South Korea may be an economic superpower and a leading exporter of hi-tech goods, but in the heart of Seoul, there's nothing its sophisticates enjoy more than shopping.
The main districts that will hold a shopper's interest are spread along the Han River, which runs east to west, dividing the city in two. Although the Han is spanned by 27 bridges, there are only two major roads through the city, making driving grindingly slow. Happily, the subway is efficient, with fares from just 150 won (HK$1.10).
The designer brands tend to thrive in the upmarket shopping district of Gangnam, on the south side. Meanwhile, to the north, Itaewon is considered the home to tailored fashions, women love the couture wedding gowns in Sinchon, and Insadong's tiny boutiques are crammed with exquisite crafts.
Sprawling Gangnam, meaning "southof the Han River", offers Seoul's most cosmopolitan shopping experiences.
At the district's epicentre is Apgujeong, a neighbourhood that has commonly been styled as the Beverly Hills of the South Korean capital. The big draws for tourists from across Asia that flood the area are world-class shopping and plastic surgeons.
Rodeo Street is Apgujeong's main boulevard. This is the kind of street where Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo shops sit alongside stylish coffee shops and restaurants.
The essence of the street is the Galleria Department Store, with its award-winning, perspex-sheathed exterior that resembles an exquisitely wrapped gift. Inside, the wide, brightly lit floors pass off to shoppers the air of being onboard an elegant cruise liner.
Global designers such as Dries van Noten and Christian Louboutin, plus Seoul's own big-name brands Suecomma Bonnie and Lie Sang Bong, are housed in Luxury Hall East.
The shops at the western end of the department store are considered more budget-friendly, and include brands such as Superdry and Diesel.
Although an ancient city, a history of hostile occupation means much of Seoul has been razed and rebuilt over the past 100 years. The result is a sharp, modern-looking city, with a prolific programme of public - and in-store - art.
Not only are Boon the Shop and Space Mue elegant stores in which to browse the latest collections by Stella McCartney and Jardin de Chouette (a home-grown label), but they are also galleries in their own right.
- The Galleria, 515 Apgujeongdong, Gangnam, dept.galleria.co.kr
- Boon the Shop, 82-3 Cheongdamdong, boontheshop.com
- Space Mue, 93-6 Cheongdamdong, spacemue.com
Hearts and crafts
Jongno is Seoul's royal quarter. Located north of the river, its five Unesco-listed palaces are set in landscaped gardens, around which snake alleys of traditional wooden hanok houses in Bukchon. From here, it's an easy walk to two of the city's best districts to shop for handicrafts.
Samcheong, just to the west of the Bukchon Hanok Village, has streets peppered with tiny, trendy boutiques, such as the fabulous Luielle hat shop. Look your best, this is the kind of place where people get caught up in a photoshoot that seems to taking place on every street corner.
Between Samcheong and Jongno, Insadong is Seoul's main arts and crafts district, set along the entertaining, largely pedestrianised Insadong-gil, a street of galleries and tea shops, that leads to Tapgol Park. Here you'll find the cream of Korean handicrafts, including celadon pottery; hanji, the handmade paper boxes; and ramie, cloth made from pounded bark.
Ssamziegil, a five-storey crafts centre around a central courtyard - features cutting-edge work and is a great place for souvenirs.
- Luielle, 12, Bukchonro 5ga-gil, Jongno, luielle.com
- Ssamziegil, 38 B1 Gwanhundong
As well as international and home-grown brands, Seoul supports a thriving industry of tailors and seamstresses, who will be happy to make you an outfit. Although not as cheap as Thailand or Vietnam, the quality is extremely high and it means you're not restrictedto Korean styles, which can be both on the small and conservative side.
Men should explore Itaewon's long street of tailors. Hamilton Shirts (turn right outof Itaewon station) has one of the best reputations for made-to-measure shirts, from about 44,000 won.
The main street through Sinchon is one long catwalk, featuring over 150 shops for bridal couture and prom dresses. Window-shopping here is great fun: watching brides-to-be getting pinned into a confection of silk and sequins, Starbucks coffee in hand.
- Hamilton Shirts, 736-9 Hannam2-dong (opposite the Hamilton Hotel), Yongsan, hs76.com
Seoul seems to show its Confucian roots in the confluence of old and new, such as the traditional street-food carts that do a roaring trade outside the gleaming Gangnam offices of the K-Pop record labels.
But street food and markets in general are a thriving part of the Seoul scene.
Dongdaemun Market dates back to 1396, and - set across from the Dongdaemun Design Plaza designed by architect Zaha Hadid - is a sprawling labyrinth of 30,000-plus stalls selling everything from replica Western clothes to huge ginseng roots.
This is one of the few places in Seoul where haggling is acceptable.
Less overwhelming is the Namdaemun Market in Myeongdong: next to the elegant Shinsegae Department Store, just down from the landmark Lotte complex (which includes the excellent Lotte Hotel).
In addition to cameras and leather goods, Namdaemun is a fantastic place to get cheap spectacles. Look Optical can make a stylish pair within 15 minutes, including an eye test, for about 113,000 won.
Of Seoul's many markets, two more worth a mention are Yongsan Electronics Market and Janganpyeong Antiques Market, spanning the digital future and decorative past.
