It's a game of hide and seek, and you shall find, in a labyrinth of old markets and modern malls, writes Belinda Jackson.
On Seoul's north side, serene Shinsegae's flagship department store has a divine basement food hall lined with sushi chefs, noodle tossers and bun steamers (metro line 4, Hoehyeon, exit 7). Southern Seoul lays claim to having Asia's largest underground shopping mall, COEX Mall, chock with cinemas and a kimchi museum (dedicated to Korea's beloved pickled vegetables) (metro line 2, Samsung, exits 5, 6). Hip Galleria mixes international labels - think Louis Vuitton - with Korean stars and nearby is Hyundai's flagship store (metro line 3, Apgujeong, exit 1). Korean giant Lotte World has an indoor theme park , ice rink, grand department store and hotel (metro line 2, Jamsil, exit 3).
Is ginseng, the Korean elixir of youth, beneficial when it's ensconced in chocolate? Surely. Also find it in teas, cosmetics and dusty-smelling soaps in Namdaemun market and souvenir shops. Bokbunjaju, a sweet raspberry wine, is sold in most convenience stores in small, sturdy bottles. A great gift that's easy to carry.
Gwangjang market supplies many department stores with textiles, lacquerware, silks and satins. Go deep in the maze early in the day to avoid the crowds. Closed Sundays, (metro line 1, Jongno 5-ga, exit 8).
Sprawling 600-year-old Namdaemun market is good for aimless wandering and cute homeware, souvenirs and streets of tiny, sizzling food stalls (metro line 4, Hoehyeon, exit 6). Dondaemun sells cheap clothes, shoes and bags: snaffle a ready-made hanbok, a traditional Korean dress (metro line 1 or 4, Dongdaemun, exit 7). At groovy Hongdae Free Market, artisans sell their handcrafts and artworks and there is live music and outdoor snacking, Saturday-Sunday (metro line 2, Hongik University, exit 5) while Seoul's scrubbed-up Folk Flea Market opens 10am-7pm daily, (metro lines 1, 2, Sinseol-dong, exits 6, 9, 10).
Samcheong-dong is one of the hippest little strips in Seoul, near Gyeongbokgung Palace (home to a great gift shop), yet still a bit hush-hush. Set amid centuries-old traditional cottages, it could be called a fashion street, except that between every boutique is a tiny art gallery or groovy little cafe. Cruise the vintage shops and check out star residents such as milliner Lui Elle (metro line 3, Anguk, exit 1).
Sure it's touristy but pedestrian street Insa-dong easily yields great celadon teasets and vases to bright silk cushion covers, colourful aprons and beautiful lacquer jewellery boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Use the government-run National Souvenir Centre as a price benchmark. 15 Insa-dong, souvenir.or.kr (metro line 1, Anguk, exit 3). Fans of Muji, the cutesy Japanese homewares brand, head to Myeong-dong (see below).
Fash & trash
Make for Myeong-dong fashion district for street upon street of high-street brands - Topshop, H&M, Zara, Mango's flagship - check Korea's own Codes Combine for arty, deconstructed streetwear. Migliore Mall is packed with individual stores selling young fashion and designer ripoff bags, open until 4.30am daily (metro line 4, Myeong-dong, exits 5,6). The foreigner stronghold of Itaewon yields larger-sized clothes and sporting brands outlets, as well as weird leather from croc to armadillo and slightly botched designer gear at knock-off prices in its underground market (metro line 6, Itaewon, exit 1). Galleria aside, Apgujeong Street (aka Rodeo Street) was hot. Now it's not, though the shop assistants haven't worked that out yet. Key finds here are second-hand original-label (Gucci, Louis Vuitton and the like) handbags selling for about 30 per cent of the new price and Pak Cheong Yun's vertiginous stilettos (metro line 3, Apgujeong, exit 2). Instead, move on to the streets of Cheongdam-dong to cruise the hip Milan fashion success story mixed with local Samsung Cheil, 10 Corso Como concept store and shoe fiends' playground: Korea's own Sue Comma Bonnie, (metro line 7, Cheongdam, exit 9), ginko tree-lined Garosu-Gil (metro line 3, Sinsa, exit 8), home of the atelier of the late haute couture bellwether Andre Kim (561-38 Sinsa-dong) or Paris-trained Lee Doii (first floor, 525-23 Sinsa-dong).
Green-tea anything - ice-cream, lattes, face masks or even just in a pot. Slender Korean women swear it reduces cholesterol and carry little packets to imbibe after a big, fatty barbecue pork meal. Find green-tea cosmetics in the city's many skincare chains, including The Face Shop, Skin Food and Nature Republic. To drink it, go to any cafe, or buy from Beautiful Tea Museum, 193-1 Insa-dong (metro line 3, Anguk, exit 1).
The fine print
Korean Tourism, visitkorea.or.kr.