I said of Namdaemun Market that it was my second favourite place to visit during my week in Seoul in March. All my visits there were during the day: I went there for lunch three days in a row. My absolute favourite place to visit, I visited only at night: I ate dinner there four nights in a row. I am referring to Gwangjang Market. Another of Seoul’s oldest markets, Gwangjang Market has a bit of a split personality. During the day the action is mostly centered on shopping. As evening approaches, however, the stores shut down and the food vendors who fill the central alleys between the stores begin to take over. My understanding is that some of these vendors sell their wares during the late mornings and afternoons as well; but it is in the evening you must go to get the full food experience.
It’s easy enough to get to by subway—there’s a stop right outside one end of the market—but I walked there and back on all four of my visits. My hotel was just over 20 minutes away by foot and I was very committed to walking as much as I could in Seoul—I averaged more than 7 miles a day. I walked down Donhwamun-ro, hung a left on Jong-ro and entered the market through the dramatic gate at its northwest end. On my first visit I thought at first that I might have come to the wrong place. Everything was closed, there weren’t many people around. But I kept walking, following the few groups of young people ahead of me. A cluster of vendors then appeared who seemed to be selling mostly seafood-related goodies. It all looked very tempting but I could see the brighter lights in the distance, and hear the sounds, and so kept walking. Approaching the center, there are some more formal restaurants, some selling fish and seafood dishes, some specialized in yukhoe (the classic seasoned raw beef). I managed somehow to walk past them as well. And then I was in the mayhem that was the center of the market’s food area.
Three long “alleys” filled with vendors intersect at the center. The longest continues in the opposite direction from the one I had entered from, exiting the market near the Jongno 5-ga subway station. The two shorter arms end at other entry points—one right off Jong-ro and the other at Cheonggyecheon-ro. Depending on which direction you’re coming from you can enter from any of these directions. But no matter which direction you’re coming from, you should, in my opinion, head first to the surging center to get your bearings. As you then wander down the alleys/arms of the food market you will notice, as I did, that there are clusters of specialists: most of the bindaetteok specialists are together in one alley; most of the raw seafood purveyors are in the two shorter arms. The mandu/dumpling specialists are likewise clustered together as are the purveyors of kalguksu and other soups and tteokbokki etc. etc. Each alley has more formal restaurants with indoor seating on the two sides and vendors with counter/bench seating in the middle. It’s in the middle section that the chief action is focused.
(To get some sense of the energy of the market you might want to view the rough walk-through videos I made and uploaded to my Instagram while I was in Seoul: here, here and here.)
I was not trying to map the market, however. There are doubtless more reliable guides available online that can orient you much better to the market’s specialties. On my first visit I spent a long time at first just wandering through the three major food alleys, trying to get a sense of what was on offer. All the vendors have their wares prominently displayed. All have menus with English translations and prices and so if, like me, you don’t speak Korean, it’s very easy anyway to know who sells what and for how much. Everyone is a specialist in one or a few things so you can feel reasonably assured that you will have a good meal wherever you sit down. The sitting down part is the challenge, especially closer to the center, where every vendor’s benches are fully occupied at peak times, often with people waiting behind the eating diners. If you go on a Sunday night when not every vendor is open and the market is not as busy, you’ll have an easier chance of sitting down right away at any vendor, but you also won’t get the full experience. My recommendation—based on my observation over four days—is to arrive a little after 9 pm, when the crowds begin to diminish.
It was not so very cold in mid-March—though my context is Minnesota—but it does get cold in South Korea in the winter. The market, however, is open all year. How then do people manage, given the cold air blowing through from the four alleys that are all open at their ends? Well, the benches at the outdoor vendors are all heated. So it’s quite comfortable even when it’s chilly/cold. And if you’re sitting on a hot bench and eating a bowl of hot soup, what else do you need?
The large number of people eating there, by the way, do feature a fair number of tourists but most diners, as far as I could make out, were locals: friends out for a meal together, co-workers stopping in after work. As in most of Seoul’s eating scene that I saw, the emphasis is on eating out together in groups and sharing things. I, of course, was a lonely tourist and so was at a disadvantage in being able to try more than one thing at any vendor. But I did manage to eat well anyway.
As I said, I ate four consecutive dinners at Gwangjang Market. On my first visit I had dumpling soup; on the second I ate yukhoe with octopus; on the third, I ate hwe/raw fish; and on the last I ate mul naengmyeon from a vendor very famous for making something else. I am not reporting on any of these meals in this post. It was work enough re-sizing the pictures for the excessive slideshow that follows. I will report on them over the next two weeks, in two sets of two. For now, take a look at the excessive slideshow. It’s the least you can do. Then scroll down to see what’s coming next on the food front (maybe as early as tomorrow).
If you walk further east on Jong-ro, by the way, you will arrive at the even larger Dongdaemun Market. I’d planned to go there as well for dinner one night but what can I say, after my first visit to Gwangjang Market I got stuck there. When I’m back in Seoul with the family and a passel of students next February/March, we will experience more of the markets. But we will also for sure be back at Gwangjang Market on numerous occasions. I can’t wait.
Alright, what’s next on the food front? Maybe another New Jersey Indian thali report. That’ll be tomorrow, if I can get it done. On Tuesday I’ll have my next Twin Cities report, probably of Mexican food.
If I ever get to Seoul I’ll have to make sure I am there for several days. Or there for EVERY meal. Way too many good-looking interesting foods to try.