Shinsegae Department Store. Lotte Department Store. D-Cube Shopping Center. Homeplus.
This is just a small sampling of Korea's modern retail centers. Although convenient, these places lack character. There is no real individuality. Moreover, they aren't truly "Korean".
Enter: Gwangjang Market, Korea's oldest still-running market (est. 1905). You won't find your big brands here, but you'll find energy, individuality, and tradition.
Depending upon which entrance you use, you'll have a different first impression of Gwangjang Market.
Some entrances are bustling with food and snack vendors. Others are quiet with clothing vendors biding their time.
But no matter how you choose to enter the market, eventually you'll end up in the restaurant and snack portion of the market. This is where the real action is.
Customers jostle for position in the narrow lanes. Butchered pig snouts stare you in the face. Fresh jeon (전) is fried in front of you. Bowls of veggies laugh at you for not knowing their names. Octopuses swim in their tanks (and soon they'll be swimming in your mouth).
It can all be a little overwhelming, but there is a method to the madness.
The food section is divided into subsections. All the vendors in one area serve the same food.
There is a bibimbap (비빔밥) section. There is a rice cake section. A seafood section. There are many more.
The list could go on for some length.
Explore and see what vendors have to offer. Since this is somewhat of a tourist attraction, all the vendors have menus in English.
The great thing about this place is that everything is FRESH and made right in front of you.
After you have had your share of food, burn it off by wandering the rest of the market.
You will find vendors that sell traditional clothes, fabrics, hiking gear, housewares, and more. Don't forget or neglect the second floor.
When you're done exploring, come back to the food section and end the day with some makgeolli (막걸리) and fresh seafood (e.g. live octopus, sea urchins, etc.).
If you're interested in trying some live octopus, this is a great place to do it.
In the end, what makes Gwangjang Market worth a visit is the visuals, smells, and general ambiance.
The colors, smoke, lighting, and sheer amount of people make for great photographs.
The mix of veggies being fried, seafood, and sweets creates an aroma cocktail.
The ambiance is truly unique. The narrow lanes, vendors, and density of people are something you have to see for yourself.
Just go to the market, walk around, and observe. It truly is a sight to see.
How To Get There
From Line 1 - Jongno 5-ga Station: Walk out of exit 8.
From Line 2 or 5 - Euljiro 4-ga Station: Walk out of exit 4.
Do you enjoy hiking? Start the morning by hiking nearby Bugaksan. Then, take a short cab over to Gwangjang Market and refuel.