Go for the coffee, stay for the ambience

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Go for the coffee, stay for the ambience

When most people think of Hongdae, they might conjure up images of clubs, wild Friday nights, live music and dancing until the wee hours of the morning. But Hongdae has more to offer on the weekends than just an impressive club scene. Hongdae, home to Hongik University, the most famous art university in Korea, also has a flair for the artsy, quirky and offbeat. Hongdae is home to flea markets with handmade crafts and accessories on weekend mornings as well as boutiques with unique vintage and contemporary finds.

With spontaneous performances from drum circles and b-boy crews, and some of the best graffiti you’ll see in the city, Hongdae also holds perhaps the largest number of unique cafes per square mile in the Seoul. Kitschy, cuddly and eclectic - you’ll find places to suit all styles. So check out a few of Hongdae’s different cafes to get your java fix while you revel in the atmosphere.

Charlie Brown Cafe


The Charlie Brown Cafe is a franchise coffee shop chain that may not provide the coziest of coffee shop interiors, but instead specializes in a bright, modern design - sprinkled intermittently, of course, with photos, stuffed dolls and relics of your favorite cartoon beagle, Snoopy, and his gang of friends. Namesake comic kid Charlie Brown may actually take a backseat to his canine companion in this cafe, but lovers of the famous comic strip will have plenty to look at in this cute-as-a-button coffee shop.

Drink prices and offerings are similar to those of your standard coffee shop chains, though they may want to rethink the play-on wording of their Americano - “Brown coffee” - something about it just sounds altogether unappetizing. The cafe also offers food and dessert choices, many of which have impressions or chocolate dustings of characters’ images, if you’re not the type to feel guilty for eventually eating Schroeder’s head. While not the most ambient of coffee shops, the atmosphere is quiet enough to study or have meetings without having to sift through the other background noise you get at some of the more famous, popular chains.

The Charlie Brown Cafe can be found by exiting at Hongik University Station, line No. 2, exit 5; Hapjeong Station, line No. 2 or 5, exit 3; or Sangsu Station, line No. 6, exit 1. It’s close to the playground near Hongik University’s main gate.

Hello Kitty Cafe


The Charlie Brown Cafe, top, and the Hello Kitty Cafe, above, are decked out with images, stuffed dolls and relics of these popular cartoon characters. By Fielding Hong

Hello Kitty, the cartoon cat that makes even grown women go ga-ga for her cute bow and simple style, has been turned into a lifestyle cafe.

Pink from top to bottom, you cannot miss this cafe located in an alley off of fashion street in Hongdae. Hello Kitty memorabilia is mixed with bows, chandeliers and plush armchairs and benches to provide the most intense saturation of pink and pretty that you’ve likely ever seen.

The motif doesn’t let up an inch: windows in cut-out shapes of the famous kitty give views between one room to the next and mirrors in the bathroom also feature the Hello Kitty silhouette. Even lamps, chairs and toilets in the cafe are unable to escape the pink and bow treatment. Lattes come with the famous feline face stenciled in cinnamon or chocolate and desserts just as pretty as the cat herself are available for those with a sweet tooth. Hello Kitty neck pillows also abound in order for guests to get their maximum pretty pamper treatment on.

To get to the Hello Kitty Cafe, you can go to Hongik University Station, line No. 2, exit 5; Hapjeong Station, line No. 2 or 5, exit 3; or Sangsu Station, line No. 6, exit 1. It’s on an uphill alley off of Hongdae’s main drag of shops and boutiques.

Bau House Cafe

Korea hasn’t traditionally been a domestic pet-raising society, but times they are a-changing. Nowadays, more and more Korean families are raising pets in their homes, but for those who have yet to get their fix of puppy loving, Bau House Cafe offers the perfect solution. Bau House, German for bow house (think bow-wow), has been providing a space for dogs and the people who love them since 2000. They eventually moved to their current location in 2004, and on any given day they have between 20-30 dogs running around in the cafe with free rein. The numbers differ from day to day because customers are also able to bring their puppies to join in on the fun and dogs staying in the cafe’s dog hotel are also likely to enter the fray. You won’t find just teacup poodles and Maltese dog that are most commonly seen in Korea, the cafe houses a huge Siberian Husky, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, and plenty of other large breeds alongside their more diminutive brethren.

