Header image courtesy of Yeo Khee (via Unsplash)
Seoul (서울시) is every bit the modern metropolis we imagine it to be, but beyond its urban landscapes is a time capsule waiting to be discovered. Situated in the heart of the megacity, Insadong may be one of the busiest districts yet it is also the most reflective of traditional Korean identity. This neighbourhood guide is just what you need for an immersive cultural journey—one that bridges the past and the present, where coexistence is found in the best of both worlds.
Gyeongbokgung (경복궁), the first and largest of the five grand palaces in Seoul, is representative of the sovereignty of the Joseon dynasty (대조선국) for more than 500 years. Despite being burned to the ground and its buildings deliberately destroyed on separate occasions, the official residence of the royal family regained its former glory through a long-term restoration plan. Today, the walled palace complex set against the backdrop of Mount Bugaksan (북악산) is one of the most visited historic sites in the capital.
You are encouraged to head to Gyeongbokgung early in the day before tourist buses arrive. This is also a good opportunity to catch the morning schedule of the changing of the royal guard ceremony, which pays tribute to a time-honoured tradition through an accurate re-enactment using authentic costumes and props. For an entirely different experience, you may choose to visit Gyeongbokgung beyond its regular operating hours. The palace opens its doors for special night-time viewing during certain months of the year, allowing you to admire its majestic beauty after the sun goes down.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, 161, Sajik-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Amidst the bustling district of Insadong lies Bukchon Hanok Village (북촌한옥마을), a residential neighbourhood that presents a stark contrast to the city’s contemporary buildings and towering skyscrapers. Here you’ll find hundreds of hanoks (한옥; traditional Korean houses), which serve as cultural remnants of the Joseon dynasty.
With its name literally translating to “Northern village,” Bukchon Hanok takes pride in its location: It sits to the north of two significant landmarks in Seoul, namely the Cheonggyecheon Stream (청계천) and the Jongno District (종로구). Also surrounded by two of the city’s grand palaces, the well-preserved village was once exclusive to nobles, but was later on inhabited by commoners. Take a step back in history as you wander through the narrow alleyways while decked in your rented hanbok (한복; a traditional Korean dress), mostly used for special occasions and public holidays. While the majority of the hanok houses remain occupied by local residents, a handful has been converted into cultural centres, handicraft shops, restaurants, and cafés.
Bukchon Hanok Village, 37, Gyedong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Jogyesa Temple (조계사), regarded as the centre of Buddhism in Korea, is home to the Jogye Order (대한불교조계종), which is the largest Buddhist denomination in the country. It had its fair share of ups and downs, having been rebuilt from ashes due to colonial invasions—only to be later demolished in an effort to eliminate Japanese influences. Perhaps what best symbolises its resilience is the 450-year-old Chinese scholar tree, the first to catch your eye as you walk towards the main temple building. Another centuries-old lacebark pine tree, or baeksong (백송), sits right beside the hall.
If you’re longing for a first-hand experience of Buddhist culture, you may want to consider a temple stay, an overnight program for healing and finding oneself. Take part in various activities following a structured schedule, such as joining a chanting ceremony, making lotus flowers, conversing with a monk over a cup of tea, and appreciating vegetarian meals. Not to be missed is the resonating sound of the Dharma Drum and temple bell you’ll hear every dusk and dawn.
The best time to visit the temple is during the Lotus Lantern Festival, an annual celebration that coincides with the national birthday of Buddha. Walk through the temple grounds under a sky of colourful paper lanterns, and also witness cultural performances and night parades.
Jogyesa Temple, 55, Ujeongguk-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
In Insadong, drinking tea is an expression of art, especially when you have a multitude of traditional tea houses quietly tucked away in the backstreets. One of the most classic is Shin Old Tea House (신옛찻집), said to have been around for a hundred years already. Its heavy wooden doors reveal a passage to a hidden gem characterised by rustic low tables, floor cushions, dim lighting, and an overall serene atmosphere.
Shin Old Tea House serves its signature sweet fruit teas (the plum tea is a must-try!) with a complimentary plate of puffed rice. In the summer, you may cool down with an order of bingsu (빙수; Korean shaved ice dessert). We recommend dropping by in the early afternoon—if you’re lucky, you can have the place all to yourself!
Shin Old Tea House (신옛찻집), 47-8 Insadong-gil, Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Since 1979, O’sulloc (오설록) has been a household name in the green tea exporting industry, even opening Korea’s very first tea museum in its hometown of Jeju Island. Despite featuring more modern interiors than its neighbouring hanok-style cafés, O’sulloc Tea House doesn’t fall short in upholding the country’s longstanding tea culture.
With branches across the country, it boasts a menu of all things green tea-flavoured, going beyond your traditional drink selection with sandwiches, cakes, and ice cream. You can also purchase tea merchandise like spreads, ceramic mugs, and skincare products!
O’sulloc Tea House (오설록), 170, Kwanhun-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
A short distance from the Anguk (안국역) subway station, the main road of Insadong showcases traditional Korean culture in the form of antique shops, folk art galleries, secondhand bookstores, hanok-style restaurants and tea houses, and more. On weekends, the 700-metre shopping street, which branches into side alleys, is closed to traffic and transforms into a cultural hub for pedestrians.
Insadong Street (인사동) is made even livelier not only by street performers and buskers, but also by the presence of food carts that seem to call your name as you walk past. Try the ggultarae (꿀타래, Korean dragon’s beard candy), red bean or chocolate-flavoured ddong bbang (똥빵; Korean “poop bread”), hotteok (호떡; a filled Korean sweet pancake), japchae (잡채; stir-fried glass noodles), and jipangyi (지팡이; Korean ice cream canes).
Insadong Street (인사동), 62, Insadong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea
One of Insadong Street’s side alleys houses Ssamziegil (쌈지길), a four-storey cultural and shopping complex that takes the shape of a giant spiral. The only way to explore the open-air building is through the 500-metre footpath extending from the courtyard-style ground level to the rooftop. Ssamziegil embraces art in all its forms—even the staircase walls serve as a canvas for graffiti. With over 70 speciality stores lining the complex, not to mention the exhibition spaces and local restaurants, it might be quite a feat to reach the top. But when you do, the Sky Garden will welcome you with panoramic vistas of Insadong!
Ssamziegil (쌈지길), 44, Insadong-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, South Korea