Between them, the colossal markets of Dongdaemun (동대문 시장) and Namdaemun (남대문 시장) could quite conceivably feed, and maybe even clothe, the world. Both are deservedly high on most visitors’ list of sights to tick off in Seoul. Namdaemun literally means “big south door”, and Dongdaemun “big east door”, referring to the Great Gates that once marked the city perimeter; like the palace of Gyeongbokgung and Jongmyo shrine, these were built in the 1390s under the rule of King Taejo as a means of glorifying and protecting his embryonic Joseon dynasty. Both gates have undergone extensive repairs, but although Dongdaemun still stands in imperial splendour today, surrounded by spiralling traffic day and night, an arson attack in February 2008 saw Namdaemun savaged by fire.
Dongdaemun market is the largest in the country, spread out, open-air and indoors, in various locations around the prettified Cheonggyecheon creek. It would be impossible to list the whole range of things on sale here – you’ll find yourself walking past anything from herbs to hanbok or paper lanterns to knock-off clothing, usually on sale for reasonable prices. Though each section of the market has its own opening and closing time, the complex as a whole simply never closes, so at least part of it will be open whenever you decide to come. Nighttime is when the market is at its most atmospheric, with clothes stores pumping out music into the street at ear-splitting volume, and the air filled with the smell of freshly made food sizzling at street-side stalls. Though some of the dishes on offer are utterly unrecognizable to many foreign visitors, it pays to be adventurous. One segment particularly popular with foreigners is Gwangjang market (광장 시장), a particularly salty offshoot of Dongdaemun to the northwest, and one of Seoul’s most idiosyncratic places to eat in the evening – just look for something tasty and point. During the day, it’s also the best place in Seoul to buy secondhand clothes.
Smaller and more compact than Dongdaemun, you’ll find essentially the same goods at Namdaemun market, which stretches out between City Hall and Seoul station.