Palace Quarter and Insadong, Seoul, South Korea

Yesterday, we headed into the Palace Quarter and Insadong, two bordering neighborhoods in the central Seoul area across the Han River from where we are staying in Gangham. We had high hopes; Insadong is known to be an incredibly trendy area, while the palaces are recognized as UNESCO world heritage sites (also, the Kimchi Museum, located in Insadong, is recognized as showcasing one of Korea’s “intangible” World Heritage practices, the making of kimchi).

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After grabbing coffee (Perry opted for the coffee vending machine in the subway station, which dispensed a heated can of latte to him), we set off. When we arrived, we thought that we would do a quick walk through the Insadong area before heading to the palaces, in order to situate ourselves and find lunch. The good news is that Insadong, being probably the trendiest place I’ve ever walked around, has a huge variety of restaurants, art galleries, shops, and assorted food stands; the bad news is that everything is in Korean, without any English indications that most other neighborhood stores have. So, we wandered through the galleries along Insadong-gil looking for one of the restaurants acclaimed by our guidebook, and could not find it in the maze of back streets. So, we headed into a traditional looking restaurant patronized by a huge number of Koreans, which we hoped would be a good sign about the food.

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We aren’t completely sure why this wasn’t our favorite meal, but I think it is probably due to the fact that this was more traditional style food that caters less to “popular” tastes now (our guidebook mentioned that some formal, traditional style restaurants like this one in the area provide “courtesan” style food to appeal to people visiting the palaces). We did get a pot of tea, which was almost nutty and not quite the green tea or black tea blend we had expected (I still enjoyed it). For lunch, Perry got a dried pollack soup while I got a sea urchin soup, and our side dishes included kimchi, some kind of pickled root vegetable, bean sprouts, seaweed salad, purple rice, and delicious baby anchovies cooked in garlic and chilis (I ended up adding about half of these to my soup in order to get more of a salty, spicy flavor in it). They finished the meal off with a dessert soup which got mixed reactions (it was not for Perry, while I thought it was the most refreshing thing I’ve had in a long time) that had a sweet broth and rice.

After lunch, we disentangled ourselves from the maze of Insadong to head over to the palace area. After walking in what we hoped was the correct direction for a significant amount of time, we realized that something clearly had gone wrong and that we were suddenly atop a mountain looking down at the palaces, rather than anywhere close to viewing them. The bonus of that experience was the view; the mountains are beautiful, and we ended up finding the Bukchon Hanok Village, a group of houses and shops that still maintain the traditional style of Korean hanok house and are occupied by residents. Unfortunately because it is a residential area, you can’t go into any of the houses, but we caught a glimpse of a gorgeous garden in through an open gate at one residence which suggested that the properties would be beautiful homes.

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After our walk through the Hanok Village, we headed back down the mountain to again attempt to find the palace entrance area. Sadly, despite talking to no less than 3 information agents and getting 3 different maps of the area, we still couldn’t find the main drag amidst the museums, bakeries, and shops, so we settled to get baked goods and head inside from the cold. I got a green tea frozen yogurt sandwich with macarons as the “sides” which was good but a little pungent for my tastes. Perry got a pastry that was made to look like it had eyes, because even the pastries here are personified and trendy looking.

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We finally found the entrance to the bigger palace complex, the Gyeongbokgung palace, which was originally built in 1392 but has been destroyed in waves by Japanese forces over the course of history, most recently in 1910. So, like the Forbidden City, it is almost entirely a restored version of what would have been the original palace space. The nice part about this palace, unlike the Forbidden City, is that you don’t immediately feel that it is completely new building and restoration- there are enough worn pieces that I believe were original (for example, the ceilings in the great building or some of the doors on the walls) which look to date from at least the last reconstruction in 1888 that may have survived destruction. In China, you could literally see the painters repainting the Forbidden City as you were ushered through by the guide, which kind of ruined the mystique. Here, we somehow lucked into not having to buy tickets for either palace we visited, and were able to walk through unguided, and could pretty much wander throughout the palace and buildings with no problem.

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Before we actually entered the palace, we walked through the Korean National Folk Museum’s traditional Korean village experience, which shows everything from ancient Korean homes to a 1970s style town reconstruction (complete with a Star Wars poster!) which was neat to see. They included the above-pictured statues and several other ancient worship and daily-life components as well.

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After walking through that exhibition, we finally rounded the corner into the first palace complex! Despite the made-to-look-new restoration, it was a very beautiful space and they did have some information available in English about the heated floors (a trend which continues today and serves as the main source of heat for our apartment here) and vaulted floors for summer.

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After we finished our walk through of this palace, we decided to make our way through the maze of shops and galleries again to the other palace. Just outside of the palace, we stopped to get a snack from a street vendor, and received a bag full of a red bean paste filled waffle snack.

