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Seoul: Coffee, Markets and Malls

Gwangjang Market 2
Gwangjang Market. Photo Jeanne Muchnik

By Jeanne Muchnick

 I never expected to come back from Seoul raving about its markets and coffee shops but that’s exactly what happened.

Yes, there’s history and yes there’s cool “must see” palaces (put Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung on your list!), but what really struck me were the street markets hawking everything from jeans to ginseng to live fish; the modern malls, many of which are underground; and the abundance of coffee shops selling — you guessed it — a pastel hodgepodge of desserts and artful lattes. In fact, coffee and dessert, at least in the casual restaurants I visited, isn’t even on the menu. That’s what the coffee shops are for.

Any travel site will tell you the must do’s — the palaces, the Korean demilitarized zone or DMZ and Bukchon Hanok Village — but consider this your market, mall and coffee shop guide.

Gwangjang Market 3
Gwangjang Market. Photoe Jeanne Muchnik


Gwangjang Market

This is THE market, as in big, bustling, and jam-packed with a frenzied cacophony of street food. As one of the oldest and largest in Seoul, expect to walk the perimeter twice just to see everything and decide on what you want to eat. Don’t expect much English spoken — though many stalls do have photos.

After a while, many stalls start to look the same, though they each have their own personality. Some have women — there seem to be more women than men here — hawking their wares enticing you to visit them; others are quieter with staff expertly rolling what looks like sushi but is instead Mayak gimbap, rice rolls with pickled vegetables packed into seaweed.

Mostly the market is a mixture of Bindaetteok, a mung bean pancake, Pajeon (scallion pancake), Soondae (blood sausage), mandu (Korean dumplings), hand cut noodles (kalguksu), Tteokbokki, sticky dense rice rolls stewed in a thick red chili sauce and the aforementioned Mayak gimbap.

Also, popular and seemingly at every turn: Large varieties of seafood including hwareo hoe, sliced raw fish similar to sashimi and live baby octopus(san-nakji) which locals seem to relish but which can be a tad off-putting as once the head is chopped off, the tentacles still move on your plate as if alive.

I don’t have a specific place to recommend — you really can’t go wrong at any of them (provided you have a strong stomach and a sense of adventure!) — though usually if you follow the longest line and the “Seen on Netflix” signs you’ll know you’ve hit the spot.

Just be forewarned that each stall only has a few counter seats which means you’ll be awkwardly hovering over people as they eat before you can sit down. Consider it survival of the hungriest as you jump into their seats the minute they get up — then order fast!  Just be prepared for the next wave of people hovering over you!

So you know, cash is king here (not many places take credit cards) and everything is in the $5 to $10 range depending on what you get.

Namdaemun Market popular pancake stand
Namdaemun Market popular pancake stand. Photo Jeanne Muchnik.

Namdaemun Market 

My hotel (the Courtyard by Marriott) was across the street from Namdeumun so this was my go-to market. While I loved seeing and exploring Gwangjang, it can be a lot. For me, it was a one and done place while Namdaemun, which is spread out over many blocks and features more than food, was tamer and easier to navigate. Each time I went, I discovered something new. I almost bought a pair of jeans because, at 5’3, it’s often hard to find pants with the right length. In Seoul, I was the perfect size.

There were also sweaters, t-shirts, socks, hats and more in addition to all kinds of food including the super popular Korean pancakes. The one at Gate 2 was consistently busy no matter the time of day. Luckily, with our hotel across the street I got there at 8 a.m. and avoided the line!

I also found it fun to head off the main drag into the hidden alleyways behind the market where there are a variety of restaurants — with chefs cooking in the narrowest tiniest spaces just outside their eateries (these are all tiny places). I wasn’t brave enough to try one — there was no English spoken here and I can be picky about my fish — but if you’re undaunted by the unknown and like all kinds of seafood, this is your place.

fisheries meal 1
Dining at the Fisheries market. Photo Jeanne Muchnik

Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market

I have to thank Phil Rosenthal of Netflix’s “Somebody Feed Phil” for this one because it hadn’t been high on my list prior to going. But after I watched his show — I highly recommend it if you like discovering new foods — I told my family it was a must.

The is basically a giant wholesale fish market — about the size of the Javits Center in New York City — filled with rows and rows of live fish. Again, I found women to be the main purveyors here, hawking their wares and in some cases, holding up live king crab or octopus as a way to entice us to buy from them. In Rosenthal’s show he picks his king crab at a stall, then has it delivered to one of the second-floor restaurants to prepare. In our case, the language barrier was too great so after eyeing the vast array of seafood (and ogling all those octopus and live crabs!), we picked a spot upstairs where we saw pictures of the king crab Rosenthal had and sat down. There were five of us — perfect for sharing. We also ordered shrimp and clams and waited, not completely sure what we might get.

But what came out was a delight (and exactly what Phil had!): A large, steamed king crab served with a bucket of scissors for us to cut off the legs (and dig into the crabmeat!) When done, the waiter then collected everything, mixed it, and came back with crab fried rice filled into the body of the crab. Perfect for my Insta and perfect for continuing the meal. All in all, it was a fun communal and very authentic food experience.


