[TRAVEL] Exploring Traditional Markets In (and Out) of Seoul

Chuncheon Romantic Market 02

Have you ever visited a traditional market in Korea? Even though the most well-known markets are the ones frequently recommended to travellers, they are always worth a visit for good reasons – great variety of food, wide range of products, and affordable prices. Moreover, if you want to get a glimpse into the lives of locals, then it’s time to spend a day at one of these traditional markets to eat, shop (and hopefully bargain a little – or a lot!), and also people-watch! There’s honestly no better way to know a city than wandering and getting lost inside (and around) a local market.

Tongin Market 08

What I love most about traditional markets is how they are always bustling with life, offering a unique yet perfect chance to understand the local people’s daily routines. On my most recent trip to Korea, I had the opportunity to explore three traditional markets – Mangwon Market (Seoul), Chuncheon Romantic Market (Gangwon-do), and Tongin Market (Seoul) – and all of them provided a brand new experience!

Mangwon Market

Mangwon Market 17

Mangwon Market is just like your local traditional market – it looks unassuming, but there’s definitely lots of good eats and cheap buys (especially for fresh vegetables, fruits, and meat) to be found there. Loved by the locals, Mangwon Market has way fewer tourists, as compared to their more popular counterparts such as Nandaemun Market, Gwangjang Market, and Noryangjin Market. As such, the market is less foreigner-friendly since most of the stall owners can barely converse in English or Mandarin. However, this traditional atmosphere is exactly what makes Mangwon Market attractive. (Besides, the language barrier is not something that cannot be solved with some simple hand gestures and a bright smile, so all is good!)

Mangwon Market 01

There is no lack of food choices at Mangwon Market as well. In fact, there’s just so much to eat there that you’ll be spoilt for choice! What caught my heart, though, were the croquettes, or more commonly known as chapssal doughnuts. Fried to a lovely shade of golden brown and best consumed immediately while it is still warm, these croquettes are without a doubt the perfect comfort food! The best part is that they are being offered in many flavours, including kimchi, japchae, squid, potato, hotdog, and red bean.

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Mangwon Market 망원 시장
Address: 14, Poeun-ro 8-gil, Mapo-gu, Mangwon-dong, Seoul
서울특별시 마포구 망원동 포은로8길
Opening Hours: 9AM – 9PM (closing days/timings may differ from shop to shop)
How to get there: Subway Line 6, Mangwon Station, Exit 2.

Mangwon Market 11

My favourite part of Mangwon Market is, however, the cute little cafés, and unique yet cozy restaurants that line Mangnidan-gil. Most of the restaurants do not open till late-afternoon or early evening, but you can easily spot a queue outside the more popular ones way before their opening hours. That’s due to the small dining capacity ranging from as little as 6-8 pax to a maximum of probably 16-20 pax. Haven’t had the opportunity to try any of them yet, but I’m already sold by the many eye-catching and captivating store-fronts.

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And by a random stroke of luck, I chanced upon the famed ‘Zapangi Café’ that has been constantly appearing on my Instagram feed while wandering around Mangnidan-gil. Just the signature neon pink vending machine door (yes, that’s the entrance to the café) is already a photo spot!

Mangwon Market 16

At Zapangi, you can expect a range of cakes served in tins, Aurora or Mermaid-themed coffee and chocolate beverages, and their signature milk tea served in glass bottles, all worthy of a capture to spice up your Instagram feed. While the confectionery and drinks sold are visually appealing, I would suggest getting a serving of dessert and beverage to share with a few friends as their specialty drinks can be immensely overwhelming even for those with a tremendously sweet tooth. (Warning: Sugar overload!)

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Zapangi Café 자판기 카페
Address: 400-2 Mangwon-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul
망원동 400-2 해오름 주상복합

Opening Hours: 11AM – 11PM

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It’s no wonder Mangwon Market is deemed as a hidden gem. This up-and-coming neighbourhood is filled with not only artisan hangouts, cosy bistros, microbreweries, but also independent boutiques. You can spend an entire afternoon exploring the area or finding a cosy spot in one of the cafés for some quiet me-time. Its close proximity to vibrant Hongdae and scenic Han River also makes it an ideal pit-stop for picking up some delicious food before heading for a picnic or an evening of fun.

