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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrBusan, found at the southern tip of the South Korean peninsula, is a bit of a contradiction in terms. The metropolis of almost four million souls is a bustling hive of activity, with a smattering of skyscrapers, a spick-and-span subway system and overcrowded sidewalks. On paper, this could be just another Seoul, yet in reality it displays quite a distinct character. Much more laid back and ‘visitor-friendly’ than the capital, Busan is a super charming place in which to spend a few days. It’s home to the third-largest port in the world, boasts a lovely harbor and offers a plethora of fun stuff to see and do.
The fact that this gorgeous city is framed by stunning natural landscapes (ocean to the south and mountains to the north) also helps Busan exude a much more holiday-resort-city type feel rather than one of important-business-hub. Not that Busan is inconsequential to the country’s economy, mind you. The international port is a major business player in South Korea and, thanks to it offering seaside getaways, cultural experiences, a fab historic center and oodles of shopping, Busan is also a tourism-powerhouse bar none.
Seoul may have its fancy palaces which can keep visitors busy for a couple of days, yet Busan and its charming scenes are enough to keep you loitering about for weeks. There’s a buzzing stretch of beaches to explore, temples to admire, retail therapy to splurge on and a kick-ass nightlife. Don’t be surprised if you, like many others before you, end up preferring this to the big capital.
Busan of yesteryearLike all cities spawned out of the coast, Busan played a major role in South Korea’s history, even though it was nothing more than a collection of fishing villages right up until the 15th century. Once trade relations began with Japan, the city shot to relative fame, until it promptly (and quite ironically) was invaded and pillaged by its trading partner in 1592.
Busan’s relationship with Japan has been very much an on/off love affair since the neighboring countries laid eyes on each other, but this is of course true for Korea as a whole. Much meddling and conquering would have surely resulted in a different scenario on this peninsula, were it not for Western allies who intervened each and every time. Busan has always been at the heart of every conflict. When Japan annexed the peninsula in 1910 it was in Busan they invaded first, yet nowadays the superpowers enjoy a mutually-gratifying relationship of trade and tourism. During the lowest of lows of the Korean War , before the definite war-tide turned, it was only in Busan where the Allies had a grip on power, with North Koreans having secured rule right up to its city borders.
For the last half a century, Busan has grown from strength to strength, culminating in the city branding itself with the slogan ‘Dynamic Busan, City of Tomorrow’. Ironically enough, however, the most charming aspect of the city is not in its modernization but rather, its traditionalism. Arguably the least destroyed city of all, after countless conflicts, it’s that glimpse into old, Korean life, architecture and culture which actually attracts visitors, far more than sparkling lights and vertiginous skyscrapers ever could. For that, they go to Seoul.
HighlightsMeandering around Busan’s historic, shopping or beach-side centers is arguably the very best thing to do in town. People-watching and atmosphere-absorbing should never be discounted as bona-fide activities here. Nevertheless, the city boasts plenty of famous, important and interesting landmarks. Here’s the pick of the bunch.
Haedong YonggungsaThis stunning seaside temple boasts one of the most precious locations of any religious building in the country. The striking 14th century Haedong Yonggungsa is a picture-perfect little gem, and although the hike up 108 steps may be tiring (and slippery when wet) the views from the top are simply breathtaking. The main section of the temple was thoroughly renovated just a few decades ago, yet the architectural style and colour scheme remained true to the times. This is the most magnificent sunrise spot in town.
Gamcheon Culture VillageGamcheon’s many nicknames have included ‘Asia’s Rio de Janeiro’, ‘Santorini of the South’ and ‘The Artiest City in Asia’ and in many ways all of these comparisons are quite spot on. The beautiful, pastel-coloured houses built on a hill, and multitude of art sculptures, are enough to attract discerning travelers; those who find shopping and sunbathing in Busan a little too ordinary. The village owes its beginnings to an obscure religious cult which spawned during the country’s trials in the early 20th century, although most guide books (the few which even mention the place) claim it was simply a refugee slum born out of the aftermath of the Korean War. Either way, the truth matters very little nowadays. To local Busan-ites, Gamcheon is the ‘Lego-suburb’ they so dearly love, where the hillside layered housing projects grant the hood an enchanting Greek-island-like vibe. The maze of narrow and steep alleys, brimming with grilled-squid stalls, arty boutique and souvenir shops, are the epitome sightseer’s delight.
