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Itaewon: Seoul’s Bustling Shopping District

April 21st, 2010 by

Let’s be realistic. A vacation isn’t a real vacation if you can’t spend at least one day exploring the area’s locals shops, restaurants, and vendors.

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Shopping isn’t quite the same as spending an afternoon in a local museum, but it certainly holds its own merit – especially if you particularly enjoy spending a few dollars here and there. Itaewon is one of the busiest and most popular shopping districts within Seoul, and it’s one you won’t want to skip.

Where is Itaewon?

Itaewon district, Seoul.

Itaewon isn’t just a silly nickname for a shipping center. Itaewon is actually a formal city district located in the Yongsan-gu section of Seoul in South Korea. While it isn’t one of the most densely populated residential districts, it is home to about 22,000 locals. Because of its close proximity to the Yongsan Garrison army base, the Itaewon district is incredibly popular amongst not only locals and tourists, but amongst US Military members as well.

With My Boys At The Calligraphy Shop In Itaewon~Seoul,Korea

The history behind the naming of Itaewon is just as interesting as the shopping district itself. According to the stories published by the  Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Chinese characters representing the name of the city represented two different meanings. The first one, I, represented things foreign or different. The second, T’ae, represented conception or pregnancy.

itaewon - seoul - april 2007 (5)

According to history, the Japanese invaded Seoul during the late 1500’s. While there, they went to a temple that sat in the area where Itaewon is today, and raped the female monks living there. The burnt the temple and left the female monks to fend for themselves. They built a tent house and the monks who had become pregnant stayed there. Locals started to call the area It’aewon because it represented a place of foreign pregnancy.

Shopping and Dining in Itaewon

Itaewon District May 2008 (16)

Itaewon is well known for its shops, restaurants, and even hotels. The main street running through the district is lined with a number of unique stores and stalls, many featuring regional clothing and tailors. You could, if you chose, purchase a dress or suit and have it tailored within a day. Other stores sell nothing but typical souvenirs to remind you of your trip to South Korea. The area is also popular because of the pool joints, or gambling halls, found throughout.

itaewon - seoul - april 2007 (3)

If you are in Itaewon for the shopping, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for counterfeit goods at ridiculously low prices. While it is possible to find high-quality goods – especially leathers – at reasonable prices, you’ll want to make sure the deal you’re getting isn’t simply too good to be true. You will need to haggle to get a good price on truly valuable merchandise.

Dining in Itaewon

Itaewon District May 2008 (3)

The restaurants in Itaewon are distinguishable as well. While you’ll love the traditional South Korean fare found here, you’ll definitely want to try some of the Indian and Turkish dishes served in the local restaurants as well. Seoul is known for serving some of the best Turkish and Indian dishes in Asia.

Itaewon’s Nightlife

Itaewon District May 2008 (9)

The nightlife in Itaewon is notable as well, as the streets get very lively during the evening hours, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. The restaurants get very busy and the popular German pub, 3 Alley, is always packed with locals and visitors. The clubs and bars are usually littered with locals, soldiers, teachers visiting from abroad to teach English, and other tourists.

itaewon, roadside eatery, fried mandoo

Known for being one of the most gay-friendly zones in Seoul, you’ll find a number of trendy gay hangouts packed with visitors as well. There is always a strong military presence – both US and Korean – both keeping the peace and making sure the soldiers return to base before their 3am curfew and avoid the few establishments that have been deemed off-limits to military personnel due to their reputations for prostitution or violence.

Welcome to Itaewon

Do make sure you stay away from Hooker Hill. While prostitution is visible in the area, and was once legal, it is no longer acceptable. Brothels are easy to find but, as noted, so is trouble with police officers if you’re found in the wrong place.


Right now, Itaewon is a bustling district full of life and vitality. Visit when you’re in Seoul and enjoy the incredible atmosphere. The US military may move troops away from Yongsan Garrison to a new base in Pyeongtaek within the next 5-10 years. If this happens, the face of Itaewon will certainly change as a result of what will certainly be a huge economic blow to the area.

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