As the familiar hues of nightfall spill across the skies, herds of tourists flood into the streets of Myeongdong. 6.8 million of them a year, to be exact.
Neon starts to flash overhead, filling the streets with an instantly recognizable buzz, barely audible over the rhythmic beats of K-pop that blare from hidden speakers. Shop assistants clap violently and shout out, effortlessly switching their sales pitches from Chinese to Japanese to English and back again, luring in wide-eyed visitors with free face masks and samples of eye cream. Wafts of sausage-scented smoke rolls through the alleys, while Seoul Tower peeks through the small crevices of space in between of shopping centers.
Myeongdong doesn’t feel like Korea. In fact, it has become so popular with Chinese tourists that the majority of signage and sales transactions are in Mandarin. It’s not a place to go to see the real Seoul. What it is good for, however, is shopping, unique street food, and sensory overload, in the best way possible. So, if you seek any of these three things, be sure to spend an evening—when the place really comes alive—in Myeongdong.
Shop Hop & Cute Coffee
Whether you’re on the lookout for funky accessories, imitation bags, high-end leather goods or cheap boots, you’ll find it all here. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger stores on the main streets are more well known, whereas the small alleys that connect them offer the best bargains.
During the annual Korea Grand Sale, which is usually held for about two months, international visitors can enjoy a number of discounts from over 135 participating vendors. Myeongdong is usually at the center of the sale, so if you happen to be in the neighborhood, be sure to take advantage of all the benefits.
Despite the area’s high concentration of international fashion franchises and countless independent boutiques, the neighborhood’s SPA brands are perhaps the most-visited. Short for “specialty retailer of private label apparel,” Korea’s SPA brands offer stylish, ever-changing collections at affordable prices, with a generally better quality than foreign SPA brands such as Forever 21 or H&M. For this reason, a number of them are included in this walk.
For basics and staples in simple styles for both men and women, check out the classic but colorful apparel of SPAO. Offering everything from shoes to jeans to insulating innerwear, SPAO has you covered. Fans of Girls Generation, EXO and Super Junior should check out the Amusement Zone on the fourth floor, where photos, posters and CDs of SM Entertainment artists are sold.
As its name suggests, the Hello Kitty Cafe franchise is a tribute to the world’s cutest cat (err… British school girl) and her furry friends, and is a mecca for girly girls. These cafes are super feminine, covered in pinks and pastels and offer a nice variety of cakes and drinks, all of which are decorated with the famous feline’s face. Even the bathrooms are decked out in pastels!
The Myeongdong location is located right in the thick of things, and is a good place to take a shopping break. When you’re ready to hit the streets again, check out the vendors in the adjacent alley for ridiculously affordable bags and shoes.
Authentic Cuisine to Culture Class
If you aren’t able to get down to Jeonju during your trip in Korea, you can sample the bibimbap that the city is famous for at Gogung. The restaurant, which originally opened in 1971, with its Myeongdong branch established in 1999, imports many of its ingredients from the southwestern city to ensures that its dish, which incorporates bellflower roots, jujubes, gingko nuts and hot pepper paste, among others, tastes like the real thing.
Although you may not want to destroy the perfect presentation of the pretty dish, it’s recommended that you use the chopsticks to mix the ingredients to maintain the proper shape and texture of the ingredients. The wait staff, who are dressed in hanbok, and the traditional atmosphere add to the experience, making Gogung stand out from the less charming eateries of the neighborhood.
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If you time your visit right, there might just be a cultural class or event on at the Seoul Global Cultural Centeron the fifth floor of the M Plaza Building. Classes range from traditional activities, such as hanji (Korean paper) crafts to more contemporary activities such as Hallyu makeup and K-pop dance classes. On some weekends, the Seoul Film Society and Seoul Book and Culture Club host film screenings and meet-and-greets with local authors.
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More SPA brands abound down the road. MIXXO is another player in the fast fashion market looking to compete with international brands. Catering specifically to career women, MIXXO’s collection consists of basic casual wear, career wear and suits that are more classic than trendy. MIXXO Secret offers intimate wear and comfortable pajamas.
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Nearby, TOPTEN10 unveils its brings together quality, design and price and makes it easy to find the latest looks of the season with its “Top 10 Items You Need” display. While most of the items here are basics in fun prints and patterns, TOPTEN10 has a huge selection of graphic tees which boast vintage and modern designs.
