The other side of Seoul
SEOUL is a South Korean metropolis that pulsates to the beats of Korean pop, more commonly known as K-pop.
The South Korean capital got its claim to international fame when the Hallyu (Korean wave phenomenon) took the world by storm and changed pop culture as we knew it. The use of flawless K-drama (Korean drama) heartthrobs and masterfully trained, bubbly K-pop idols to promote tourism to the country also helped elevate the country’s international profile and attracted 17.2 million foreign tourists in 2016.
Towering skyscrapers, carefully choreographed dance moves, an abundance of beauty products, the seemingly fastpaced lifestyle, and overtold tales of plastic surgery aside, the city offers endless more discoveries you probably have yet to chance upon.
Seoul, the gateway to South Korea, slowly rose from the ashes a handful of decades ago after the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, signaling an “end” to the Korean War albeit unofficially.
From the late 1960s to the late 1990s, South Korea had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, having developed itself using its own resources through years of isolation. Today, its economy is the fourth largest in Asia and the 12th largest in the world and is considered a tech giant.
Seoul is now the center of commerce, industry, finance, education, culture, history, and technology.
But beyond its shiny, commercial facade, there is one thing that Seoul has not forgotten: tradition. And this is evident in the number of existing traditional markets, some more than a century old, such as the Gwangjang Market.
Offering a glimpse into the lives of locals, the markets are huge, with rows upon rows of products on offer ranging from fabrics, electronics, household items, clothes, accessories, and of course, food.
Be prepared to spend more than half a day weaving through the maze of main streets and innermost lanes as you discover every nook and cranny, shopping, bargaining, and eating your way through the market.
Here are some traditional markets worth visiting:
Established in 1905, Gwangjang Market was the first permanent market in Korea, and it continues to thrive as a popular destination, attracting both locals and tourists alike.
Not only is it a market, but it is also a historical site, known as South Korea’s living museum.
The sprawling market is vibrant and often filled with foodies on a hunt for a hearty lunch and homemakers looking for a good bargain, so there is always a constant buzz of chatter in the air.
With over 5,000 shops and vendors peddling everything from silk, satin, and linen bedsheet to authentic Korean street food that is sure to tingle your taste buds, Gwangjang is your go-to for quality goods at inexpensive prices.
And do not let the appearance of the small fabric stores fool you, for many of them even have their own factories supplying fabrics to other markets and some departmental stores.
Sample your way through Gwangjang Market’s endless snack and street food selection, from fresh seafood to piping hot pancakes, before picking up packs of banchan (a traditional side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables) to take home.
Be sure to have enough cash on you, though, as most of its stores or restaurants take only cash.
And if you are lucky, some of them may even give you a discount if you pay with cash.
Getting there: 88, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
Opening hours: General stores 8:30am till 6pm, restaurants 8:30am till 11pm, clothing stores 9pm till 10am.
Chuncheon Romantic Market
Just a short stroll away from Chuncheon’s famed dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken) street is the region’s largest traditional market.
Formerly known as Jungang Market, the Chuncheon Romantic Market is not technically in Seoul, but it is only a short drive away.
Located in Chuncheon’s very own version of Myeongdong (not to be confused with Seoul’s hip shopping district), the market opened in 1960 but was made popular by the 2002 hit K-drama, Winter Sonata.
Chuncheon Romantic Market is said to be a hotspot for locals, and it is easy to see why.
Aside from finding little treasures and travel mementos and shopping to your heart’s content, you will also enjoy highly Instagrammable artwork depicting scenes of Korea’s traditional marketplaces along the alleys. Cute is really an understatement.
The establishment offers a varied range of goods, from hanboks to bags and shoes, to electronic appliances and household goods. Rummage around and you may even find the occasional piece of jewelry or two.
Of course, it goes without saying that food is also aplenty, but we doubt you would have space for snacks after feasting on a sumptuous meal of dakgalbi.
Getting there: 34, Myeongdong-gil, Chuncheon-si, Gangwon-do.
Opening hours: Varies by store.
Established in 1941 at a time when Korea was still under Japanese rule, Tongin Market is tucked away in the heart of the bustling Seoul city, right by Gyeongbokgung Palace, and it is one that only locals know about so blink and you will miss it.
And when we say tucked away, we mean the unassuming entrance to the market is literally tucked right in between larger shophouses and hence, it is easy to overlook.
But get your adventurous self on and venture on inside because you will find that it is another world, opening up to an overwhelmingly large space jam-packed with street vendors and stores at every turn.
If you love to eat, Tongin Market’s specialty is its vivid array of wonderfully mouthwatering traditional Korean street food, so it is best to go with an empty stomach and a huge appetite.
In fact, getting your lunch is bound to be a fun experience because Tongin Market is an arcade-style market, where you can exchange KRW5,000 (US$4.38) for a collection of old coins and a lunch box.
These token-like coins will be your currency, allowing you to exchange for food to fill up your lunch box.
As you meander through the lanes checking out all the stalls, treat yourself to succulent meat-stuffed mandu (pan-fried dumplings), a sweet and savory serving of japchae (stir-fried glass noodles and vegetables), and rolls of gimbap (seaweed rice roll).
And definitely, do not leave without sampling the market’s trademark crispy fried tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes).
After you have filled your lunch box with all the yummies your tummy will thank you for, waddle on happily upstairs with your best South Korean foodie finds and enjoy your meal in the comfort of a mess hall.
Getting there: 18, Jahamun-ro 15-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
Opening hours: Weekdays 9am till 6pm, Saturday 9am till 1pm.