We recently spent a lovely Saturday exploring some of Seoul’s traditional markets and villages.
Our journey began at 8:30am with the 1.5 hour train ride from Songdo to Seoul. Early morning train rides in Korea tend to be filled with sleepy passengers just swaying along with the train, but this sleepiness seems magnified in winter with everyone in warm puffy coats in the well-heated subway cars.
We took line 1 to Jonggak station, where we encountered the first signs of the Christmas season. In the underground station there was a little snack shop full of holiday themed cupcakes! They looked so good, but since we avoid flour we just enjoyed them from a distance (and I’d say with these particular cupcakes the visual was probably better than the taste; look how cute!).
Then we made our way out into the cool morning to stroll through Insadong. Insadong is a famous area in Seoul known for its shops full of traditional Korean items. These range from ceramic pottery and masks to traditional paper, paintings, and clothing known as hanbok. There are also several small trinkets and more touristy items available, making this area great for souvenirs of all kinds.
Early morning in Insadong allows for unusually empty streets.
One of many souvenir shops in Insadong (this shop is more touristy than traditional)
Insadong is also home to Ssamjigil, a 4-story, rectangular, open air mall with an open center and shops lining the edges up to the roof in a diagonal rise. Unlike the traditional main streets below, these shops contain a variety of unique modern items. It is fun to just wander up the sloping path and gaze into the shops at the many interesting items for sale (and maybe pick up something that strikes your fancy).
After making our way up the main street in Insadong we crossed a busy main road and started up a path toward Samcheongdong, home to one of Seoul’s few remaining Bukchon Hanok villages full of traditional Korean houses.
A paintbrush housing a large thermometer located at the intersection between Insadong and Samcheongdong.
Approaching Samcheongdong from Insadong.
The path to Samcheongdong.
Samcheongdong, sam (meaning three), and cheong (meaning good or clean) (dong just means neighborhood) is said to be ideally located due to being nestled between two of Seoul’s major palaces, Gyeongbokgung to the west and Changdeokgung to the east, as well as Cheong Wa Dae (the President’s office) to the north and Insadong to the south. In the midst of this ideal location Samcheongdong provides a tranquil and beautiful area to view the traditional architecture. You can easily spend hours wandering through the narrow streets filled with traditional houses, taking photos and watching those enhancing their experience by wandering around in traditional Korean hanbok clothing, which can be rented at many nearby shops (or you can join in the fun and rent some yourself!).
Visitors strolling through the village in traditional Korean hanbok, and a volunteer/employee holding a sign reminding visitors that this is a residential area and to speak quietly.
When you get tired from climbing up and down all of the hills (Korea is very mountainous, and the city of Seoul is no exception) you can make your way to one of the area’s many amazing cafes. I recommend Cafe Breezin, a fabulous coffee shop with amazing drinks, including coconut milk tea lattes for those unable to consume dairy, and a delicious marshmallow hot chocolate perfect for the holiday season. Order a warm beverage and rest for a while soaking in everything you’ve seen and planning your next steps.
Cafe Breezin, decorated for the holidays.
If necessary, be sure to grab some caffeine or a snack so you are ready to explore the other side of Samcheongdong: the shops! There are many unique shops in the area, ranging from inexpensive accessory shops where you can buy funky socks, jewelry, hats, etc., to pricier boutique clothing stores. We even found a man selling cute little “mini gardens” consisting of tiny succulents in tiny coffee cups (of course, we bought one).
If shopping isn’t your thing, don’t worry. The area is filled with incredible street art and sculptures; you can enjoy the various artwork in the area instead!
When we finished our journey through Samcheongdong, we hopped back on the subway to head to our final market of the day, but not without first stopping to purchase a hotteok (pronounced, ho-tock, with a hard ‘t’ sound almost like a ‘d’), a delicious Korean snack consisting of a steaming hot pancake filled with brown sugar. Yum! Be careful, the brown sugar is hot and gets everywhere!
Then, we arrived in Namdaemun. Namdaemun market is the largest of Seoul’s traditional markets (and this is saying something). The market is home to thousands of vendors located in street carts, small shops, and even large malls, all selling items at wholesale prices. It would take hours to peruse everything here, and you can easily get lost in the crowds. This is a must-visit location in Seoul for the experience alone, although it is unlikely you’ll be able to leave without buying something. I can easily say that there is nothing like this back in the U.S. As you are jostled through this mecca of shopping your eye will constantly be caught by something new and interesting. The shops sell everything from clothing, hats, and socks by the dozen, to ginseng, flowers, kitchenware, toys, outdoor gear, and more. We even found a Christmas shop where we picked up a little LED light for our tree. Come to Namdaemun and get lost in the experience (don’t worry, you’ll find your way out eventually)! Oh, and did I mention that everything is really cheap? We saw people crowding around one table selling puffy winter jackets for $10!
And there you have it! It was a very successful day exploring some pretty amazing areas in Seoul! We then headed to Itaewon for the Seoul Baseball League banquet, where Brad won one of the awards for Best Pitcher! A fabulous end to the day.
If you had to pick just one of these areas to visit, which would it be? Let me know in the comments below!