The Best Places to Shop in Seoul

There’s a reason that designers, chefs, and travelers love to dive into the boutiques, malls, markets, and designer shops of Seoul and that Gangnum Style was such a sensation back in 2012. It’s no secret: Seoul loves to shop.

3-1 Myeongdong-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
If you don’t know that Korean beauty products are the Next Big Thing, chances are you’ve been living under a rock, you’re a non-Korean man, and/or you’re over age 50. For everyone else, K-Beauty is an of-the-moment trend that’s popping up everywhere from international cities like New York and Hong Kong, to the beauty section of Target in small Midwestern towns. Needless to say, it’s everywhere.

So of course it’s big business in Korea’s capital, where the streets of buzzy Myeongdong hum with a thousand beauty stores. Perhaps the most popular of all the products are mask sheets, made with ingredients to make one’s skin firmer, more moisturized, whiter, cleaner…you name it. Perhaps the best place to look for one’s ideal mask sheet is aptly named, Mask Sheet Story, a store that sells—you guessed it.

There are four outposts of All Mask Story. All Mask Story No. 1 is on the popular Myeongdong Shopping Street.
52 Myeongdong 8-gil, Myeong-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Excitable employees hawk two-for-one creams and thrust shopping baskets at unsuspecting passersby, but their annoying antics don’t diminish the fact that Nature Republic is one of Korea’s most popular skin and beauty stores. Purveying candy colored packaging, and everything from snail solution mask sheets to Madagascan baobab tree facial moisturizing mist, Nature Republic prides itself on using all natural ingredients from around the world. In addition to the skincare products, there’s also haircare and makeup. The “Lemon Foot & Nature Peeling Foot Mask” is a not-to-be-missed purchase. 52, Myeongdong 8-gil, Jung-gu
K-Beauty is big business, and Olive Young, one of Korea’s most popular beauty shops purveys products not only from Korea, but France, the US, and Japan among many other locales. This cavernous emporium sells lip balms, nose hair scissors and everything in between. A visit to this buzzing temple of beauty is never a dull moment, as fresh-faced Koreans pour over myriad products promising to whiten and brighten, moisturize and de-frizz. At the hopping Myeongdong location, shoppers can experiment with cosmetics in the Get It Beauty Zone, sample over 40 scents at the Perfume Bar, and break for a snack in the K-Food Zone. 53 Myeongdong-gil, Jung-gu
Perhaps the most medically-minded of Korean beauty brands (or at least with packaging and stores that look that way), Mediheal products are said to promote clean and healthy skin, and are supposedly recommended by primary care physicians. The sterile looking location on the Myeongdong shopping street has a hospital-like feel, and the staff is very knowledgeable about caring for skin that is dry, oily or otherwise a problem. Mask sheets come in packaging that resembles capsules or IV bags, and there are other clever gimmicks such as BB cream that comes with what looks like a miniature paint roller—to apply the cream of course. Myeongdong Shopping Street
If you’re looking for a way to while away a rainy afternoon, head over to Mapo-gu and pop into the quaint boutique Object. This whimsical store is a shopper’s delight, and offers a wide array of stationery and jewelry designed by local artists, plus dishes, hats, bags, and even teddy bears and typewriters. Since the shop works on a consignment basis, the product selection is ever-changing, making it entirely worthwhile and necessary to return frequently, preferably with healthy wad of won in your wallet. 400-1 Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu
Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Celebrity florist Nicolai Bergmann’s famed flower box is the number one seller at his shop in the Four Season’s Seoul. The Danish floral designer’s shop in Tokyo has been dedicated to European and Japanese floral design principals for the last 10 years, and the recently opened shop in Seoul is no exception. Other than the elegant, innovative flower boxes, the shop sells colorful bouquets, as well as luxurious arrangements for birthdays, parties and weddings. The flowers are so beautiful, even if you’re just passing through Seoul, you may be tempted to make a purchase—even if it’s just to decorate your hotel room for the night. The Four Seasons Seoul, 1F, 97 Saemunan-ro, Jongno-gu
The trendy shopping street of Garusogil is the epitome of Korean fashion, as evidenced by the supremely stylish 20-somethings walking the streets in sky-high heels, off the shoulder tops and red lipstick, their perfectly coiffed hair bouncing just so. In addition to trees, the street is lined with boutiques purveying everything from cosmetics and accessories, to housewares and shoes, and among the thousands of places to hand over your credit card is a chic, whitewashed clothing boutique called Afternoon In the House. Check out the ladylike dresses with bows and ruffles, as well as a well-edited selection of handbags, all redolent with a dose of Korean style. Garuso-gil, Gangnam
Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Notebooks and markers and pencils, oh my! Art Box offers a kaleidoscopic array of school supply fun, a favorite among Korean students of all ages. Found in various locations around Seoul, this colorful stationery shop sells everything from greeting cards and clocks to stickers and socks. Stock up on notebooks with quirky Korean sayings or mechanical pencils adorned with your favorite cartoon characters. Just don’t try to shop here on a Saturday—you may be run down by hoards of schoolgirls looking for the latest in Hello Kitty paraphernalia. F-17, COEX Mall, 58, Teheran-ro 87-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
511 Yeongdong-daero, Samseong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
The COEX Complex in Gangnam is more than just a mall, convention center, and exhibition hall. It’s a few city blocks filled with cool buildings that will thrill those who have a penchant for unique architectural design. Perhaps the most iconic of the buildings in the COEX complex is the 54-story Seoul World Trade Tower. Used as a backdrop in the Gangnam Style music video, the tower is unique for its unusual ridged edge. It’s up to you whether to do a reenactment of the galloping dance while standing in front of the building. To get there, take subway line 2, and exit at Samseong (COEX) station.
