Busan may officially be South Korea’s second city, but it refuses to play second fiddle to Seoul. Instead, it forges its own distinct identity with an appealing mix of attractive urban beaches, forested hills, art-filled neighbourhoods and non-stop nightlife. Truth be told, this down-to-earth port city is so entirely different to the high-energy capital that we’re not sure they should even be competing in the same race.
The Busan Metro is the transportation of choice here for visitors and locals, and is remarkably easy to navigate thanks to English announcements; use the refillable Hanaro or Mybi cards. The network is extensive and efficient so it’s unlikely you’ll need a taxi, but if you do flag one down at a stand or along the street.
Busan’s connection to the sea is writ large at the vast, two-storey Jagalchi Fish Market. If it lives in the ocean, you’ll probably find it here, often still sloshing away in a tank. Even if you don’t eat fish, it’s worth going to Jagalchi to people-watch. Look for vendors preparing writhing seafood specimens with surgical precision and locals swallowing still-wriggling squid.
Amateur photographers will swoon at the view of the tiered pastel-hued, shoebox-style houses that make up Busan’s Gamcheon Culture Village. Wander around the sloping alleyways and look for whimsical sculptures and installations, which were first added to the neighbourhood by art students in 2009, though others have since carried on the tradition. If the weather is nice, join the sun-worshipping masses on the city’s famous stretch of sand, Haeundae Beach.
Stick around the shoreline until evening and enjoy a romantic sunset stroll along the pine-lined Moontan Road. Afterwards, hit the notoriously lively pubs of Gwangan where Busan’s fun-loving student population keeps the volume and energy high.
If you need to recover from a heavy hike or a heavy night, there are few better places for it than Spa Land, located within the colossal shopping mall of Shinsegae Centum City. This flamboyant bathhouse complex has themed rooms where you can steam, soak and scrub to your heart’s content.
When the shores of the famous Haeundae Beach become crowded with out-of-towners, follow the locals to the quieter Songdo Beach. A coastal trail leading from this sandy stretch continues all the way to the pine-forested Amnam Park, offering superb sea and cliff views along the 30-minute route. Also unseen by most visitors to Busan is the gorgeous Seokbulsa temple, a mountainside compound with colossal Buddha carvings and caves. Most visitors are deterred by the steep hike required to reach it, so it’s likely you’ll have the peaceful complex mostly to yourself.
Unsurprisingly for a coastal city, seafood dominates the edible offerings in Busan. Jagalchi Fish Market is one of the top spots to try hoe, Korea’s version of Japanese sashimi. Scarf slices of fresh fish that have only just been plucked from their tanks minutes before or pay to have them cooked to order. Peculiar to the southern provinces of Korea is dwaeji gukbap, a pork and rice soup. Hungry workers queue up at lunchtime as bowls full of the steaming stuff are ladelled out at ‘dwaeji-gukbap alley’ in the downtown area of Seomyeon.