The markets and alleyways of Sindang-dong take you to a Seoul of an earlier age.
Seoul's gritty Sindang-dong district is as far removed from the glitzy glass and steel of Gangnam as you can get. With its sprawling markets, congested alleyways and salt-of-the-earth denizens, the neighborhood is a virtual time machine taking you back to the the 1970s, when Seoul was a rougher but in some ways more colorful place. The best way to explore this fascinating area is to spend a morning or afternoon simply getting lost in the humble and jumble – each turn may reveal hidden gems, and you'll certainly rub shoulders with a colorful cast of characters along the way.
Course : Seoul Folk Flea Market → Dongmyo Shrine → Dongdaemun Apartments → Seoul Central Market, or Seoul Jungang Sijang → Seoul Art Space–Sindang → Hwanghak-dong Kitchen Utensils ㆍFurniture Street → Gwanghuimun Gate → Café Majo & Sady → Dongdaemun Design Plaza
This walking tour begins at the Seoul Folk Flea Market, a two-story, 5,000-square meter warehouse where you'll find over 900 merchants hawking just about everything under the sun, from rare antiques and high-end booze to, well, just plain junk. The flea market got its start in the 1950s, just after the Korean War. In 2004, some of the sprawling outdoor market was moved to Dongdaemun Stadium to make way for the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon Stream, and in 2008, it was moved to its current home to make way for Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
The new indoor market may look spiffy and modern from the outside, but venture inside and you'll find a chaotic and delightfully claustrophobic space where you'll find a truly vast variety of things for sale. Broadly speaking, you'll find clothing, sundries and antiques on the first floor, with more clothing and sundries, souvenirs and a regional goods corner on the second floor. If you take your time, you'll discover some extraordinary and intriguingly random items for sale – this writer came across a wooden cigar store statue from Newark, New Jersey, complete with walrus mustache and Turkish fez. One can only imagine how that wound up in Korea. If you're looking for antiques, you'll find plenty of old furniture, old paintings and even old money. You'll find plenty of old movie and campaign posters, too.
For a bit of an old-timey coffee break, there's a coffeeshop done up like an old-school Korean-style tea room, or dabang, on the second floor. Be sure to try the “morning coffee,” a 1970's specialty of coffee served with an unbroken egg yolk in the bottom of the cup. Yum. The flea market spills over into the surrounding streets and alleyways as far as Dongmyo Station. Like the flea market proper, the variety of goods on sale is confined only by the limits of the human imagination. If you're looking for old records and LPs – everything sounds better on vinyl, after all – you'll find some used record shops with a wonderful collection of classical music and Western pop from the 60s and 70s. Many of the shoppers here are older and have been coming here for decades.
Near Dongmyo Station, and surrounding the outdoor market,
is the Dongmyo Shrine
, a fascinating piece of Korean history that gets far fewer visitors than it should. Completed in 1601, the shrine was built to honor the third century Chinese general Guan Yu. The shrine is built in Chinese style, both in terms of the spacial layout and the extensive use of brick, which lend an exotic charm to the buildings found within. Ironically, given the ocean of humanity surging in the market outside, the shrine itself is blissfully tranquil. Stroll around a bit to clear your mind.
Another historic spot, albeit of much more recent vintage, is the old Dongdaemun Apartments
, also located near Dongmyo Station. When it was erected in 1965, the apartment complex was one of the city's most modern – so favored by local TV and movie stars it was, in fact, that it was nicknamed “the celebrities' apartment.” Today, however, it's a bit long in the tooth and definitely shows its age, but the open courtyard and gritty atmosphere bring to mind Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions or Kowloon Walled City.
Art meets old-fashioned commerce
On the southern side of the Cheonggyecheon is the sprawling Seoul Central Market
, or Seoul Jungang Sijang. While it's not nearly as well-known as its bigger cousins, the Dongdaemun
markets, it's got an earthy, “authentic” feel with hardly a tourist in sight. The covered market was founded in the aftermath of the Korean War, when many of the city's rice dealers set up shop here. At one point, some 70 percent of Seoul's rice was traded here. It's still a popular place to pick up grains, fresh vegetables and seafood. Like other markets, it's got its own culinary culture as well. One alley is lined with shops selling rice mixed with barley and seasoned vegetables, or boribap. At the entrance, you'll find a well-known shop making pan-fried buns made from glutenous rice, or chapssal hotteok, filled with brown sugar and honey. While the above-ground market is interesting enough, venture below ground and you'll find another surprise. Several years ago, many of the empty underground stalls were renovated into studios for young artists and other creatives. Collectively called Seoul Art Space – Sindang (Sindang Creative Arcade)
, the space is home to about 40 artists and designers, as well as a shop, a collective workshop and a space for public art classes. Interestingly enough, the artwork that hangs near the entrance of the market was produced by the artists who work here.
Surrounding the Central Market is yet another market, this one dedicated to kitchen equipment and supplies
. Many of the shops specialize in industrial kitchen equipment for restaurants – the market supplies about 80 percent of the country's restaurants with their equipment - but you'll find plenty of stuff for your home kitchen as well. This writer picked up a cheap wok, for instance.
From the front entrance of Central Market, walk west along Toegye-ro past Sindang Station and the Chungmu Art Hall and you'll eventually come to a row of carpentry and metalworking shops. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Korea was experiencing a construction boom, there were a lot more of these workshops – in fact, to many Seoulites, Sindang-dong used to be virtually synonymous with blacksmiths. Now, however, only a handful remain of these shops remain. One of these shops, Chungnam Gongjakso, is run by a blacksmith who has been plying his trade for five decades. His workshop, full of metal bars, tools of all sorts and a very well-used anvil, is truly a space from a different era.
Just another short walk from there is Gwanghuimun Gate
, one of the old city wall's minor gates. During the Joseon Dynasty, corpses were carried out of the city through this gate. Just behind the gate is a branch of Café Majo & Sady
, dedicated to two Korean characters whom any Kakao Talk user would recognize. While the cafe is certainly nice, its view of the gate is even nicer. At the end of this walk you'll come to the futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza,
one of Seoul's newest and certainly one of its most eye-catching architectural landmarks. Designed by British star architect Zaha Hadid, the twisting, turning mass of concrete and steel is said by some to resemble a spaceship that has landed in the middle of Dongdaemun market. Essentially a monument to Seoul's ambition to be a global design center, the multi-use space hosts regular exhibits and performances. There are shops, cafes, restaurants and a park space, too.
Getting There : Seoul Folk Flea Market is a five-minute walk from Exit 6 of Sinseol-dong Station (Line 1) or Exit 9 or 10 of Sinseol-dong Station (Line 2).
Tip: Sindang-dong Tteokbokki Town
Sindang-dong's culinary claim-to-fame is Sindang-dong tteok-bokki, a tasty dish of spicy, pan-fried rice cakes mixed with dumplings, fish cakes, boiled eggs and ramyeon noodles. Unlike the tteok-bokki you can find at street-side stalls all over the country, Sindang-dong tteok-bokki is no mere snack – it's a meal onto itself. The dish is cooked right at your table.
Sindangdong Tteokbokki Town is an alley lined by several busy restaurants. The oldest of these is Ma Bong-nim Halmeoni Tteok-bokki, founded by the eponymous Ma Bong-nim in 1953. Ma added sweet Chinese black bean sauce to the tangy red pepper sauce commonly used in the dish, giving hers a delightfully sweet and spicy taste. The other restaurants in the alley provide standard Sindang-dong Tteok-bokki in addition to unique variations that use ingredients like cheese or extra spice.
Getting there: A short walk from Exit 8 of Sindang Station (Line 2, 6)