The juxtaposition of old and new makes Seoul a great destination, and nowhere is the collision of the traditional and contemporary more apparent than in its vibrant shopping scene.
Words Brian Johnston
It’s also quite touristy, allowing you to get used to the city – and those Korean won – before exploring more oﬀ-beat destinations. This delightful little road is at its best on a Sunday, when traffic is banned. Souvenir shops are everywhere: you can pick up Korean wooden masks, traditional fans and dolls. Locals also come here for traditional Korean goods such as antiques, old books and calligraphy, most of which is in Chinese script. And while hanbok might look a bit out of place back home, it’s worth taking a look in the several stores still making these magniﬁcent traditional costumes.
Insadong also has plenty of contemporary items for sale. The Tong In Store sells interesting modern crafts made from metal, ceramics and even rice paper, and with 70 other art galleries to choose from, you’re sure to ﬁnd something to suit your taste and budget – artworks here range from just a few dollars to thousands. Shops also sell beautiful handmade greetings cards and notebooks, contemporary ceramics and fashion accessories such as cheap silk handbags.
If it’s youthful trendiness you’re looking for, Itaewon is the place to head next.This district south of the city is a hangout of Seoul teenagers, and its back alleys are full of compact restaurants that specialise in bulgogi, or grilled beef marinated in chilli. Numerous street stalls sell souvenirs that will delight lovers of kitsch, such as mugs with sarcastic slogans, T-shirts emblazoned with pop singers, and glow-in-the-dark Buddhas.
Itaewon is best experienced in the early evening, when locals head here after work to browse its stores. North Beach is known for leather and sheepskin goods, Hilton for expert tailoring, and Asian Deco for its antique Korean and Chinese furniture – candlesticks and ceramics are the items most likely to ﬁt into your suitcase. Sports clothes and shoes and fashion are other good buys; some stores oﬀer discounted Prada, Gucci and Ferragamo from past seasons, while Sister’s House has hip-hop-style gear and accessories. Samsonite oﬀers an abundance of colourful backpacks that are all the rage among young Koreans. All these stores line Itaewon Street, a short distance from Itaewon’s subway station.
Another trendy part of the city lies southwest of the CBD, near the river and around Hongik University. Hongdae neighbourhood is home to one of Korea’s major art colleges, and the surrounding streets are a hangout for young Koreans. The big attraction for shoppers is the Hongdae Free Market on Saturdays, opposite the university gates. Students, young designers, and amateur and professional artists all congregate here to sell their own fashions, paintings and accessories. Watch glass blowers at work creating vases, dishes and ornaments in beautiful colours. You’ll also be entertained by numerous buskers and street performers.
Another area associated with shopping is Gangnam, with bookstores, fashion shops and department stores in the area catering to tastes satirised in Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ hit. Apgujeong-dong Rodeo Street is lined with clothes stores oﬀering expensive Western labels as well as equally expensive hanbok costumes, but you can also ﬁnd vintage clothes. The street is a good place to sit in a trendy café and peoplewatch. Cheongdam-dong has international brand labels and a huge range of restaurants.
You’ll also ﬁnd two of Seoul’s colossal malls in the neighbourhood. COEX Mall combines shopping with cultural attractions, an aquarium and lots of restaurants, and is upmarket. Further to the east, Lotte World, the most famous mall in the country, is really more of an indoor amusement park with a mall attached; it even has its own ice-skating rink and theme park. Prices here are in the mid-range, with a lot of contemporary goods on oﬀer.
Returning to the city centre, Myeong-dong, the ﬁnancial heart of the city, covers several blocks just east of City Hall. This is the trendsetting centre of Korean fashion, with branches of the Lotte, Shinsegae and Migliore departments stores and plenty of malls – both underground and above – for clothing, shoes, accessories and cosmetics. You’ll ﬁnd the latest oﬀerings from Paris, London and Milan here. The Lotte Department Store is an elegant aﬀair and even has elevator girls in peach uniforms and white lace gloves to welcome customers and press buttons as you ascend through ﬂoors of European and US designer clothes. Shinsegae Department Store is also great, even if you never get beyond its surreal exterior featuring ﬂoating men in bowler hats.
Close by Myeong-dong is Namdaemun Gate, a beautiful 14th-century building that is the symbol of Seoul. But Namdaemun is also one of Seoul’s major shopping districts and keeps going 24 hours a day, though late evening and into the night is generally reserved for wholesale business. Stalls and shops line the streets, while a three-storey building is crammed with more stalls groaning under teetering piles of hosiery, underwear and handbags; you have to clamber over sack loads of shirts and duck beneath dangling bunches of stockings to hunt down what you’re looking for. All of Seoul comes here to shop for clothes, sporting goods, toys, pottery, tableware, sunglasses and more. The shopping isn’t necessarily for the discerning – watch out for those ‘Leevis’ jeans and almost-Rolex watches – but prices are hard to beat.
If you aren’t exhausted yet, another 24-hour market, Dongdaemun, has a similar mix of clothing, household goods, sports gear, leather and textiles sold by the metre, including the country’s largest collection of silks. Many of the stores are no bigger than an elevator, and hundreds of them run for ten city blocks. Vendors watch Korean soap operas on portable TVs, kids fall asleep on bales of shirts, shoppers rub the hems of colourful dresses, and trendy young men order new glasses from the optician. Lively, fun and distinctively Korean, it’s another area that makes Seoul such a great place to shop.
Jakarta to Seoul
Flight Time 6 hours 25 minutes
Frequency 7 ﬂights per week
From Colours August 2016
5 Senses – Scent
Traditional Korean medicine (hanbang) has its roots in ancient China, but over the centuries it has acquired its own particular characteristics. Herbal medicine is a key treatment method and provides the curious shopper with all sorts of redolent smells from its roots (such as ginseng), mushrooms, shrimp, fruit and herbs. You’ll find a startling 800-odd tiny hanbang shops and stalls in Yangnyeong Market district; many will vacuum pack purchases if you wish to bring ingredients home.