If there’s one station that can be said to be the center of Seoul’s subway system, the nexus from which everything expands and to which it returns, it’s Jongno-3-ga. One of the system’s oldest stations, it’s also one of the few that connect more than two lines, and it sits right in the heart of the city, steps from tourist attractions, historical sites, and a smuggler’s den assortment of markets and specialty shopping areas. There’s an immense amount of things to see and do here, so without further ado…
Let’s start at Exit 1, where you can join the tourists streaming down Jongno (종로) on their way to Insadong. You’ll first pass by Tapgol Park (탑골공원), Seoul’s very first modern public park, opened in 1920 and built around Wongaksa Pagoda, a 10-story stone pagoda that’s listed as National Treasure No. 2.
Tapgol Park also played an important role in the history of Korea’s independence struggle, as it was here that Korea’s Declaration of Independence was publicly read for the first time, by a college student named Chung Jae-yong on March 1, 1919. A number of monuments within the park commemorate this heritage.
On the sidewalk outside the park’s western wall a dozen or so fortune tellers line up one after the other, offering saju or tarot card readings for 3,000 won, as well as face and palm readings. The fortune tellers each sit in a small tent. As the sun goes down and dusk arrives, bare fluorescent bulbs light the shacks from within, the glow spilling onto the darkened sidewalk as from lanterns, but the drawn plastic curtains maintain a veil of secrecy about the fates being divulged on their other sides.
Cross the intersection to the sidewalk opposite the fortune tellers and turn right to head up Insadong-gil (인사동길). Almost immediately there will be an alley on your left below a sign reading 피맛골 주점촌 (Pimatgol Pub Town). This is, or, rather, what’s left of Pimatgol (피맛골). Most people know the story behind the creation of Pimatgol, but it bears a brief repeating since it’s one of the most enduring, and winning, stories in Korean popular history.
As it is now, during the Joseon Dynasty Jongno was Seoul’s main street and was where the nobility and government officials would pass, requiring any commoners on the street to prostrate themselves when they did. To avoid this inconvenience citizens would use Pimatgol (‘avoiding horses alley’) to move back and forth unharassed.
Alas, like so many other places, the alley fell victim to urban development, beginning in the 1980s. Further west it’s essentially been eviscerated, replaced with high rise towers, but even here, although it’s still a narrow alley and there are a number of small restaurants and drinking establishments, as the sign notes, much of the character is gone.
On one side street, opposite the large 인사동코리아 gift shop and just a stone’s toss north of Pimatgol, is an easy to miss brown sign that points the way to Seungdong Church (승동교회), one of Korea’s earliest Presbyterian churches. Significant for its role in Christianity’s development in the country, this red brick Romanesque church is even more notable for the role it played in the development of the country’s independence. The night before the March 1st reading in Tapgol Park, it was here, in the basement meeting hall, that student leaders met to discuss the next day’s actions.
The sidewalks at the lower end of Insadong (인사동) are crowded with carts selling everything from yeot to incense to clothes, from beondaeggi to jade jewelry to handmade journals. You’ll even find one stall where you can buy North Korean won as a souvenir.
Insadong-gil (인사동길) and the neighborhood surrounding it is filled with galleries, cafes, tea shops, and places for tourists to buy souvenirs, which run the gamut from schlocky t-shirts and trinkets to fine pieces of pottery and lacquerware. Despite Insadong being tourist central, it’s one of few such places where I don’t find the mass of visitors bothersome and the neighborhood best avoided. I actually like going there, and from conversations I’ve had with locals their general feeling is similar. Why is this so? Some of it stems, I believe, from the fact that Seoul just isn’t a tourist town the way other capital cities are, and so the tourists it does get are fewer in number and generally not of the rush-around-with-a-camera-and-act-obnoxious variety. Another key factor is that Insadong’s current character isn’t much of a departure from how it was in the past, with its long history as a center of the antique trade and its postwar status as the focal point of Korea’s artistic and café culture.
