On the outside, Seoul may look like a concrete jungle. Rapid development and an increase in population growth have meant that construction, traffic jams, and crowded sidewalks are all common parts of urban Korean life. Clusters of apartments and office buildings are squeezed together as more upwardly mobile Koreans make Seoul their home.
Sometimes you just need to escape the urban atmosphere. Many people come and go from Seoul without even experiencing its artsier sides. In a sprawling city, it is hard to know where to go to find an artistic space. However, the truth is that there are many galleries and art districts that dot the streets of Seoul–you just need to know where to look!
Daehangno /대학로 and Hyehwa-Dong /혜화동
Close to several famous Korean universities, including Seoul National College of Medicine, Sungkyungkwan University, and the Catholic University of Korea, the famous student districts of Hyehwa and Daehangno are home to a number of artistic spaces. The Dongsung Art Center (동성아트센터), Arko Art Gallery (아르코미술관) and Marronnier Park (마로니에 공원) are three popular venues for exhibitions. The Park is a great place to watch outdoor performances or browse sculpture exhibitions. The area in general is known for its many theatres, and is often referred to as the “Play Mecca”.
à Subway: Hyehwa Station (Line 4, Exit 2)
Perhaps more commonly known for its nightlife, the Hongdae area is just as fun during the day. Influenced by the nearby Hongik University (renowned for its art and design programs), it’s no surprise that the surrounding Hongdae area lives up to its namesake. There are lively street performances at all hours, as well as quirky boutiques, galleries, and coffee shops for people to browse during the day. The infamous Hongdae playground is a good place to find street musicians performing. During the Saturdays of the warmer months, the playground hosts the must-see Hongdae Freemarket, where student artists showcase their wares. Another must-see is the Trick-Eye Museum, an interactive art venue where visitors are allowed to “become” parts of the permanent optical illusion displays for a quick photo op.
à Subway: Hongik Station (Line 2, Exit 9)
One of the most famous art districts in Seoul is Insadong, an area where countless galleries and boutiques can be found. Thought-provoking street displays, usually put on by activist groups looking for potential supporters, are also commonplace. Little kiosks line the main drag, selling hand-made knick-knacks, jewelry, stationary, and other goods. This is the main place to go to experience traditional Korean culture, or to pick up a unique souvenir. Prices in Insadong are a little bit higher than in other areas, but that’s because most things are hand-made, and contain the individual artist’s special flare. The multi-gallery complex called Ssamjigil (쌈지길) is a must-see here, where artists of various ages and styles sell their wares. Saturdays are an ideal time to visit, when the Insadong area turns into a lively pedestrian-only zone.
à Subway: Anguk Station (Line 3, Exit 6)
After you’ve finished browsing Insadong, try wandering into the neighboring area of Samcheongdong, located towards the east. Some have likened the area to New York City’s SoHo district, with its many chic cafes, shops, and art galleries. It seems like everywhere you turn here, you find a quirky piece of art incorporated into a building, sidewalk or shopfront. You won’t find the flashing lights and blaring music of many areas of Seoul here - instead, expect quaint painted buildings and a quiet hustle and bustle as window-shoppers move from one shop to the next. Perfectly cluttered cafes filled with knick-knacks, antiques, and other artsy objects are typical sights here. After browsing the galleries, sit down with a refreshing bowl of shaved ice and fruit (patbingsu /팥빙수) and people-watch. The popular Bukchon Hanok Village is close, where you can explore traditional houses from Korea’s past.
à Subway: Anguk Station (Line 3, Exit 1)
Seoul’s downtown area of Jongno plays hosts to several major art galleries, including the Seoul Museum of Art, the Gana Art Gallery, and the Daelim Modern Art Museum. As well, this central area is home to several of Seoul’s cultural landmarks, including the giant statues of King Sejong (who created the Korean writing system, Hangeul) and Admiral Lee Sun-shin (who, in the late 16th century, defeated the Japanese navy despite being outnumbered 330 ships to 13) located in Gwanghwamun Square. Below these two statues lies “the Story of King Sejong”, a government-sponsored underground gallery, which lets visitors participate in activities like Korean calligraphy and trying on traditional robes. Directly behind these statues is the famous Gyeongbukgong Palace, which also houses the National Folk Museum and National Palace Museum, where many traditional works of art can be found.
à Subway: City Hall Station (Line 1, Exit 3 or 4); Gwanghwamun Station (Line 5, any exit); Gyeongbokgung Station (Line 3, Exit 6).
Sinsa /신사 and Garosugil /가로수길
For those who are looking for a more upscale artsy escape, the adjacent areas of Sinsa and Garosugil are a must-visit. Artsy cafes and designer studios line the streets of this swanky area. Gallery-hopping here will often give you the chance to interact with the artist or designer themselves, for a truly personal shopping experience. If you’re feeling in the mood to “escape”, try visiting the Seorae French Village, which may even make you forget that you’re in Korea. Cobblestone streets, romantic vines stretching around buildings, and French-inspired restaurants are common sights. It’s easy to work up an appetite after browsing this area’s many boutiques and galleries, and there’s no better way to relax than sitting down with a glass of “vin rouge” and “un crêpe du jour” at one of restaurants’ terraces.
à Subway: Sinsa Station (Line 3, any exit)
Gabrielle interned as a Content Creator for Work'n'Play during her exchange trip to Chung-Ang University in 2012-2013. She graduated from Vancouver Island University in May 2014 with her BA in Global Studies. She is now a Master's student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Canada. The things she misses most about her year in Korea are: going for makgeolli + jeon with friends, exploring Seoul's new and old hidden treasures and getting to practice Korean every day. You can connect with her on Twitter at @MsGabrielle or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.