Out of the Crowds
Head east to take in the stunning architecture of Korea’s first Roman Catholic parish church, as well as its first Gothic structure: Myeongdong Cathedral. During the mid-1800s, the area had been a gathering place for the Catholic community and the center of missionary work, most of which was conducted secretly. Completed in 1882, the church has since become the preeminent site for Latin-rite Roman Catholic services and the seat of Seoul’s Archbishop.
Boasting a striking alter, high ceilings and colorful stained glass windows, Myeongdong Cathedral offers visitors a bit of sanctuary from the bustling streets of the neighborhood. In the basement, there is a small sanctuary where the remains of Korea’s martyrs are enshrined, and where visitors to the cathedral can pay their respects.
Behind the cathedral, St. Mary’s Garden, is a nice place for a peaceful stroll. Like all places of worship, it is a quiet and solemn place to visit. Visitors are free to enter and take pictures, but should be careful so as to not disrupt parishioners.
Make your way back through the crowds to O’Sulloc. Whether you need a bit of caffeine or are looking for the perfect gift to share a taste of Korea with your loved ones back at home, this purveyor of fine tea should be a stop on your Myeongdong walk.
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Specializing in premium teas produced in Jeju Island, O’Sulloc functions as a cafe and gift shop and boasts an expansive collection of Korean herbal, red and green teas, some of which are roasted on-site in the large cauldron at the entrance.
Although the cafe’s beverages are on the pricey side, they use high-quality ingredients and are not likely to be found in any other shop in Korea. Creative hot, cold and blended drinks are available, as are desserts, like the light and refreshing green tea ice cream and green tea cheese tiramisu.
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Appreciate the gorgeous aromas of the teas for sale by smelling the samples on display (the Tropical Dream Green Tea will send you to another place and time). As a bonus, they are beautifully packaged and additional gift boxes can be purchased for a minimal fee.
Beauty Haul on the Cosme Road
Back to shopping! And there’s one more SPA brand you shouldn’t miss. 8 Seconds provides a variety of styles to suit every shopper, carrying looks that include basics, activewear, outerwear, denim, intimates and trendy accessories. There is a special floor for menswear, denim and graphic t-shirts, and 10×10 in the basement is a good place to pick up cute eco-bags and stationery. Outside, grab a unique street snack such as skewered grilled octopus or tteokgalbi meatballs.
Everyone knows that South Korea is the leader of beauty trends and there’s no better place to load up on cosmetics than Seoul’s Cosme Road, which is essentially a commercial concentration of the nation’s most popular brands. The products for sale in these stores boast high quality relative to price, so shoppers buy them not only for personal use, but also for gifts.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to see tourists dragging along suitcases chock full of cosmetics. While each shop has its own concept and specialty items, some stand out above the others.
Etude House embodies the dollhouse every little girl dreams of having. Decorated in princess pink, the shop, which caters to younger women, is known particularly for its oh-so-adorable packaging but has a great selection of eye makeup and lip tints. Aritaum is a stark contrast, both in decor, which is on the cosmopolitan side, and price, which is in the upper mid-range end. Go here for gel nail polish and the IOPE Cushion Compact which is so popular that some reports state one of these is sold every 30 seconds in Asia.
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Innisfree’s flagship store in Myeongdong is a tourist favorite, as the brand’s products (and packaging) are eco-friendly and manufactured without parabens, artificial pigments, animal ingredients, mineral oils or artificial fragrances. This particular location is just as sustainable, built to resemble a greenhouse and illuminated with energy-saving LED lighting. Innisfree, like most of the cosmetics shops on Cosme Road, offer free samples with each purchase and larger, more deluxe free gifts with bigger purchases.
Bring it on Down to Lotte Town
If you haven’t spent all your money by now, cross the street via the Underground Shopping Center to Lotte Young Plaza, and pick up a few posters, DVDs or other memorabilia items of your favorite Hallyu stars along the way. Enter the mall through the basement through the SM TOWN Pop Up Store and make your way through the multi-story shopping complex of diverse brands devoted to casual wear and fun accessories.
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If you’re shopping on a bigger budget, Lotte Department Store is ten floors of retail bliss, featuring mostly higher end and luxury brands, including a Duty Free Shop on the tenth floor. The basement’s food court has a fantastic selection of just about any type of cuisine you can imagine, while the eleventh and twelfth floors are punctuated with dine-in restaurants.
Round off your evening with a movie at Avenuel, a cinema that is one of the few in Seoul that shows select Korean movies with English subtitles, or with a nightcap at The Lounge, a luxurious, chandelier-studded, marble-floored lounge on the first floor of the Lotte Hotel. Grab a table by the window that overlooks the waterfall and relax to the smooth sounds of live music Monday through Saturday.
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