This week I am going to take a break from treasure hunting and take you all exploring one of the most famous streets in Seoul instead. How would you like to experience true traditional Korean culture? Where? Where else but in Insadong, for nowhere else exudes more local and traditional charm than Insadong, a quaint neighborhood in the center of Seoul. The streets of Insadong are just alive with traditional culture. Insa-dong-gil stretches over 700 meters between the Anguk-dong Rotary and Tapgol Park (Jongno 2-ga). Actually, the area that is now known as Insadong has been the center of culture since the Joseon era. During the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the street was dominated by Dohwawon, a place of study for painters.
The area is still a center for the arts, and painters, craftsmen, and art lovers continue to set up shop along the narrow alleys, making it a unique place showcasing folk crafts, pottery, and paintings. It is also one of the best places in Korea to pick up high quality souvenirs. Here you can find all manner of items that are unique only to Korea, such as wooden masks, fashionable Hanboks, and items made with hanji or Korean traditional paper.
Insadong’s streets are lined with shops selling traditional Korean craftwork that have been handcrafted or painted by the owners themselves. Everything from tea sets, wooden masks, furniture and artwork can be purchased here, but at slightly higher prices due to their quality and authenticity.
How to get there? Take subway line number 1 to either Jonggak Station or Jongno 3-ga Station and go out through Exit #5. You may also take the subway line number 3 to Anguk Station and exit at Exit #6.
The main street, Insadong-gil can be quite congested with tourists but don’t let that put you off. Be a bit adventurous, and explore the many narrow side alleys hidden away from the main street, as in Insadong, every turn you make is a new discovery. But make sure you pick up a map of the area from one of the three Tourist Information Centers first, so that you won’t get lost.
If you look at the road map of Insadong above, you will see the important landmarks/shops along this street, marked by the letters of the alphabet, so I shall tell you a little about these places first and the type of things they sell, so that you can plan out your shopping itinerary instead of just going aimlessly into every shop.
A. Toto's Nostalgia Museum and Gift Shop is a museum that displays items that were common in Korea in the 1960s and 1970s. After paying the entrance fee (1,000 KRW), visitors will find themselves surrounded by toys, snacks, and other items of the past, such as Jjondgi and Apolo.
B. Korean Craft Promotion Foundation (KCPF) Master Craft Shop displays and sells high-quality Korean handicrafts, stamped with the UNESCO Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts. The shop possesses handicrafts by renowned master craftsmen and artists.
C. Isae. Targetting middle-aged customers and senior citizens, Isae only uses chemical-free fabrics made especially with functional comfort in mind. Both modern and traditional hanbok styles are available here
D. Knife Gallery is the only knife specialty shop in Korea, this Insadong gallery is home to over 6,000 knives from all over the world. They include traditional Korean and Japanese knives, Chinese knives, decorative knives, knives by some famous artists, and knives shown in movies. There are a variety of knives for both daily and decorative uses. Customers who order custom knives may observe the entire manufacturing process.
E. Ssamziegil is a unique cultural shopping complex that continues the traditions of Insa-dong while complementing it with modern convenient facilities. It’s where the old meets the new.
Crowded every weekend, it is one of the main attractions of Insadong. It's an open-air structure that contains five floors of shops, with over 70 stores that sell various items, ranging from fashion and art to food and accessories. Performances and exhibitions are regularly held on the first floor yard
This unique area was designed in such a way, that by connecting its alleys it takes the form of a spiral-like stairway. The building's name, Ssamziegil, comes from this spiral structure, making one continuous path that is lined with craft shops like one of the streets in Insadong. From the top, at Haneulmadang, you can get an extraordinarily clear view of the sky.
Six different design studios have come together at Ssamziegil Workshop located on B1 to offer their expertise in their fields to teach their crafts to the public, at a low cost. Cerawork, ceramics hand painting; Sudesign, mother of pearl and wood; Gongye Design, Korean paper-craft; Beads&clay, beads and clay; Hyang-youn, aroma candles and ribbon; and Yeson; natural soaps and leather.
Why not take a crash course on how to make natural soap. It’s easy; just pick out a mold for your soap, the color, and the oils. Mix it all together and let it set for about an hour, meanwhile you can continue to shop around and come back to collect it later. It will be all wrapped up and ready for you to take delivery and it costs no more than 4,000 won for your own personalized soap.
F. Miniature Museum sells a diverse selection of miniature key rings, mobile phone accessories, and business card holders that are sure to please both children and adults. Miniature pottery is also available for purchase.
