I remember talking in a restaurant in Hongdae (Seoul’s party district) with a Canadian who lives in Seoul, and asked him what places he recommended visiting. ‘Insadong’ he said.
Insadong is basically the boutique center of Seoul. It’s full of art galleries, crafts stores, teahouses and cafes, all catering to Seoulites and tourists with lots of disposable cash.
Of course, people can visit the galleries and look at the art without spending any money. I visited a few galleries this way.
Furthermore, Insadong has something which is remarkably rare in urban South Korea – a neighborhood which is not dominated by concrete boxes. It’s not a hanok neighborhood (that’s Bukchon to the north), but it still has a personal atmosphere. Or rather, it has a unique personality. Most neighborhoods in urban South Korea are monotonous, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between, say, Seoul’s Dongjak District and Jeonju’s Wansan Ward. Something about Insadong, however, invites people to walk around and relax.
The highlight of Insadong for me, however, and the reason why I kept coming back, is a delightful buffet restaurant, Han Gwa Chae.
The first time I went there, I felt the food was okay, and good value for the money, but nothing special. However, it had left its imprint on me, and I felt myself craving some more.
Han Gwa Chae offers traditional Korean ‘temple’ food (like Baru in Gyeongju), but limits itself to simpler temple fare, which probably reduces the costs (the high-end temple food restaurants in Seoul are very pricey). One of the principles of traditional ‘temple’ food is that flavors should not be too strong, which is probably why I wasn’t impressed the first time I was there. But though the flavors were all very mild, the foods are prepared carefully, and leave you with a good feeling. I suspect that it’s very nutritious as well. Vegetables are featured very prominently – whenever I ate at Han Gwa Chae, more than half of my meal consisted of veggies – yet they are prepared in such a way as to bring out the best of the vegetable.
Korean temple food is in some ways like Japan’s shojin ryori food, and I suspect that both cuisines use many of the same principles.
So yes, Insadong has its charms, but the best reason to go there is to eat at Han Gwa Chae. And you can visit an art gallery along the way.