Post #2 – Here are a few basic guidelines to shopping in South Korea, when visiting the largest cities, such as Seoul or Busan. The idea is to buy Korean when in Korea. The way you can avoid bringing back tons of stuff that is actually not made in Korean is by avoid to reach for the lowest priced items. Handcrafted Korean items are fine and come with the right price attached.
Shopping in Korea can be overwhelming, but so much fun. You will find all the top-of-the-line exclusive international fashion brands, which cater there to the Asian taste, so items will be slightly different than back home. Be aware that Korean fashion stores carry rather small sizes. If this is what you are looking for, Gangnam is the place. Closest subway station to the shopping row is Apgujeon Rodeo. The nearby area is charming and has smaller local boutiques as well, and many places to eat or have coffee.
But as I said, when in Korea, buy Korean. Korea has many local indie designers, from budget to super luxury. You can find them in malls, in the bohemian areas such as Garosugil, or even in the clothing houses located in the largest street markets. Their clothes are unique and out of this world, sometimes just one-of-a-kind. Expect to pay medium to high prices for them, depending on location.
Malls and Markets
The underground markets are actually mall-like flea-markets, although in certain areas of the town they can be rather upscale, and at times lead you right into the biggest and finest shopping malls. Subway stations have each several entrances, sometimes up to a dozen or so. Each entrance is located farther away, along the largest streets above, in order to give locals from a very large area access to the subway line. It is cleverly done, but in some cases you have to walk for 10-15 minutes to get to the most remote exit. The good thing is you walk between underground stores, restaurants and coffee houses. There you can find necessities, from basic clothing, shoes, stockings, accessories, toys, cosmetics, to the occasional supermarket. Make sure you remember the color and number of the subway line you need, and the number of the exit. There are maps of these exits posted close to the ticket machines and/or near the entrance gates to the actual subway line.
Aside from the underground malls, which cover most of the city, there are outdoor markets. These are partially outdoors and partially inside adjacent buildings, and are huge. When entering one such market, Namdaemun or Dongdaemun for example, stop in your tracks, turn around and find the tallest building near your entrance. You will need to find it again to get out of the market, especially if you don’t speak Hangul. When you are sure that you know how to get back out, you can roam freely without worrying to get lost. These markets are incredible.
Rules of the Trade, when you are a Tourist
You can find everything from house wear to purses, clothes, shoes … and food! Oh, the food! Market food is inexpensive and delicious. When roaming, remember that in Korea it is not polite to touch the merchandise. Just look. Touch only the items you do really intend to buy.
You can ask for a break in the price, but the gratitude is bigger if you don’t. Koreans are very generous, and you might end up with an extra gift, or more money returned to you than you expected, if you show your appreciation for the attention you receive. I was given many little free items even when I did not buy anything; and even cash returned to me by vendors and taxi drivers who rounded down the fees I owed them. A nice lady, owner of a shoe store, even went to buy me a pair of socks, so I can try on sneakers. As she brought in the new pack of socks I gave her the money for it, and she refused categorically, so I insisted again… not sure anymore who won. But she was all smiles when I paid a bit extra for the shoes instead. One can spend days in these markets and never get to the end of them.
Other great options to buy Korean-made specialties are tourist markets, lined up along the streets of the bigger touristic areas like Insadong or Bukchon. There you can find linen, pottery, hand-made jewelry, and may hand-crafted souvenirs. Also there are many fine bookstores in Seoul and museum gift shops where you can get educational and traditional gifts. More about what, where and how to shop in Korea next!