Insa-dong's history begun 500 years ago, as the residential area for government officials. Today, still retaining it's old nostalgic charm, is a popular shopping district for cultural and traditional items. Insa-dong is a straight road (700m) connecting Jonggak station and Anguk station. Along Insa-dong are many small alleys where galleries, traditional restaurants, traditional teahouses and cafes can be found. This is the focal point for Korean traditional culture and crafts.
(From Jonggak Station)
(From Anguk Station)
Traditional handicrafts, hanbok (traditional costume), hanji (traditional paper), ceramics, pottery and fine art find their home at Insa-dong. This is also the place for visitors to get some souvenirs. Prices for mass-produced souvenir items are slightly cheaper and the variety is complete.
Located along Insa-dong gil (means Insa-dong road), Ssamzie-gil was opened in 2004, it is a one-stop place for handicraft shops, art galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants.
Noticed the special structure of Ssamzie-gil? It is like walking a big spiral in the building as you move from shop to shop, where there are about 70 shops in total. Each level is sloped gentle that you may not realise that you moving upwards or downwards.
At the top level (4th level), is an open-air sky garden where you get to admire the entire Insa-dong from a bird's eye view. On the same level is also a book cafe and an art gallery.
This is a small cafe in Ssamzie-gil which serves waffle and coffee. It is a cosy place with 2 levels.
Look at this! I thought it was quite a interesting way of presenting the bill to the customers.
Being a one-stop mall, there is a shop at the ground level where visitors can buy freshly-made traditional confectionery (hangwa) eg. peanut, sesame and even rice flour confectionery.
I particularly like this shop that sells DIY ceramic musical boxes. The designs are traditional yet contemporary. The skills of combining the beauty of ancient and modern Korea is reflected in this piece of art. It is DIY because you decide how you want to assemble the musical box, from the music (from a music list of more than 1000 songs), the main box and the accessory to wind the music.
This is another musical box design which is so pretty, traditional and yet not tacky.
Lots of streetfood stalls can be found along Insa-dong gil too... This is a ho-tteok (호떡) stall, a Korean pancake which is very popular during winter. The dough is made from wheat flours, water, sugar, milk and yeast. The filling is a sweet and the main ingredients include brown sugar, honey, chopped nuts (usually ground nuts and pine nuts) and cinnamon.
The freshly pan-fried pancakes are served in a paper cup to prevent scalding of fingers.
This is an interesting convenience shop - 구멍가게 (gu mong ga ge) that sells tidbits and what particularly attracts attention is vanilla ice cream in the J-shape corn-stick.
How about an ice cream in the cold weather? I like it!
Another popular hot streetfood is the Egg Bun (gye-ran-bbang, 계란빵). On top of the muffin-like bread is a runny egg. There is option for cheese Egg Bun (gye-ran chi-seu bbang, 계란치즈빵) too.
We were attracted by this rowdy stall selling dragon beard candy (ggul-ta-rae, 꿀타래), filled with crushed peanut fillings. The stall will be happy to demo how they create these thin strands of candy from a piece of dough.
While walking along Insa-dong, keep a lookout for the small alleys for some of the popular restaurants are hidden in there. We spotted one with long queue and were curious what the stall was selling. It turned out to be a dumpling (mandu, 만두) stall selling steamed as well as fried dumplings.
One stall that really cracked me up was this stall selling Poop-Bread (ddong-bbang, 똥빵). It is simply a variety of fish-shape waffle pancake (bungeobbang, 붕어빵), with redbean paste filling.
Street-food in Korea isn't expensive with prices ranging from 1,000 to 2,000. So, just try them! For Koreans, they tend to stand around the food stall to finish their food, but nothing's stopping from eat as you browse the shops, as long as you don't dirty their goods!
Enjoy the wall mural paintings as you move along, explore the small alleys as there's really must to discover in this charming Insa-dong. Stay tuned for Part 2 which will introduce Samcheong-dong.
[This trip is made possible by the Asian On Air programme, organised by the Korean Air and Korea Tourism Organisation].
1. Jonggak Station (Line 1, Exit 3). Walk 300m ahead. At the 4th intersection, turn left and walk another 100m.
2. Anguk Station (Line 3, Exit 6). Walk 100m and turn left.
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