Insa-dong: Art, nostalgia and boho

Insa-dong: Art, nostalgia and boho

Seoul's most touristy street has its own creative charm
It may not be the hippest place in town, but Insa-dong has its own nostalgic 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.

Creative haven

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.

Run by a poet, bar and restaurant Shi-in is a haven for writers, poets and the likes. 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.

Scrappy it may look, but makgeolli pub Pureun Byul captures the past. The good old-fashioned way. “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. 

Introducing Ssamziegil: a shopper's and tourist's paradise. 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


Pureun Byeol

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 2); 10 a.m.-12 a.m.

+82 2 739 0939


Dawon (Cafe)

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

Hannah Bae left the monuments of D.C. for Seoul’s newsrooms in 2007 armed with a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship and a whole lot of enthusiasm. In addition to her day job of editing breaking news, she spends her free time freelancing for such organizations as the AP, GlobalPost, the German Press Agency dpa, Wallpaper*,, TBS eFM radio and now CNNGo. 

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