United Nations Memorial CemeteryThe UN Memorial Cemetery is the only one of its kind in the world and is the final resting place for over 2,300 UN personnel who died on this land to help South Koreans retain their democratic freedoms. In total there are 22 sections to visit, each one dedicated to a specific nationality. This site is a sombre one indeed yet coming all the way to Busan and ignoring the city’s (and country’s) painful past would be almost sacrilegious. A visit is highly recommended, especially if you’ve already been to the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul.
DongBaek IslandThe name is quite deceptive for a little coastal protrusion, yet no-one seems to mind. Island or not, DongBaek is arguably the most scenic spot in the whole city to enjoy an early morning walk, a crowd favorite activity of locals and visitors alike. Found on the edge of Haeunday Beach, this nature-filled spot boasts a lovely walking trail of padded rubber which stretches for about a kilometer. It was here that the 2005 APEC meeting was held, and you can visit the conference center where you can see videos, gawk at photos of world leaders, have a snack in the cafe or buy a souvenir. Yet DongBaek is favored among photographers primarily, as the hill grants plenty of waking and photo-taking opportunities. The views of Busan Bay are quite stunning from here.
Haeundae BeachThe preferred beachy hood of Busan, Haeundae is one of the city’s most relaxing spots and the one many tourists choose to stay in, during their cityscape. The beach offers plenty of accommodation and dining options (to suit all budgets) and although it can get quite crowded on week-ends, you can find it peacefully quiet during the week. The beach is very clean and although the water a charming always-freezing degree of coolness, it is divine for a dip and a lounge about in the height of summer. Need another stunning sunrise-viewing spot in Busan? You’ll find it right here.
Jagalchi MarketThe Jagalchi Market has been dubbed, many a times, as the ‘stinkiest place in the country’, but don’t let this little moniker keep you away. If you’re a seafood lover then you’ll find 101 reasons to return here every day during your trip. The near-endless array of fresh fish and cooking stalls selling everything, from whale meat to sea urchins and an abundance of crabs, acts as a magnet for locals and visitors alike. This is South Korea’s largest fish market and offers a glimpse into the historical trade of the region. The most interesting part for many is the dried fish section, where you’ll see cart-load of dehydrated squid, seaweed and pollock.
Gwangan BridgeThe 7.4km Gwangan Bridge is one of Busan’s most iconic landmarks and was built in 2002. The suspension bridge is one of the city’s many stunning architectural features and the largest over-ocean bridge in the country. At night, Gwangan is illuminated by countless lights, with color patterns that change every day, and for every season. To best appreciate the beauty of this bridge, do what the locals do and grab an ice-cream and head to Gwangalli Beach, where you’ll enjoy optimum views.
Dining & Shopping in BusanAs the second largest city in South Korea, Busan does a great job of satisfying everyone’s favourite past-time: eating and shopping.
Eating OutSeafood plays a big role in Busan’s kitchens and that’s not all that unsurprising. The Jagalchi Markets are actually the prime spot for a few epicurean discoveries. The most revered dish to be enjoyed here is yangnyeon gejang which is a delectable stir fry of crab marinated in hot chilli pepper. Head to downtown for a varied selection of international cuisine, where you’ll find splendid sushi-train joints, American steak houses an Italian pizzerias.
Like all trendy cities, Busan has a lively food scene, where the ‘flavor of the month’ can change rapidly and establishment fall in and out of favor sporadically. Do check on forums for the latest recommendations or, better still, join one of the many food tours on offer and let a local guide your taste-buds through Busan’s delicious foodie-maze.
ShoppingYou’ll hardly need a guide if intending to indulge in some retail therapy when in Busan, with an overwhelming number of street markets, shopping malls, department stores, traditional bazaars and what-not literally bursting out of every suburb in the city. Yet there’s a particular area of Nampo-dong and Kwangbok (between the Kukje Market and City Hall) which is a brilliant one-stop-shop destination if you have little time on your hands. Mind you, you’ll still need plenty of time to meander through the thousands of shops and stalls here, as well as discover the underground arcades for which the area is best known. Head back here at night and you’ll witness the outdoor market almost double in size!
