It’s no secret that South Korea’s remarkable transformation over just a few decades has brought wealth to many Koreans.
And among Seoulites, the neighborhood of Cheongdam-dong (청담동), located just south of the Hangang river, is where many of the rich and famous live and shop the material life.
For a real taste of “Gangnam Style,” see Seoul Luxe in Cheongdam-dong.
During the Joseon Dynasty, what’s now Cheongdam-dong was called “cheongsutgol” (청숫골), meaning clear pond. Although the pond is long gone, visitors can still enjoy a mineral spring resort at Cheongdam Park (청담공원), which also features sports facilities.
And although it’s a popular place, the leafy green park isn’t Cheongdam’s primary draw.
Before the 1970s, most of the area south of the Han River called “Gangnam” was sparsely developed. But in the past 15 years, families of means settled here.
These families often sent their kids abroad to the U.S., Canada and Europe to study. When these internationalized students or “yuhaksaeng” came home, many started lucrative business careers, or lived the easy life on their parents’ dime.
They also helped cultivate a showy, affluent lifestyle that’s on display in several areas of southern Seoul. One rather funny example is the vicinity map located in a nearby subway station.
Looking at the map, basically just three types of places are highlighted: banks, department stores, and cosmetic surgery clinics.
Elective surgery is probably an extreme sign of disposal income.
But in order to meet their exclusive clientele’s demands, Cheongdam-dong is also where you’ll find Seoul’s highest concentration of what are called “brand” stores in Korea – the flashy and multi-level, local flagships for foreign ateliers like Prada, Jil Sander, Louis Vuitton, Girogio Armani, Gucci… and the list goes on.
If you walk north and then west from Cheongdam Station (청담역), eventually you’ll reach the Galleria Department Store, whose western building has an exterior covered in soft light cells that project impressive light shows at night.
But if, like me, you can’t buy much of anything inside these high-falutin shops, their attractive storefronts – and clientele – make for good window shopping and people watching.
There’s another part of Cheongdam-dong that I like even better, and that’s the hill behind Seolleung-no (선릉로). Here you’ll find small boutiques by independent designers and pricey hair salons and spas.
There are also a number of very good restaurants that serve Korean, international and fusion fare. No doubt it’s also a good place to find a Korean pop star lounging inside a swanky new wine bar.
Seeing the epicenter of Seoul’s material culture scene may not be everyone’s idea of a destination, but Cheongdam-dong is also a useful study for anyone interested in an influential source of Korean fashion and pop culture trends.
But you won’t see it via an aboveground monorail. Talk of the 5.7-kilometer line connecting several of Gangnam’s wealthy residential and business districts reverberated for years, but opposition from residents fearful of its impact on their vaunted property values scuttled the plan in 2008.
So, for now, I guess your tour of Cheongdam will have to be on foot, or perhaps from the seat of a fancy import coupe?
About Matt Kelley
Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.