Over 40% of South Korea's antique stores are in Insadong, which has been the cultural center of Seoul, if not South Korea, since the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The area begins at the Anguk-dong Rotary and runs past Insadong crossroads to Tapgol Park in Jongno 2-ga. Antiques here tend to be more expensive than those sold elsewhere in the country, but the quality is exceptional. Prices range from inexpensive to the super-expensive (think W1 million and up). Be careful to shop at reputable galleries and stores when you buy antiques, because it's illegal to take items deemed national treasures out of the country.
Most of the antiques in the area tend to be ceramics, wooden containers, jewelry, and old paintings. A good ceramics specialist is the Haedonggodoja Research Institute (tel. 02/732-6622). A great store that specializes in old books, usually written in Hanja, is Tongmungwan (tel. 02/734-4092; 147 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu; open 10:30am-5:30pm Mon-Sat), which is worth a browse even if you don't intend to buy anything. The shop (whose sign is also written in Chinese characters) was opened by the grandfather of the current owner. If you're looking for antique furniture, the friendly owners at Gayajae (tel. 02/733-3138; 192-46 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu) have a good selection of wooden pieces, as well as stone Buddha statues and tiles. Nearby Godosa (tel. 02/735- 4373; 192-46 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu; open 10am-6pm daily) carries antique utensils, furniture, and everyday items. Another good option is Gonghwarang (tel. 02/735-9938; 23-2 Insadong, Jongno-gu; open 10am-6pm daily), whose owner is the president of the Korean Antique Association, so you know you're getting a genuine article.
Better than Insadong, the best place to find antiques is at the Jang-anpyeong Antique Market. At one of Asia's largest, over 150 vendors sell antiques (and reproductions) of furniture, paintings, calligraphy, wooden objects, ceramics, ironware, stone statues, and more. Even if you don't want an old man's pipe to take home, this market is definitely worth a browse. Although hours vary by seller, shops are generally open Monday through Saturday 10am to 8pm. Take subway line 2 to Sindap Station and walk past the Majang-dong intersection toward Cheonho Bridge.
Art Galleries & Crafts
Art galleries began opening up in Insadong in the 1970s. The galleries in the area sell both contemporary art by South Korean artists and collectable antiques . Most galleries have exhibitions that rotate frequently, featuring either one contemporary South Korean artist or a group of recent art-school graduates. A good place to start is the Insa Art Center (tel. 02/736-1020; 188 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu), which is a plaza complex of smaller art galleries and shops off the main drag in Insadong. Also nice for browsing is the Kyung-In Museum (tel. 02/733-4448; 30-1 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu; open 10am-6pm daily, unless they're putting up a show, and then they'll be closed on Tues; closed Jan 1, Lunar New Year, and Chuseok), which also has a handful of gallery spaces and a small cafe.
In the past few years more upscale galleries and artisan studios have opened up in nearby Samcheong-dong. Famous art spaces line both sides of Samcheongdong-gil, which starts from the street east of Gyeongbokgung to Samcheong Tunnel, ending at Samcheong Park. Famous galleries in the area include my personal favorite, Gallery Hyundai (tel. 02/734-6111; 80 Sagan-dong), Geumho Gallery, Artsonje Center, Art Space Seoul (aka Gallery Hak Go Jae), Geum San Gallery, Kukje Gallery, Gallery IHN, and Growrich Gallery. Some of the art spaces have their own cafes and restaurants, so you can enjoy a meal and see art all in one. Even if you don't have a set itinerary in mind, the area is worth a stroll for all the galleries and other unique spaces in the area.
A couple of small museums in the neighborhood are also worth stopping into. The Gahoe Museum (tel. 02/741-0466; 11-103 Gahoe-dong, Jongno-gu), located on the north of the Hanok village, is a privately run museum in a traditional-style building with traditional folk paintings and displays of shamanistic talismans. It's open 10am to 6pm Tuesday to Sunday, and admission is W3,000 for ages 18 and up and W2,000 for children and students. The Tibet Museum (tel. 02/735-8149; 115-2 Beonji, Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu) is a small two-story building nestled in the hills between apartments and other unlikely buildings (signs in English from Anguk Station point you to the museum). Open 10am-7pm; admission is W5,000 for adults, W3,000 for students.
One of the best overall bookstores for English-language volumes and selection is Kyobo Mungo (tel. 02/1544-1900), located on the basement floor of the Kyobo Building (take subway line 1 to Gwanghwamun Station, exit 3) and in the basement level of the Kyobo Gangnam Tower (subway to Gangnam Station, exit 6). Open daily from 10am to 9pm, they also have a pretty good selection of CDs and DVDs. Another major bookstore is the Bandi & Luni's (tel. 02/600-6002), with imported English-language books, with locations in the COEX Mall (subway line 2, Samseong Station, exit 6) and the basement level of the Jongno Tower (subway line 1, Jonggak Station, exit 2). Also a good bet is Seoul Selection Bookshop (tel. 02/734-9565), on the basement level of the Korean Publishers Association building. They have a wide selection of books on Korean culture, CDs, and DVDs. Open Monday through Saturday 9:30am to 6:30pm. Take subway line 3 to Anguk Station (exit 1) or line 5 to Gwanghwamun Station (exit 2).
