…Insa-dong, Where Yesterday Meets Today…

Insa-dong, one of Seoul’s must-see spots, offers a glimpse into the city’s past. Found countless gems hidden in the alleyways, where traditional tea houses and restaurants, old-fashioned calligraphy shops and modern art galleries coexist.

Insa-dong is a mecca for Korean art. The surrounding areas of Insa-dong, Gaheo-dong, Anguk-dong and Samcheong-dong were once home to a nest of affluent families during the Joseon Dyansty. Items that once belonged to the wealthier citizens of Seoul were auctioned off on the streets of Insa-dong, making the area a hub for trading art and antiques.

The area first became known for its antique collections during the 1930s, when antique dealers set up shops and bookstores on the main thoroughfare. After the end of the Korean War in 1953, Nagwon markets opened and a “rice cake street” formed near Insa-dong. In the 1980s, more antique shops, art galleries, special collectors’ shops and craft shops opened their doors, and the street became known as the home  of Korean art.

Though the area is a haven for the arts, Insa-dong’s specially shops, galleries and museums appeal to more than just art and history lovers. Insa-dong boasts a variety of galleries and museums of different themes and sizes, including INSA Gallery, Kyung-in Museum of Fine Art and Gongpyeong Gallery.

You’d be forgiven for assuming the area’s galleries feature nothing more than conventional paintings based on age-old techniques and traditions, but there is nothing like seeing all that Insa-dong has to offer with your own eyes. The galleries and museums feature contemporary or fusion art that mixes the traditional with the modern in ways that immediately grab your attention.

Kyung-in Museum of Fine Arts is the perfect example of a gallery that offers fresh surprise and unexpected exhibition themes. The exquisite art museum with four exhibition halls and an atelier is famous for its superb mixture of tradition and modernism. Its lush outdoor garden and tea house, a favorite among tourists, create a calm and surreal atmosphere, in intense contrast to the modern exhibition space.

Satisfy your thirst for cultural insight at museums such as the Central Buddhist Museum, Choowondang Museum of Korean Medicine and Bona Museum/Gallery. You will definitely discover the pleasure of learning through play.

Once your pilgrimage to the galleries and museums is complete, check out other areas of Insa-dong. Ssamziegil, a culture complex of sorts, is perfect for those who love to shop, as it is both energetic and traditional. It was named Ssamziegil (gil means street) because fashion brand Ssamzie designed and organized the space. Since this unique complex opened in December 2004, it has fascinated and entertained tourists with its colorful attractions that include an organic tea house, mini gallery and craft shops. There are even vendors who help you create your own art. the four-story wooden Ssamziegil building is a must-see attraction for tourists and was bestowed the honorary nickname “Little Insa-dong”.

Having tea in a traditional tea house or indulging in authentic Korean cuisine is another experience not to be missed in Insa-dong. Rather than those eateries that boisterously call to tourists from Insa-dong’s main street, we recommend you seek out the hidden gems in the back alleyways. If you’re ready to try something new, visit Insa-dong’s Buddhist restaurants, which specialize in tasty and healthy vegetarian cuisine. If you crave something hearty, take a chance on Korean traditional barbeque or naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles).

When you’re ready to turn in for the night, nothing will complete the experience of Insa-dong like spending the night in a hanok, a Korean traditional house. There are several types of accomodation near Insa-dong that range from original hanok houses to renovated hanok-style guesthouses. A humble night’s sleep – like Koreans in the olden days – will make your trip to Insa-dong stand out from all the others.

INSA-DONG ON THE WEEKEND : A PEDESTRIAN PARADISE!

In the back alleys that have been designated ‘pedestrian-only’ streets, a variety of events and performances are held on Saturdays (afternoons only) and Sundays. No cars are allowed to pass through the streets, so experiences like shopping, dining and enjoying the fresh air become much more comfortable and relaxing on the weekends.

Source: Korea People & Culture Magazine, April 2011

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