Chuncheon Romantic Market

Chuncheon Romantic Market 01

If you are a long time K-drama fan, you would have heard about Chuncheon, the city where one of the early romantic K-drama classics, Winter Sonata (2000), was filmed. Even now, you can still catch a faint glimpse of the the two lead characters at the various filming locations littered all around the city.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 10

Head to Chuncheon Myeongdong Street, where the bustling shopping street likens the miniature version of Myeongdong in Seoul (hence the name), and you can easily spot a trace of Winter Sonata here via the life-sized bronze sculpture in the middle of the street.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 06

As the saying goes, “When in Chuncheon, eat dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken)!”

Chuncheon Romantic Market 08

Myeongdong Dakgalbi Street is exactly where you need to be to get your dakgalbi cravings satisfied.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 07

In addition, you may want to give makguksu (cold buckwheat noodles) a try as well since it is usually ordered to accompany the main dish of dakgalbi as they complement each other perfectly.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 09

A short walk to the end of Chuncheon Myeongdong Street will bring you to Chuncheon Romantic Market. Chuncheon Jungang (Central) Market rebranded itself as Chuncheon Romantic Market in 2010, and as the market underwent a space revamp to match its new name, each store is now decorated with drawings that highlight the distinct unique overtone of the shop. At the different corners of the alleys, various sculptures and wall murals could be spotted as well, adding a fun splash of colour to the scene while walking around the marketplace.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 05

As the city’s best-known market, Chuncheon Romantic Market sells basically everything you need – from daily necessities to clothes, shoes, bags, electronic appliances, and food. The friendly ahjussis and ahjummas there are also more than happy to engage in small talk despite the language barrier.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 03

Chuncheon romantic Market 춘천 낭만시장
Address: 34, Myeongdong-gil, Chuncheon-si, Gangwon-do
강원도 춘천시 명동길 34
Opening Hours: Hours differ by shop (open all year round)
How to get there: Chuncheon Station, Exit 1. Walk for approx. 20 min / Approx. 5-min. walk from Chuncheon Myeongdong Street.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 14

Gubongsan Mountain Observatory, where the driving route is undoubtedly one of the most scenic in Chuncheon, has to be my favourite part of the city. On the contrary to what its name suggests, it does actually have an observation deck. The area is lined with cafés which are a great way to spend a lazy afternoon taking in the stunning view that overlooks the downtown area. In other words, the cafés here are the ‘observatories’ instead! Each café has a different theme and style, so choose the one that catches your eye and tickles your fancy. One thing is for sure: it does not matter which café you step into, for all of them offer magnificent views that capture the beauty of Chuncheon.

Chuncheon Romantic Market 12

Visit Chuncheon’s very own ‘Santorini’ when you are at Gubongsan Mountain Observatory Café Street! A café and bakery is housed on the first level of the double-storey Italian restaurant building, and the interior is aesthetically pleasing and definitely worth exploring for the gram.

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The lovely architecture (coupled with the breathtaking view in the background) would have been the perfect picture spot for all of the #OOTDs if not for the heavy downpour the day I visited.  

A Twosome Place - EXO

Another regret is missing out on A Twosome Place due to the tight schedule I was on. This place is most probably no stranger to EXO-Ls (and highly likely on your bucket list as well) since both Chanyeol and Sehun have posted the famed ‘glass corridor’ on their own Instagram accounts previously. Paying the café a visit in hopefully much better weather is definitely a perfect reason for me to head back to Chuncheon again some day!

Chuncheon Romantic Market 13

Chuncheon is indeed a romantic city with picturesque views and it’s the ideal destination for a short getaway from the hustle and bustle in Seoul. From the friendly ahjussis and ahjummas, to mouth-watering and tasty food, and the spectacular scenery, Chuncheon, you’ve been nothing short of amazing and I will definitely be back!

Tongin Market

Tongin Market 01

If you are looking for a traditional market that will provide you with a unique dining experience, the answer is Tongin Market! Tongin Market is a 77-year old traditional market near GyeongBok Palace. Established in 1941, its original purpose was to cater to the Japanese residents around the area during the Japanese Colonial Rule. Much has changed since then, and now Tongin Market is well-known as a ‘Dosirak Café’, boasting over 70 stalls. Thus, every trip to Tongin Market is always highly anticipated as I get the freedom to design my own dosirak (lunchbox).

Tongin Market 07

Curious on how to DIY your own lunchbox? The first thing you have to do is to pay KRW5000 in exchange for 10 yeopjeon (old Korean coins) and an empty lunchbox tray. Then you are good to go!