The Ulchi Book Center (tel. 02/757-8991), located on the subway level at Euljiro Station (line 2), has a good selection of the latest bestsellers and instruction books for English-language teachers.
The Royal Asiatic Society has a South Korea branch in Seoul (tel. 02/763-9483; room no. 611 of the Korean Christian building). They have a solid selection of books in English about South Korea, as well as some foreign magazines. Open Monday to Friday 10am to noon and 2 to 5pm. Take subway line 1 to Jongno 5(o)-ga (exit 2).
Getting tailor-made clothes or just having a piece of clothing altered in Seoul is quick and easy. The custom tailors in Dongdaemun Market can alter something for you right on the spot or make shirts, suits, silk items, or dresses to your specifications. You can get a tailored suit for about W150,000 to W250,000 Unfortunately, although they are affordable, most of them don't speak a lot of English. For easier communication, try the tailors in Itaewon (there are over a hundred of them here), who are used to foreign customers. Some of the shops will even make custom-made leather items. Most of them can custom-make something for you within a couple of days (let them know when you need it) and will deliver items to your hotel.
If you're looking for electronic goods, look no further than the Yongsan Electronics Market. A grouping of 22 buildings and over 5,000 small shops, it has every electronic gadget, part, or equipment imaginable. The largest collections are in the Terminal Electronics Market, Seonin, I'Park Mall, and Najin Market, each specializing in specific products. Electronics Land is the newest mall on the block. Seonin Mall is the computer specialty seller. Najin Market is the most crowded but has the best bargains. Prices here are generally lower than those at regular stores, but they hold sales about every 3 months. Be sure to check before buying anything and ask for warranties, if you're unsure about authenticity. Generally open daily 10am to 8pm, the markets are closed the first and third Sundays of each month, but the flea market happens (in front of Seonin and Najin) every weekend, 9am to 7pm. Take subway line 1 to Yongsan Station (exit 3) or line 4 to Sinyongsan Station. Most eateries in the area are geared toward the vendors, but you'll find good Korean cuisine on levels 4, 5, and 6 of I'Park Mall.
Wholesale and retail jewelry shops are clustered in the streets and alleyways around Jongno 3(sam)-ga to Jongno 5(o)-ga, so the area is called the Jongno Jewelry District. There are a wide variety of designs and items to choose from and prices are generally about 30% to 40% lower than those of other jewelry shops in the country. If you're looking for watches specifically, try "Watch Alley" in Yeji-dong. The back alleys in the area and in Bong-ik-dong have shops that are specifically wholesale, so they may not be willing to sell single items. Many of the stores have their own factories and production centers, so you can get items custom-made or have a designer piece copied (or you may see copies already made in some of the stores). Be sure to get an A/S warranty card and certificate of authenticity when you buy something. A bit of bargaining is possible, but since prices are already discounted, vendors won't cut the price that much. Paying with cash will always get you a better price than paying with credit cards. Take subway line 1 or 3 to Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station (exit 10 or 11 for the jewelry district or exit 12 for the jewelry "department store"). Open daily from 9am to 9:30pm.
Koreans have a general dislike of used items, but they're trying to encourage reusing and recycling with the Beautiful Store, 45 Anguk-dong, Jongno-gu (tel. 02/3676-1009; www.beautifulstore.org; take subway line 3 to Anguk Station, exit 1). A bargain hunter's paradise in Insadong, they have racks filled with secondhand clothes, starting at a mere W2,000. Upstairs, they have art objects, CDs, and books available for a reasonable price. All profits go to charitable causes, mainly Oxfam projects throughout Asia. You can even donate your gently used items to make room for more souvenirs in your luggage. Open 10:30am to 10pm Monday to Saturday, they have locations all over the country, including one in Hongdae-ap.
If you're looking for inexpensive tennis shoes or other footwear, check out the bottom floors of the Dongdaemun Market. On the other end, if you have a designer shoe fetish, walk your boots over to "Designer Shoe Alley" in Apgujeong-dong. Between the big Galleria department store and Cheongdam intersection, you'll see a street with all the luxury brands. At the Gucci store, walk up the little alley to the left and you'll find a hidden handful of South Korean designer shoe stores, with styles you won't find at home. Korean shoe sizes may be too small for you, but if you have the time, they can custom-order shoes for you and get them to you in about a week.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.