Korea’s Second Seoul: Where to go and what to do in Busan

In South Korea
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So you’ve been in Seoul for a while, and you’re starting to wonder what Korea would looks like with a little less smog and a few more beaches. Luckily, the second-biggest city in Korea has both of those things, and is a welcome respite from the breakneck pace of life in Seoul.

What’s the deal with Busan?

View of Gwangan Bridge from a nearby mountain

View of Gwangan Bridge, Busan, from a nearby mountain

Having lived in Korea for three years, I can say that when I need a break from wherever I am, I go to Busan to catch a different vibe. Because the Korean War levelled almost everything in South Korea, most of their cities get quite samey, having been built mostly from scratch in the past half century or so.

Busan was never actually a battlefield, though–it remained a UN stronghold throughout the war, so many parts of the city retain an older feel. Parts of it may actually remind you of Japan, as Busan is a port city that carries on a fairly active trading relationship with Korea’s neighbor.

Busan has something for everyone–some of the best temples in Korea, beaches, hiking, fish markets, and at least four major downtown areas, each with their own style. I’ve been more times than I can count, and I still haven’t tapped out the city, but some things definitely stand out as my highlights.

 

Temples

Once you’ve seen a few Korean temples, you feel like you’ve seen most of them. That is absolutely not the case with the one temple I’m going to recommend in Busan: Haedong Yonggungsa, “the Korean dragon palace temple.”

Haedong Yonggungsa–Busan’s cliffside temple

What separates it from the pack? The triad of temple, mountain, and ocean meet here in perfect, unique harmony. Haedong Yonggungsa rests on a series of jagged cliffs and rocks, so close to the ocean that in some parts you can walk off the path and into the sea (though I recommend not taking a swim; the combination of waves and rocks can be unpleasant).

It’s hard to get more breathtaking than slowly exploring your way from one end of the temple to the other, watching as the sunset throws its colors on the waves crashing just meters from the buildings.

Plus, it has a giant pig statue!

The Haedong Yonggungsa Pigs will bring you good luck! Give a coin, rub their foreheads, and make a wish.

Getting to the temple isn’t too difficult. You should leave from the Haeundae subway stop, and either take a taxi (around 9,000 won) or a bus.

To take a taxi, simple tell the driver “Hay-dong Yong-goong-sa.” You may need to repeat this a few times; Busan taxi drivers can be hard of hearing. If they don’t understand, try showing them this in Korean: 해동 용궁사.

To take a bus, go to Haeundae subway stop and find the bus stop right by subway exit 2. Hop on bus number 181 or 100 (1,3  00 won per person) and ride for about 40 minutes (19 stops). The bus should announce that it is stopping at Yonggungsa, but if you’re not confident you can figure out the right stop, tell the bus driver where you’re going and stay near the front; he’ll probably help you out.

Once you get to the bus stop, it will seem fairly deserted; no fear, just walk up the nearby road to your right and you’ll reach the temple.

 

Gamcheon Culture Village

Revitalized just a few years ago, Gamcheon’s brightly painted houses are reminiscent of Brazil’s favelas.

Also called “Gamcheon Color Village”, Busan’s Gamcheon Culture Village is on every tourist’s map–the vibrant collection of old-style houses, the winding, sloping streets as the district rises along the mountainside, and the great city/ocean views make it a great way to spend a few hours. I wouldn’t go more than once, but it’s practically built for photo opps, so don’t miss it!

The best way to enjoy this life-size piece of art is really just to wander–get lost in the streets, enjoy the street art (make it interactive! Do some creative posing with the pieces that speak to you), and grab some street food if all those stairs and slopes make you hungry.

To get there: Take the subway to Toseong Station, go out of exit 6, and wait for a bus that says “Gamcheon Culture Village” in English on the side. The city’s made this one easy for tourists.

 

Shop

Shinsegae Centum City Department Store is the biggest of its kind in Asia, so if indoor activities and shopping are your thing, this is a must-do. Even if you’re not, it may be worth just walking around for a bit and marvelling at the jaw-dropping size of this veritable cathedral of consumerism. Getting here is no problem–it’s literally connected to the Centum City subway station, so just follow those signs!

If you’re more of a cultural traveller, you at least have to walk through a fish market or two. Who needs the aquarium when you have an endless array of live fish hanging out in their tanks at every market stall? Jagalchi Fish Market (Korea’s largest) is just one stop away from Toseong, where you would go to catch the Gamcheon Culture Village bus, and it’s the most famous of its kind in Busan. Not for the faint of nose or stomach, but a potentially delicious experience for the seafood-lover.

