A single street in Seoul is the perfect place to map out a cultural itinerary on your next vacation to South Korea, as Samcheong-ro presents a panoramic view of the capital’s exploding art scene for free, or close to free.
Just a 20-minute bus ride from Myeongdong’s shopping streets, Samcheong-ro is Seoul’s premier arts district. Notably, it offers a different view of South Korea’s cultural ascendancy beyond K-pop, K-beauty and K-drama.
K-art, too, is going global.
An ongoing exhibition of South Korean experimental artists at The Guggenheim in New York City is proof. Seoul, too, is quickly transforming itself into Asia’s next art capital with its roster of international arts events, including the annual Frieze Seoul.
There are other artsy neighbourhoods in Seoul.
Hannam and Cheongdam are two with a high density of art galleries. But there is something charming to me about the Samcheong area and its long history, bringing together old and new cultural gems.
It is likely that the area blossomed organically, following the move of Gallery Hyundai – South Korea’s longest-running contemporary art gallery – in 1975 from nearby Insa-dong to Samcheong-ro.
The area, surrounded on both sides by cultural landmarks, is ideal for an arts district. Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 and home to the royal family during the Joseon dynasty, sprawls across Samcheong-ro; while Bukchon Hanok Village wraps around the other side, offering an intimate view of traditional Korean houses.
The Korean name Samcheong refers to the three purities found in the area: pure water, pure mountains and pure humanity.
It is said that poets used to gather in the area to wax lyrical. With gallery rooftops offering stunning mountain views today, the place is still worthy of poetry.
Contemporary art stalwarts such as Kukje Gallery, established in 1982, line the street. But there are also new kids on the block from the international stage, including Berlin-based gallery Peres Projects, which has just opened its second location in Seoul.
Gallery founder Javier Peres says: “Our initial location within The Shilla Hotel was somewhat secluded and private, and we aspired to expand to a larger exhibition space in an even more central and dynamic neighbourhood.”
A vibrant neighbourhood, he says, is stimulating for his team and his artists. “We feel immersed in the beating heart of one of the most active scenes in contemporary art, which is extremely inspiring.”
The area will get another jewel in its already gem-studded crown when a new museum, hosting some 23,000 artworks by the late Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee, opens in 2028.
Until then, here is a curated list of seven art galleries and museums, and their adjacent cultural experiences.
Seven art galleries and museums to visit in Samcheong-ro
1. Gallery Hyundai
Do not miss a chance to visit South Korea’s oldest contemporary art gallery, established in 1970.
Gallery Hyundai was the first South Korean gallery to participate in an overseas fair, and it remains the forerunner in bringing the country’s art to international audiences via its Seoul and New York outposts, the latter of which opened in 2019.
Earlier in 2023, Gallery Hyundai presented a mini solo retrospective of home-grown experimental artist Sung Neung-kyung, featuring 140 works. Sung is one of the artists whose works feature prominently in The Guggenheim’s newest exhibition on South Korean experimental art.
On show at Gallery Hyundai till Dec 3 is Reflection, a solo exhibition of South Korean artist Yoo Geun-taek – his third solo with the gallery, featuring mirrors, window scenes and water bodies that reflect the everyday world around him.
Where: 14 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
When: Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am to 6pm
2. Kukje Gallery
The private gallery was too crowded to enter on one of Seoul Art Week’s nights in September.
Visitors flooded the three buildings that held India-born British artist Anish Kapoor’s solo exhibition, and squeezed into the small hanok (traditional Korean house) to look at South Korean artist Haegue Yang’s strange, hibernating pieces.
Established in 1982, Kukje Gallery is another stalwart of South Korea’s contemporary art scene, boasting an eclectic international line-up including Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, French-American artist Louise Bourgeois and American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
The gallery is also one of the champions of South Korean dansaekhwa (monochrome) paintings on the global stage.
In unorthodox fashion for a private art gallery, the space features a ground-floor cafe with a view of Gyeongbokgung Palace, and a fine-dining restaurant above. Make a reservation if you want to try healing yoga, zumba or meditation in its wellness studio.
Where: 54 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
When: Mondays to Saturdays, 10am to 6pm; Sundays and public holidays, 10am to 5pm
3. National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea
With more than 10,000 sq m of exhibition space across eight galleries, visitors can easily spend a whole day at MMCA’s Seoul location.
The show that steals my heart, however, is South Korean artist Jung Yeon-doo’s One Hundred Years Of Travel, which explores a century of Korean migration to the Mexican state of Yucatan. The show is on until Feb 25.
There are only five works on show, but each is crafted to a scale beyond the human form and effectively conveys the drama of diaspora and exile. A room that holds a 12m-high wall of blades sculpted out of sugar is a towering space to contemplate the history of plantation and extreme labour conditions.
For more experimental fare, artist Kim Ku-lim’s fascinating and macabre works come together in a solo exhibition that runs till Feb 12. Also, Project Hashtag – which shows collaborative works beyond art – opens till April 7.
For those in search of wall texts, thought-provoking curation and a well-stocked art bookshop, MMCA Seoul – which opened in 2013 and is a relative newcomer to the street – is the perfect spot.
