Now that we can navigate Seoul subways without draining all our energy, we can plan what happens after leaving the turnstile.
When you’re out in the biggest city in Korea the real experience begins: blaring K-Pop, flashing neon signs, smells from dozens of food stalls, and loudspeakers screeching out deals on cosmetics. Add saleswomen thrusting free samples at you as you’re dragged along in droves and it’s sensory overload. Not all places in Seoul are this vivid but a lot of the city’s “must visit lists” include areas that can be invasive for some travelers.
While I don’t recommend NOT trying something once, I can say I experience higher anxiety when I visit these areas. Despite our introversion, we deserve as much sightseeing and discount shopping as anyone else. Instead of foregoing these spots altogether, just plan to go at a different time! Mornings are great for popular sites as most tourists are still sleeping. Weekday mornings are even better since most locals are working and kids are at school.
With that said, instead of a “skip it list” I offer you a “do it another time list.”
It’s not the cheapest place to shop, but it’s an experience for sure. Dozens of cramped streets are lined with food and pop-up accessory stalls while popular cosmetics chains can be found everywhere. If you passed on a great deal and you can’t remember where the shop was, keep walking. You’ll find the same chain just around the corner.
The best time to avoid massive crowds would be during the week. Weekends are the busiest days from morning to night.
This is the cheapest spot to shop clothes and accessories, if you can manage to squeeze through the shoulder-width corridors, that is. Most “shops” are stuffed floor to ceiling with inexpensive merchandise, sometimes spilling out onto the floor space. But be aware, stepping over boxes of discount (yes, discounts get discounts here) merchandise and not falling onto other shoppers is a common occurrence–or else I’m just clumsy. It’s worth the energy drain if you’re looking for lots of clothes, accessories, or gifts.
Mondays are your best bet for simple shopping. Though mornings are most calm, the market peaks around noon every day. If you’re a night owl, check out the late market. Most tourists will skip it for Seoul’s nightlife which means more elbow room for you, if only marginally.
Dongdaemun Shopping Complex
If you’re looking for funky patterned fabric, lace by the meter, or a billion and one buttons, this is the crafting mecca of Seoul. The complex is more overwhelming due to its size than the crowds, though it is just across the street from the market. Each floor has specific merchandise like fabrics, accessory materials like beads, buttons, lace, and thread, housewares, etcetera. Some of the buildings connect which creates the illusion of endless hallways. I swear the fluorescent lights span the edges of the earth. –
Surprisingly, the best time to go here would be a Saturday morning, Mondays are decent too. Avoid the canned sardine feeling by skipping the complex during weekday afternoons.
The Five Grand Palaces
The scent of spring blossoms envelope you, the fall colors captivate you, the dusting of snow tickles your nose. These palaces are gorgeous historic retreats inviting you to live in royal Korea, in the middle of Seoul! That is if you can ignore the loose children weaving through the crowds and affectionate couples stopping mid path for their 1,000th selfie.
Avoid the children and the couples in matching hanbok by visiting the palaces early in the morning. Not only will it be more quiet, you’ll get gorgeous photos of the rising sun. Most of the palaces are closed on Tuesdays, opt for a Wednesday morning visit for the most peace and quiet.
You can traverse the subways and circumvent the hordes. Nothing can stop you! …unless it’s a 10+10 deal on sheet masks. Then you should definitely stop and shop.
Author: Dana – The Wandering Introvert
About: Dana is a US expat living on the Korean peninsula. When she’s not teaching elementary school students, she’s pushing through introversion and social discomfort to travel Asia. Her affinity for journaling has led to dabbling in travel blogging; to show other homebodies that the great big world is where the adventure begins.