Coffee shops

I love coffee so to find out that Seoul has a caffeine high with coffee shops was an added bonus to my visit here — and something I didn’t expect. Even crazier: The city is obsessed with animal cafes. Do a social media search and you’ll find everything from cats to dogs to sheep (I had to go here) and racoons (a def no!). There’s also one devoted to the ABBA musical group and its hit song turned Broadway show turned movie “Mama Mia.”

Some faves:

thanks nature sheep 2
Sheep at the Thanks Nature Cafe. Photo Jeanne Muchnik

Thanks Nature Café

Who knew sipping a latte while petting sheep would be so soothing — and fun?

Bebe and Chou Chou, the two sheep I met, were the fluffiest, cutest, and most docile sheep who didn’t seem to mind people continually petting them and trying to take the perfect picture.

The sheep are kept in a pen separate from the café with numerous reminders to wash your hands before touching them. The place, on the lower level of a shopping area, was clean and surprisingly charming with a greenery and sheep-décor-filled interior and a robust menu featuring waffles, ice cream, cakes, breads and all kinds of coffee and tea. Def a trip highlight. 


Samoyed Cafe ‘Winters Village’ 

This is less a café than a place to pet and take photos with Samoyed dogs. While there’s a self-service machine for coffee, I never saw anyone drinking it. Instead, it was more like walking into a doggie daycare to observe and play with these rare breeds. At the entrance, the staff discusses the rules of the cafe — no touching certain dogs! — and processes your payment (about $10 for entry). You then store your coats and bags in a locker room while you then go upstairs to meet the dogs.  

Mama Mia 

You may want to burst into song the minute you see this café as it’s colors — blues, greens and pinks — and its seaside décor can’t help but make you feel like you’re on an ABBA stage. The outdoor dining space is lush, with overhanging greenery while the inside is filled with an assortment of  decadent looking cakes and pastries you select yourself before paying at the counter. They also do delicious lattes and coffees. The airy, breezy space feels like you’ve entered a movie set with perfectly placed decorations, flowers and Abba memorabilia. I couldn’t stop taking photos! Just make sure you head upstairs. The lower level is so nice you may not notice at first there’s more ABBA on the second floor..  

C. Through Café

You’ve never seen artistry in a coffee cup quite like this! Yes, your coffee may cost $10 but it’s worth every penny for the hand-drawn lifelike “cream art” available in Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night” or as a cherry blossom tree. The baristas also craft the cutest animal creations. You can even get a hot chocolate with what looks like a fried egg on top. The coffee, served cold and creamy, is really good albeit a tad sweet. Needless to say, there are also adorable cream puffs that look like little monsters and other goodies perfect for the ‘gram.  

Café Swith SOL

This is a Disney-fied coffee shop perfect for those with young kids — or those, like me, who love taking pictures!  Everywhere you turn there’s something else to see. But it all starts at the front entrance where a character pouring coffee is your first sign this is not your ordinary coffee shop. 

Walk in the front doors where colorful screens depicting adorable characters change with music making you forget, momentarily, that you came for coffee. It’s hard not to get distracted here as inside, is just as cute with a photo booth off the right along with items for sale, tables in the center, also featuring screens that change scenery, and, to the left, more characters including one in a garden with a watering can, and ones on swings and chairs sipping coffee.

IMG 6581
3D Greem Cafe. Photo Jeanne Muchnik

Greem Café

Nothing is more visually stunning than this 3-D looking black and white café which feels like a pencil sketchbook come to life. The only problem? It’s often crowded so getting a great photo is hard, unless you go at an off time. That said, having a colorful latte and piece of caramel cake against this backdrop feels like you’re eating some place whimsical a la Alice in Wonderland.  



I’m not a big mall person. The mall phenomenon was more something I observed than something I’d personally spend all my time in Seoul doing. This city loves shopping! And most of that shopping is underground, both at subway stops and just in regular underground walkways. In many cases you have to go underground to cross the street (they’re wide and can be chaotic here) and it’s here you may get distracted looking at hair clips and hats (they have a lot!), earrings, shoes, tea sets, stickers and more.

When we went searching for the Starfield Library — my kids had seen it on Instagram — we found ourselves in a mall. You almost can’t escape them! The Starfield Library, basically what looks like a giant bookstore, was a miss for me (I didn’t need more stimulus of the mall experience) but if you like books, it’s definitely worth seeing (though depending on where you’re staying it can be a long trek). Sticking with my coffee theme, you’ll also find the Billy Angel coffee shop here with a gorgeous assortment of cakes.


Jeanne Muchnik
Jeanne Muchnik

Jeanne Muchnick covers Food & Dining for The Journal News/lohud in Westchester County, New York, part of the USA Today network. The former Travel Editor of Woman’s World Magazine, she’s also written for The New York Times, Endless Vacation, FamilyFun, Parents, SheBuysTravel and Westchester Magazine. The author of Dinner For Busy Moms, she loves food (and wine!) as much as she loves travel. Follow her on Instagram at @jeannemuchnick.






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