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Heart and Seoul: Shopping and unique venues in South Korea

Even though humidity is at 70 per cent, last night it seemed that everyone in Seoul was out either shopping or window shopping.

To say it’s crowded is something of an understatement as South Korea’s capital city has a population of more than 10 million, and a density of about 17,000 people per square kilometre.

Shopping is Seoul’s national sport and at Myeongdong, listed as the ninth most expensive shopping street in the world, you can find practically anything from haute couture to the latest street fashion.

But it’s not only a Mecca for the shopaholic, Myeongdong has also been a popular location for political demonstrations and protests.

This was my first time in South Korea and I enjoyed finding out about its history. Strolling around the streets, trying to get my bearings, I chanced upon a statue of Yi Hoeyeong. Who he? A quick spot of web research told me that he was an independence activist. Hoeyeong spent all of his fortune, a cool 1.7 billion dollars by today’s standards, to fight against the Japanese. In 1910, Korea was annexed by the Empire of Japan, and the country was seen as a part of Japan until 1945.

Sadly, Yi Hoeyeong didn’t live to see the day his country win independence. He died in jail; the Japanese claiming he hanged himself but the Koreans believe he was killed by the Japanese.

At times, Seoul feels very different, a million miles from little old Britain. The air smells different and the tang of kimchi, the traditional dish of pickled cabbage, hangs heavy in the warm summer breeze. But just as I’m thinking this on my walk around town, globalisation strikes back, in the form of a Cath Kidston store. There’s also a Starbucks on every corner, in case you yearn for the familiarity of a British high street.

Walking around downtown Seoul is a real mix of the old and the new. A landscape of skyscrapers and a futuristic town hall – but with its ancient tradition still alive in the form of ancient monuments such as the Deoksugung Palace, which first served as a royal residence in 1593.

It’s the use of these ancient buildings as venues for meetings and conferences that South Korea does so well. In recent years, the country has invested heavily in the meetings and incentive industry, with the sector generating more than £6.8bn in revenue.

One that stands out is Gyeongbokgung Palace, regarded by many as the most impressive of the royal palaces. Built in 1395, it was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Although it can’t be hired out for corporate events – the fragile timber buildings are obviously a fire risk – it is a good place for incentives as you can book a royal banquet here. It also houses the National Palace Museum of Korea and the National Folk Museum within the premises of the complex, which are both well worth visiting.

South Korea as a meetings or incentive destination is one to watch out for, especially as an alternative to Vietnam, Singapore or other more well-trodden Asian paths.