But the main reason I think that Insadong has weathered its emergence as a tourist district remarkably well is that it doesn’t cater to tourists at the exclusion of locals. Despite some pretty pathetic stabs at tradition, like hangeulized Starbucks and Olive Young signs, and the commercialization of tradition (Show me a culture that doesn’t do that, though, or a part of Seoul that isn’t commercialized.) it doesn’t feel like authenticity has been sacrificed too much in the process (though the thought occurs to me that it may feel this way because traditional Seoul has been so thoroughly sacrificed nearly everywhere else). The alleys just off Insadong-gil are filled with tea shops and restaurants that recall an earlier Korea in their wood-beamed architecture, devotion to traditional food and drink, and ambience that recalls a time before the country’s economic and tech boom. And unlike in so many tourist districts the food and drink here are actually quite good, which is why you’ll often find them crowded with locals while the tourist surge carries on just a few feet away. It’s also in some ways still just a local neighborhood, the kind of place where the convenience stores advertise cigarettes and trash bags on their signs, and workers sort through cardboard in a huge recycling yard.
The other major attraction near Jongno-3-ga is Jongmyo (종묘), a short walk from Exit 11. Constructed in 1395 under the direction of King Taejo, founder of the Joseon Dynasty, Jongmyo was built to house the memorial tablets of the dynasty’s deceased kings and queens. (The original structure, though not the memorial tablets, was destroyed by Japanese invaders in 1592. The current structure dates from 1608.) In 1995, its 600th anniversary, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Six years later this honor was augmented by the listing of the Jongmyo Jerye (종묘제례), a rite for honoring the spirits of the deceased royalty, and the Jongmyo Jeryeak (종묘제례악), the accompanying court music, as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The Jongmyo Jerye is performed annually on the first Sunday in May and is open to the public.
The shrine and surrounding grounds are remarkably peaceful compared to their contemporary surroundings. Dirt paths wind between patches of trees and small ponds, and you can hear birds chirping in the treetops. The atmosphere is matched by the lovely but austere buildings, which have none of the colorful and intricate ornamentation found on other royal structures. Buildings here are simple in structure and hew to a consistent burgundy and mint color scheme, a nod to the solemnity of their purpose. On Jongmyo’s main paths runs a raised, three-part stone walkway, the outer lanes reserved for the king and crown prince, the central one for the spirits.
Tablets of kings at Jongmyo (only two kings’ tablets are not enshrined here), are grouped together with their wife (or wives). An auxiliary hall called Yeongnyeongjeon (영녕전) (Hall of Eternal Comfort) holds the memorial tablets of Taejo’s ancestors and some lesser Joseon kings and queens, but the majority reside in Jeongjeon (정전), the main hall, a long one-story wooden building with a sloped black tile roof as tall as the story below it. Jeongjeon is divided into 19 rooms, one for each king enshrined there. Memorial tablets of 30 Joseon queens can also be found in Jeongjeon, together with the king they were married to. When a king or queen died the mourning period would continue for three years. The exterior of each room is absolutely identical – a door of vertical wooden slats punctuated by circular iron bolts – with the single exception of the central door, which bears a heavy metal lock on its frame. King Sejong’s room is the third from the left.
A wide stone plaza extends in front of Jeongjeon, surrounded by trees. Standing in it the only things you are able to see are the top of N Seoul Tower and the upper reaches of the Boryeong Tower in Jongno-5-ga. These, of course, were not around when the shrine was actively being used and the visual quarantine was meant to prevent worldly matters from intruding on the king’s thoughts as he performed ancestral rites and to preserve the tranquility of the memorial.
To visit Jongmyo you must join a one-hour guided tour – in Korean, English, Chinese, or Japanese – except on Saturdays, when the shrine is open to explore at your leisure.
The park areas on either side of the entrance to Jongmyo are serious oldboy hangouts where dozens of ajeosshis gather to kill time and do ajeosshi things together. West of the entrance hosts a huge congregation of games of, mostly, Go (baduk (바둑) in Korean) but also jangi (장기), Korean chess. It’s a bit like New York’s Washington Square Park’s chess corner on steroids – the day I visited there must have been close to 100 games going on, providing a background clicking as stones are set down so constantly it practically becomes some sort of mantra. As many men as there are playing (and it is exclusively men), there are an equal number watching, some of the more intense games pulling in crowds of ten or twenty.
Other ajeosshis were napping, chatting, or just sitting around. One group had drawn a small target on the pavement in chalk and was taking turns tossing coins at the bull’s-eye like school kids. Still others were practicing calligraphy or speechifying to crowds of fellow oldboys at loudspeakers that had been set up on either side of the park.
