Insa-dong is a neighborhood of the Jongno-gu district of the South Korean city of Seoul. The main street is Insadong-gil with many narrow, winding alleys leading to other shops, restaurants and tea houses.
During the Japanese occupation, the wealthy Korean residents were forced to move and sell their belongings, at which point the site became an area of trading in antiques. After the end of the Korean War, the area became a focus of South Korea’s artistic and cafe life. It was a popular destination for foreign visitors to South Korea during the 1960s, who called the area “Mary’s Alley”. It gained in popularity with international tourists during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Insadong-gil contains a mixture of historical and modern atmosphere with the majority of the traditional buildings originally belonged to merchants and bureaucrats. Some larger residences, built for retired government officials during the Joseon period, can also be seen. Most of these older buildings are now used as restaurants or shops. Among the historically significant buildings located in the area are Unhyeongung mansion, Jogyesa – one of the most significant Korean Buddhist temples, and one of Korea’s oldest Presbyterian churches.
The area is well known for sightseeing and contains 40 percent of the nation’s antique shops and art galleries as well as 90 percent of the traditional stationery shops. Particularly noteworthy is Tongmungwan, the oldest bookstore in Seoul, and Kyung-in Art Gallery, the oldest tea house. There are daily calligraphy demonstrations and pansori dancing performances.
Insadong-gil, itself, didn’t hold many restaurants we found to be desirable to have lunch. Ducking into an alley and promptly getting a little lost, we were prompted to sit down and order by husband and wife proprietors. It was a slow, rainy day and they seemed grateful for the business, despite a huge language barrier. We trusted our host that she would provide something tasty and memorable, mostly using International Traveller Hand Signals for “I’m hungry and also thirsty and is this spicy? Ok, no matter, I’m really hungry and have Alka Selzer.”
ordered was told to eat was a spicy squid dish to be served over white rice and MIXED THOROUGHLY. I emphasize this because apparently I didn’t do this to our host’s desired consistency and, barely concealing her tired disdain, grabbed my bowl from me and mixed it. And then when I thought it couldn’t be mixed any more, she continued to mix it. I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be cement or something you ate, so I sat dumbly like an inept child waiting for her to finish.
Despite my exaggeration for the sake of humor, it was one of those personal experiences that make travel such a special experience. We had a good meal as a family, had some fun with it (the same thing happened to my SIL as well) and put the finishing touches on a fun day in Seoul.