662 Gyeongin-ro, Sindorim-dong, Guro-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Located in southern Seoul at the Sindorim Subway Station is D-Cube City. This retail monolith houses scores of shops and restaurants. There are the ubiquitous H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo, but also trendy Korean labels such as Bean Pole, Codes Combine, and Thursday Island. The food court is especially notable for the traditional Korean food section, where specialties like doenjang jjigae (a soybean stew) and pajeon (a green onion pancake) are served in surroundings meant to resemble a Korean folk village. Be sure to read the many signs and maps posted in English around the mall. My favorite? “D Cube City makes you feel like walking in the woods.” 662, Gyeongin-ro, Guro-gu, Seoul
Euljiro 6(yuk)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Dongdaemun, the old East Gate of Seoul, has been the site of a market for generations. Today, the double-roofed stone arch no longer marks entry into the city, but the capital’s residents still come here to haggle over everything from shoes to plumbing supplies and electronics. Food is not left out of the equation; although large produce markets are not found immediately by the gate, roving merchants wheel seasonal fruit in and around the incessant traffic. As evening rush hour neared, this particular cart was almost empty of its offerings, and the vendor seemed ready for the day to end... To get there by subway: Line 2, exit Dongdaemun Stadium Station, or Line 1 or 4, exit Dongdaemun Station.
11 Dosan-daero 45-gil, Apgujeong-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
In Seoul’s swank Gangnam district, books are the new black. Upscale book publisher Assouline has various concept stores around the globe, with the Gangnam location being the brand’s first foray into Asia. The lounge provides highbrow customers with luxurious art, lifestyle and fashion books, and the elegant space is also a café and gallery. The sumptuously decorated boutique begs you to linger, and it’s hard to say no when cakes, tarts and French wines sing seductively. Jumgyung Building, Sinsadong 631-36, Gangnam-gu, Seoul
Seoul’s Folk Flea Market is a place where you can buy anything, I mean anything! This scary contraption looks like an invention of a comic book super-villain, but for the small price of 5 dollars you could be tightening those crow’s feet and zapping imperfections in no time! Huzzah! This is truly a special market—with more random wingdings than your grandparents’ attic. To get to the flea market, head to Sinseoldong Station on the light green line, Line 2. I recommend exit 10. After exiting, execute a U-turn, then walk straight for about 20 feet, take a right and walk straight for 280m. Along the way you will see vendors on the street and signage guiding you to the main building.
Tucked away in the heart of downtown Seoul is the quaint Insadong district, where a Korea of yore comes to life in the form of traditional artists and musicians, shops selling Korean crafts and souvenirs, and street performers dressed in native costumes. This is the place to go if you’re set on buying the wooden masks, paper lanterns, and tea sets that the country is famous for. Two other stores also stand out from the crowd in Insadong: Gounjae Handcraft can be smelled before you even enter the door. This handmade soap shop, in the small brick courtyard of Ssamji Gil Center, offers sumptuously scented soaps, lotions, and bath products in scents like avocado, ginger, and almond. I love the tiny, traditional mask-shaped soaps that make inexpensive and lightweight souvenirs. The Ee Gee boutique is a veritable treasure chest bursting with glimmering necklaces, bracelets, and other one-of-a-kind baubles–it’s located on Insadong’s main drag.
688 Nodeul-ro, Noryangjin 1(il)-dong, Dongjak-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Korea puts its own spin on sashimi at the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. Bargain for a piece of raw fish (hoe, pronounced “hway”) amid the lanes of fishmongers, then head upstairs to have one of the in-house restaurants garnish your prize with generous sides of kimchi. susansijang.co.kr. This appeared in the January/February 2014 issue.
52-3 Myeongdong 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Koreans are masters of skin care, and Korean beauty products are sweeping the globe. One of the most popular beauty brands is a label called Skin Food. The brand takes natural ingredients such as celery, broccoli and coconut (basically a salad for your face) and turns them into cleansers, toners, masks and makeup. Add to that colorful packaging, affordable prices and lots of free samples, and you’ve got yourself a must on your shopping itinerary for your trip to Seoul. Skin Food and other beauty stores aren’t hard to find—they can be found in almost every mall, subway station and shopping district of the city.
Department stores in Korea have a special kind of glamour, and of the three major players—Lotte, Hyundai and Shinsegae—Shinsegae is the most glamorous. Bursting with designer bags, shoes and clothes, the glittering interiors and constant crowds are a staple on the Seoul shopping curcuit. Make your way through throngs of bustling Seoulites shopping for the perfect perfume in the cosmetics section, or brave the food and wine floor to find a standout vintage. Whatever you decide to shop for, you’ll be in good company—Seoulites are known for their consumeristic prowess. Warning: Make sure you fill your wallet before stepping through the shiny revolving doors—the prices are not for the faint of heart.
The Goblin Market is Seoul’s first flea market; it’s been in operation since around the end of the war. The market is huge, with more than 500 booths. Some stalls sell new stuff, while others’ merchandise seems to be the result of attic cleaning. Watch for war souvenirs, watch for watches, watch for what a country saves. A must for the adventurous and serious shopper, it’s by the Cheonggyecheon Stream, and also goes by the name Hwanghak Dong Flea Market or Dokkaebi Market.