Also in the park, near the Jongmyo ticket booth is a statue of 이상재, a religious leader and independence fighter born in 1850.
Walking to Jongmyo from the subway station, your eye will likely be caught by the gleam emitted from the string of jewelry shops that cluster along Jongno, part of the Jongno Jewelry District, which, according to the Korea Tourism Organization encompasses over 1,000 stores in the area. The stores here are popular with locals and tourists alike, and generally offer prices below what you’ll find in other parts of town.
The district also extends into the backstreets, most easily accessible from Exit 8, where there are more jewelers, particularly wholesalers, and a number of gem cutters. All kinds of different stones sit in little trays in the windows, and in their unset state the colorful tabs look like small pieces of rock candy that have been polished to brilliance. Also in the area are a number of shops selling gift boxes, should you be looking for a special package to hold what used to be your paycheck.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the Jongno-3-ga area is that it has approximately the same median age as the shuffleboard courts in Boca Raton. Walking around you’ll frequently hear decades-old songs coming from shops and carts selling CDs and cassettes. That’s a whole lot of antiquatedness, but given the populace it seems oddly right. Just about everyone walking around seems to be over 50, and the vast majority of these are men. What does this mean? Well, it means that Jongno is the best place in Seoul for going tragic outfit-spotting. If Jongno had a coat of arms it would be plaids over stripes and studded with rhinestones. The single worst (or best, depending on your point of view) offender that I spotted was wearing a metallic silver shirt that had a red checked collar with blue and pink teddy bears on it.
This particular party animal, and others of his ilk, was out enjoying himself in the area around Exits 1, 2, and 2-1, which is full of old dudes getting their kicks at the local restaurants, bars, noraebangs, and, yes, love motels. On the left a short walk from Exit 2-1 a number of food stalls are set up in a small plaza that serves more or less as the center of the action. One side of the plaza is bordered by Tapgol Park’s eastern wall, and along this wall dozens of guys eat and drink, often heavily, at the plastic tables and stools that have been set up. Walking around, something about the scene felt a bit off to me, and it wasn’t until I’d been there a while that I realized I’d had similar sensations before, in Cairo and Tangiers. There were virtually no women around; the only ones I could see being those working in the restaurants serving up food and drinks.
Which brings me to my next point. I hereby petition to have Jongno-2-ga (종로2가) officially renamed the Barney Gumbel District, as the rates of alcoholism in this area must be some of the highest in the country. Retired and with nothing better to do, a lot of old men seem to simply spend their time here getting drunk. Several were slumped over those plastic tables or up against the park’s brick wall, empty makkeolli and soju bottles around them. There isn’t the menace in the air that can hang over a large collection of drunk young men, but there is a tinge of aggression; I witnessed one loud argument that nearly devolved into a fistfight. More than anything, I felt the neighborhood gave off a sour, abject air, a picture of how not to grow old.
Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, the homeless are much more visible in the Jongno-3-ga area, and it’s not uncommon to see them sleeping on benches or pieces of cardboard, or shuffling down the sidewalk begging or pushing shopping carts. Seoul’s homelessness problem is insignificant compared to what American or British cities are used to, but that dearth makes their increased presence here, in the heart of the city, all the more jarring.
Just north of the Barney Gumbel District and Tapgol Park is the Nakwon Arcade (낙원상가), a large gray building on columns like stilts so that the traffic on Samil-daero (삼일대로) can pass where its ground floor would otherwise be. You can reach it via Exit 1 by turning right after Tapgol Park and walking past the fortune tellers or more simply by using Exit 5 and taking an immediate right.
Walking in the nearest door, the wail of a soprano drifted down the stairwell from somewhere up above. Covering two floors, the majority of Nakwon is devoted to the Instrument Arcade (낙원악기상가). If you can play it, you can almost certainly find it here, everything from electric guitars to trombones to harps. Some of the shops in the building are jumbled fish-and-finds; others are well-organized with instruments lined up in orderly rows, their wood and brass immaculately polished.