It’s possible you may have to wait for a table, especially if you go on the weekend. Once seated, you can order your standard coffee and tea fare, as well as out-of-the-ordinary milkshakes. The prices for the drinks are slightly more expensive than you might find at other coffee shops, but there is no admission fee to enjoy hours of playing time with your new cuddly best friends.

To get to the Bau House Cafe, you can go to Hongik University Station, line No. 2, exit 5; Hapjeong Station, line No. 2 or 5, exit 3; or Sangsu Station, line No. 6, exit 1. It is located on one of the side streets off of Parking Lot Street.

Gio Cat Cafe


At the Gio Cat Cafe, cats and customers cavort over coffee. By Joelle Pearson

If you think there’s a personality difference between those who claim to be dog lovers or cat lovers, you can see the difference clearly by comparing a visit to Gio Cat Cafe to one at Bau House.

While Bau House has an energetic and sometimes even chaotic energy, Gio Cat Cafe is calm, quiet and cool. While patrons at Bau House romp around with their canine companions, patrons at Gio Cat are content to stroke the glossy manes of the Siamese, Russian Blue and 20-plus other cats that purr beneath their hands. Gio Cat also has stricter rules for its customers in order to ensure control of the kittens’ environment. Only a certain number of guests are allowed in at a time, so like Bau House, you may find yourself on a waiting list, especially on a weekend. Guests should take off their shoes before entering and there is a set of rules that is displayed in several places around the cafe, reminding guests not to feed the cats, pull their tails, wake up sleeping cats, use flash photography or forcefully pet their bellies. While the feline friends at Gio Cat may not clamor for your attention the way the dogs at Bau House do, with a little patience they’ll eventually come to you and curl up in your lap for a catnap.

Gio Cat Cafe can be reached from Hongik University Station, line No. 2, exit 5; Hapjeong Station, line No. 2 or 5, exit 3; or Sangsu Station, line No. 6, exit 2. It’s close to the playground near Hongik University’s main gate.

Dr. Fish Cafe / Heimdall

The infamous Dr. Fish Cafe is a popular one among expats and Koreans alike, if only for its delight-your-friends-with-this-story factor. The premise of the cafes (there are a few sprinkled around the city) is that customers can put their feet in shallow pools located in the cafes and get “nature’s pedicure.”

In the pools there are swarms of small fish, typically separated into two different varieties - Turkish and Chinese - that nibble the dead skin off of your feet, all while you sip on a refreshing drink and chat with your friends.

Although the time that you spend soaking your feet is up to you, most people see a difference in the softness of their heels after only 15 to 30 minutes. To ensure hygienic conditions, customers are asked to first wash their feet thoroughly in special foot sinks.

To get to the Dr. Fish Cafe, you can go to Sangsu Station, line No. 6, exit 2, and walk toward the front gate of Hongik University. At the three-way intersection, take a left and then a right at the Buy the Way convenience store. Dr. Fish Cafe (Heimdall in Korean) is located on the 7th floor of the building with the Fish and Grill restaurant on the ground level.

Cafe HoHomyoll

Finally, Cafe HoHomyoll might not have any specific themes or gimmicks like the aforementioned coffee shops, but it’s worth seeking out for the cozy, inviting atmosphere alone. Even though it has a full vintage Volkswagen van stuffed inside the cafe, it may still be easy to pass this pleasant coffee shop by as you make your way from Sangsu Station toward the streets full of clubs and bars. The coffee shop, opened by owner Ye-Rang Yoon two years ago, has an unpretentious yet delightfully sophisticated mix of vintage and modern style. The unique knickknacks, many VW-inspired, look to have been thoughtfully and individually placed throughout the interior of the cafe to produce just the right amount of quirk without making the customer feel claustrophobic. If the novelty of having your mocha prepared from inside a gutted VW van isn’t enough, the extensive menu of panini, waffles and quiche doesn’t hurt either. Prices for drinks and food are comparable to other cafes and the ambience is quiet enough that patrons often stay for a lazy afternoon to read, study or catch up with old friends.

To get to Cafe HoHomyoll, go to Sangsu Station, line No. 6, exit 2, and walk about 50 meters. The shop will be on your right and the porch area has a red wagon with two “E.T.” dolls on display.

*For more information about living working in Seoul, please visit the Seoul Global Center’s unofficial blog, www.seoulcityblog.com.

By Shannon Heit Contributing writer [shannon.sgc@gmail.com]

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