Tongin Market 02

It is always exciting to walk through the market and plan how to fully utilize the 10 coins. Each dish is priced differently, so do check with the stall owners before ordering or you could be depleting your coins faster than you are able to fill up your tray. Once your tray is full, head to the Community Centre (located in the middle of the market), where there is a staircase that will lead you to the second and third floor dining area, to enjoy your meal.

Tongin Market 09

Chopsticks, water, and tissue are provided, and you can also purchase rice and soup at 2 coins each, so do save your coins if you would like to get them. Otherwise, you could always pay KRW1000 in cash. The place is always crowded during the peak hours but the turnover is usually pretty fast.

Tongin Market 03

However, do note that not all vendors participated in the ‘Dosirak Project’, hence do look out for the ‘通 도시락 cafe’ sign. If you would like to try something from a non-participating stall, you can use cash to make your purchase. Likewise, if you run out of coins, you can also purchase the food with cash.

Tongin Market 04

Tongin Market 통인시장
Address: 18, Jahamun-ro 15-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 종로구 자하문로15길 18 (통인동)
Opening Hours: 7AM – 9PM (closed every third Saturday of the month | Dosirak Cafe closed on Mondays)
How to get there: Subway Line 3, Gyeongbokgung Station, Exit 2. Walk straight for approx. 700m. The market will be on your left.

Tongin Market 14

A stone’s throw away (just across the street) from Tongin Market is Solgaheon. Solgaheon is a hanbang (Korean traditional medicine) healing café inside a Hanok with pine wood walls, roofs, floors, and furniture. The subtle scent of pine wood is also present, resulting in a calming effect that perfectly suits the concept of a rejuvenating café.

Tongin Market 13

The tea – developed through the years by Jinsan Traditional Pharmacy, a well-known hanbang located in Pocheon – they sell is served on a tray along with dried jujubes and pumpkin seeds, and specially chosen according to the state of your body/health. Once hot water is poured into the teapot, turn the hourglass over, and after the sand is drained, you can start to indulge in the ‘tea treatment’.

Tongin Market 17

At Solgaheon, they also provide healing experience programmes, such as foot baths and moxibustion. The foot baths are very popular, so if there are a lot of people visiting at the same time, you may have to wait for a bit as there are only eight foot baths in total – four at the courtyard and four in an inner room. Korean traditional medicine is added to warm water (set at a specific temperature), allowing you to experience a healing session through a relaxing foot bath.

Tongin Market 16

I had the chance to experience a moxibustion treatment, but it wasn’t really what I had expected. Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine therapy which consists of burning dried mugwort on particular points on the body. However, instead of receiving it on certain points, we had to sit on a sort of ‘metal tin’ where dried mugwort was ‘smoked’ with the help of a burning candle. It initially felt like a snug, comforting warmth, but as time passed, it grew a little too hot. Even though moxibustion is supposed to be beneficial for health and perspiring after a healing session is considered normal, I would definitely want to try the foot bath instead next time.

Tongin Market 15

Solgaheon 솔가헌
Address: 54 Jahamun-ro Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea
서울 종로구 자하문로 54

Opening Hours: 11AM – 9PM (Monday – Saturday), 1PM – 9PM (Sunday)

Tongin Market 11

Despite having been to Seoul a number of times, it’s my first time riding on a rickshaw to tour around Seochon – the area around The Blue House, Bukchon Hanok Village, and Gyeongbok Palace. The experience was really exciting for besides touring the popular attractions, we also caught a glimpse of the hidden alleys and were shared interesting stories and fun anecdotes about everything that was in our line of sight.

Tongin Market 10

Our guide was really outgoing and it honestly felt like a catch-up session with a friend more than a guided tour. Artee Pedicab is offered in Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese, so there is no language barrier to worry about. There are different courses available as well, so you can pick one that fits your schedule and interest. And I really enjoyed listening to the stories so much that I barely took any pictures while on board. So here’s a back view of my guide, Seowoo!

Tongin Market 12

The traditional markets are perfect for travellers who want to experience Korea through a local’s perspective. It’s time to ditch the comfort and convenience of E-Mart, Homeplus Mart, and Lotte Mart, and delve into the traditions and beauty of Mangwon Market, Chuncheon Romantic Market, and Tongin Market. There is bound to be one or two hidden gems for you to unravel on every visit. Scratch the touristy venues off your itinerary and start experiencing Seoul like a local by adding these three traditional markets on your to-go list the next time you are bound for Korea!

Mangwon Market 10

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