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For centuries, Insadong has been at the heart of Seoul’s artistic identity. This neighbourhood is a fascinating blend of tradition and modernity, but despite a rapid modernisation in recent years has clung on to its reputation as Seoul’s traditional artistic neighbourhood. The area - which makes a great place to stay in Seoul - has been the home of the country’s traditional arts and antique scene for centuries, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. Wander through the web of alleys which branch off the main road and discover tradition in its teahouses, galleries and shops as well as hints of a modern city in craft brew bars quirky cafes. Here’s what to do in Insadong, so you can get to heart of Insadong, Seoul and its artistic soul.
For Invading shopping, Ssamziegil delivers. Somewhere between a mall and a traditional outdoor market, Ssamziegil combines the best of both and throws in a lot of delicious food too. The 70 shops, most of which are independent and sell the works of Korean artists and craftspeople, make a welcome break from brand heavy malls and shopping streets elsewhere in the city. The half indoor, half outdoor vibe is made possible by its unique spiralling courtyard, with traditional pottery and crafts on the bottom floor leading up to lots of cafes and food spots on the shop. Shop your way up and then treat yourself at the end with some yummy local food.
With its reputation as an art mecca and its long artistic legacy, Insadong is still regarded as the centre of Seoul’s traditional arts scene. Almost all of the city’s traditional stationary shops are located here, and just to make it clear there’s even a giant paintbrush carved from stone at the entrance to the neighbourhood (just outside Anguk Station). You’ll find shops along Insadong-gil as well as countless smaller ones in the maze of alleyways which branch off the main street selling calligraphy materials, traditional hand-made paper which is called hanji and beautiful pottery. Even if you don’t plan on trying calligraphy or want to buy paper, it’s inspiring to see how connected the neighbourhood still is to its historic, traditional artistic roots. You’ll probably be tempted to buy a beautiful pottery piece to take home with you though!
So, what to eat in Insadong? One unique delicacy is the North Korean style of dumplings, called Gaeseong-mandu, which are larger and are rounder than their southern counterpart. They’re stuffed with ground pork and Chinese cabbage and pumpkin. I’d recommend going for mandu-jeongol where the dumplings are cooked one-pot style in a casserole along with kimchi, vegetables and broth. Try them at Gaeseong Mandu Koong, where the mandu are made by an elderly lady who fled North Korea during the war. The other tip is to go is called Sadong Myeonok, which is a no-fills spot which has been making their signature mandu-jeongol for decades.
Along the neighbourhood’s main street, Insadong-gil, you’ll find some of the best street food in Seoul, especially if you’ve got a sweet tooth! Indulge in ‘dragons beard candy’, which is more of an experience than a dish. Watch the lighting fast vendor start with a piece of sugar and sugar syrup (which is set) and then pull and strech the mixture again and again until it creates whispy, candy floss strings of sugar which are then wound around a filling of chocolate or nuts. You can also munch on hotteok, a sort of pancake which is stuffed with sugar, cinnamon and nuts. But you can also find classics like grilled octopus skewers, mandu served street style and tteok-bokki, which are gooey, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth rice cakes served in a spicy sauce.
If you’ve ever partied in Seoul, you’ll know that before long comes a round where chimaek is called for. This word, which is a combination of the word chicken and beer, is often what’s called for mid-way through the night, as who wouldn't want to feast on a plate of Korean fried chicken, washed down with a cold beer? Even if you’re not half way through a wild night in Seoul, fried chicken and craft beer is always a good idea. Brew 3.15 is a neighbourhood bar which is located down a slightly dubious looking alley, but it’s where you’ll find the best fried chicken around. They have a great range of local and craft beers, all Korean brewed. Choose if you want fried chicken to dip in their home made sauces - which you can choose your own mix and match combo from - or marinated and grilled. Either way you won't be disappointed.
As well as strong ties to its artistic heritage, you can also find traditional teahouses which will transport you back to another time. The most famous is the Shin Old Tea House, but its such a beautiful experience and really is authentic, so don’t feel put off that it’s a must see in Insadong. You’ll sit on the floor of the tiny space, which is tucked away down a small alleyway and provides a cosy escape from the main street. There’s also a traditional teahouse in the Kyung-in Museum, which is actually the oldest teahouse in Seoul.
Photo: Tudung Traveller
With its traditional reputation as an artist’s haven, and an almost 500 year long history as the centre of Seoul’s art and antique scene, it would be rude to not visit at least one gallery while you’re in the neighbourhood. There are over 100 to choose from, so if art is your thing then simply wander through the tiny backstreets and dip in and out of any galleries you see along the way. But the most famous is the Kyung-in Museum of Fine Art, which exhibits the works of both Korean and international artists. Even the museum itself is something of a work of art; its architecture blends historic and modern, and the beautiful outdoor spaces are filled with sculptures and decorated with traditional craftsmanship.
Tapgol Park is pretty small compared to the city’s other green spaces, but it has more history than every of the other parks in Seoul combined. It was the first urban park in Seoul, and following this was where the March 1st Korean Independence Movement took place in 1919. After WWI, this was where the Korean Declaration of Independence was first read, starting in motion the events which led to the bloody March 1st events. But you could even say that its history dates all the way back to 1467, since this area was once within the grounds of the Wongaksa Temple. All that remains of the 15th century temple is the Wongaksa Pagoda, a beautiful 10 level stone pagoda which gives the park its name.
Photo: The Soul of Seoul
Miss Lee’s is unique to say the least. Some people come here for a taste of nostalgia (their menu is pretty old school), some come to write a love note and pin it to the wall, and some come because it’s been the setting of a few Korean reality tv shows and K-dramas. This little cafe will make you feel like you’re in high school and falling in love all over again; the walls are covered with the love notes of previous diners and you can even find lunch box dishes on the menu. A traditional lunch for school children, try the doshirak, where a vintage lunch tin is filled with white rice, kimchi pork, Korean sausage, topped with a fried egg and sprinkled with seaweed. Take the tin and shake it to mix everything together, just like Korean school kids used to.
In the midst of the slightly chaotic tangle of alleys and the bustling main street of the neighbourhood, the Jogyesa Temple provides a much needed pocket of calm. This is one of the most important and historic Buddhist temples in the country, having been established in 1395. Although the temple you can see today was actually constructed in 1937, it’s still an important sacred site, and definitely somewhere to visit if you want to snatch a moment of peacefulness. The temple is at the heart of Korean Buddhism, and is where the lantern festival which takes place every year in celebration of Buddha’s birthday takes places every year. See the bronze Buddha statues, listen to the monks in their sacred chants and discover the temple’s fascinating history.
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