The undisputed hub of Korea’s tourist scene, INSADONG (인사동) is a city district whose tight lattice of streets is full to the brim with art galleries, shops, tearooms and traditional restaurants – you could quite happily spend most of the day here. The appeal of the area lies in simply strolling around and taking it all in – most of the commerce is pleasingly traditional, not only at the restaurants, but also in the galleries, which display a fusion of old and contemporary styles very much in keeping with the atmosphere of the place. Should such delights bring out your artistic muse, there are numerous shops selling paints, brushes and handmade paper.
Insadong’s action is centred on Insadonggil (인사동길), the area’s main street, which despite being cramped and people-packed is still open to traffic – be careful when walking here, as Korean taxis tend to be a law unto themselves. The one exception is Sunday, when the street is closed to vehicles; unless the weather’s bad, you’ll are likely to see music and dance performances or a traditional parade. At the northern end of the street – take exit six from Anguk station, walk up the main street for a few minutes and then turn left – there are a couple of tourist information booths, as well as the interesting Ssamziegil building, a spiralling complex of trendy trinket shops with a rooftop market. Tiny side streets branch off Insadonggil as you head south along the road, most of which are lined with traditional Korean restaurants. Continuing south, the street segues into the more Westernized buildings of “regular” Seoul; look out for the Starbucks on the southern reaches of the road, which was the scene of traditionalist protests when it opened – it made a slight concession by having its name spelt in hangeul. Insadonggil finishes at small Tapgol Park (탑골 공원), where a huge, stunning Joseon-era stone pagoda grandly titled “National Treasure Number Two” sits resplendent inside. Sadly, though, its beauty is marred by the ugly glass box that has been placed around it for protection.
Insadonggil and its surrounding alleyways are studded with tearooms, typically of a traditional or quirky style. You’ll be paying W5000 or more for a cup, but most come away feeling that they’ve got value for money – these are high-quality products made with natural ingredients, and are likely to come with a small plate of traditional Korean sweets. See Korean tea varieties for some of the teas available; of particular interest are the yak-cha – these dark, bitter, medicinal teas taste just like a Chinese pharmacy smells, and are perfect for chasing away coughs or colds.