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Insa-dong: Art, nostalgia and boho
Seoul's most touristy street has its own creative charm
While it’s far from being the hippest place in town, Insa-dong has its own nostalgic charm if you’re the type who prefers a dented makgeolli kettle to a sleek wine decanter.
“Most people know about just the commercial side of the street, like antique shops and traditional restaurants,” says Im Chang-won, 58, a volunteer tour guide in Insa-dong. “But Insadong has so much cultural heritage because of its location.”
The northern mouth of the main street opens to the royal palaces of Gyeongbokgung to the west and Changdeokgung to the east. An alley to Jogyesa Temple cuts right in the middle of the street, feeding in a steady stream of gray-robed Buddhist monks. The southern end hits Tapgol Park, where Koreans declared their independence from Japan in 1919.
While all this may prompt the Seoul city government to cheesily tout this neighborhood as a “living, breathing museum,” a more accurate description would call it a mishmash of artistic, religious and political influences.
Insa-dong’s creative roots run especially deep, Im says. Dohwawon, the Joseon Dynasty’s National Department of Painting, was located within the area that we now know as Insa-dong, and produced most of the royal palace’s paintings and lacquer work for centuries.
“So, as a result, many painters used to live there,” she says, explaining that they paved the way for the galleries that followed in the 1960s and 1970s.
The neighborhood’s reputation as an artistic mecca has managed to remain intact -- despite the presence of a Starbucks on the main drag -- thanks to the steadfast bohemians who remember the earlier days.
Poet Kim Yeo-ok, 46, counts herself among this coterie. The regulars at her bar and restaurant, appropriately named Shi-in (which means poet), include a steady stream of fellow writers, painters, professors and the like, she says.
A converted hanok, Shi-in displays neat rows of stacked books under its wooden beams, all the better to recite from during the occasional poetry readings Kim hosts.
Actor and avid traveler Choi Il-soon, 44, also keeps the creative spirit alive at his own hanok-housed makgeolli pub, Pureun Byeol. A favorite of his peers in theater and film, the bar’s design harks back to the Korea of the 1960s.
“We wanted it to look analogue,” says one of the motherly waitresses about Pureun Byeol’s scrappy look. “Give people a taste of life in older times.”
Old and young
This brand of nostalgia is common among fans of Insa-dong. Strolling down the street one recent afternoon, Yoo So-jin, 36, a Web producer who works in the neighborhood, reminisced about her college days.
“At nighttime, people ranging from monks to artists used to spread out mats and sit at Insa-dong’s street corners, drink makgeolli and talk about traditions like painting. It wasn’t crowded like it is today; it was just a little traditional street that stuck to the arts,” Yoo says.
"When I was younger, there were no stores selling makeup in Insa-dong, either," she added, as she passed the blinding pink of an Etude House and a brand-new Olive Young blasting K-Pop.
As the street continues to change, it’s clear many visitors are no longer simply interested in looking back. But a forward-looking Insa-dong doesn’t just mean cheap yin-yang fans and overpriced cappuccinos. Rather, it just requires adding a bit of the modern to the antique.
The angular Ssamziegil open-air mall might be the best representation of this sentiment. On top of being one of the best stops for homegrown crafts and great food, it’s also a cool enough location for a Big Bang or Girls’ Generation video.
Recommended Eats & Drinks:
283-15 Nakwon-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 낙원동 283-15); 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
+82 2 735 8525
118-15 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 관훈동 118-15); 3 p.m.-12:30 a.m.
+82 2 734 3095
Miss Lee Cafe
2nd floor, 144 Gwanhun-dong Jongno-gu (종로구 관훈동 114 2층); 10 a.m.-12 a.m.
+82 2 739 0939
Kyung-In Gallery, 30-1 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 관훈동 30-1); 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
+82 2 730 6305
30-11 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 관훈동 30-1); 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
+82 2 733 9240
38 Gwanghun-dong, Jongno-gu (종로구 관훈동 38번지); 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.
+82 2 736 0088