Shopping in South Korea is a serious business. In fact, it might seem that all South Korean’s do is shop. But having explored the shopping districts of the city, I can sympathise. The diversity found in Korean design is exhilarating, as are the multitude of markets selling fabrics, haberdashery and handicrafts. There are way too many to mention them all, but these six destinations were particular favourites of mine. Within them I found everything that is integral to contemporary Korean style, from antiques to Hanboks, vintage fashion to cultural crafts, and stylish concept stores to sensational street food. Exploring the city in this style will serve you well. If you love shopping you’re gonna love Seoul, so let yourself get sucked into the mad but exciting consumerist culture that South Korea has to offer.
Dongdaemun market is one of the biggest haberdashery and fabric markets that I’ve ever had the joy to visit. There are over 50,000 manufacturers selling wholesale clothing, fabric, trimming and unique fashion items. The maze-like mini-metropolis is spread over two buildings and six floors.
Give yourself plenty of time to explore this cave-of-wonders. The crowd here is mixed; expect to bustle your way through shoving fashionistas, busy business men and savvy old women, all looking for a bargain. Bare in mind that you can expect to pay 20% less than the initial asking price. There’s a contemporary and clean food market on the 6th floor – head there when hunger strikes.
It’s a good idea to know what you’re looking for before you head in. I walked away with a beautiful fur embroidery waist coat for 450,000 Wong, found on the second floor amongst the vast Hanbok stalls. You can buy these ready made or design and customise the Hanbok of your dreams.
The coolest South Koreans know that Gwangjang market is where to head for vintage wears, artsy antiques and delicious street food.
Gwangjang has been open since 1905, making it the oldest continually functioning market in South Korea. The vibe is Asian antique-charm meets street style chic. You can shop for early 20th century parasols and classic 80s trainers under one roof, with a soundtrack of funky house and old school classics playing on the speakers in the background.
It’s a great place to pick up a bargain (don’t be afraid to haggle) and soak up the atmosphere. I spent hours browsing the fabric stalls and loved the traditional Korean cushions made of Hanbok fabric.
The vintage market on the second floor was hard to find, but ask the swaths of effortlessly cool-looking teens and they’ll point you in the right direction. There’s a HUGE selection here, with most of the clothes coming from Asia and Europe. When you’re ready, head to the street food section for some Mayak Gimbop.
Hongdae Free Market
This is a great artisan market with fast funky fashion, design boutiques and amazing themed student bars.
Hongdae operates as a flea market – anyone can turn up and sell their goods. But don’t come here for second hand tat; Hongdae specialises in bespoke design works. There’s a beautiful sense of an artistic community here, as designers come together to flog their goods.
The art and design boutiques make up the majority of stalls but you can also pick up all sorts of cheap trinkets; amazing sunglasses, socks, phone cases, cosmetics… there’s even a Zara and an H&M if you’re looking for something familiar.
The market is open every Saturday and before/during or after shopping you can also enjoy local bands, hip hop acts and street performers. Get inspired by the art that encompasses Hongdae and join a design workshop. All kinds of fun. You can even pop into a puppy or cat cafe if you find yourself in need of a furry cuddle. At night the streets fill with even more stalls, and the bars are flooded with students flocking in from lectures at the local university.
Insadong Street is the place to go for traditional Korean crafts. And it’s pedestrianised, so you can shop in relative tranquility. This makes it a more relaxing shopping experience and Insadong is generally a great chilled area for whiling away an afternoon.
Lots of shops specialise in natural, handmade and organic goods, and the vibe is more mature than a lot of Seoul’s other shopping destinations. I picked up some great soap and a wood carved stamp. There’s also incredible (and expensive) bespoke jewellery, handmade traditional Korean paper and beautiful illustrative works.
Take a break from shopping and enjoy people watching from a back alley tea shop. Insadong is popular with young couples thanks to the Wall of Love, and lots of couple-specific stalls that sell personalised items and couples rings with space for secret messages. Or, if you are so inclined, you can find out your future from one of the many Saju and Tarot card readers that line the walls of Tapgol, near Hyehwa Station.
We’ve all heard of Gangnam style; well here it is. Sinsa is the heart of style in Gangnam district, and the home of cool, classy Korean designers and concept stores.
Garosu-gil is a European-esque promenade with big designer labels and the starting point for a shopping spree in Sinsa. Even if the garments are way above your budget, it’s still worth visiting to marvel at the vision that’s behind the boutiques that litter the district. And to see the fashionistas that frequent the gingko lined streets, waiting to be snapped for blogs or style magazines.
There are more affordable vintage shops in the area too; I recommend 9 Owls which specialises in 70s and 80s wares and a has huge selection of vintage Chanel bags.
After shopping (or marvelling at the price tags), treat yourself to something sweet at one of the area’s dessert cafes, then wash it all down with a beverage at an elegant cocktail bar or trendy brewery.
Myeongdong shopping street specialises in cosmetics and skin care. The shop assistants like to lure you into their stores with free face masks. And why not? Make the most of the pampering whilst you’re in the midst of of the cult of beauty that has taken ahold of Seoul.
Huge advertisements for cosmetic surgery adorn the streets, mostly targeted at young girls. And everyone is, well, quite ‘perfect’ looking. Lots of new beauty products are launched here and you’ll be offered to try (and buy) the latest ‘discoveries’ in cosmetic trends. I am still on the fence about snail juice moisturiser but hey, at least I can say I tried it.
Myeongdong is, admittedly, one of my least favourite shopping areas but it’s still well worth a visit. Not least for the street food; try the Korean dumplings and/or the ginseng soup.