G. Cheongju Korean Craft Museum displays and sells Korean crafts made by artists in Cheongju. It is home to over 100 different kinds of crafts including crafts related to Jikji (the oldest remaining book in the world using the metal printing method). Customers are exposed to rich information on Jikji and the International Craft Biennale. Main products include neckties (using metal printing), pottery, textile crafts, jewelry, and products using Korean traditional patterns and handwritings.
H. Toyo specializes in pottery for daily use such as mugs, plates, and tea cups. Crafted by Sonnae Pottery (a pottery village in Jinan, Jeonbuk), pottery in Toyo demonstrates sophisticated simplicity and elegance. Guests can also view pottery for decorative purposes. The Sonnae Pottery was honored with the 2008 UNESCO Seal of Crafts Excellence in East Asia.
J. Insa Art Plaza is a giant shopping mall that deals with everything Korean: traditional crafts made by artists, daily use pottery, lacquer-ware, hanji (traditional Korean paper) crafts, silver/pearl/crystal accessories, mobile phone key rings, scent pouches, traditional teas, rice cakes, traditional chopsticks and more. Customers can purchase high quality products at reasonable prices at Insa Art Plaza.
K. Tong-In Store is not only the oldest specialty shop in traditional crafts, but also offers diverse contemporary crafts. It operates both a shop and gallery. The store is heavily involved in nurturing artists and, often, displays their works in its gallery. Its crafts cover all types, promoting craftsmanship to both citizens and tourists.
L. Jilsiru is a modern cafe serving traditional snacks. Customers may enjoy the wide variety of tteok (rice cake), hangwa (Korean traditional sweets & cookies), and traditional organic beverages at this cafe with a sophisticated interior.
M. Park Young Sook Bedding (Atelier Seoul) is the gallery of the modern potter, Park Young Sook. It displays and sells white porcelains representing the Chosun Dynasty, Buncheong ware, and ceramics with modern flavors. Various items include flower vases, decorative ceramics, and daily use earthen ware.
N. Gukje Embroidery specializes in embroidered crafts using Korean traditional patterns. Every product is handcrafted, delicate, and elegant. It is a frequent destination of foreign dignitaries. It offers workshops where international tourists can learn how to make embroidered crafts.
O. National Souvenir Center is a duty free shopping complex that sells Korean souvenirs, including crafts, pottery, lacquer-ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, traditional food items, and Korean celebrity memorabilia. Visitors can expect to find items that are made by renowned local artists as well as of cultural and historical significance.
P. Bongwon Calligraphy has provided customers with top-notch calligraphic supplies for over 30 years. Products are reasonably priced because the shop deals in both the manufacture and sales. Being one of the largest of its kind in Insa-dong, the shop is frequented by calligraphic experts. Customized products are available upon request.
Q. Arirang Master Crafts Shop is a comprehensive shopping center dealing with Korean traditional crafts. It covers traditional crafts by famous artists, pottery for daily use, decorative pottery, lacquer ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, crafts made of Korean traditional paper and more. In addition, customers can enjoy the works displayed in the Migak Museum (Migak means delicate sculpture for eyes to see), located in the shop.
R. Beautiful Tea Museum offers teas from around the world and shows items depicting international tea cultures. It displays teas, tea-related items, and ceramics made by young artists. 130types of teas from Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and European countries can be found in the museum. There is also a café offering delicious teas.
S. Nami Island Seoul Center in Insa-dong was opened to promote its tourist attractions and guide international tourists to the island. The center offers ceramics and glass crafts produced in Nami Island. It also sells character products related to the famous soap opera Winter Sonata. The tour bus departs from Insa-dong at 9:30 a.m. and returns at 4 p.m.
T. Korean Souvenir Center offers representative Korean souveniors. It deals with certified high quality products that have won craft/souvenir contests held by national organizations such as Korean Tourism Organization. Its third floor houses Namisum (Nami Island) Seoul Center which has attracted many Japanese tourists in recent years. Products on sale here are embroidered products, lacquer-ware, ceramics, naturally dyed products, amethysts, traditional crafts, and character products (Korean entertainment stars)
Forty percent of all antique stores in Korea can be found in Insadong. That is quite an astounding number for just one small neighborhood. But as you begin to explore the tiny alleys shooting off from the main street you start to realize that this is just the beginning. As you continue to wander around the alleys and byways of Insadong you will find stores selling old books, pictures and calligraphy. You will also undoubtedly find old photographs, pottery, wooden containers, jewelry, ceramics and earthenware. Things may be a little expensive in Insadong, but you can't beat the atmosphere or the convenience elsewhere. There is no shortage of stores selling souvenirs and facsimiles of traditional Korean cultural items.
