Seoul is a shopper's paradise. It used to be a haven for bargain hunters as well but is becoming less so as large box stores and megaplex malls take over streetside marketplaces. Still, there is no shortage of things to buy, often at good prices. Some of the best deals in the city include frames for eyeglasses and sunglasses, shoes, cosmetics, accessories, and nondesigner clothes. Electronic goods are also pretty inexpensive here, but unless you know what you're doing, don't be tempted by the fantastic cellphones (although South Korean phones are some of the best I've seen in the world), as they may not work back home.
High-end department stores take most major credit cards and have ATMs that are foreigner-friendly, with English-language instructions. Be sure to keep your receipts so you can get your VAT back at the airport before you leave. The vendors in traditional markets take only cash, and they expect you to bargain over prices. Tip: When shopping in South Korea, don't step into a store first thing in the morning unless you intend to buy something (even if it's small). Superstition has it that if the first customer of the day leaves a store empty-handed, the store will have bad business all day. No need to worry -- most shopkeepers in South Korea won't give you the hard sell, even if you are their first customer -- but it's considered polite to wait a bit if you're just planning to browse.
Top Shopping Areas
For the fashion-conscious, Myeongdong is the place to be. With boutique shops and clothes galore, you can see the latest fashions geared toward the young. Unfortunately, the sizes are geared toward the petite Korean students and Japanese tourists that flock to the area. If you're lucky enough to be on the slimmer side, there are plenty of inexpensive options. There are loads of stores that specialize in accessories and shoes as well. It's easy to get lost going in and out of the streets here, so be sure to keep a landmark in mind to be able to find your way back.
Another great area for young women's clothes is in Idea-ap (literally meaning, "in front of Ewha Women's University"), where you'll find the latest fashions and accessories. The area's "Fashion Street" starts at Ewha U's main gate and continues to Sincheon rail station. If you want to find something you'll never see back home, get an item from one of the many aspiring fashion designers who sell their experiments at affordable prices.
If you don't have the body of a fashion model, then Itaewon is the place for you. A popular shopping district geared toward foreigners, the stores here offer designer clothes that are manufactured in Korea but were rejected for export, at bargain-basement prices. This is one of the few places in the city where you can find inexpensive shoes to fit Western sizes. You'll also find plenty of casual wear and sportswear from brand names as well. Be aware, though, that there are stalls selling brand-name knockoffs as well and it can be hard to tell the difference. The vendors are pretty blunt about the authenticity of their goods, however, and will let you know that it's not a real luxury brand. Some sellers will show you a catalog of their goods (especially knockoff handbags) and bring you to an unmarked shop to show you the items in person. Be sure to bring a friend and be careful about following strangers into dark alleys.
If you're looking for real luxury goods, head to the shops in Apgujeong, where Seoul's elite shop. There are three main department stores, but hordes of other boutiques and brand-name shops. The Shinsegae store is near the Express Bus Terminal and the JW Marriott Hotel. Nearby is the Gangnam underground shopping plaza at the B1 level of the bus station. The Hyundai department store is also in the area, near the Dongho Bridge. Another good place to browse is Galleria department store or Designer Club. Farther past that (toward the Cheongdam four-way) is the luxury shopping area and "Rodeo Street," where you'll find boutiques such as Armani, Gucci, and the like. It's not easily accessible by subway, but if you can afford to shop here, you can likely afford the taxi ride.
On the other end of the spectrum are the bargains at Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets. There are treasures to be found here, at the biggest traditional markets in all of South Korea, but you have to search a bit.
If you're looking for good South Korean-made souvenirs, the Insadong area has ceramics, paper goods, and handicrafts from both artisans and factories. For more collectible items or genuine artisan pieces, you can check out the more expensive but genuine galleries in Samcheong-dong.
Although malls and shopping centers are popular, many Seoul residents still shop in markets for the best bargains. Whether indoors or out, these markets are inexpensive, chaotic, and lots of fun. Vendors will take only cash -- no credit cards -- and bargaining is not only normal, but expected. The market areas tend to get crowded, so don't be offended by a bit of pushing and shoving. It's all part of the experience and one you must try if you want to get the real flavor of the city. Most of the vendors speak a little bit of English, and even if they don't, they'll bring out a calculator to show you how much things cost. Besides, why let something like language stand in the way of a good bargain?
Large, multilevel department stores can be found in every neighborhood in Seoul. They all have similar layouts, with the basement floor being given over to groceries and inexpensive food courts, and cosmetics and jewelry on the first floor. The middle floors are usually reserved for clothing with higher floors selling furniture, home goods, and sports supplies. The top floor or two is usually reserved for restaurants and food courts. Tip: For 2 weeks each season, the stores have sales (usually in Jan, Apr, July, and Oct) at which you can get good discounts. You can check each store's website or call the Korea Travel Phone (tel. 1330) to find out when exactly they are. Roll up your sleeves and be ready to brave the crowds.
Giant discount shops have popped up all over the city. You may have noticed the ubiquitous yellow box of the E-Marts, but other stores like Lotte Mart and Kim's Club have also joined the scene. They offer similar items (minus luxury goods) to department stores, but at discounted prices. Be prepared for crowds on weekdays after work hours and on weekends.
Hanbang: Traditional Korean Medicine
Although stemming from traditional Chinese medicinal roots (dating back over 2000 years), Korean traditional medicinal practices have developed their own characteristics. There are four components, but all of them take a holistic approach to health and healing. The common treatment methods are chim (acupuncture), hanyak (herbal medicine), ddeum (moxibustion), and buhwang (cupping). Each can be used alone or in combination. Koreans believe that disease comes from a lack of or excess of ki (also called "chi" or "qi" in Chinese), which is the vital energy of life that flows through us. This problem of ki results in an imbalance of eum ("yin" in Chinese) and yang. The treatment is supposed to balance the two forces within a person and heal by creating environmental, social, and physical harmony. A traditional Korean doctor will listen to your ailments and prescribe a combination of treatments that best suit your needs. Common hanyak items include ginseng and ground deer antler.
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