Try as you might, you can’t write about the city of Busan, South Korea without mentioning Korea’s capital, Seoul. Take for example the seemingly innocuous phrase, “Busan is Korea’s second-largest city”. Without even mentioning the capital, a connection has been made – Busan is Korea’s second-largest city after Seoul. With that initial mention out of the way, comparisons between Seoul and Busan stop here, at least for the duration of this article. Rather than comparing the two cities, this article will explore Busan’s own unique character, flavor, and feel. In that spirit of exploration, let’s take a trip and discover “Dynamic Busan”!
Let’s begin with the weather, shall we? Busan’s location on the southeastern coast makes it temperate year-round, but allows residents to enjoy Korea’s beloved four seasons. In addition, Busan has achieved what might be the perfect mix of beaches, mountains, and rivers, with a thriving city thrown in for good measure. My home is within walking distance of every convenience I could desire: seven minutes to the beach, 15 to a mountain, 35 to a river, and only four minutes to the subway, all within view of skyscrapers. I’ve never lived in another city with such a vast array of scenery available within such a small radius! Busan is known within Korea as a beach respite and the allure continues even into the winter when you’ll see couples strolling along boardwalks snapping photos, bundled against the wind.
Indeed, Busan’s beaches are so synonymous with the city that nearly any internet search will return laden with images of sun, sand, and summer fun. Haeundae Beach is Korea’s largest beach and undoubtedly its most popular. As I was preparing for this article and asking around about favourite places in Busan, every Korean I talked to replied, “Haeundae Beach”. On a peak summer’s day, thousands of people crowd the golden sand and blue waters, relaxing under an endless canopy of multi-coloured parasols or splashing in the ocean. The foamy sea swells are dotted with swimmers floating in hundreds of yellow inner-tubes, kite-boarders and muscled body builders riding jet skis. Their laughter and shouts can be heard even over the din of music, lifeguard whistles, and crashing waves that make up the soundtrack of Haeundae Beach, only steps away from luxury hotels and modern office buildings.
While Haeundae is certainly the most famous, it is not the only beach in town. Gwangalli Beach is known for the stunning view it offers of the Gwangan or Diamond Bridge. Gwangalli may be the only beach I know that seems more popular at night than in the day! The beach faces a street lined with trendy cafes, bars, and convenience stores and while it doesn’t look like much in the daytime, it positively shines at night. At dusk, the glow of neon signs bounces off the water and the Diamond Bridge’s lights come to life, shimmering and changing with each passing glance. During the summer, the main road transforms into a pedestrian-only hub for art, concerts, and street food. Songjeong, Dadaepo, Imrang, Ilgwang, and Songdo round up the city’s beaches, with Songjeong being tops for surfing. Dadaepo is known for its colourful, musical outdoor “Fountain of Dreams”; Imrang and Ilgwang for their relaxed atmosphere, and Songdo is notable as being Korea’s first beach, dedicated in 1913.
Of course, Busan would hardly be so enchanting if it were only home to nice beaches. Sports fans cheer on the Lotte Giants at Sajik Baseball Stadium, where orange plastic shopping bags are not only acceptable headgear, but a proper show of support for the home team. Busan is known for its baseball and beaches, but festivals and the arts also get top-billing here. Of those, the Busan Biennale art exhibition, the spectacular Busan Fireworks Festival, and the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF, formerly PIFF) are the most revered.
BIFF in particular has helped launch Busan into the spotlight. This year BIFF showcased 304 films from around the world, drawing actors, directors and movie-lovers to the city. Last year however, the world really took notice with the opening of the BIFF Cinema Center, an architectural marvel that boasts the world’s longest cantilever roof and a Guinness Record to prove it. The Cinema Center’s “Big Roof” is most dazzling at night, when a light show with over 42,000 animated LED lights delights onlookers. Located in Centum City, the Cinema Center is at home amongst gleaming skyscrapers, iridescent high-rise apartments, the gargantuan BEXCO Convention Center, the Busan Museum of Modern Art, and Shinsegae, another architectural Guinness Record-holder awarded with the distinction of being the world’s largest department store. This impressive store houses a skating rink, several food courts, and the exquisite Spa Land, a jjimjilbang or public bath house that will please even the finickiest of spa-goers. Busan’s Jjimjilbang fans also enjoy Hurshimchung Spa (or Heoshimchung Spa), renowned as Asia’s largest hot spring spa. If you haven’t done so yet, a visit to a Korean jjimjilbang is a must!
