and omija (Schisandra chinensis berry) juice. Holding court at the cashier is proprietor Park Ok-bun, a chatty woman with a warm smile. When asked about similar establishments, she exclaims, “They’ve all disappeared!”
Getting there: Emerge from Exit 10 of Euljiro 4-ga Station and look for the hot-pink signboard.
Discover a hidden heritage spot
Almost impossible to stumble upon by chance, ReRePlay is nestled deep within a narrow alley in a neighbourhood dominated by stores hawking furniture and kitchen equipment. Though it was actually quite recently opened, ReRePlay occupies an old space that oozes personality. Interior designer Yoon I-seo applied a series of light touches to a former yeoinsuk (a type of Korean lodging akin to a cheap motel). For instance, she left much of the time-worn wooden ceilings intact while adding discrete, compact lighting fixtures. The result is a work of art that has been featured in local lifestyle magazines like Maison Marie Claire Korea.
Filled with odd-angled walls and faded tiles, the coffee shop centers on a small atrium with a fig tree. Floor seating is available on the second level for those who want to relax at a soban (traditional wooden tea table). The minimalistic décor and gently pulsating electronic music create a soothing atmosphere perfect for an afternoon cuppa. Its menu features hand-drip coffee and organic teas.
Getting there: From Exit 1 of Sindang Station, double back, turn left at the first street and duck into the alley beside the corner seafood restaurant. Turn left into the adjoining alley.
For espresso with a side of patriotism
Almost certainly the oldest café and bakery in Seoul, Taegeukdang opened soon after Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation. Both the name (“House of the Yin-yang Symbol”) and the logo (a stylized rose of Sharon, South Korea’s national flower) reflect the founder’s patriotic leanings.
Based near Namsan Mountain, this charmingly old-fashioned institution is an ideal stop after a walk in Seoul’s largest park. You’ll recognise it by the Chinese characters on the façade. Order a cinnamon white or oat latte from the café counter before settling down at a table to admire the marble flooring and bas relief of General Lee Sun-sin battling Japan’s navy four centuries ago. If you’re hungry, try one of their signature red bean buns.
Taegeukdang has small branches in The Hyundai department store, Seoul Station and other spots, but it would be a shame not to visit its original location.
Getting there: Step out of Exit 2 of Dongguk University Station.
A favourite hang-out for generations of students
Situated above a pharmacy in a low brick building is Hakrim (“Study Forest”), a hand-drip coffee haven that’s also a historical site. The business has long drawn students from the universities in the Hyehwa-dong neighbourhood. Wind your way up the creaky wooden stairs and you’ll be greeted by shelves of ancient LP records, black and white photos of classical maestros, a bust of Beethoven and a selection of comfy booth tables. The space’s charming allure has made it a choice filming location for K-dramas such as My Love from the Star. Try their popular espresso con panna, which is crowned with a thick dollop of whipped cream. The menu also includes teas, alcohol and cheesecake.
Getting there: From Exit 3 of Hyehwa Station, turn 180 degrees and walk about 100m.
To learn more about Singapore Airlines’ flights to Seoul, visit the official website. All photos by Matthew Crawford unless otherwise stated.