One of the most stressful parts of traveling is getting souvenirs for friends, family, and office mates. I've lived in the Seoul area since 2004, and I've been a tour guide for a few years. In my own experience and through talking with tourists over the years, I've decided to put together a handy guide to getting souvenirs that are unique and won't weigh down your luggage.
The K-beauty thing is now becoming a... thing. The world is starting to take the Korean cosmetics industry seriously. I'll admit that I've been sucked into it. Yes, I moisturize. Myeong-dong is the optimal place to shop for cosmetics. I'll warn you, the crowds and the stores are CRA-ZAY! If you're in a hurry or don't know what to buy, go ahead and get a bunch of face packs. You can usually get a good deal for a bunch of them. They come in different--flavors isn't the word I'm looking for. What I suggest is trying one of these face packs after chilling them in the refrigerator, especially if you're recovering from sunburn. It's intense.
If anything, Insa-dong is the best place to get all your souvenir shopping done in one go. After over a decade living here, I still do my Christmas shopping for overseas family in Insa-dong. Stay away from the official souvenir shops, unless you like "Made in China" on your Korean souvenirs. The antiques are kinda iffy, and you may have trouble getting them on the plane. How about these suggestions?
Korean traditional clothes as well as other traditional styles can easily be found here. I suggest buying these for kids. They're cheaper and easier to fit in a suitcase.
This is one gift I like to give. I've even given one to Anthony Bourdain when he came to Seoul. There are lots of shops that make personalized name stamps. You can give them a design, your name in English, or have them make your name in Korean. They usually take fifteen minutes to make, and the prices start at around W30,000 (~$27 USD).
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The art is perfectly fine to buy in Insa-dong. Yet the true craft is traditional Korean paper. You can find this in calligraphy shops. It really is a traditional art. It encapsulates Korea's rustic beauty. I particularly like really rough paper with real flowers pressed in it. I sent some in a care package to my family in the U.S. one Christmas, and my grandmother liked it so much she framed it and hung it on her dining room wall. Best of all, it's lightweight, and it folds, and it's an interesting conversation piece.
These wooden ducks that look like duck decoys are used in traditional marriage ceremonies. If you know anyone getting married soon, this is a good souvenir for them.
I used to laugh at the idea of buying the weird socks in Insa-dong, but I have actually given these to nieces and nephews, and they love them. We have a joke that you're not famous in Korea until your face is on socks. You can get them with Korean celebrities. My favorite are the ones with Shin Ramyeon logos.
For the kids, stickers are so fun and unique. There are some that work the same as paper dolls, where you dress up a princess in sticker clothes. These have been my standby for kids gifts since 2004, and it's always worked. Kyobo Bookstore is a great source, as is any stationery shop.
Another fun gift for kids or the modeler in your life is these little wooden models of traditional Korean buildings. You can find them in bookstores or in the book section of supermarkets.
Speaking of supermarkets, they have been my go-to source for souvenirs in any country I visit. I love finding fun foods while wandering the aisles. I've made the mistake of buying too many jarred products, which did weigh down my luggage in London. In Korea, the snack aisles are loads of fun. The convenience stores are great as well. A word of warning, don't try to bring makgeolli, as the pressure on the plane will make it explode (oops).
Tailor Made Clothing
Korea used to be one of the world's top textile manufacturers. We have a lot of places that will make a suit to your specifications for a decent price. Many of these tailors are in Itaewon. I personally like to get tailor made shirts from Hamilton Shirts. They have my specs on file. I just choose the fabric and the style, and they ship it to me within ten days. They will even ship overseas--something to keep in mind. When my brother was visiting on his birthday, I bought him a tailor made shirt that was delivered to his house in America after he returned. If you are interested in this, read this blog post by World Walk About.
What have we missed?
What other great unique souvenirs would you suggest one get in Seoul? I know I've just scratched the surface. In fact, if you are able to make the hour and a half jaunt to Icheon, a village known throughout history as making the best pottery, you can buy some of the world's greatest pottery and have it shipped to your door. That's a topic for another post.