- Dongdaemun Market, Euljiro 6 (Yuk)-ga, Jung
- Namdaemun Market, 49 Namchangdong, Jung, tel: +82 (2) 753 2805
- Lotte Mall, 30 Euljiro, Jung, lotteshopping.com
- Look Optical, Lotte Mall, lookoptical.co.kr
- Shinsegae Department Store, 63 Sogongro, Jung, shinsegae.com
- Yongsan Electronics Market, 15-2 Hangangro 2-ga, Yongsan, yongsan.co.kr
- Janganpyeong Antique Art Market,961-9 Dapsimnidong, Dongdaemun, tel: +82 (2) 797 8637
Where Apgujeong features established labels, the district to its west features young designers, vintage and teen stores.
A short walk west of Sinchon's wedding dress strip is the Ewha Fashion Street: actually a series of short lanes by Ewha Womans University, packed almost exclusively with shops - Natural Laundry, Nfu.Oh, Holika Holika - selling women's clothes and accessories. It's a relaxing place to shop, stop for coffee or have your nails done.
Also try the lanes near Hongik University - known as Hongdae - about 2 kilometres southwest. The stall-lined pedestrian streets feature everything from Hello Kitty Café to clothing at Uniqlo and Mee. Cosmetics chains, The Face Shop and Skin Food, have great ranges and lots of free samples.
- Natural Laundry 56-77, Daehyungdong, Seodaemun, tel: +82 (2) 365 5739
- Nfu.Oh, 37-39 Daehyungdong, Seodaemun, tel: +82 (2) 393 0199
- Holika Holika, 52-54 Daehyungdong, Seodaemun, holikaholika.co.kr
- The Face Shop, thefaceshop.com
- Skin Food 6-1, Yonseiro, Seodaemun, eng.theskinfood.com
- Hello Kitty Café, 13-3 Changcheondong, Seodaemun, tel: +82 (2) 312 6570
- Uniqlo, 166-15 Dongkyodong, Mapo, uniqlo.com.kr
- Mee, 62 Wausanro 29-gil, Mapo, tel: +82 (2) 324 7662
If there's one thing Seoulites enjoy more than shopping … it's shopping in malls.
Gangnam's Coex Mall is credited with kick-starting the city's appetite for mega-malls. Opened in 1979 and currently closed for refurbishment, Coex covers 88,000 square metres and is the biggest underground shopping mall in Asia.
The most recent mega-malls include: D-Cube City, near Sindorim Station; and the ubiquitous Lotte mall (now South Korea's biggest, which includes a baby lounge and firing range) by the airport; and the chic IFC Mall in Yeouido, which opened last year.
Arguably, Seoul's must-see mall is Times Square in Yeongdeungpo. Built in 2009, Junglim Architecture's design covers 300,000 square metres, and features open floors of high-end Western and Korean brands such as Paul Smith, Zuma and Codes Combine, around a vast glass atrium.
The mall is a cultural hub as well, so there are lots of bands and open-air theatre on weekends, a huge ecological park with art installations and fountains, and a roof garden on the fifth floor.
Times Square is actually one of Seoul's prime dating spots, with its 4-D CGV cinema (the seats lurch), featuring the world's widest screen and brilliant food courts where couples linger over bowls of Oreo bingsu (ice flake dessert) at Cafe Add Bing.
Stop in at one of the fortune tellers on the short walk up from Yeongdeungpo Station and discover if love is true.
Times Square is open from 10.30am until 10pm, although the cinema and fifth-floor pub are open until 3am.
- Times Square Mall, 15 Yeongjungro, Yeongdeungpo, timessquare.co.kr
- Coex Mall, 159 Samseongdong, Gangnam, coex.co.kr
- D-Cube City, 360-45 Shindorimdong, Guro, dcubecity.com
- Lotte Mall, 886 Banghwadong Gangseo, gimpoairport.lottemall.co.kr
- IFC Mall, 23-2 Yeouidodong, Yeongdeungpo, ifcmallseoul.com
When to shop
Seoulites shop long and late: most malls and department stores are open from 10am to 9pm, seven days a week, closing for the odd day each month. Boutiques are not far behind, and the main markets run round the clock.
Where to eat
You’ll never go hungry in Seoul: from the traditional hole-in-the-wall Korean eateries in the back alleys of Insadong – discover the best on one of O’ngo’s (ongofood.com) entertaining street food night tours from 88,000 won (HK$570) – to modern Korean fusion in Itaewon’s East Village. For sheer wow factor, the glass-sided Top Cloud restaurant, set 33 floors atop the Jongno Tower (topcloud.co.kr), offers extraordinary panoramic views across the city to the mountains beyond. The set menu starts from 78,000 won.
Where to stay
For a uniquely Korean experience, nothing beats staying in a traditional hanok in Bukchon Village. One of the loveliest is RakKoJae (rkj.co.kr), a beautifully restored 130-year-old property built only from raw materials. Its open wood-floored living area and paperscreen interior walls open onto a tranquil landscaped garden of bamboo and pine. Prices start from 600,000 won per night. For a more up to date experience, Lady Gaga favours the urban vibe of the WSeoul Walkerhill (starwoodhotels.com), with rooms from 319,000 won per night.