Insadong 인사동 is a neighbourhood in the Jongo-gu district of Seoul. It is one of my favourite places in Seoul and sometimes there is nothing better than a lazy afternoon browsing and people watching over a mug of plum tea in Insadong.
Insadong originated as a residential area for government officials around 500 years ago, during the early period of the Joseon dynasty. However, during the Japanese occupation many wealthy residents had to move and sell their precious belongings, causing it to become a popular place for trading antiques.
During the Joseon dynasty Confucian scholars used to buy their paper, ink and brushes from Insadong and many of the old shops are still standing and still selling these things.
Once the largest market for antiques and artworks in Korea, it has now become a hotspot for tourists and ex-pats. A mishmash of shops, stalls and street vendors, it is possible to find some real gems in Insadong but you may have to wade through a fair amount of tat first.
Insadong is especially well known for its traditional stationery, porcelain, pottery, hand pressed paper, and antiques. Many stores also specialise in jewellery boxes, mirrors and furniture decorated with mother-of-pearl inlaying.
The area is also famous for it’s teahouses. There are dozens of teashops on the main street, but if you branch off and explore the backstreets that’s where you’ll find the real traditional Korean restaurants and teahouses. You can sample almost every flavour of tea imaginable but a personal favourite is plum tea, yum yum.
The main street, Insadong-gil, is a true blend of old and new. Elderly men sell hand-carved Buddhas outside video arcades, and the oldest bookstores and teahouses in Seoul sit alongside candy-coloured cosmetic shops.
After the Korean war, Insadong became a haven for artists and even today the area remains a place for art lovers. There are over 100 art galleries in the neighbourhood, displaying everything from traditional fine art to quirky modern sculptures.
One of the best places to browse and shop in Insadong is Ssamziegil. It is a five-storey shopping centre and the name comes from the slightly slanted paths which creates a kind of spiral. Built in 2004, Ssamziegil is home to several small galleries, workshops, and dozens of stores selling jewellery, tea and hanbok among many other things.
Insadong is a truely unique place and no trip to Seoul would be complete without a visit here.