You’ll no doubt find innumerable souvenirs to buy, but if you’re looking for something quite unique it pays to remember that this is a very crafty city indeed. The colorful dinnerware sold in Busan is very particular and something which you won’t find anywhere else. Just as excellent, but perhaps less unique, are the lacquered boxes with mother-of-pearl inlays, wooden carvings, dolls and oil paintings. Bargaining is very much encouraged in markets, but certainly not in department stores.
NightlifeBusan’s nightlife pays second fiddle only to Seoul, with the city boasting a smorgasbord of clubbing and drinking scenes. First, you have the trendy beach-side hip-hop bars, then there are the funky clubs near the city’s university and upmarket cocktail bars which draw in the most affluent and chic patrons in town. Unfortunately, to try and see it all in one night means forking out quite a bit on taxi fares, as Busan is home to several, wide-spread nightlife scenes.
The most convenient and perhaps even most interesting area is that near the city’s two beaches, where the student patronage manages to keep things affordable and very fresh. If you want to see the seedier end of town, then head to the area adjoining the Busan station where prostitutes, and the foreign soldiers they attract, make for quite the dynamic scene. Do beware that excessive alcohol consumption, not to mention testosterone, can create volatile situations so keep a low profile and only head here in groups.
Busan's FestivalsBusan is an exciting, entertaining city, which hosts quite a few festivals each year. Some of them, like the Anchovy Festival, are quite hilariously entertaining, yet perhaps not reason enough to book a trip specifically to attend. Others, however, are quite revered in Asia and certainly worth a look.
The Busan International Film Festival is the largest such festival in Asia, held in October, and brings together talents from all over the continent. In the last few years it has gained an almost cult-like following. Likewise, the Busan Biennale, held in odd-numbered years, is a fantastic collection of contemporary artists showcasing their most priceless creations. Aside these two, you also have the largest summer festival in South Korea, the Busan Sea Festival, which is held on several beach-front locations in the city, for a week during August. This festival has been running for almost two decades and boasts a fantastic cultural programme including shows, music, performances and an abundance of fireworks.
How to Reach BusanBusan is a bustling metropolis and very well connected to all other major cities in South Korea.
BY PLANE- Busan is serviced by the Gimhae International Airport which has daily flights coming in from Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and Jeju Island as well as important Asian hubs like Tokyo, Bangkok, Hanoi, Hong Kong and even Vladivostok, in Russia.
BY TRAIN- The city is only 450kms from the capital and high-speed rail connections, with KTX services offering several, two to three-hour rides (duration depending on stops) to Seoul all day long. KTX offers links to all major cities in South Korea and is an extremely y convenient (price/time ratio) to get around the country.
BY BUS- getting around South Korea is made incredibly easy by the fact that if there’s a gap in the train connections, buses step in to pick up the slack. A bus ride to Seoul can take up to six hours depending on traffic.
BY FERRY- If heading over from Japan, consider taking the ferry which connects Busan to Fukuoka. The ride takes about 6 hours and costs about $ 90 USD for an overnight, 11-hour slow ferry, or $ 80 USD for a 6-hour fast day time ferry. Do note that prices fluctuate due to oil surcharges and your intended direction.
How to get around BusanMuch like London and Hong Kong, Busan also boasts a convenient, all-in-one contactless card which makes moving about on public transport very easy. The Busan Hannaro Card costs 6000 KRW and can be topped up at various outlets through station terminals. On an average, 2-3 day stay you may not save much money unless you take a seriously high number of buses and trains, yet the convenience of the card still makes it a worthwhile purchase and saves much fluffling-about-with-tickets time. To get a refund on your card’s balance simply visit a Pussan Bank branch on your last day and bring along your passport. The city’s underground system is very comprehensive and runs from 5am to 12.45am. There are a total of three lines running the length and width of the city, and announcements are made in English as well.
Buses are likewise quite convenient (and cheaper) yet they should definitely be avoided at peak times. You’ll see white and blue buses stop at all stations whilst the white and red are express buses which make few stops between their destinations. Do note that stops and signs on the bus are also in English.
Taxis, of course, are the most convenient way to get around Busan although fares can get quite pricey here, depending on the time of day. They are metered and a very safe option, but do not expect the driver to speak English. Do have all your details written in Korean to void mishaps.
Best time to visitIts coastal, monsoonal location grants Busan four very distinct seasons. Winters can get as cold as the summers do steamy, so heading here in Spring (April-June) and Fall (September-October) is a very good idea if you wish to enjoy the best of the city’s outdoor life.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Apr 24, 2015