As I wandered through the arcade I caught snippets of people testing out violins, guitars, flutes, and drums. The effect was a bit like walking through a radio dial set to ‘scan.’ Moving through the streets of Seoul isn’t all that different, and as I passed from someone drawing a bow across the strings of a cello to someone else peeling off some riffs on an electric guitar I realized just how rare it is that one isn’t exposed to ambient music in this city, whether it’s music pumping out of a noraebang or cell phone shop or muffled beats seeping out of a subway rider’s headphones.
Besides instruments, there are of course also cases, amplifiers, mic stands, and any other accessory you might need at Nakwon. Rather oddly, however, the one thing it looks like you can’t find here are traditional Korean instruments – no gayageum, no janggu, no piri. It’s certainly possible that I simply missed the stores selling them, but I spent a good while in the arcade and didn’t see a single non-Western instrument. The surrounding streets, however, are home to a number of stores selling these things.
Make your way up to the fourth floor of the arcade and you’ll find Seoul Art Cinema (서울아트시네마). Decorated with lots of old movie posters, the cinema was quite quiet when I happened by, the guy working the snack bar eating dinner and watching TV.
While not as buzzing as your nearest CGV multiplex, Seoul Art Cinema screens movies you won’t be able to see anywhere else, ranging from global cinema to Korean indie flicks to periodic director retrospectives. There’s little English information at the website, but most films are screened with English subtitles. Look for the little circled ‘e’ next to film titles in the ‘Programs’ section.
Finally, in the basement of the Nakwon Arcade, below the Samil-daero traffic, is the Nakwon Market (낙원시장). Everything you’d expect to find in a market is here, but being underground the market experience comes in a more highly concentrated form. Stuffy, dimly lit, and slightly claustrophobic, stalls and merchandise are jammed even closer together, with stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes containing bulk produce sitting behind the stuff for sale, and the minimal ventilation rendered the usual market smells especially pungent.
North of Jongno is where all of the Jongno-3-ga neighborhood’s most well-known sights are, but the south side also offers plenty of interest, and that’s where we’ll be heading next, moving west to east.
Via Exit 15, the intersection around Insadong and and Tapgol Park is full of international chain stores, and yet more line Samil-daero as you follow it south. You’ll also come across the Cine Core building, in front of which are the bronzed handprints of several celebrities set in the sidewalk at the Star’s Handprint Plaza (스타의 광장 핸드프린팅). I didn’t recognize any of the names, but my celebrity IQ is pretty low, so if anyone is familiar with any of them please feel free to leave a note in the comments.
Just a few steps further and you arrive at the Cheonggye Stream (청계천). Not too far from its heavily engineered headwaters near City Hall, its banks are remarkably lush at this point, and willow trees droop over the water. There are of course walking paths on either side, as well as benches and stepping stones that cross the olive-hued water.
Across Cheonggyecheon-ro (청계천로), the street running along the stream’s north side, is a string of small shops, and all around men wearing construction helmets and driving mopeds buzz past, picking up or dropping off merchandise. Typical of the area’s tendency to clump similar businesses together in one area, many of the stores here occupy the same niche – you might call it Disaster Management Street – selling traffic cones, fire extinguishers, alarm bells, emergency exit signs, and flashing red lights.
Strolling up Donhwamun-ro (돈화문로), just before I reached Exit 14 I passed the Seoul Theater (서울극장), one of the oldest movie theaters in town, around since 1964.
When I reached Jongno again I turned east and noticed a pair of science supply shops flanking a small alley between Exits 12 and 13. Their windows were full of beakers, droppers, dials, scales, mortars, pestles, microscopes, and corkscrew tubes. Heading into the alley revealed nearly a dozen more similar stores, on this alley and one running parallel to Jongno – a high school chemistry teacher’s dream. Among the science supply shops were also a number of simple restaurants, which the sign above the ally, reading 종로 먹거리 골목 (Jongno Food Alley), tips you off to. Unsurprisingly, all of the clientele looked to be over 50.
After wandering about in the back alleys and recalling my high school days under the chemistry tutelage of Ms. Swiecki (just about the last time I was any good at anything science-related), I emerged back on Jongno. There, across from Jongmyo was a small plaza called Seun Greenway Park (세운초록띠공원). Not so far from Exit 12, this curious little spot looked like a patch of Jeolla-do farmland had been scooped up and airlifted to downtown Seoul. Along the sidewalk was a swath of gold-green dry rice (벼), the stalks’ heavy tops all bowed over like question marks, and when a breeze blew it would shake them and produce a barely perceptible rattle. Other crops – including broomcorn (기장), millet (조), and sorghum (수수) – were planted in adjacent sections, and between them were a couple scarecrows and an earthen sculpture of two peasants and their ox.
