CONTRIBUTED BY SIBO LUNGU I don’t know who invented the first mall, but I do know who has perfected the concept: Asia. Malls in Korea aren’t just a place to get a new item to your wardrobe, watch a movie, or for teens to kill time on weekends. In Korea, they are a one-stop-shop mega-complex for just about all your shopping and entertainment needs. That reads like an advertisement, but it is true. Don’t know what to do on a weekend? Head to the mall and your family will be entertained and fed. Problem solved. You can have a restaurant-quality meal, go to a top notch movie theatre, window shop or actually shop, and finish up with a coffee/dessert and then grocery shopping before you head home. And that’s just the surface. Many malls also have rest areas, kids play areas, fitness centers, hotels, roof top café and view, bookstores, lounges, spas, art exhibitions and live music. The COEX mall even has an aquarium! And best of all, many malls are connected to a subway station which makes getting there and back super easy. The first thing I love are the food options. If you have a hungry family this is key, because days tend to go a whole lot smoother when no one is hungry. There is usually a main food hall and then a restaurant floor or two. The food hall is appropriately named a “hall” because it is in fact often an entire floor of cheap food options. Most of it is Korean so you can get your fresh bread, kimbap, sushi, chicken, rice and noodle dishes.
There are a couple of western options like burgers, hotdogs, and churros (churros are strangely very popular in Korea). The dessert options are always amazing too. I love that the food is made fresh, so no, you aren’t eating yesterday’s churro or kimbab. You can actually see the staff working away behind the counter as they make beautiful and equally delicious creations. It’s great for groups because everyone can pick what they want and you can have a seat in a cafeteria-style setting. If you can’t find anything they like under this roof, then I don’t know what to tell you. The restaurant options are, of course, a step up in price and ambiance. Again, there are several options including many one or two western options like TGI Friday’s which seems to be a popular one. I have co-workers who go to the mall on dates or to eat, so my view of “mall food” has definitely changed. The most delicious Oreo bingsoo (ice flakes and ice cream) I‘ve had in Korea was at a mall.
The cafes offer your usual drink options and enough cakes and pastries to make many sweet-toothed people feel like they are in heaven. They each have their own décor and ambiance to suit one’s tastes. The main resident of the mall is the department store. Lotte, AK Plaza, Shinsegae, and Hyundai are the top department stores in Korea. They would be similar to your Dillard’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, etc. They take up the most space in the mall and have the typical layout of a cosmetics floor, menswear, womens wear, etc.
Pro Tip: Always check the basement floors of the department stores for deals. That’s where they put a lot of their big sale and clearance items like bags, shoes and coats. I got a $400 winter jacket for $60 at a Lotte mall. Score! Korea has a very large market for sporting goods. It’s actually a pretty puzzling sight because the amount of mountaineering clothing and shoes they sell looks like the entire population is about to climb Mt. Everest sometime soon. And this is all sold in the middle of the high-rise jungle that is Seoul. I don’t understand all the fashions, but they are certainly interesting to look at. Sizing is a challenge for foreigners because what’s considered “average” in the west is large here. International brands and some popular Korean brands are expensive, but just shop around and look for sale signs to save a few bucks. Walking around can get tiring so eventually the question, “What’s next?” will arise. Depending on the mall, you will have options. I have started to enjoy watching movies after getting to Korea because the movie theatres are just so comfortable. The snacks are great, the chairs are big and soft, and they also have all the specialty cinemas (IMAX, 4D, and Dine-in) sprinkled around the city if you wanted to try something a little different. My favorite theatre is Starium (IMAX size screen). I just love seeing movies on that gigantic screen. With my roasted squid, and my newest favorite of ice creams topped with caramel popcorn and caramel sauce, I am immersed in the movie until the lights turn on at the end. The malls have great interactive maps in English to help you find your way. The coolest ones will even tell you how many meters to your destination. Pretty fun! Take a look at these maps to see what the mall has to offer.
I have visited galleries, some historic animal displays, a photo play area, ice rink, a spa, a VIP lounge (if you shop a lot), and kids play areas. The mall in Dongtan has a Pororo kids park area connected to the mall. And if hauling your shopping bags seems like a pain, they solved that by having rental lockers available. Gotta love it! The last thing I really like about the malls is the attached grocery store. There is usually a grocery store in one of the lower floors where you can do your weekly shopping. How useful is that?! The ones I have seen have wine collections and some western foods as well (good European cheese!). Prices are going to be higher for imported foods but it is nice to be able to grab a couple of things rather than having to make another stop on the way home. I have also seen E-Mart and Lotte mart (similar to Target) connected to malls. These will have more of your household products. I used to only go to the mall when I wanted new clothes that I couldn’t find online, but now – especially this past winter – I really enjoyed going to Korean malls. And for the first time, I can go with my hubby to the mall because he knows there is going to be good food, lots of seating areas, and best of all free Wi-Fi to check on his Clash of Clans game.
I find the malls to all have a unique character and I like this too. Like most buildings in Seoul, the architecture inside and outside is beautiful- no rectangular concrete blocks here. Some feel more spacious, some are brighter with natural light streaming in, others have more boutiques, and others more restaurants, and others better sales. It really varies and that’s what makes it fun to visit each one.
There are several malls in Korea, but these are my favorite because, for me, they have the most to offer: Times Square mall in Yeongdeungpo station (Blue Line 1) Coex mall in Gangnam – Samseong Station (Subway Line No. 2) IFC mall- Yeouido station (Purple line 5 or Yellow line 9) Lotte Mall and AK Plaza – Suwon station (Blue Line 1)