Where: 30 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
When: Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10am to 9pm; and 10am to 6pm on all other days
Admission: 2,000 won (about S$2) an exhibition, but look out for free-admission late nights on Wednesdays and Saturdays
4. Hakgojae Gallery
Housed within two distinctive spaces on Samcheong-ro – a traditional hanok renovated in 1995 and a new brick-walled building constructed in 2008 – Hakgojae lives up to its name, which means “to review the old to learn the new”.
Those interested in learning about emerging South Korean artists can visit the solo exhibition of the young artist Gwangsoo Park, which is on till Dec 9.
Where: 50 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu
When: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am to 6pm
5. National Folk Museum of Korea
After taking in the clamour of the contemporary on one side of Samcheong-ro, stroll to the opposite side for a look at history and time-tested tradition.
Located on the Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds, the museum has more than 4,000 artefacts on display which embody the Korean way of life. Be sure to visit the open-air exhibition space, where the museum has reconstructed a traditional 19th-century village.
A special exhibition on the role of masks in the shared performing arts cultures of East Asia is also on show till March 3.
Admission is free with a ticket to Gyeongbokgung Palace (about $3 for adults; free for visitors 18 and under), which is also where The National Palace Museum of Korea is located.
Where: 37 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu
When: Various times
Admission: Free with ticket to palace grounds
6. Peres Projects
International galleries are catching on to the appeal of an arts district in Samcheong and Peres Projects, which opened its four-storey space right off the street in April, is one of them.
The Berlin-headquartered gallery focuses on a diverse group of artists, many of whom are multidisciplinary or experimental in their work.
In the few months that Peres Projects has been in Samcheong, it has put on solo shows by American artist Kiyan Williams and Peruvian artist Paolo Salvador.
From Nov 30 to Jan 14, it will hold the first solo exhibition in Seoul of Berlin-based artist Manuel Solano, who lost his sight 10 years ago due to HIV-related complications and has developed new ways to continue making art.
Where: 37 Yulgok-ro 1-gil, Jongno-gu
When: 10am to 6pm daily; closed on Mondays
7. Art Sonje Centre
Not technically in Samcheong-ro but a three-minute walk away, Art Sonje Centre’s three-storey building boasts a splendid view of the mountains from its rooftop garden and a perspective of cutting-edge art practices in its exhibition halls.
Two new exhibitions run until Jan 21.
The Rain features Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui’s fusion of Korean traditional percussion and electronic soundscapes in a show that promises to be a novel sensory experience.
Hangdog, by South Korean artist and 2023 Kimsechoong Award for Young Sculptors recipient Jihyun Jung, features sculptures made with urban detritus and industrial remains.
Art Sonje Centre and the Singapore Art Museum are also co-organising a retrospective by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s Time & The Tiger, which is ongoing at Tanjong Pagar Distripark. Art Sonje’s edition of the show will run from July 4 to Aug 4 in 2024, and will feature a different curatorial presentation.
Where: 87 Yulgok-ro 3-gil, Jongno-gu
When: Tuesdays to Sundays, noon to 7pm
Admission: About $10
Three culture tips to make the most of the Samcheong district
1. Find popular and niche reads at Seoul Selection
In the basement of a brick building at 6 Samcheong-ro is a no-frills English-language bookstore.
Korean literature is having its own global renaissance – with therapy memoir I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki topping bestseller lists, and two other novels making the International Booker Prize longlist in 2022 – but I also spot niche titles here that are hard to find elsewhere.
Literature lovers can check out a shelf of modern classics by South Korean authors such as Yi Sang, Yi Mun-yol and Kim Jae-young.
2. Wander the streets of Bukchon Hanok Village
A 15-minute walk takes me to Bukchon Hanok Village, which is home to more than 900 hanok (traditional Korean houses) and a pleasant neighbourhood for a leisurely stroll.
Some of these houses in Bukchon were home to members of the elite classes during the Joseon period (1392-1910).
Be sure to visit Baek In-je House, which is one of the largest hanok in Seoul. The former residence of Baek In-je, a Korean patriot and doctor who fought for independence during the Japanese colonial era, was built in 1913 and offers a glimpse of hanok living.
3. Enjoy events at Gwanghwamun Square
The 555m-long public square holds many surprises, as I discovered on repeat trips between Samcheong-ro and my hotel in Myeongdong.
On one occasion, there was an outdoor library where hundreds of readers lounged on bean bags while facing the majestic facade of Gyeongbokgung Palace.
On another walk, I was lured by the guttural, soaring voice of music group nuMori’s lead singer during Seoul Music Week in September, and learnt that she was singing a fusion of heavy metal and pansori (a style of Korean musical storytelling).
If you are visiting the area in the weeks ahead, check out Seoul Lantern Festival, which will take place from Dec 19 to Jan 24.
Where to stay
In the heart of Myeongdong is The Plaza Seoul (119 Sogong-ro, nightly rates from $370), an ideal base for your art adventures. Apart from its proximity to Samcheong-ro, it is a two-minute walk from City Hall Station and offers a grand view of the City Hall building. Go to str.sg/ixsE for more information.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.