Home to grand Joseon palaces, traditional houses and an intricate network of narrow streets and passageways, Insadong is one of the most charming and historic neighbourhoods in Seoul. The following article is a guest post from the lovely Debbie Park, a former Seoul resident and Travel Blogger over at Simply Saulay.
Exploring Insadong as a Local
If I could choose any favorite neighborhood in Seoul, it would probably be Insadong. Insadong is situated in Jongno-gu district and is located in the northern part of Seoul. This popular neighborhood attracts many locals and tourists while it maintains its modern yet traditional atmosphere. In this post, I’ll be guiding you to this beautiful part of Seoul and what the neighborhood has to offer.
How to Get to Insadong
Located in the heart of the city, it’s fairly easy to reach this neighborhood. To get to Insadong, the closest station to get off at is Anguk Station Exit 6 (Line 3) or Jonggak Station 3 (Line 1). Insadong is also very close to Gyeongbokgung and Gwanghwamun, so it’s ideal to visit those places at the same time. Stop by Insadong Tourist Information Center, located just outside of exit 6 of Anguk Station to obtain a map and some additional information, before exploring the main street of Insadong.
Things To Do in Insadong
Insadong is often visited by both locals and tourists because the neighborhood carries a lot of rich history and you can directly experience the authentic culture of Korea. It has a main street filled with small shops selling crafts and arts, plenty of aesthetic cafes and authentic local restaurants. This area is also known for its traditional teahouses and modern art galleries. Here is a list of some of the best things to do in Insadong:
#1 Rent a Hanbok
As you walk along the streets, you’ll see many young people, even the locals, dressed up in hanbok. A hanbok is a traditional Korean attire worn since the Joseon era. Now, it’s mostly worn during special occasions, such as weddings or holidays. This particular neighborhood is known for people dressing up in this attire as they get to fully immerse in the culture. Hanbok rental shops can be found throughout the streets, and you can also rent them at Insadong Tourist Information Center. If you want to book your hanbok rental in advance, I recommend checking out Klook.
#2 Visit a Traditional Teahouse
The number of cafes in Korea are endless, however, teahouses are very unique in this neighborhood and should be included in your itinerary during your visit to Insadong. If you get tired of all the walking, wind down and visit one of these teahouses/cafes to recharge your energy. Try out patbingsoo, a traditional shaved ice dessert, during a hot summer day.
One of my favorite teahouse/cafe is called Moon Bird Only Thinks of the Moon (달새는달만생각한다) I know the name is odd and long, but this quaint teahouse is inside a traditional hanok, cluttered with quirky, old decors and scribbles on the walls. It’s located in an alleyway, right next to Ssamziegil. The teahouse is catered towards locals and tourists so you can easily order without a problem as the menu is written in English, Chinese, and Japanese. I highly recommend ordering omija tea (five flavor berry) and yakgwa (traditional Korean sweets) to complement with the tea!
For a more modern yet traditional teahouse, I recommend checking out Hanok Teahouse (한옥찻집). The interior is modern and minimalistic and is also located inside a hanok. You can sit on the floor with small tables, but if you prefer sitting on the chair, that option is also available for you.
#3 Check Out This Nostalgic Cafe
Miss Lee Cafe (별다방 미스리) can be found on the main street of Insadong and is less than a 5-min walk from Anguk Station Exit 6. This themed-cafe is not exactly a traditional teahouse, however, they serve old-school dosirak or lunchboxes, patbingsoo, and other snacks and desserts.
Miss Lee is a pretty popular cafe amongst the locals because it creates nostalgic memories of the past. Eating their famous old-school lunchbox creates the impression of travelling back in time, just like the old school days. I can’t speak for their food because I have yet to try it out but their patbingsoo was delicious.
#4 Visit Ssamziegil
Ssamziegil is a unique shopping complex where you’ll find many small, boutique shops selling traditional crafts and arts. There are galleries, book cafe, and sky garden located at the top of the floor. When you enter, you’ll reach the central courtyard first, and you’ll reach the top as you go up the spiral walkway. There is a total of 4 floors with approximately 70 small shops.
It’s worth visiting this place and checking out unique handmade crafts, especially designs that are specially made in Korea. Ssamziegil may well be one of the most unique places for shopping in Seoul. Why not buy yourself a special souvenir here?
