If and when you come to visit me in Seoul, I am taking you to Insadong. It’s a perfect little tourist trap, full of one of kind items, antiques, mass-produced tourist essentials, and never-ending street food.
Jared and I are from a tourist town (what up, Pigeon Forge!); so while I appreciate the importance of a tourist area, I generally try to avoid them because I feel that I have seen it all before. Insadong is completely different. Jared and I have visited several times already, and we have found something new each trip. On Sundays the roads are closed to vehicles, which make it easier to lazily wander down the street. However, the people traffic is quite a bit to contend with at times, as over 100,000 people visit this area on a weekend day.
Though there are a few cheesy, yet necessary souvenir shops (you have to buy your commemorative magnet somewhere, right?), a large majority of the shops sell one-of-a-kind goods. These are the stores that I have gone into over and over again, just to admire their beautiful products. There are a few antique shops, which are tiny and cramped, that offer everything from old wooden trunks to stone statues that formerly guarded graves. There is a place that specializes in silk; it has the most delicate hand embroidered handkerchiefs and pillowcases. You can also find several tea shops, which offer free samples! There are numerous calligraphy and stamp shops, which are my favorite. For a price you can even have your own stamp made with a family symbol engraved upon it; I have visited the shop where Queen Elizabeth II had hers made! Jared and I keep visiting one art shop that makes prints using an old block stamp that depicts an ancient map of Seoul; we will break down and buy it pretty soon. On our last visit, we watched an artisan hand carve a wooden mask; these masks are used in traditional folk festivals. The owner was so kind as he explained the differences between each mask and let us take as long as we needed to chose our favorite to bring home.
Just off one of the side streets is Ssamzigil Market, one of my favorite spots in Insadong. It is a four story market and contains over 70 shops, and is perfect for finding those quirky, one of a kind pieces. The atmosphere greatly reminds me of South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas (minus Guero’s and Hey Cupcake). It was there that I found Gounjae, which sells at least 100 different varieties of handmade soap. All their soaps are made from natural ingredients and are categorized by their healing properties (dry skins, calming, etc.). I had a difficult time making my selections, and the the staff kindly gave me a few samples. It’s worth a sniff around!
Each time we visit, we stop at Kkultarae, a candy shop that specializes in a delicious honey & nut concoction. They do nonstop demonstrations of their product, and you can hear them calling to customers all the way down the street. I found this awesome video on Vimeo that shows how they transform honey into silken strands. The final product includes chopped nuts inside a cocoon of the spun honey. The candy is best when kept cold in the freezer; the honey literally melts in your mouth as you eat it.
Though just as popular, the hook shaped ice cream cones are not very good. We have had a few experiences in Korea that have led us to the generalization that Koreans don’t use enough sugar in their sweets. (I’m talking about you, Krispy Kreme!) This ice cream falls into the same category; bland ice cream and sugar cones are a little disgusting. Don’t be deceived by all the people you see eating them.
Though it can be touristy, Insadong is one of my favorite spots in Seoul. It is a must see place if you are visiting. I know that I will return often, and probably in the next few months for my Christmas gift shopping!
PS: Even though the Knife Museum’s admission is only ₩1,000, don’t waste your time. It’s in a slightly creepy, dusty basement, and didn’t have any truly awesome items.