With a landscape stretching across craggy mountains and scenic ocean bays, the urban setting that characterises Busan often seems a world away from Seoul, South Korea’s capital city. Unlike Seoul, Busan was never occupied by the North Korean army, and remained an important trade centre and defense base for the UN army throughout the Korean War. As such, the city has developed a strong, edgy character that makes it distinct from other urban destinations in South Korea.
A criss-crossing maze of independent boutiques in downtown Busan make it a shopper’s paradise, and the city is also well-known for its hot springs and seafood. In recent years, Busan has established a reputation as something of party town, and is home to a wealth of hip bars and restaurants.
A trip to Busan wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Jagalchi Fish Market, however, it’s not for the faint of heart – or stomach. A short walk from Jagalchi station (it’s easy enough to follow your nose – and the strong ocean scent!) will bring you to the market. An enormous array of live fish are available on the ground floor, while the first floor is the place to go for raw and dried fish. The sheer range of species on offer is mind boggling in itself, and don’t be surprised if you see an octopus making a bid for freedom from its water tank, as the sea is only a stone’s throw from the back door of the market. After a trip here, there’s almost no need to visit the aquarium serenely situated on Haeundae Beach, and Jagalchi will certainly offer up a lot more action!
Both international and domestic travelers flock to Busan for its beaches. Warm water and sandy shores mean that the top stretches get particularly crowded during the summer when a flood of large umbrellas and deck chairs magically appear. Haeundae Beach is perhaps the most famous, and the seafront is home to an impressive array of restaurants and international hotels. Songjeong Beach is also a popular hangout – particularly for young Korean couples enjoying a romantic date night. This sandy cove stretches approximately 1.2 kilometres and is the perfect place to enjoy a cocktail of beer and soju – or a ‘Somek’ as the locals like to call it. Songjeong is also the perfect place to go if you would like to sample some of the local seafood. Gwangalli Beach is best experienced at night when the impressive Gwangan Grand Bridge lights up. The views can be enjoyed from one of the many bars and restaurants peppered along the seafront.
A Poignant History
For visitors seeking to learn a little more about Busan’s past, the Modern History Museum tells the story of Busan during the Japanese occupation, as well as offering a detailed insight into the city’s role in the Korean War and the relationship that developed between Korea and America as a result. The UN Memorial Cemetery also provides a unique insight into Busan’s poignant history, and is the final resting place of 2,300 soldiers from 11 nations that were killed during the Korean War. In addition to the cemetery’s impeccably-kept memorials, there is also a moving photograph exhibit in which volunteers share stories about those in the photos.
While Busan may boast an edgy vibe that puts its nightlife scene on a par with Seoul’s, the traditional spirit of Korea still remains in the city’s many temples and cultural attractions. Beomeosa Temple was constructed in 678, and is considered one of the most famous spiritual sites in the region. The three-story pagoda and main temple structure are considered national treasures, and well-worth seeing while you’re in the city. Alternatively, unlike the multitude of Korean temples buried deep in the mountains, Yonggungsa Temple is perched upon the cliffs overlooking the sea, and features spectacular views. Gamcheon Cultural Village is also one of Busan’s tourist magnets, thanks in large part to its labyrinthine alleyways and paths which provide a colourful insight into Korea’s history.
Take a Break
For a quintessential Korean experience, a few hours spent soaking in milk baths and relaxing in the herbal steam rooms should definitely be given priority on your Busan to-do list. Korean bath houses and hot springs are divided into male and female areas where visitors can indulge in an array of different treatment rooms. According to principles of ancient Korean medicine, hopping in and out of hot, cold and tepid baths does something wonderful for your health. Upon arrival, visitors put their clothes in a locker and head out to the baths to relax for a few hours. Busan is home to some of Asia’s largest hot springs, including Spa Land and the Hur Shim Chung Spa, which has a jimjilbang for relaxation following your stint in the bathing area.
- One of the most spectacular events on Busan’s calendar is the annual firework festival, which takes place in late October on Gwangalli Beach. A rainbow of incredible fireworks light up the sky for about one hour, all accompanied by upbeat – and sometimes cheesy – pop music. The display attracts over one million people each year, and nearby Hwangyeongsan Mountain is also a great vantage point to catch the show.
- A number of the city’s finest hotels and restaurants are concentrated in the area surrounding Haeundae Beach, so there are plenty of options available for a cheeky nightcap. However, why not do it like the locals do and grab a few beers from the local 7-Eleven and enjoy them right on the sand? After all, there are few things that beat an ice cold bottle of beer on the beach, with the sand between your toes.
- If you don’t mind a walk, then head up Dalmaji Hill for fantastic views of the city. A short cab ride from Haeundae leads you up a small road that winds to the top of the hill, which has become known as one of the city’s most romantic spots. At the top there are plenty of viewing areas, and on clear days you can even see Japan’s Daema Island.
- If you’re heading over to Busan’s infamous Fish Market, kill two birds with one stone by taking a trip up Busan Tower while you’re in the area. Just a ten minute walk from the market, this tower is situated in a pleasant park where there are often traditional musical performances by local groups, and sometimes even the chance to dress up and have your photograph taken in traditional Korean Hanbok. An interesting exhibition at the base of the Tower gives visitors a little more insight into the important role the city played during the Korean War.
- To indulge in the beauty of Busan’s coastline from a different angle, take a short cruise from Haeundae Beach. From the beach front promenade area, turn left and take a short walk to the Mipo Ferry Terminal. The hour-long cruise from Mipo takes in some spectacular views, including the craggy cliffs along the shoreline.