961-2 Dapsimni-dong, Dongdaemun-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Seoul’s Janganpyeong Antique Market has more than 150 stores, with everything from furniture to fine art. Antique is sometimes loosely defined, but it’s a good place to look for scroll paintings and calligraphy and lacquerware. Need a man-size stone totem pole? This is the place. It gets a bit overwhelming after a while, but every corner hides a surprise. Near the Dapsimni subway station; most shops are closed Sundays.
Seoul is a city built on innovation and commerce. Combine the two and you get Common Ground, the world’s largest container shopping mall. Developed by the design firm Urbantainer, the project was intended to revitalize unused land in the Gwangjin neighborhood. Now, 200 stacked, prefab blue containers stand on the site, helping connect the community with creativity. Independent boutiques in the Street Market and Market Hall areas lure shoppers, while gourmands head to the terrace restaurants and food trucks in the courtyard. A never-ending lineup of events is also on offer, from DJ nights and performances by emerging musicians to pop culture exhibits sponsored by Toy Republic.
지하 200 Sinbanpo-ro, Banpo-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Not only is the Express Bus Terminal a major transportation hub, it’s also the site of Seoul’s largest underground shopping mall. Attached to the subway station, Goto Mall sprawls for a half-mile and houses more than 600 stores. When visiting, wear comfortable shoes and prepare for a shopping spree. The west end of the mall is a haven for savvy fashionistas seeking inexpensive but trendy Korean clothing and shoes, while the east end features home goods, furniture, and plant stores. After working up an appetite, head to the corridor in the basement of the luxury department store Shinsegae, where there are several gourmet food stalls.
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