Insa-dong is one of the top tourist destinations in Seoul. It’s been one of my favorite places since I moved here in 2004. I’ve watched it go through a ton of changes, and it’s currently going through another makeover. Many of us pine for the lost Insa-dong of yore. Yet I have some tips on how to get the most out of Insa-dong, along with some background.
What is Insa-dong?
In the past century, Insa-dong has been known as a center of traditional Korean culture. For a long time, it was the place to go to for antiques, art, calligraphy, traditional crafts, and all the tools to make them.
It’s also around the center of Seoul’s Buddhist traditions, with Jogye-sa temple right next to it. So the area is also good for buying Buddhist souvenirs and for dining on Buddhist temple cuisine.
The street itself runs from the northwest to the southeast, against the grid pattern of its surrounding streets. This is because the street follows the path of a stream that used to flow through there from the mountain.
You can get to Insa-dong by going to Anguk Station or Jonggak Station–maybe Jongno 3-ga Station if you want to pass by Tapgol Park.
I still think it’s a place you have to visit on your first trip to Seoul.
So why is this a “Curmudgeon’s Guide?”
Let’s start way back…
|Listen to the Dark Side of Seoul Podcast to learn about this in more detail.|
The Joseon Dynasty established Seoul (Hanyang) as its capital in 1392. For most of its history, it was a mundane neighborhood that housed government officials, aristocrats, and a few government ministries.
One was the Chunghunbu, which investigated achievements of people who did valorous things for the government or royal family. The others were the Imun and the Dohwaso, which had the tasks of guarding against thieves and to crack down on illegal extravagant feasts. In essence, they were fighting against the right to party.
In 1896, Gojong, Korea’s last king, tried to establish an empire to stave off Japanese encroachments on his kingdom. He designated a spot in Insa-dong as the geographical center of Seoul and the Great Daehan Empire.
But that didn’t last.
In 1905, the Japanese government forced Korea to sign a protectorate treaty. Five years later, Korea became a Japanese colony.
Seungdong Presbyterian Church
Around this time, the Seungdong Presbyterian Church was established. It’s considered one of the “mother churches” of Korean Protestantism. The basement of this church spawned Korea’s independence movement on March 1st, 1919. In fact, the Korean Declaration of Independence was written in there.
The Independence Movement was launched during King Gojong’s funeral week with the signing of the Korean Declaration of Independence at the Taehwagwan Restaurant. This is currently the Taehwa Building. There’s no trace of the restaurant, but there are some plaques commemorating the moment.
After the signing, activists started a march that went through Insa-dong and to Tapgol Park, where the Declaration was read aloud.
To sum up the rest, it didn’t turn out well. To hear more about it, listen to this podcast about it.
Becoming an antique street
After Japan annexed Korea, it redesigned Seoul’s streets and neighborhoods to almost how they look today. For one thing, the colonial government combined the neighborhoods of Gwaninbang and Daesa-dong to create Insa-dong.
Gwaninbang + Daesa-dong = Insa-dong
The colonials took over the palaces and stripped the yangban aristocrat class of their titles. Finding themselves without income, the yangban based up north in Bukchon sold their family heirlooms in Insa-dong.
Japanese colonists set up shop in Insa-dong to sell the treasures that were being looted from the palaces, thus creating the antique street we all know.
A center for bohemians
The Japanese antique merchants peaked in the early 1970s after some scandals and murders spooked them out. At the same time, art shops were popping up, drawing artistic types. With the artists came the tea houses and traditional pubs.
Cheon Sang-byeong, “The People’s Poet,” owned Café Gwicheon there with his wife. In 1967, he was kidnapped by the authoritarian government and tortured, being accused as a Communist spy.
After his release, his trauma drove him to drinking, and he disappeared in 1971. Assuming the worst, his friends published his poems to great acclaim. Cheon himself was discovered in an asylum. He could only remember two things–his name and that he was a poet.
A friend’s sister, Mok Soon-ok, visited him every day. They fell in love and married. Struggling with money, their friends set them up with Cafe Gwicheon in Insa-dong.
Up until his death in 1993, Cheon Sang-byeong greeted guests at the café. The café still stands and celebrates his life and poetry.
Preservation vs. Gentrification
Starting in 1987, private and government organizations started recognizing and designating Insa-dong as a special cultural asset. The Traditional Culture Festival was held every spring. The pedestrian walkway was widened. There were even restrictions on the types of businesses that could operate there. Korean hangeul script had to dominate each store’s sign.
This started to change in 2001, when Starbucks opened shop in Insa-dong. Even though it was the first Starbucks in the world to have its sign in a script other than Roman, it was a harbinger that restrictions were loosening.