I strolled down the walkway between the crops, brushing my hand against their dried leaves as dozens of dragonflies flitted above, and tried to make up my mind about what I thought of this quixotic little place, tucked between the city’s main avenue and the huge and rather rundown Seun Arcade (세운상가) behind it. What was it doing here and what was the point?
A few signboards at the edge of the park answered those questions. From 2008 to 2009 a few dilapidated old buildings that had previously stood there had been torn down and the park put in their place, with the aim that it would be the first part of a greenbelt that would connect Namsan to Jongmyo. Who was behind this plan? Why, hara-kiri mayor Oh Se-hoon, which means that the greenbelt thing probably ain’t happening, at least not anytime soon.
From the park I continued east to the corner of Changgyeonggun-ro (창경군로) where I swung a right into the watch and clock market that takes shape in the alleys near where Changgyeonggun-ro and the Cheonggye Stream meet. I went past a few small, greasy booths where men doing repairs poked at the innards of watches with tiny little tools, small selections of new watches for sale laid out before them just in case the patient died on the operating table.
Shop walls in the alleys were practically wallpapered with clocks – analog clocks of every shape and design, digital clocks with glowing red numbers (always red), intricately carved cuckoo clocks – like some sort of German rail conductor’s fever dream. I pitied the man who worked here who was ever late for dinner with his wife.
The area between the watch and clock market, the stream, Jongno, and the station is jammed chock-full of electronic shops and walking through it feels as if you’ve been shrunk down and are walking through the innards of some giant machine.
There are of course things identifiable to the lay person – TVs, CD players, microphones, walkie-talkies – but there was also a huge amount of things that I had no clue what they were. All of these oddly shaped pieces with wires and dials…like little plastic and metal magic charms. They had to do amazing and sophisticated things, the sort of things that if I stopped writing to pause and consider how a small bit of pressure from my finger translates into a digital symbol on a glowing screen I would marvel at. Or maybe they just helped make my toast. It was like seeing a thousand puzzle pieces but having no clue what the puzzle looks like or even if they all belonged to the same puzzle or to entirely different ones.
After several minutes of this confusion, I stepped out of the electronic wilderness and back out onto Jongno. Jongmyo’s leafy enclave continued to hold the spirits of Korea’s past in repose, customers walked out of the jewelry stores with shiny new purchases in pretty velvet boxes, and across the street I could see a homeless man napping on a bench. I was left with only one question for myself: Was this city one puzzle, or a thousand?
Tapgol Park (탑골공원)
Straight on Jongno (종로)
Turn right immediately after park
Straight on Jongno (종로), cross Samil-daero (삼일대로), right on Insadong-gil (인사동길)
First alley on left after turning right on Insadong-gil (인사동길)
Seungdong Church (승동교회)
Left at sign on Insadong-gil (인사동길)
Straight on Jongno (종로)
Age 7 – 18: 500 won, 19 and up: 1,000 won
Mar – Sep: 9 – 18:00 (last entry 17:00), Oct – Feb: 9 – 17:30 (last entry 16:30); closed Tuesdays
For tour times see website
Jongno Jewelry District
Exit 11 and 12
Nakwon Instrument Arcade (낙원악기상가) and Nakwon Market (낙원시장)
Take an immediate right
Seoul Art Cinema (서울아트시네마)
4th floor of Nakwon Arcade
Nakwon Market (낙원시장)
Basement of Nakwon Arcade
Cheonggye Stream (청계천)
Exit 13 and 14
South on Donhwamun-ro (동화문로)
Seoul Theater (서울극장)
Turn right out of exit
Science supply shops and Jongno Food Alley (종로 먹거리 골목)
Exit 12 and 13
Turn down the small alley between the exits
Seun Greenway Park (세운초록띠공원)
Straight on Jongno (종로)
Watch and Clock Market
Straight on Jongno (종로), right on Changgyeonggun-ro (창경군로), right into alleys
Straight on Jongno (종로), right after Seun Greenway Park