While some like to relax in hot tubs, others find solitude in the hills, enjoying Busan’s many mountains, hiking, walking, and biking trails. Dalmaji Hill is known for its beautiful views, and it’s also the top place to go for enjoying cherry blossoms in the spring. Busan’s temples also offer stunning views and spiritual serenity, with Beomeosa, and Haedong Yonggungsa being two of the most memorable. While some seek peace at the temples, others find bliss at the shops. Nampo-dong’s Fashion Street bustles with trendsetters and shoppers cram the adjacent side streets and alleys hunting for deals. Fashion Street branches off onto the tiny graffiti-covered Art Alley, dating hotspot Busan Tower and its surrounding Yongdusan Park, and the Lotte Department Store where you’ll find the world’s largest indoor musical fountain, according to – who else?- The Guinness Book of World Records. December through January, Fashion Street hosts a popular annual winter holiday lights festival that stretches all the way to BIFF Square. Here you can see handprints of the stars who have graced the city’s film festivals, sample street snacks, or discover your destiny at one of many fortune-tellers’ tents crowding the square.
A few subway stops away, Seomyeon’s underground malls and streets buzz with shoppers who slow down just long enough to pose for pictures with the giant outdoor sculptures that decorate Art Street, and stop only when it’s time to go out drinking and dancing! Cool-looking couples and well-coiffed groups of twenty-somethings dine out or try their luck with street games before they begin their rounds to the bars and clubs. Of course, no night out would be complete without a trip to the noraebang or singing room, where everyone is a star!
Busan’s bars are a great way to unwind and key to the city’s vibrant nightlife. Nampo-dong and Seomyeon are favoured by younger crowds while Haeundae is home to posh nightclubs. Gwangalli is perfect for cocktails on patios, and in my opinion those are the safest seats from which to view the popular flair bartending and fire shows! University areas are great places to go out thanks to the hip, energetic crowds that fill the bars and clubs. Kyungsung University area (Kyungsung-dae, or KSU, as it’s known to the expat crowd) and Pusan National University area (Pusan-dae or PNU) are two great locations, popular for both their street shopping and drinking venues.
If hobnobbing with the young and well-heeled isn’t your thing, you can try some sensory overload at one of the city’s traditional markets where sights, sounds, and smells seem to run amok. Herbs, traditional medicines, and what are surely as-yet-unidentified vegetables top tables, practically spilling out onto hanging racks strung with traditional crafts and textiles. It is bedlam – items are stacked impossibly high, there is haggling and a lot of shouting, voices rising and falling with the subtle tones of the Busan dialect. Yet this is nothing compared to the Jagalchi Fish Market. Jagalchi seems a perfect place to wander until that first splash from a nearby fish tank soaks your shoes and socks. Fish mongers call out and vigorously waggle live sea creatures in your face, prompting you to “Buy, buy!” and to “Taste, taste!” Once you’ve selected your catch, you can head upstairs where your purchase is served for your immediate consumption. The daring may choose to sample some of the more exotic offerings, such as sannakji or chopped “live” octopus that wriggles and slips on the plate, or blowfish soup, an innocuously dangerous specialty of Busan. Those who aren’t so adventurous may prefer milmyeon or cold buckwheat noodle soup, a tamer Busan specialty.
Arcades, galleries, art villages, lighthouses, and boat or bus tours are some of the other eclectic delights that await you at this city by the sea. It doesn’t matter what you fancy – beaches and mountains, temples and markets, or sports, shops, and theaters, because you’re sure to find it in Busan, Korea’s second city and first-rate destination.
Images and collage author’s own, unless otherwise noted.
Haeundae Beach image retrieved 2012/11/01 from the Korea IT Times website, found here: www.koreaittimes.com/image/haeundae-beach
BIFF image retrieved 2012/12/01 from the official Busan Tourism Website, found here: http://english.busan.go.kr/
Busan Tourism website, http://english.busan.go.kr/
Visit Korea Tourism website, http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto
Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly three years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.