It got worse when a whole swath of buildings and charming alleys were bulldozed for the four-story Ssamzie-gil shopping mall, with its spiral shop-lined ramp that goes all the way to the rooftop. It’s since become the main tourist draw in the area, but the stores sell more Etsy-style crafts and handbags than traditional arts. The infamous “Poop Bread” can be found in there, which is just Ingeobbang (Red Bean-filled Carp Pastry) in the shape of feces.
Antique stores started closing down, followed by art shops, calligraphy shops, Buddhist goods purveyors. They were replaced by franchise makeup parlors, coffee shops, and convenience stores. A 2017 article found that only 39.3% of Insa-dong shops actually sold anything that Insa-dong was known for.
In 2019, the Hello Insa-dong (Annyeong Insa-dong 안녕인사동) shopping mall was opened–after razing more charming tea houses, art galleries, and cozy alleys. It’s even worse than Ssamzie-gil. It doesn’t try to be interesting. It’s a big concrete slab filled with generic franchise shops and restaurants, along with cheap gimmicky tourist traps.
As of this writing, an even larger section of Insa-dong’s south side has been totally wiped out, including the very last traditional pubs from Seoul’s legendary Pimatgol Alley, which had been around since 1392. The original plan was to just update the small buildings that were there.
Instead, it’s going to look like this.
Another gaudy building that doesn’t fit Insa-dong’s character. Officials claim that they’re planning to preserve the alley they tore down. Yet the pattern has been that they’ll instead make a shopping arcade filled with sneaker outlets.
What to do in Insa-dong?
Alright, now that you see why I’m so curmudgeonly about Insa-dong having most of its charm and character sterilized for fake photo zones and Trick-eye Museums, I’m going to share tips on how to find those pockets of Insa-dong that have survived its destruction.
Move away from the main street
This is the best advice for anywhere in Seoul. The main street in any neighborhood attracts the same old stores you see everywhere else. It’s the same for Insa-dong.
Wander the alleys. They’re charming. Some can be a fat man’s squeeze. There you can find the traditional restaurants you traveled so far to experience. You can check out the hold out antiques dealers and art galleries.
Buy something artistic
If you can support a local artisan, do it. The quality of their creations are worth it for the stories alone. I suggest some of these in our souvenir guide. Name stamps, traditional paper (hanji), paintings, calligraphy brushes, ceramics. You can find the vendors in the alleyways, or if you go into the rear of some of the shops that are selling the cheap “Made in China” souvenirs out front, you can get them there.
See the Knife Gallery instead of the Trick-Eye Museum
There are Trick-Eye Museum tourist traps all over Korea. But there’s only one Knife Gallery. Its name is deceiving. Yes, it has and sells knives, from culinary to military. But the treat here is to see all the swords–antique swords, historical swords, and even sword replicas from movies and fantasy. The entrance fee is just whatever donation you see fit.
Enjoy a spot of tea
I don’t get why anyone would go to a coffee shop in Insa-dong when there are so many gorgeous tea houses. They serve some of the best green tea in all of Asia, along with other infusions, cold drinks, and treats.
Traditional Tea House Insa-dong
(Jeontong Chatjip Insa-dong 전통 찻집 인사동)
This is one of the few suggestions I have that is on the main road. Tourists don’t go in there because the sign is only written in Korean. The menu, though, is not. And the staff speaks some English.
The teahouse is full of warm wood, with a courtyard and a very traditional annex in the back.
Gwicheon Café 귀천
This is the café I mentioned earlier. As of this writing, it’s still there.
Enjoy the street food
Skip the Poop Bread. Get the Insa-dong Hotteok instead. Hotteok is a yeast dough stuffed with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts that is fried in a layer of oil, like a doughnut. The Insa-dong version infuses the dough with cornmeal to give it an extra crunch.
Go back in time at a traditional pub
So few of these still exist, so I’ll suggest some inside Insa-dong and on its outskirts.
Blue Star Pub (Pureun-byeol Jumak 푸른별주막)
Get the fresh tofu and kimchi set 생두부+것김치+태백김치 (W20,000). The menu is in Korean but it’s on the top left. Get that or anything else they suggest for you. Their grilled mackerel is divine!
Chase this down with a kettle of makgeolli rice ale. If you like makgeolli, consider upgrading it with a dusting of pine needle powder on top (Sol-eep Makkolli 솔입막걸리).
It’s on the north side, across the street in a back alley. It’s not a very Korean name, but you will never forget this place. It specializes in makgeolli from different regions of Korea in various flavors. The menu is upgraded Korean fusion, but the good kind of Korean fusion. Get the American Potato Pancake (미국감자전). Fresh grated potatoes fried up as a pancake, topped with sour cream and bacon.
Any other suggestions?
Those are a few of my suggestions and tips for what to do in Insa-dong. I’m sure there are so many more hidden places I have missed. If you have any, please share in the comments.