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Then, we wandered to the second palace, the UNESCO World Heritage site Changdeokgung, which does include artifacts dating back to the 1410s and has a beautiful garden during spring/summer months. This palace, to me, was much more beautiful and intriguing than the first one despite being the “secondary” palace of the area. It showcased a variety of different styles of architecture, including beautiful white and brown paneling, blue tiled roofing, and intricately carved door frames.

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We were fortunate enough to wander through before the rain came and they closed the site. We returned to Insadong and headed to the Kimchi Museum, a somewhat interesting display about the history and process of making Kimchi. We got to try two types of kimchi, the red-chili kimchi which is popular today, and a style of kimchi that was produced before the Japanese invaded about 400 years ago and brought chilis to Korea, which is made with garlic. Both are equally nice, although the garlic one has a much milder flavor. Apparently, making kimchi is an intangible World Heritage tradition, and it is very good for keeping your digestive system healthy.

After walking through the museum, we decided to try to find a famous tea shop in Insadong to relax and give our sore feet some time off. Well, we walked up and down Insadong-gil, through the back streets, scouring the area for any signs of the tea shop. No luck. We walked through the rain, crossed major streets, avoided motorcycles, and still no luck. We finally found ourselves down a dead end at a different tea shop, and gave in, just to get out of the cold rain. I had the famous persimmon tea and Perry had a green tea latte. Both were good, although the free, warm cinnamon tea we received upon walking in was delicious. 

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Determined not to give up on the tea house, we stopped by Starbucks to grab some free wifi in order to get a more precise location on the tea house. It turns out that a) the Insadong Starbucks, in a show of its trendiness (I seriously cannot stress how unbelievably trendy this area is) is the only Starbucks in the world to have the green lettering written in a language other than English and b) the tea house was literally across the street, and we had walked by it no less than 7 times throughout the course of the day. At that point, we both were too frustrated and had spent enough money on snacks to even want to go to the second tea house, but got a good chuckle out of acknowledging it as we walked by a final time.

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Since we still had a fair amount of time before dinner, we headed instead to a local bar which has received international reviews, called the Story of the Blue Star. As we continued to discover, we had walked past this bar also and I had actually taken about 15 pictures of the beer, sake, and soju bottles outside when we had arrived that morning. After taking off our shoes and entering the formal door, we were promptly told to put our shoes back on and head through the side entrance, which was covered with green plastic sheeting, similar to what you might see in an insulated walk-in refrigerator. So, we joined locals inside the cool, postcard and advertisement covered bar space, which was equally reminiscent of a bomb shelter and dive style diner with metal tables and stools. We thought it might be a good idea to try a couple of the local options and share, since there are so many different types of drinks to try here. One thing we’ve seen at every restaurant, no matter how early in the day, is groups of men with green bottles of soju, usually about 1-2 bottles/man (for women, I’ve noticed soju is less popular, and if women are drinking it usually equates to 1-2 bottles/man, 1/2 bottle/woman). So, when we pointed to the menu, we ordered one bottle of soju, and one “healthy rice wine”. The “health” idea is that the fermentation in the wine, mixed with ginseng, matcha (we think) and other herbs is somehow restorative. It turns out that when the waiter gives you an incredibly incredulous look as you point to the menu, you should probably revise your order.

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Soju tastes essentially like sweet vodka. I cannot fathom how these men drink so much of it over the course of a day, but we made it through about one shot each before calling it quits with the soju (thankfully, it only tastes like vodka and doesn’t have nearly the alcoholic content, so it didn’t do too much damage). However, that pot is filled with liquid and the bowls are the drinking vessels for the healthy rice wine, which actually tasted fairly pleasant, if grainy. Between the two of us, it wasn’t too much, but I can definitely understand the waiter’s concern if we had ordered these two drinks and finished both (or had one each).

For dinner, we tried yet again to find someplace listed in the guidebook, especially since I was craving bibimbap, which a surprising number of restaurants here don’t seem to keep on their regular menus. We believe we found the restaurant, although I cannot stress how difficult this neighborhood was to navigate. Either way, we found a beautiful restaurant that had dolsat bibimbap for me and a steamed pork and veggie plate for Perry. The food was incredibly good, and they included many different types of side dishes, including several we couldn’t identify but still enjoyed.

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Overall, it was another full day, although a day slightly more full of language-based setbacks. Insadong would be a great place to visit for people interested in art galleries and shopping, but I think for us, the highlight of the day was the Palace Quarter.

 

2 thoughts on “Palace Quarter and Insadong, Seoul, South Korea

  1. Oh my goodness, you are too funny. Your writing is great, the commentary quite humorous at times, and your pictures are beautiful!! Are you sure you are not going to gain about 10 pounds with all the food????

    Love you lots,
    Madre

    Like

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