Gangnam District (강남구; map; Gangnam-gu) lives on the south banks of the Han River near Jamwon Hangang Park. This stylish area is the wealthiest in Seoul. How wealthy?
- One square meter of apartment nationwide cost ₩4.1 million ($3,600)
- One square meter of apartment in Seoul cost ₩8.5 million ($7,500)
- One square meter of apartment in Gangnam cost ₩23 million ($20,300)
Apartments in Gangnam cost four times Seoul’s average, already Korea’s most expensive city. And nationwide: five-and-a-half times the average.
Why so expensive? When Seoul began expanding into the undeveloped marsh south of the river, they started in Gangnam.
The Gangnam District plodded through Korean history as paddy fields, waterside villages, and ports on the south side of the Han River.
By the 60s, Seoul grew a people problem. Too many. Not enough room. So the government stretched its city limits south.
Few Seoulites wanted to settle in the soggy marshland south of the river. So Seoul enticed its citizens in the 1960s. The government:
- Built bridges (Hannam Bridge) and thoroughfares (Gyeongbu Expressway), connecting the established areas north of the Han to the new regions in the south.
- Then the city threw up new apartments and moved the ministries of commerce and industry within Gangnam’s borders.
After ten years of hesitation, Seoulites spotted the advantages of a blank slate on which to build modern Korea. By the 1970s, Tehran Boulevard (테헤란로; map) exploded as one of Seoul’s most bustling business areas.
How did the real estate market of South Korea, the world’s eleventh wealthiest nation, eclipse that of the USA, the world’s wealthiest?
Many middle class Americans drop their extra dimes into the stock market. But in Korea — along with Japan and China — citizens view their stock exchanges with suspicion. Instead, family members pool their money to buy property.
They snatch up triple-valued, decades-old apartments, take out a loan against its value, and put a down payment on an unbuilt property. Bubblicious!
Upscale Streets & Neighborhoods
Upscale department stores, haute couture shops, and restaurants fill Gangnam’s neighborhoods.
Don’t have a bottomless bank account? There’s still fun to be found in Gangnam if you enjoy gawking at shameless displays of wealth.
Apgujeong & Cheongdam Neighborhoods
Apgujeong (Apgujeong-dong; map; 압구정동) and Cheongdam (Cheongdam-dong; 청담동; map) are side-by-side neighborhoods near the Han River in north Gangnam. They form the Beverly Hills, the 5th Avenue, the Ginza of Seoul. Rich. Rich. And rich.
Both Apgujeong and Cheongdam boast the city’s priciest real estate and upmarket department stores.
Cheongdam Fashion Street
Cheongdam Fashion Street (청담패션거리; map) is a section of Apgujeong Road (압구정로; map). It flows across Apgujeong and Cheongdam. Along it, find a typical parade of luxury brands: Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Prada.
The twin EAST and WEST Galleria Department Stores mark the center of the Cheongdam Fashion Street. Outward from them, you’ll spot beauty shops, plastic surgery clinics, and more boutiques serving celebrities and customers with triple-platinum-diamond cards.
K-Star Road (K스타로드; map) occupies the same section of Apgujeong Road as Cheongdam Fashion Street.
Korea’s Hollywood Walk of Fame, the road features celebrity art embedded into its infrastructure. But K-Star Road doesn’t do gold stars and handprints. They go big!
Dotted throughout the road you’ll find three-meter tall GangnamDol statues with jumbo heads. Each figure lists the names of famous K-Pop personalities, including PSY, BTS and Twice.
Apgujeong Rodeo Street (압구정 로데오거리; map) is a grid of streets on the border of Sinsa, Apgujeong, and Cheongdam Neighborhoods. Its main entrance sits opposite the Galleria Department Stores on Cheongdam Fashion Street.
The area borrowed its name and spirit from Beverly Hills’ monument to money and gluttony, Rodeo Drive.
Daily, known and unknown monied folks buzz around the boutiques, cafes, and surgery clinics in Apgujeong Rodeo’s fanciful backstreets.
In the early 2000s, artists and small business fled to Garosu Street (가로수길; map; Garosu-gil) in Gangnam’s Sinsa Neighborhood (신사동; map; Sinsa-dong) to escape rising rents in the pricier parts of the district.
The capitalist refugees lined the 700-meter-long street with vibrant gingko trees, art galleries, bookstores, and antique shops.
However, money caught up with Garosu Street. While still quieter than Gangnam’s busy areas, the street now sports upscale designer stores and pricey restaurants and cafes.
All these little neighborhoods and shopping districts are nice. But where does business happen in Gangnam?
Tehran Boulevard (테헤란로; map). This mega-road travels east to west between:
- Gangnam Station (강남역; map) in the Yeoksam Neighborhood (역삼동; map; Yeoksam-dong).
- Samseong Subway Station (삼성역; map) in the Samseong Neighborhood (삼성동; map).
Tehran Street is nicknamed “Tehran Valley” because, like Silicon Valley, an oversized portion of Korea’s venture capital and IT industries keep an office on the street, including:
- Samsung Electronics — the largest division of Korea’s largest chaebol.