If you don’t want to make the journey to Jagalchi, there are fish markets indoors and out scattered all along Busan’s coastline–wherever you are, just walk around until you spy streets lined with fishtanks and hear the thud of knives decapitating someone’s dinner. The humanely-minded traveller may want to skip this sort of market, as it is not entirely cruelty-free. Don’t worry though–almost every fish/eel is quickly killed before being skinned/prepared; any wriggling (and you will see quite a bit) is purely the result of a few nerve endings continuing to fire.

 

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Go to the beach

Busan is a beach city–you absolutely can’t miss hitting the sand if you’re here. If you’re a beach purist you can make the journey to a few of the lesser-known, smaller beaches (they’re quieter and prettier, but less convenient), but most of Busan’s beach culture revolves around two places: Haeundae (Hay-oon-day) and Gwangalli/Gwangan (Gwang-all-ee, NOT Gwan-gall-ee; Gwang-an, NOT Gwan-gan).

Haeundae Beach

Haeundae is Korea’s most famous beach; the name is synonymous with sun, swimming, and bikinis (though social mores are changing, Haeundae is still one of the only beaches in Korea where Korean women feel like they can ditch the extra fabric). To be honest, this is partially marketing–it’s a very nice beach, but there are better ones on the mainland and much better ones on Jeju island.

Nonetheless, Haeundae is very accessible, which is probably why everyone goes there. Just go to the Haeundae subway stop and walk down the road for a few minutes–you’re there! The beach itself has great sand, mild waves, and some really nice nighttime views of the city lights.

Be aware that as with all Korean beaches, there may be specific swimming zones you have to adhere to, and swimming outside of designated seasons or hours may get you ordered out of the water. Festivals and random performances happen all the time, so if you’re looking for some free music or fire juggling, this is the beach for you!

Gwangalli Beach

At night, Gwangan Bridge launches into a full-on lightshow using the myriad LEDs built into its side.

My personal favorite beach is Gwangalli, Busan’s “second” beach. It’s a few subway stops down from Haeundae, and tends to be quieter, though it can get packed as well. The waves here are even smaller than Haeundae, but you didn’t come to Korea to surf. This beach is, instead, the perfect hangout spot. Grab a beer and some takeout from any one of the countless convenience stores or restaurants lining the beach, stake out a spot on the sand, and make this place your home until the evening comes.

Nighttime is where Gwangalli really shines, as the massive bridge spanning the harbor runs a lightshow all evening, and you’re basically guaranteed a few fireworks being shot off by enthusiastic beachgoers every fifteen minutes or so. Want to join in? Grab a few rockets from a convenience store (they all have them by beaches in Korea) and aim towards the ocean!

 

Go downtown

Let’s be honest–even at the beginning of your day you were kind of looking forward to the part where you get to grab some food and drink a beer. But where to go? Lucky for you, Busan has an infinite number of options, but since my time is limited, here are the five that shine the most.

Seomyeon–the beating heart of Busan’s downtown party scene. Looking for a club? Seomyeon. Looking for a classy bar? Seomyeon. Looking to eat, drink, and dance like a local? Seomyeon. It’s bright, busy, and perfect for someone who wants that classic “downtown” vibe.

There are two university downtowns–Kyungsung University and Pusan National University. Both of of them are easily found at those universities’ subway stops, and both are worth a visit. In short, KSU is one of the best party scenes you’ll find in Busan, while PNU is more laid-back. I prefer PNU, as I’m a more laid-back kind of guy and it has a bit of a Japanese vibe on some of the old streets, but you can’t go wrong with either one! Budget-friendly options abound around universities.

Haeundae I’ve already mentioned–just inland from the beach you’ll find one of the most active restaurant and bar scenes in Busan. Especially beloved by foreign visitors, you’ll find one of the biggest concentrations of international establishments right here. The Wolfhound is an old expat staple, Sharky’s is right behind, and one of Korea’s better craft breweries, Galmegi, has their brewpub here as well; you won’t be hurting for options.

Gwangalli wins most of my loyalty here too, however, as the beach and the downtown go hand-in-hand. The long beach is almost completely lined with restaurants and bars, meaning your views will never be less than amazing, and making your transition between convenience-store beers on the beach and food in a restaurant pretty much seamless.

I go here almost every time I’m in Busan, and I still have a lot of discoveries to make, but here are my recommendations: Slice of Life Pizza has the best pizza in Korea and a huge selection of craft beer on tap; Thursday Party is everywhere and have very reasonable food and drink prices; HQ Gwangan and Beached are foreigner hangouts; and Gorilla Brewing has their brewpub on this strip as well.

Busan is a massive city. It’s impossible to see it all even given a fair amount of time, but for anyone visiting or living in Korea, it’s the perfect way to fill some of that extra time you’ve got on your hands. You may even find you prefer it to Seoul! With that said, get out there, catch a temple sunset, hit a beach, and start the party!

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