Although Insadong (인사동) can trace its roots back to the Joseon dynasty, it became famous for selling antiques during the Imperial Japan era and became known for its art galleries starting in the 1970s. In 1987 it was designated as Korea's first "culture district" and the antique shops and art galleries began to be complemented by more traditional tea houses, cafes, and restaurants. Finally, in 2000, the main street — Insadong-gil (인사동길) — was redesigned to be more people friendly with wider sidewalks, street planters, and improved paving as well as outdoor art that pays tribute to the neighborhood and Korean culture.
Now, Insadong-gil (인사동길) and side streets are closed to cars altogether starting on Saturday afternoon and Sunday mid-morning, so the weekend is the best time to visit Insadong.
Although some major chain stores and tacky tourist shops have invaded in recent years, Insadong remains a great independent shopping area whether you're looking to buy something traditionally Korean like antiques, art, collectibles, ceramics, or stationery, or something more modern and trendy, but still unique.
Part of the fun is exploring the area yourself and finding something unexpected, but the best known micromall is Ssamziegil (쌈지길), which has an interesting spiral design to walk up or down with dozens of small shops selling trendy — and often handmade — souvenirs, art, collectibles, clothing, housewares, and more.
Restaurants well regarded by Koreans in the area include Jogeum (조금) and Jeongseon Halmae Gondrebap (정선할매곤드레밥), both for traditional Korean food, but many other options also are available. If you just want to try some tea, there are plenty of local and chain stores, but the most famous traditional tea house is Kyungin. Insadong-gil offers plenty of street food snack and drink options, too.
Five or ten years ago, travelgasm.com probably could have called Ikseondong (익선동) — with its gritty alleyways of modest working class Korean houses, or Hanok (한옥), — one of our "7 Things Tourists Don't Do in Seoul, But You Should." However, because Insadong has become more and more expensive, independent artists and entrepreneurs have moved into Ikseondong next door; and these businesses have given tourists more of a reason to explore the area. It's still a bit gritty, but the influx of visitors has turned it into a great place to hang out in a cafe or have dessert. One place we enjoyed was Plant (식물), which is a cafe with vegan and gluten-free options, but there are many other cafes to try, as well.
However, Ikseondong hasn't completely given up its working class roots yet. In fact, last time we checked, there still was at least one restaurant in the neighborhood that specializes in Bosintang (보신탕), or dog stew. If you want to find it, you can ask older men in the neighborhood. Younger Koreans are more likely to be offended by dog meat.
We've mapped out our preferred walk through Insadong and Ikseondong below. It connects Insadong-gil to the warrens of Ikseondong as pleasantly as possible using smaller streets and the most efficient metro stations.
How to Get Here: There are three metro stations near Insadong and Ikseondong — Anguk (Orange Line, Line 3), Jonggak (Dark Blue Line, Line 1), and Jongno 3-ga (Orange, Purple, Dark Blue Interchange Station). If you follow our suggested walk, it starts at Anguk (Orange Line, Line 3), Exit 6. Go straight and take the first left onto Insadong-gil. To depart from Ikseondong, Jongno 3-ga, Exit 4 is convenient, particularly for the Purple Line, Line 5; but it also is connected to the Orange Line, Line 3; and the Dark Blue Line, Line 1; via a knot of long underground tunnels.
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