Seoul is a flourishing metropolis with lots to see. The South Korean capital’s innumerous attractions can be overwhelming, but one thing is clear: It’s a shopper’s paradise. Whether you’re in the market for cute socks, K-pop albums, cosmetics, Korean snacks or traditional souvenirs like mother-of-pearl handicrafts and colorful hanboks, you’ll want to bring an empty suitcase to haul all your purchases home.
But with so many different areas in the city, where do you even start? To help you sort it all out, here’s a handy neighborhood guide to point you in the right direction.
Great for: fashionistas, lovers of cute things, coffee addicts, young people in general
The Hongdae area is home to Hongik University, the country’s premier school for fine arts. You’ll see the local culture’s creative influence reflected even on outdoor walls and fences, as graffiti has become a more legitimized form of art.
It’s easy to exhaust yourself browsing Hongdae’s shops for cute accessories and vintage threads or checking out the handmade goods at a weekend flea market — there’s so much to see and buy! When your feet need a rest, park yourself at any of Hongdae’s plentiful cafes (there’s a Hello Kitty-themed one and several cat cafes!) and people-watch to scope out how the locals are sporting the city’s latest fashion trends.
If you’re traveling with other people, you’re sure to have a blast at the Trick Eye Museum, which features interactive exhibits and optical illusions that make for great photo opportunities. And at night, choose from a wealth of sleek bars and clubs that cater to the party crowd as well as indie music enthusiasts.
Great for: families, night owls, street food connoisseurs, design aficionados
Dongdaemun is known for its market, and it definitely lives up to its retail-oriented reputation. There are countless multi-level malls selling textiles of all sorts, from trendy new threads to traditional outfits to a whole street dedicated to toys and stationery. Bargain hunters can enjoy haggling with wholesale storekeepers to get the best price. With some shops open until sunrise and street food stalls operating similar hours — shopping works up the appetite! — you’ll have lots to see and buy.
Of course, Dongdaemun has more to offer than just shopping and dining. Just north of the scenic Cheonggyecheon stream lies the imposing Heunginjimun Gate, first built in the 14th century and the namesake of the neighborhood. (Dongdaemun translates to “Great East Gate.”) For some futuristic architecture, check out the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, just a short walk across the stream. Often compared to a giant UFO, the DDP is a sleek structure celebrating Seoul’s contributions to excellent design and serving as a space for exhibits and conventions.
Great for: label lovers, plastic surgery seekers, people trying to avoid the outdoors
There’s more than just clothes and accessories to shop for in the neighborhood made world-famous by Psy. As one of the wealthier areas in Seoul, Gangnam is widely known as the center for cosmetic surgery procedures, with clinics on pretty much every block. In addition to being cutting-edge and generally cheaper than the U.S., cosmetic surgery is so common in South Korea that nobody will judge you for walking around with a face wrapped in bandages!
While you’re walking off your rhinoplasty, take a stroll around COEX Mall, the world’s largest underground shopping mall. The newly renovated space is home to tons of stores — including the must-visit Lotte Duty Free shop — as well as an aquarium, movie theater, and lots of dining options. Outside of COEX, you’ll find plenty of high-end brands scattered in the area.
Great for: families, beauty addicts, foodies
South Korea has arguably arrived as a global powerhouse in the beauty industry, and Myeongdong is the mecca for anyone who’s ever heard of Missha, Etude House, The Face Shop and more. Best of all, these shops tend to give out lots of samples and freebies, so you always get more than what you pay for.
Not looking to beautify? There’s more — in addition to big, brand-name stores that line Myeongdong’s sidewalks (such as Zara and SPAO), street stalls open up and sell clothes and accessories toward the afternoon and evening. The area is a pedestrian-friendly tourist haven, which means you’ll find no shortage of restaurants and street food, from decades-old shops specializing in hand-cut noodles to carts whipping up 12-inch-tall ice cream cones.
Have you been to Seoul? Let us know where you like to shop!