A trip to Seoul promises a travel experience unlike any other – one complete with tasty meals, beautiful natural landscapes and unforgettable cultural encounters. Upon your departure, you’ll want to take home a keepsake of your travels to share with a friend, or perhaps keep for yourself so that you might relive your Korean adventures again and again.
As one of Asia’s leading shopping destinations, there’s no shortage of souvenir options in Seoul. But if you’re looking for something truly special, pass on standard, mass-produced goods like T-shirts and magnets and opt instead for a beautiful handmade item produced by a local craftsman.
Perhaps the best place to start your souvenir shopping is in Insadong, Seoul’s centre of traditional culture. Its touristy main drag is bordered by an array of shops selling everything from K-pop memorabilia and cosmetics to more traditional items, such as calligraphy brushes and pottery, with quality varying from store to store.
Wander off the beaten path and into the neighbourhood’s maze of alleyways to discover a wealth of traditional tea shops, charming galleries and workshops that offer more curated selections of artisan wares.
You can find similar shops in nearby Samcheongdong and Bukchon Hanok Village, although finding them can be a bit of a chore, as they’re more dispersed, not to mention obscure. If you’ve got time to kill, though, seeking them out is an experience in itself, as these speciality workshops and stores are located among picturesque hanok, traditional Korean homes.
If you prefer a keepsake that’s more modern, head to the university neighbourhood of Hongdae or the Dongdaemun fashion district, where young designers set up shop – either at their own studios or pop-up craft markets (like the Hongdae Free Market) – and sell contemporary handicrafts, many of them incorporating traditional Korean iconography.
Of course, if you’re visiting one of the city’s major museums or palaces, don’t miss the gift shop. These convenient souvenir stores offer numerous Korea-centric items such as prints, tableware and lacquered jewellery boxes, all of which are very affordable, considering their artisan quality.
Likewise, Incheon International Airport carries much of the same inventory at an identical price point, making it a great spot to make last-minute purchases.
So, what exactly should you buy while in Seoul? The list is endless, but below are a few of the most representative handmade items.
Embroidery: Embroidered clothing once indicated a wearer’s rank; patterns signified class and role. Women also embroidered designs onto household items based on their wishes for their family. These motifs continue to be used in modern designs on functional wares, such as pouches and pillows.
Dyed textiles: The Korean art of natural dyeing uses products such as persimmon, walnut, indigo and even squid ink to add colour to textiles. Although machines have replaced most traditional processes, a few artists continue to practice this ancient art.
Knots: Generally made using a single string of silk, Korean knots have long been utilised in traditional clothing, but also make beautiful embellishments on a bag or as room decor.
Hanbok: Worn daily up until about a century ago, the hanbok, traditional Korean attire, is making a comeback with contemporary designs that are not only catwalk-worthy but also wearable.
Stamps: Korean stamp seals, or dojang, have been used for thousands of years as a signature on official documents and even artwork. Take your stationery game to the next level with a unique, customised stamp, which can be designed on the spot at one of the many stamp stores in Insadong.
Traditional spirits: Although traditional spirits such as soju and makgeolli are ubiquitous and ridiculously cheap, opt for artisan grades crafted by masters using ancient techniques and recipes.
Paper goods: Historically, hanji – a paper made with mulberry-tree bark – was used to cover doors and windows to keep houses warm. Today, it’s used more for decorative purposes and is a popular material for souvenirs, such as paper dolls, gift wrap and lanterns.
A one-stop shop for quality Korean souvenirs is Ssamziegil, a whimsical shopping complex made up of 70 independent stores specialising in handmade items. Whether you’re looking for embroidered pouches, hanji boxes, silk fans or even clay dioramas of classic Korean scenes (think pojangmacha street-food tents and thatched houses), Ssamziegil has it all. It’s also designed so that you can easily window-shop your way past all the stores until something special catches your eye. Find it in Insadong.