It’s often said that if you can’t find something at Seoul’s massive Namdaemun Market, that particular something doesn’t exist. And with over 10,000 stores crowded around Namdaemun Gate, it’s likely that the old adage is true. From shoes to kitchen utensils, and postcards to oriental medicine, Namdaemun Market is both a major tourist attraction and the capital’s one-stop shopping destination rolled into a lively tangle of streets. Since the market is so large it can definitely be overwhelming for first-timers, but this guide will help you get your bearings.
History of Namdaemun Market
It a little-known know fact that that South Korea’s capital is actually surrounded by the formidable Fortress Wall of Seoul. The wall was finished in 1398 at the beginning of the powerful Joseon Dynasty which spanned five centuries (1392 – 1897). It features the Eight Gates, one of which is Namdaemun (also known as Sungnyemun), a traditional, pagoda-style gateway that has been declared a national treasure. Starting in the 14th century, trade occurred in proximity to the gate as it was one of the main thoroughfares in and out of the city, and over time this casual commerce led to what is now Seoul’s largest and oldest traditional market.
What to Buy
This 24-hour retail extravaganza is spread over 16 acres of narrow, labyrinthine streets between Seoul City Hall and Seoul Station. While Namdaemun Market truly does have something for everyone, it’s well known for a few specialties that are worth battling the crowds for:
- Hanbok: The colorful, traditional clothing of Korea is called a hanbok, and Namdaemun Market is one of the best (and most inexpensive) places to shop for the beautiful garments in Seoul. The female version of a hanbok consists of a jacket worn with a full, floor-sweeping skirt, while the male version features a jacket, baggy pants, and an outer coat or robe. Hanbok are sold in all colors of the rainbow and they are often worn by Koreans during holidays and weddings and by tourists when visiting Seoul's palaces.
- Korean Souvenirs: If you’re looking for mementos for your time in Seoul, look no further than Namdaemun Market. It’s here you’ll find your typical postcards and magnets with scenes from the city, but you’ll also encounter more authentic souvenirs such as elegant fans, dojang seal stamps, and lamps, cards, and artworks made from traditional hanji paper.
- Herbal Teas: Herbal medicine is big business in Korea, and Namdaemun Market is a hub for purchasing ingredients used in many of the traditional herbal tea remedies. Stock your medicine cabinet with staples such as Korean ginseng tea (known to improve the immune system and regulate mood), kelp tea (thought to boost collagen and help skin stay hydrated), and ssanghwacha tea (used to balance the body and cure fatigue) made from a variety of medicinal herbs including Chinese licorice and the roots of dried woodland peonies.
What to Eat
Seoul’s street food scene is, bar none, one of the best in East Asia, and Namdaemun Market offers a huge variety of delectable morsels for those looking to dig in. Here are a few of the most popular items to sample for a taste of true Korean flavor:
- Galchi-jorim (갈치조림): As a seafaring nation, it makes sense that fish is a staple of the Korean diet. For an authentic taste of Korean cuisine, head to Namdaemun’s Galchi Alley for a bowl of galchi-jorim. This spicy braised hairtail fish stew is mixed with chili flakes, radishes, and leeks.
- Hotteok (호떡): Possibly the most quintessential Korean street food, hotteok is a sweet pancake made with fermented dough, filled with cinnamon, peanuts, and honey, and then pan-fried in oil. There are also savory versions filled with anything from kimchi, to vegetables, to glass noodles.
- Kalguksu (갈국수): A favorite on cold winter days, this hearty soup made with anchovy broth is laced with tofu, dried seaweed, and thick knife-cut wheat noodles. Kalguksu Alley is a favorite haunt for those looking to warm up with a steaming bowl for only a few thousand won.
- Bindaetteok (빈대떡): Often served during holidays or special occasions, bindaetteok are savory pancakes made from a batter of ground mung beans.
- Tteokbokki (떡볶이): It wouldn’t be a true Seoul experience without trying tteokbokki. This mainstay of the Korean street food scene is notable for its bright orange gochujang sauce (made from red chili pepper paste) smothered over chewy, tube-shaped rice cakes.
Namdaemun Market is technically open around the clock. However it’s up to each vendor to set their own hours, meaning many do close overnight, and some also choose to close on Sundays.
To get there from Seoul Station, it’s either a short walk, or take Seoul Subway Line Four (the Blue Line) to Hoehyeon Station and exit through Gate Five. Namdaemun Market spans a maze of city blocks between Seoul Station and Seoul City Hall, so even walking in that general direction means you can’t miss it.
Tips for Visiting
- Entrance to the market is free.
- Some vendors accept credit cards, but that's not the case for all of them. ATMs that accept foreign cards are readily available in Seoul, and in addition to banks, can often be found in the city’s thousands of convenience stores.
- Since Namdaemun Market is set in a city of nearly 10 million people, you can count on it always being busy. Each time of day is bustling for one reason or another, so just plan in advance on spending a few hours there to get the full experience.
- Because of the market’s massive size, it’s easy to get disoriented. Finding one’s way out of the market isn’t usually a problem, however it can be difficult to find your way back to any specific vendor or stall should you wish to return to make a purchase. For this reason, if you see something you like, either buy it immediately, or take a detailed note of the shop’s location before moving on.