The inside guide to Busan, South Korea
South Korea’s second city is now firmly on the travel map, thanks to its golden beaches, great cuisine and cultural attractions.
Once content to linger in the shadow of Seoul, Korea’s second city is now a destination in its own right, home to marvelous stretches of coastline, lively street markets and a boisterous local spirit that’s nothing short of infectious. While South Koreans flock to Busan in the summer to sunbathe on the wide sands of Haeundae Beach, this city has much more to offer than just seaside splendor.
Start your visit off in Seomyeon, Busan’s hopping downtown and central business district. Grab a bowl of kalguksu (knife-cut noodles) and soak up the down-home vibes at Gijang Home-made Noodle in Seomyeon Market before wandering the neighborhood’s vibrant alleys en route to nearby Jeonpo Cafe Street. This district of former workshops has been transformed into a hip area with coffee houses, intimate bars and speciality restaurants. Watch the afternoon slide by over a cappuccino and pastry at U:Dally, or stop by Beer Shop for a craft pint before getting your Korean barbecue fix on at Yoonam Ju, a cozy eatery famous for its thick cuts of fresh pork and quality sides.
If it’s seafood you’re after, look no further than Jagalchi Market. Serving up the ocean’s bounty for over 600 years, Jagalchi is a feast for both the eyes and the stomach, and is considered Busan’s living, beating heart. Sample some serious sashimi at the massive Raw Fish Pavilion, where you can point to your lunch and have it dispatched on the spot. If you’re feeling extra-adventurous, head deep into the concourse and sit down at one of the stalls serving up hagfish, a saltwater eel that’s chopped up and fried at your table, along with heaps of onions and a generous amount of gochujang (red pepper paste). Make sure to wash it all down with a little green bottle of the Korean spirit soju to round off this quintessential Busan culinary experience.
If you’re still peckish, saunter next door to the cavernous Bupyeong Kkangtong Market, where you can graze on Korean street stall favorites such as ddeokbokki and bindaetteok (mung bean pancake). Once you’ve had your fill of market food, take a taxi to nearby Songdo Beach and ride the cable car over the water to Amnam Park, or head to Yeongdo Island and walk off the afternoon’s indulgences at the Huinnyeoul Culture Village. Perched above a seaside cliff, this picturesque hamlet of alabaster abodes offers sweeping ocean views that just may conjure up images of the Greek Isles.
When it comes to nightlife districts, the current king is Gwangalli Beach, whose stretch of sand is bordered by a small city of cafes, eateries, and watering holes. Swing by the funky and friendly HQ Bar and savour a cocktail or cold one while taking in the million-dollar view of the Gwangan Diamond Bridge. For craft beer, head to Gorilla Brewing Company, whose warehouse-like taproom offers an incredible selection of locally produced ales, lagers, sours, stouts and more. If it’s something more intimate you’re after, Bar di.lan offers an array of top-shelf whiskies, along with an expansive wine list and sophisticated, European-inspired entrees.
While Busan is a thrumming, modern metropolis, it also offers plenty of natural splendours amid the concrete, glass and steel. Chief among these is Igidae, a rugged seaside park whose hiking trail boasts gut punch vistas of the city and shimmering sea beyond. After trekking this impressive coastal path, pay your respects to the fallen at the nearby UN Memorial Cemetery, where soldiers from 11 of the 22 UN countries that served in the Korean War are buried. A stroll in the tranquil, immaculately landscaped grounds is a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by so many to guarantee the future of the South Korea that thrives today.
For lunch, dive into a bowl of Busan’s savoury signature dish, dwaeji gukbap (pork rice soup), at Ssangdungi (just a couple minutes’ walk from the cemetery’s main gate) before heading across town to Beomeosa Temple. Nestled amongst the pines on the foothills of Geumjeong Mountain, this historic complex not only radiates serenity but is also a working place of worship and important center of Buddhist thought. From there it’s just a short hike up to the North Gate of the Geumjeongsan Fortress. Take in the view of the city splayed out below as you make your way along the ancient ridge until arriving at Sanseong Village, where you can feast in one of many restaurants serving up black goat bulgogi, grilled duck, or baeksuk (steamed chicken and ginseng), accompanied by big bowls of makgeolli (milky rice wine) that’s brewed in the village.
After a busy day of walking and eating, jump on the shuttle bus to the Oncheonjang neighborhood and soak your bones in one of the myriad pools at the Heosimcheong Spa, one of Asia’s largest natural hot springs. And if you’ve still got room for fun, make sure to catch some Lotte Giants baseball at nearby Sajik Stadium. You don’t even have to be a fan of the sport to lose yourself in the party-like atmosphere. Just grab a cold beer and a box of chicken and let the songs, chants, and raucous energy of the crowd wash over you and sweep you away. After all, it just doesn’t get any more Busan than that.
Like a local: Kat Bang’s top five experiences in Busan
Host of radio show Morning Wave on Busan eFM, Kat Bang tells us about her favourite spots to explore in the Korean city, from scenic forests to quirky cafes.
1. Hộian, Songjeong
This is one of my favorite spots when I’m craving Vietnamese food. The staff are Vietnamese, which adds to the authentic vibes while you enjoy their go-to specials, like bánh xèo (stuffed rice pancakes) and a three-tier street food platter. An added bonus is their floor-to-ceiling windows, which allow you to admire the ocean view and the occasional Haeundae Blueline leisure train that passes by.
2. Haeridangil Street, Haeundae Beach area
This area gives off a mix of eclectic modernity and cosiness all at once. There’s an array of trendy yet unique stores and eateries, like a drawing cafe, where you can express your artistic side with colored pencils or watercolor while enjoying your coffee or tea — it’s aptly named Pastel Museum. Haeridangil Street is the new ‘it’ place.
3. Ahopsan Forest, Gijang
If you’re in the mood for a leisurely stroll surrounded by nature, Ahopsan Forest is a place that’s off the beaten bath and that only opened to the public a few years ago. The forest is home to many different species of tree, but the bamboo habitat is definitely the gem of the forest. The tall trees provide the perfect amount of shade and a backdrop for gorgeous photos.
4. Museum DAH, Centum City
This is one art experience you won’t forget; think beautiful explosions of art and lights. Museum DAH is an interactive, immersive, multi-floor art extravaganza that incorporates augmented reality with art, full of surreal lighting and loud colors. You’re invited to become part of the art pieces, and photos or selfies are allowed against the ever-changing backgrounds. It was sensory overload for me, but in the best possible way.
5. Huinnyeoul Culture Village, Yeongdo Island
Once home to refugees during the Korean War, this historic village juxtaposes quaint homes and historic alleyways with vibrant, new elements: craft shops, cafes and vibrant murals. It was refreshing to explore an area that feels partially frozen in time while enjoying the new additions made by local residents to the community.
Published in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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