- Naver Corporation — Korea’s largest search engine and tech company.
- Kakao — Korea’s largest messaging platform and second largest search engine.
- SK Hynix — an SK Group division that manufactures semiconductors.
- POSCO — Korea’s largest steel manufacturing company.
“Tehran.” Recognize the name? In 1977 Tehran’s Mayor in Iran made a proposal to Seoul’s mayor. They should name a street in their respective cities after one another’s capitals. Today, Seoul has Tehran Road. Tehran has Seoul Street.
A Little Old and a Little New
Districts north of the Han River claim most of Seoul’s ancient landmarks. But Gangnam offers important cultural relics alongside premier retail outlets.
The Starfield COEX Mall (코엑스; map) is one of Asia’s largest underground malls. Seated on Tehran Boulevard, it’s also a major shopping and social hub in Gangnam.
Underground mall? What sits above it?
The underground mall opened in 2000. But a convention and exhibition center has thrived above ground on the same site since 1979. In fact, it’s where the “COEX” name comes from: COnvention & EXhibition.
Connected to Seoul Subway Line 2 and Line 9, Starfield COEX Mall’s looping hallways present an assortment of storefronts and restaurants. Let’s peep the highlights.
- Starfield Library (별마당 도서관; map) occupies a large atrium in the mall. Millions of amateur photojournalists visit its two-story tall bookshelves, lit at night by mellow LEDs. Visitors can also rest, check out a book for free, and read a few pages.
- COEX Aquarium (코엑스아쿠아리움; map) is a huge indoor aquarium with 90 exhibitions, including a transparent tunnel and discovery zones for kids.
- A Gangnam Style Statue sits outside the COEX Convention Center, near the east gate. It shows two forearms overlapping in the signature “horse riding” dance. A pressable button will play the song’s music video for the 4 billionth time.
- Trade Tower (트레이드타워; map) is a 54-story office building with a key-edge facade. At night, color fills the tower’s grooves.
COEX is also a center for live performances. The mall features plazas and event spaces for music performances, Esports contests, and more.
Bongeunsa Temple (봉은사; map), a Buddhist compound, sits across the street from COEX Mall in the heart of the Gangnam District.
Founded in 794 during the Kingdom of Silla, the temple suffered through centuries of Buddhist oppression. Its patrons rebuilt it twice after a devastating 1939 fire and the Korean War.
Today, because of its central location, thousands of religious and agnostics journey to the temple and snap terabytes of pics.
Bongeunsa is a compound. Its wooden temples, thousands of Buddhist scripts, and ancient ceremonies put into sharp relief Gangnam’s wealth and tech.
Here are a few notable sights:
- A 23-meter (75 ft) tall statue of Maitreya (future Buddha) stands over a marble praying platform next to the main temple. Completed in 1996, it looks out at the COEX Exhibition Center.
- During festivals like Buddha’s Birthday, overhead paper lanterns decorate the courtyard leading to the temple.
- Woodblock carvings of the Flower Garland Sutra rest in the temple’s compound. Created in 1855, the government designated them a national treasure in 2014 after surviving fires and wars.
Bongeunsa also offers Temple Stay and Temple Life programs. They let people from all cultures and backgrounds experience a Buddhist monk’s daily life, from eating, to sleeping, to meditation. Temple Stays spans two or more days. Temple Life programs last a day.
Royal Tombs Seonjeongneung
Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs (서울선릉과정릉; map) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Bongeunsa, it lies in the middle of Gangnam, amongst skyscrapers and 24/7 traffic.
First built in 1495, the site contains the remains of two kings and one queen.
- Seolleung is the tomb for King Seongjong (조선성종; 1457~1495), Joseon Dynasty’s 9th King.
- Queen Jeonghyeon (정현왕후; 1462~1530), King Seongjong’s second wife, lies nearby.
Jeongneung is the tomb for King Jungjong (조선중종; 1488~1544), Joseon Dynasty’s 11th King.
Seonjeongneung Royal Tombs’ name is a compound word: Seon (King Seongjong) + Jeong (King Jungjong) + Neung (릉; meaning tomb).
Inside the tombs’ ticketed gate, find pristine green lawns and classic Joseon royal tombs features:
- A Hongsalmun (홍살문) is a decorated wooden gate that marks the tomb’s entrance.
- Chamdo (참도) are two sacred stone paths that lead to the Jeongjagak Shrines. The dead kings travel the raised path (신도; sindo). Living kings walk along the lower path (어도; eodo).
- Jeongjagak Shrines (정자각) are wooden houses that sit at the base of the tomb mound. Mourners prepare ceremonial offerings and perform rituals to the dead kings here.
- The bangbun (봉분; a.k.a. tumulus) is a mound of earth that holds the king or queen’s remains. Stone lanterns and Chinese zodiac statues surround the tombs.
UNESCO classified all the Joseon Dynasty’s Royal Tombs — forty tombs in eighteen different locations — World Heritage Sites, including Seonjeongneung.