For centuries, Insadong has been at the heart of Seoul’s artistic identity. This neighborhood is a fascinating blend of tradition and modernity, but despite rapid modernization in recent years has clung on to its reputation as Seoul’s traditional artistic neighborhood.
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 the heart of Insadong, Seoul and its artistic soul.
For great 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 spiraling 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.
Browse the traditional stationary and porcelain shops
With its reputation as an art mecca and its long artistic legacy, Insadong is still regarded as the center of Seoul’s traditional arts scene. Almost all of the city’s traditional stationery shops are located here, and just to make it clear there’s even a giant paintbrush carved from stone at the entrance to the neighborhood (just outside Anguk Station).
You’ll find shops along Insadong-gil as well as countless smaller ones in the maze of alleyways that branch off the main street selling calligraphy materials, traditional hand-made paper that 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 neighborhood 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!
Try North Korean dumplings
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 to Sadong Myeonok, which is a no-frills spot that has been making its signature mandu-jeongol for decades.
Feast on street food
Along the neighborhood'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 stretch 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 after some partying comes chimaek. This word, which is a combination of the word chicken and beer, is often what’s called for mid-way through the night, who wouldn't want to feast on a plate of Korean fried chicken, washed down with a cold beer?
Even if you’re not halfway through a wild night in Seoul, fried chicken and craft beer is always a good idea. Brew 3.15 is a neighborhood bar that 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 your fried chicken dipped in their homemade sauces - which you can choose your own mix and match combo from - or marinated and grilled. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
Photo: Tudung Traveller
Sip tea in a traditional teahouse
As well as strong ties to its artistic heritage, you can also find traditional tea houses that will transport you back to another time. The most famous is the Shin Old Tea House, but its such a beautiful, authentic experience, 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 cozy escape from the main street. There’s also a traditional tea house in the Kyung-in Museum, which is the oldest tea house in Seoul.
Visit at least one art gallery
With its traditional reputation as an artist’s haven and an almost 500-year long history as the center of Seoul’s art and antique scene, it would be rude to not visit at least one gallery while you’re in the neighborhood.
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.
Photo: The Soul of Seoul
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 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 that gives the park its name.
Miss Lee’s Cafe
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.
Try the doshirak, a traditional lunch for school children, 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 slightly chaotic tangle of alleys and the bustling main street of the neighborhood, 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 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 place 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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