Picture summer from above. Add blue skies and a cool breeze to those iced Americanos and you're two steps from heaven, really.
Mo Jain Song is a hidden gem at the end of an Itaewon alley. Parsons-trained designer Jain Song launched her first collection in 2004 with the philosophy of “city meets nature.” Her modern designs do not use leather or fur, focusing instead on the pursuit of “perfect tailoring.” The first floor houses her collection, while the second floor features a café and a select shop of small delights curated from around the world. They range from the fanciful (tiny metal sea creature magnets) to the eminently practical (7.5” Gingher pinking shears), with a large selection of high-quality gardening tools. In fact, inspired by her father, gardening has been a lifelong hobby of Jain Song’s: plants fill the space. Just opposite the café is a glass-covered terrace with small fruit trees, potted cacti and brightly colored seating. In nice weather, take your drinks to the rooftop garden for views of the city.
Hidden on the top floor of an unassuming office building on the east end of Itaewon is Ando Café, an outpost of the popular vintage furniture emporium with shops around Seoul. As the building is built into a hillside, this rooftop has more of a hidden courtyard feeling than the open-air views of other city rooftops. But what you lose in skyline views you gain in peace and quiet. The café itself is full of charming vintage furniture from all over the world, from French library catalogue drawers to plump British leather couches. Furniture displays rotate as pieces are periodically sold. Grab a cold beer or lemonade on particularly hot days.
When we learned that recently-opened café Holiday Project was started by an interior design agency, it all made perfect sense: It had that perfect mix of mismatched design furniture, an understated color palette, and, most importantly, excellent use of vertical space, right up to their fourth floor rooftop. Here, the pleasantly creaky wooden floorboards lead you to a handful of umbrella-shaded picnic tables, where you can enjoy a lemonade (freshly squeezed every morning) or the all new “summer latte” (a tall, affogato-like drink). Though Holiday Project is just four stories tall, the surrounding buildings are also low, allowing for clear views of the nearby mountains and plenty of sunlight. It’s a peaceful retreat from the growing crowds that fill Seochon every weekend.
It’s a hilly trek up to this district library at the western terminus of line 6. The terraced rooftop spaces are the highlight of the uniquely designed building, which received the 2001 Korea Architecture Award. Each of the terraces has a few shaded nooks with benches for peaceful reading or quiet conversations. But don’t think cozy means cute—the feel here is almost post-apocalyptic, with the exposed cement building tucked up against the greenery of Bulgwang Mountain on one side and its blocky, turret-like terraces overlooking the city on the other. Tip: Currently, only the lower rooftop level is open, but if they’re not too busy and you ask nicely, the staff will unlock the gates to the top level and let you snap some photos.
The middle of Gangnam is about the last place you’d expect to find a hanok-style pavilion, but this hanji gallery and café is a tiny sanctuary amongst the office towers. You can admire the works of artist Cho Su-jeong’s 30 years of painting on traditional mulberry paper on display around the 12th floor, but the best seating is on the rooftop in the open-air wooden pavilion. Order a traditional tea set or icy sweet bingsu and settle on the silk cushions to sound of a burbling fountain and the faint noise of traffic in the distance. Later, try your own hand at painting on hanji paper downstairs. Bonus: it’s just across the street from COEX, in case you’re in town for a conference.
Yes, this place is crazy popular for being featured in the K-drama “Coffee Prince.” But it’s those famous views from this mountainside café that make the trek to Buam-dong worthwhile for fans and non-fans alike—soak up the fresh mountain air while gazing on the peaks of Inwangsan, Bugaksan and the Seoul Fortress Wall in the distance. The rooftop seating is arranged in rows for optimal viewing, while the first floor terrace seating around tables is better for chatting over your drinks and food. We’ll be honest: we’re more excited about the views than the menu—skip the food and opt for a drink to pay your dues, then head down the hill for a fried chicken dinner at Gyeyeolsa.