It wasn't long ago that embroidery was an art form learned during childhood by Korean girls. Unfortunately, traditional embroidery is disappearing, but some artists are working hard to preserve it. I've seen some incredible pieces, my favorites featuring flowers and animals. Many embroidered items on sale, like glasses cases and aprons, are not only beautiful, but functional, too.
Where to Buy: Gukje Embroidery in Insadong specializes in embroidered products. Their high quality is reflected in the high prices. Tong-in is another souvenir store in Insadong, that happens to be my favorite place to buy gifts. I'm always very impressed with the quality of their wares and their prices. Embroidered items start at 20,000won (US$18) and go up. Housed in a hanok (traditional home), the shop provides a cozy, quiet atmosphere and a relaxing shopping experience.
Koreans usually eat small rectangles of dried seaweed (aka kim) with rice, but this stuff is so good that I like to eat it straight out of the box. It's crispy and salty and is the perfect souvenir to share the flavors of Korea with friends. Sure, kimchi is another option, but why risk smelly, ruined luggage when there's leak-proof kim?
Where to Buy: The duty free shops sell seaweed at very inflated prices. Stop in the local grocery store or corner market to pick up a single-serving box for less than 1,000 won (80 cents). The oil/salted varieties are the tastiest!
For whatever reason, Koreans love cute, colorful socks. With images of everything from ramen noodle brands to soju to animation characters, Korean socks are a fun gift to purchase for friends when traveling with limited baggage space. During my last trip home, I met a large group of friends from high school and distributed the socks amongst them. They were a hit! For about 1,000 won, socks are budget-friendly, but still a nice, thoughtful gesture.
Where to Buy: It's really difficult not to see funny socks when traveling in Korea, because they can be purchased just about anywhere in Seoul. For the biggest selections, head out to the shopping districts of Dongdaemun and Myeongdong. Look for small, busy accessory stores with sock displays at the entrances.
Tea is a souvenir that combines Korean flavors, history, and tradition. Although Korea isn't a big exporter of tea, it does produce a large amount of it, mostly in the city of Boseong and on the island of Jeju. Tea played an important role in past dynasties and the traditional tea ceremony is still preserved today. Koreans also swear by the health benefits of traditional teas, like omija (5 taste tea) and meshil (sweet plum).
Where to Buy: O'Sulloc is hands-down my favorite place to purchase tea when visiting Insadong. Their big seller is Jeju green tea, but they have at least a hundred varieties of high-quality tea on sale, each of which can be smelled by customers before purchase. Teas leaves can be purchased loose or in individual tea bags. Prices for a box of 10 tea bags start at 15,000 won ($15) and can go up into the 100,000s for the highest quality loose leaves. Despite the price, I find myself making monthly trips to O'Sulloc, as their teas are simply the best Korea has to offer.
Korea is quickly becoming one of the biggest makeup and skin care markets in the world. (Fun fact: The average Korean woman applies 17-18 products before walking out the house.) The biggest player in the Korean cosmetic world is BB cream, a makeup trend that is only now catching on in western countries. This foundation-like formula is an all-in-one sun cream, moisturizer, and zit zapper. BB cream, along with other innovative cosmetics, are constantly being created and improved by the hundreds of makeup companies in Korea. Asian tourists are quite aware of the Korean cosmetic phenomenon and when visiting Seoul, purchase cosmetic products in bulk. These high quality, low priced goods make the perfect souvenir for all the girls on one's gift list.
Where to Buy: Cosmetic shops can be found quite literally on every block of Seoul, but Myeongdong is the best option for foreigners, as many of the store attendants in the area speak English. There are certain areas of Myeongdong in which all the cosmetic stores are next door to each other, allowing customers to try and compare all available products. The cosmetic chains I recommend are Innisfree, Too Cool for School, and Etude House.
Hanji refers to products made from traditional handmade Korean paper. The process of making the paper with the bark of the mulberry tree dates back hundreds- if not thousands- of years. Historically, hanji was used to cover doors and windows to keep houses warm. Today, its use is more for aesthetic purposes, and can often seen used to make paper dolls, stationary, and lamps.
Where to Buy: The National Souvenir Center in Insadong has a fantastic selection of hanji products. The lamps resembling Buddhist lanterns are my favorite, as they exude a traditional feel, but there are more modern items like picture frames and trinket boxes with contemporary, abstract prints.
Final Shopping Tips
* Insadong is a great place to buy souvenirs. Though shops on Insadong-gil, the main street, have a large variety of wares, many of them are MADE IN CHINA! Wander down the side streets to find shops that offer high quality, handmade items produced in Korea. The prices are usually still quite fair. Also, Ssamzigil is another amazing place to visit for unique, affordable gifts that are sure to wow all your friends and loved ones back at home.
* Daiso is Korea's ultimate dollar store and offers an array of quirky products for dirt cheap prices (5,000 won and under). From stationary sets with awkward English to face massagers to Hello Kitty rice molds, there's something for everyone on your souvenir list. Check out the huge five-story branch at Jonggak Station, just a stone's throw from Insadong.
* Kimchi chocolate is NOT a traditional Korean snack. In fact, most Koreans wouldn't dare try the stuff. Don't let the folks at the souvenir shops trick you into thinking that it's worth buying. You're friends won't like you anymore if they receive this as their souvenir. You've been warned.
Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.