#5 Head Over to Bukchon Hanok Village
If you come to the end of Insadong street, cross the big road and continue to walk up north towards Samcheong-dong. The walk should only take 5-10 minutes. ‘Hanoks’ are traditional Korean houses that were primarily for the upper class during the Joseon dynasty and later became residences for commoners. In this village, there are hundreds of hanok houses (and yes, many still live there!). It’s the perfect place to take photos, but be sure to respect the privacy of the residents. You can pick up a map and go on a self-guided tour of the village.
#6 Embrace Korean History by Visiting the Palaces
There are 5 royal palaces nearby, with Gyeongbokgung being the main one. Gyeongbokgung is often referred to as Northern Palace and was the main royal palace during the Joseon dynasty. It was the first and largest of the 5 royal palaces, which explains why it is the most visited historical sites in Seoul. The Korean government spent a lot of time and effort restoring the palace since some parts have been destroyed during the Japanese occupation. Be sure to visit the National Palace Museum and the National Folk Museum of Korea within the Palace.
Other palaces that are well worth stopping by at while exploring Insadong include Changdeokgung (Eastern Palace), Changgyeonggung, Gyeonghuigung (Western Palace), and Deoksugung. If you are short on time, I would visit Gyeongbokgung Palace over other palaces since it is the main one and within walking distance of all of the main sites and attractions. If visiting between 10 am and 2 pm, you will also have the opportunity to view the colorful changing of the guards’ ceremony.
Note: The normal hours of Gyeongbokgung is from 9AM-6PM (For updated hours, visit the tourism page here). We went during the special night viewing, which is not available all year round. For more information on the night viewing, visit this page. I highly recommend checking out this special event since it’s only available to foreigners and only a limited amount of tickets are sold for this viewing.
Where to Eat in Insadong
There are so many places to eat in Seoul, but it might be hard finding great, local places to dine at, especially if you’re a foreigner. When visiting Insadong, there’s a famous ‘seolleongtang, or ox-bone soup’ restaurant called Imun Seolnongtang (이문설농탕). It opened in 1904 and is known for boiling ox bones for 17 hours until the soup turns rich and opaque. Korean food is extremely diverse, ranging from side dishes to traditional soups. For this dish, you can adjust your taste by adding sea salts into the soup. This restaurant is also listed under Michelin Guide.
If you’re looking for something else, I recommend Gaesung Mandu Gung (개성만두 궁), which is also listed as Michelin Guide. It’s a dumpling house featuring other dishes, such as jeon (traditional pancake) and bossam (boiled pork). Located inside a traditional hanok, it’s very close to Anguk station. You’ll find all sorts of dumpling dishes, such as dumpling soup and steamed dumplings, on the menu.
Sample the Best of Insadong Street Food
Aside from visiting restaurants, don’t forget to try out some amazing street foods! Some of my favorite dishes are ddukbokki (spicy rice cake) and hodduk (sweet pancakes). I enjoy eating these foods, especially during on a cold day because it warms me up. If you’re looking for a more extensive option for street food, I highly recommend checking out Gwangjang Market, which is around a 10-minute bus ride from Anguk Station.
Where to Stay in Insadong
Because of its close proximity to the main attractions, Insadong is one of the best areas to stay in Seoul. There are plenty of affordable mid-range hotels, ranging from anywhere between $60-150, in the area. Most luxurious hotels are located further south, near Itaewon and Gangnam, however, the closest luxurious hotel you’ll find is the Four Seasons Hotel in Gwanghwamun. If you want to immerse in the traditional Korean culture, I recommend staying overnight in a hanok guesthouse! Keep in mind that there are no beds here and you have to sleep on the floor with ondol (heated floor).
There is no other place like Insadong where you can genuinely experience Korean culture during your Seoul itinerary. Other neighborhoods are pretty modernized, but you’ll find that Insadong has still remained very traditional and artistic. It’s also a popular date spot for locals due to its historical charm! Insadong is the perfect place to spend your day with many fun activities to do and places to see. It is truly a unique place to visit and I guarantee that visiting here will leave you with a memorable impression of Korea!
Have you ever been to Insadong before? What were some of your favorite activities? Leave a comment below!