My favorite place to visit in South Korea are the traditional markets. Most neighborhoods have a traditional market where you can find fresh fruits and vegetables at a lesser price than the big grocery stores. You can also find street foods, herbs and small shops selling honey, rice, flowers, clothing and of course, beauty products. I live outside of Seoul in Gunpo-si near the Guemjeong station so Sanbon Traditional Market is the one I frequented most.
I love the traditional markets not only for the cheap goods but for the atmosphere. The aisles hum with floral and lace clad busybodies shopping and carrying multiple bags of delicacies. This is where I personally find the Korean culture the most open and welcoming. People are generally in a good mood and the locals are more open to be of assistance and start up a conversation with you, even if it's in Korean and you don't understand a word. This is where I see the most smiles and can find my favorite thing to eat, gimbap! Gimbap is a bit like Korean sushi rolls, however, I request a vegan version leaving out the meat and eggs and only requesting the green veggies, pickled radish, carrots, and mushrooms. The rolls are quite fat and I usually purchase four for 6,000 won. A steal of a deal which makes two or three meals.
I have found a good deal of the fruits and veggies to be organic at the market however you should look closely and beware of certain items. If it looks too uniform and too shiny it's probably sprayed and dyed and has a short shelf life. I once bought some strawberries that looked great until the next day when I woke up to find they had all gone moldy overnight! Quite a disappointment to say the least. I've also seen dog meat for sale in my local market and live seafood like crabs, squid and octopus are the norm so don't be shocked if you stumble upon some interesting sights. Even though I'm a non-meat eater meat facinates me and after 28 years of being a vegetarian I'm not judgemental and enjoy seeing what people eat, even if I'm not going to take part. I've found that the locals are so used to foreigners taking an interest in these items they are not suprised when you want to take some photos. This gentleman below was very proud to show me his pig's head and pulled it out of the boiling water to show me and allow me to take a photo. If only this hospitality was on the streets and subway I could stay in South Korea forever.
Markets are always a great way to get a peek into better understanding a culture and society. I like to visit markets everywhere I go. It's a great activity to do alone and is usually less expensive than shopping at big supermarkets or malls for items. If you're in South Korea and need to see some friendly faces, be sure to check out some local markets. I'm positive you will find something you were looking for and something you definetely weren't expecting to see.