However, when shopping in Insa-dong, make sure you check where the product is made in. Recently, cheap Chinese goods such as teacups, wall tapestries, and small accessories have been brought into the Insa-dong markets and have spurred cases where merchandise thought to be made in Korea turned out to be marked as ‘Made in China.’
During the weekends, the streets will be closed to vehicles, and cultural festivities like parades, traditional wedding processions, traditional musical and dance performances, will be held in the streets to attract the locals as well as the tourists. It is a pleasant, fun place to shop and wander around in.
A tour of Insadong is not complete unless you have stepped into a traditional Korean teahouse or chatjip. Long renowned for its traditional tea shops, Insadong has increasingly become overrun with more modern versions. However, local merchants have been fighting to keep alive the old traditions, and many traditional tea houses still survive, many playing old folk music. Several restaurants offer traditional recipes in authentic settings. Explore the side alleys for the best ones, and I’ve got a few recommendations for you to try.
These enchanting places are a unique blend of tastes, aromas and sounds, brought together in a traditional Korean setting. Drinking hot tea with Korean snacks , whilst enjoying the ambience of the teahouse is most relaxing for the mind and body. It’s as if you are in another world altogether.
Price? This is the average price list, but at some places, they may be higher.
Hot Tea : 7,000 won
There is this place called ‘The Old Tea Shop.’ which is in the small alley between Temple Food Shop and Atelier Seoul. At the end of the alley you will see the Old Tea Shop. Bird Flying Tea Shop is on the 2nd floor. The shop is actually divided into two parts. The downstairs (ground level) tea shop does not have birds flying around. You have to climb up a winding staircase to reach it and when you are there, you’ll be in for a big surprise.
This little tea shop is full of little colorful birds everywhere. Some are flying in the air, whilst some are perched on the windowsills and there are some who even come and walk on the tables you’re sitting at, foraging for free crumbs I suppose. So you’ll be drinking your favorite tea with the incessant chirping of the birds coming from every corner of the room. It’s like music to the ears. Another thing unique about this place is the antique furniture and other knick knacks that adorn this place together with the low-lit lamps.
One of Seoul’s most popular Korean traditional teahouses is Dawon, located in the garden of Kyungin Museum of Fine Art. In spring, when the garden transforms into a riot of cheerful colors, this is a truly magical place to visit. You can have your choice between sitting in the outdoor courtyard or in the beautiful Korean hanok itself. You’ll probably opt for the courtyard, where you can drink your tea in the refreshing spring breeze. At night, the Korean hanok is beautifully lit up, making it a perfect rendezvous spot.
To those just passing by, Insa-dong Teahouse doesn’t look like much. This might be a good thing — if people knew what awaited them inside, it’d be packed all the time. Hidden away from the main drag of Insa-dong, Insa-dong Teahouse has a lovely Korean-style courtyard, or madang, surrounded by a Korean hanok-style home. Visitors may sit in either the courtyard or the hanok — in spring or summer, the courtyard makes for an especially pleasant tea-sipping venue. The hanok rooms are relatively spartan in that charmingly Confucian way. It’s a very relaxing place that doesn’t get quite the attention it deserves.
O'sulloc's is a bit of an institution here in Seoul that specializes in green tea. They even grow their own tea in their tea plantation in Jeju. But it can be quite pricey here as compared to the more traditional teahouses though. From "Brownies" and Ice Cream made from green tea, you can find almost any type of tea here. The green tea patbingsu or Green Tea Sherbet is an absolute must try at this place. What is patbingsu? It is the Korean summer dessert, shaved ice topped with sweetened azuki beans, ice cream and fruits. The green tea patbingsu here, comes with dried fruits and red beans, topped with green tea ice cream. It costs 17,000 won but it’s quite huge. Worth trying if you're not on a budget but there are other places that sell green tea patbingsu for probably much less.
The Beautiful Tea Museum exhibits porcelain artwork by young ceramists. It also offers a large variety of world tea from Korea, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, Europe and more, totaling 130 types of tea. The museum not only exhibits tea, but it also provides a café for visitors to relax and enjoy the taste of their selected tea. The Beautiful Tea Museum exhibition of tea-items is divided into three sections; Korea, China, and Tibet. Visitors can gain an overall understanding of the tea traditions of each country. Also, young ceramists’ artwork is up for sale.
I hope that you have enjoyed your visit to Insadong today. See you again soon.
Special thanks and appreciation to the following: