Walk through any number of Seoul’s traditional markets—overwhelmingly pungent and chaotic in an enticing way—and it’s like peeking behind the curtain of modernity that the city wears so proudly today. These markets offer a glimpse of Korea’s genuine culture and, in some ways, a small piece of its history.
The city has an impressive selection of wet and dry markets weaved throughout its patchwork of neighborhoods. Each one is slightly (or sometimes drastically) different from the next. There’s Noryangjin Fish Market (a worthy rival of Japan’s Tsukiki Market) and Gwangjang Market with its famous rosy-cheeked and top-hatted saxophone player who once (maybe still) greeted you on arrival. The seven markets listed here are must-sees for anyone planning a trip to Korea’s capital.
1. Gwangjang Market
Photo by Lauren Kilberg
First opened in 1905, Gwangjang Market remains one of the most popular destinations in the city. It’s packed with vendors selling an impressive variety of goods from lacquerware to traditional Korean dresses (known as hanboks). The real draw, however, is the food vendors. Concentrated in rows throughout the center corridor of the market you’ll find a dizzying amount of food stands with bright lights and excited vendors shouting for your attention over their steaming pots and pans filled with Korean classic dishes like sundae, gimbap and tteoknokki. When I visited, I was lured toward the food stalls by the saxophone-playing unofficial maitre d’ of the market (pictured) ... which is just the kind of thing you can expect to see.
2. Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market
Photo by Lauren Kilberg
This bustling 24-hour fish market is one of the biggest in Korea. Some 800 fishmongers sell more than 800 types of seafood flown in daily from around the world. Noryangjin Fish Market is housed in a massive facility in the shadow of Korea’s famous 63 Building just south of the Han River. A visit will give you plenty to see and smell, as row after row of tanks and fish-filled tables line the market. Don’t leave without trying some of Korea’s seafood specialties. Fish can be purchased from vendors and brought to any of the many restaurants that line the second floor perimeter of the facility. They’ll clean and prepare your purchase and serve it right to your table. If you’re feeling brave, try a plate of sannakji. It’s a Korean classic—think octopus sashimi that is so fresh the tentacles are still wiggling on your plate. Seriously.
3. Seoul Folk Flea Market
Photo via Flickr / by Republic of Korea
Spend an afternoon walking through Korea’s largest flea market and you’ll leave with a better sense of the country’s culture and history, as well as a one-of-a-kind souvenir or two. It has all the characteristics of your standard flea market—vendor upon vendor selling an eclectic mix of goods from vintage eyewear to antique furniture. Yet Seoul Folk Flea Market offers visitors a unique glimpse at relics from the county’s past. There is also a small food court where you can refuel and be sure to catch the traditional Korean percussion performances that occur at the market regularly throughout the year.
4. Dongdaemun Market
Photo via Flickr / by Abigail Becker
Home to several major department stores, Dongdaemun Market is fashion focused.? In the 1970s it served as the ?center of Korea’s textile industry and today that legacy lives on. While called a market, Dongdaemun is really more of a neighborhood with a concentration of department stores, wholesale fabric distributors and fashion accessory vendors.??
5. Namdaemun Market
Photo via Flickr / by Doug Sun Beams
If you can’t find it at Namdaemun Market then you probably won’t find it anywhere. The vendors at this popular destination sell more than 1,700 different goods. It’s cited as the oldest (more than 600 years to be exact) and largest market in Seoul. Head there for traditional gifts like hahoe masks, jewelry, clothes, ceramics and more. The market is conveniently located near the city’s south gate, which it is named after, making it a great two-for-one stop on your itinerary.
6. Yongsan Electronics Market
Photo via Flickr / by Kat
Korea is a technologically adept and advanced country. They brought us the likes of Samsung and LG, after all. Ride more than a few stops on Seoul’s subway and you’ll likely see toddlers up through the elderly playing on the latest smart device. Yongsan Electronics Market is a great place to embrace the technology craze of Korea, or to find a deal on a new phone, camera or computer. The market is spread between several buildings that connect to the Yongsan subway station. Be warned, vendors are a little pushy. Bring your patience if you’re planning to buy something.
7. Yangjae Flower Market Center
Photo via Flickr / by Alexey Matveichev
Yangjae Flower Market Center is both a visual and olfactory delight. Korea’s largest flower market features retail, wholesale and auction spaces catering to fresh-cut and artificial flowers. The market is open year round and a visit in winter serves as a great escape from the typically frigid and occasionally snowy weather.
Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.