Insadong is now car-free seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Pedestrians can now have safer access to the streets of downtown districts Insadong and Samcheong-dong. The car-free zone of the area is expanding not only in size, but also hours. As of November 26, the Jongno-gu District Office has pushed vehicular traffic a little more out of these cultural areas to foster a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

Insadong-gil (Road), the main thoroughfare of Insadong, was previously a car-free zone on weekends, but now it is off-limits to vehicles seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The car-free zone of the street is 230 meters long, with an additional 200-meter section that will be blocked off on weekends.

Just north of Insadong, a 450-meter section of Gamgodang-gil (Road) is also becoming car-free on weekends, offering safe passage to pedestrians from Anguk-dong Intersection up to Art Sonje Center and Jeongdok Public Library.

Both streets are easily accessible from Anguk Station on Seoul Metro Line 3, with the entrances to both streets facing each other across Anguk-dong Intersection, cut off from each other by the busy Yulgok-ro Street. A new pedestrian crossing will be added here to facilitate movement between the two car-free zones.

The expansion of the car-free zone is intended to create a Culture and Tourism Belt through downtown, connecting Samcheong-dong and Bukchon Hanok Village with Insadong and Cheonggyecheon.

Insadong is one of Korea’s most popular spots for sightseeing, shopping, and experiencing Korean traditional culture, with around 100 galleries and art houses. Over 40% of the nation’s antique stores can be found in Insadong, as well as 90% of the calligraphy stores. It is also home to Seoul’s oldest bookstore, Tongmungwan, and its oldest tea house.

The Open Culture Hanmadang Festival took advantage of Insadong’s car-free status, offering parades, music, dances, and plays on weekends. The area is also convenient to historic locations such as Jogyesa Temple, the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, and Tapgol Park, where the March 1st Movement against Japanese imperialism began in 1919.

The ban on motor vehicles allows cultural activities to be staged in the street by the Open Culture Hanmadang Festival.

In order to facilitate foot traffic through the area, several street vendors from the busiest section have been moved to designated locations outside the full-time car-free zone. Plans were originally made to relocate all 76 stalls, but a compromise was reached to allow all but 16 to remain in place. The food stalls were illegally operated, but proved popular with foreign tourists.

“I like [street vendors] because they make the food right in front of you and it’s fun, and they are certainly cheap,” Australian tourist Ben Whittaker told the Korea Herald.

Yoshiro Satoh, who visited Insadong while on a business trip from Japan, told the Korea Times he enjoyed the combination of small shops and stalls. “Street vendors, selling accessories and snacks, are very interesting,” he said. “I think they are a good feature of Insa-dong.”

Insadong street vendors are considered part of the atmosphere of the area by foreign visitors.

While Insadong currently receives the bulk of visitors, the extension of the car-free zone should help to bring visitors north to Samcheong-dong. It is known for its small art galleries, cafes, shops, restaurants, and guest houses. To get there, pedestrians must follow Gamgodang-gil, a beautiful street lined with trees and the stone walls of three historic schools.

At the northern end of the car-free section of the road, pedestrians can find the Art Sonje Center, a private art museum that supports experimental and contemporary art. Currently the center is exhibiting City Within the City, a multidisciplinary project featuring 17 international artists from countries such as Mexico, Lebanon, Australia, working with Korean artists. The exhibit which runs until January 15, 2012 offers reflections on Seoul’s urban structure and how it is negotiated by the individual. 

Overlooking Gamgodong-gil at night.

The neighborhood is also home to many other museums and historic locations. On the grounds of Jeongdok Public Library, which is right past the end of the car-free zone, visitors can find the 600-year-old Jongchinbu, one of the three remaining government buildings of the Joseon Dynasty. Past that is the Bukchon Hanok Village, which has several well preserved traditional Korean houses, known as Hanok.

Kim Youngjong, the head of Jongno-gu District Office, said the whole area between Insadong and Samcheong-dong is focused on the concept that it is people-centered, which means it is designed for people to walk around. He also said he hopes that tourists who come to Insadong can be more comfortable walking around and experience Korean traditional culture.”

By Jon Dunbar Editor