Markets in Asia just hit different, and I don’t mean your regular supermarket or a small 10 stall one either. Markets here then to be a massive complex of over 100 shops. Some sell the same product or type of product others sell a bit of everything. Three of the major markets in Seoul include Namdaemun 남대문, Dongdaemun 동대문, and Gwangjang 광장 market 시장. All three of these markets are worth spending a few hours wandering, taking in how Koreans have lived for centuries by finding all the goods and foods they need at a market.
Namdaemun is known for its cheap fashion, and traditional Korean crafts nestled right between Myeongdong and Sungnyemun Gate. Namdaemun is lively during the week and on Saturday but expects most shops to close on Sunday and after 5pm. When you walk the streets of the market, you only get to see a quarter of what it has to offer. Between overstuffed shops full of purses, clothing, backpacks, military uniforms, street food, K-pop memorabilia, and ginseng, you’ll find entrances to the buildings these shops surround. Both above ground and below each building caters to a specific item, one to fashion accessories, one to everyday clothing, one to Hanbok’s, and that’s just to name a few in the complex.
I didn’t explore much in the buildings because it can get so overwhelming, but I was surprised that I didn’t see as many traditional crafts nearby as I thought I would. Maybe its because I didn’t stop in the right building or perhaps because the section is smaller than I expected, but I mostly saw stalls with the usual mass-produced souvenirs.
Not having luck finding the traditional crafts area where I was hoping to snag traditional watercolors or inks, I stopped in Alpha, one of the largest art supply stores in Korea, to pick up what I wanted.
When I left Alpha on the market’s outskirts, I passed several camera shops selling new and used cameras. Looking through the windows, I reminisced about my grandma’s camera and all the photos she took while I was growing up. I always admired her pictures and had hoped one day to learn myself. Being cost-conscious, I walked away, but a bug had been put into my head. Why wait. Why wait longer for no apparent reason than not wanting to spend money. Now is the perfect time for me to pick up a camera and start recording my travels. So several days later, I came Back and Bought the Canon AE-1, the same camera my grandma had growing up. I’m super excited to start documenting my travels this way and have an artistic outlet for the first time in my life unrelated to work.
Out of all the markets I’ve been in Korea so far, I feel like Namdaemun is less magical but maybe the most accessible for those traveling here since it is across the street from Myeongdong. Namdaemun is a great way to get a feel for all the possibilities markets can hold in Korea.
Dongdaemun is massive and possible one of the largest markets in Korea; in fact, it’s really considered a district more than a market. Dongdaemun is composed of seven large buildings, some of which are more malls and ally ways of small shops. Dongdaemun will have everything your heart desires when it comes to cheap and affordable fashion and anything you need to make your own. Outwardly Dongdaemun appears to be a fast-fashion outlet, but there is one set of buildings separated from the rest for anything but fast fashion. Dongdaemun fabric market is famous across the world for its fabric and notions selection. When You walk in, there are isles and isles of fabric swatches and bolts, each stall specializing in a specific type of fabric from recycled to organic, from lace to denim from Polyester to silk, you can find anything you dream up here. Walking floor after floor, building after building, its easy to be overwhelmed by the number of choices since every store seemingly doesn’t carry the same thing.
Having been a costume designer and seamstress in another life, I was in heaven walking through isles looking at material I didn’t even know existed. I may have to go back one day and figure out how to buy fabric since some of the shops looked like they could be wholesale, and most seemed to have to go off-site to cut your fabric; then, you would stop by the next day to pick up your order.
For anyone into fashion or just curious how the fashion, theater, and film industries source their fabrics, Dongdaemun is a must-see. Be careful, though; it’s easy to get lost in the maze of stalls and buildings before you even get to the street level that’s filled with food and fabrics for industrial jobs.
This was not my first, nor will it be my last trip to Gwanjang market. My previous excursion was just to look around at the infamous night food market. Stall after stall steaming with ramen, blood sausage, and tabbokki, trying to figure out which one would be the best. My friend Sam and I finally chose one that was pretty empty since Covid was still a worry. The Bimmbibap and tabokkki did not disappoint. There is something about this make that is so mesmerizing. Maybe it’s the lively atmosphere or the food piled high on plates this market is a do not miss when it comes to eating street food. Although it’s known for being a night market, all the shops that lead down ally ways and across major roles must be a wonder to explore during the day, but I had to leave that for my next visit to Seoul.
21, Namdaemunsijang 4-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 중구 남대문시장4길 21
266, Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 종로구 종로 266 (종로6가)
88, Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 종로구 창경궁로 88
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