Summer in Busan is synonymous with sun, sand, and sea. Beaches are as integral to Busan’s identity as skyscrapers are to Seoul’s. While Haeundae Beach gets all the hype as the place spend your summer days, Busan’s other beach Gwangalli has a charm all its own.
Just a lazy 10-minute stroll from Gwangan or Geumnyeonsan subway stations will take you to Gwangalli Beach. At only 1.4 kilometres long, It’s smaller and less crowded than Haeundae, but still located within easy reach of the city’s other hot destinations, unlike some of Busan’s more far-flung beaches. Although I’d recommend any of them on a hot, sunny day, the convenience of Gwangalli can’t be beat. The beach is separated only by a boardwalk and a crosswalk from a line of trendy restaurants, cafés, bars, and convenience stores. Certainly these establishments aren’t much to look at during the day, and some of the venues are forgettable, but having such quick access to food, drink, and novelty is a definite plus. Even if the establishment lacks originality, the location and view more than make up for it. The Gwangan Daegyo or Diamond Bridge overlooks Gwangalli Beach, its twin arches peeking out from the sea and smiling down at the swimmers, sunbathers, and diners dotting the beach and boardwalk. The bridge makes a welcome backdrop for photos in the daytime, but it positively shines at night when it is lit up by lights that twinkle and change colour, their reflections shimmering in the sea, matched by the glowing neons signs beckoning customers to their shops, restaurants, noraebangs, and hotels.
At nighttime, it’s not just the lights that come out, but the crowds who were noticeably absent during the daytime. In July and August, Gwangan Dae-ro, the main street running along the beach, is closed to traffic. Couples, families, and gaggles of friends stroll down the street, zig-zagging in the wide-berth that seems to characterize pedestrian-populated avenues. Temporary tents pop up, selling handmade crafts, accessories, and cosmetics and silver snack carts peddle the stuff of children’s dreams: fireworks, cotton candy, balloons, sparklers, and giant lollies, fashioned by hand from sugar melted in a small metal tin, molded into circular discs and cookie-cutter-stamped with hearts and flowers. Food tents with their red-and-yellow canopies offer up soju to wash down the edible shellfish and snails that they peddle, amongst other curiosities. Buskers dance, sing, and juggle on the sidewalk stages, capturing the imagination of the big kid inside us all. Artists sketch caricatures and portraits for posing customers, even the youngest of whom try their best to sit still and smile sweetly. Business men laugh with their jackets slung over their shoulders as they make their way from the seafood tents and restaurants at Millak Fish Market and down to the patio bars by the beach. Koreans, expats, and tourists chatter and drink happily in the bars, entertained and puzzled by the flair bartending and fire shows sometimes put on by eager wait-staff.
The next day the beach-goers return, parking themselves on silver beach mats under their rented red or blue parasols. Swimmers in yellow inner tubes bob on the sea by the dozens, some covered from head to toe in clothing to protect themselves from the sun. Teen girls scream as their boyfriends chuck hunks of seaweed at one another, while senior citizens comb the shore for that same seaweed to take home and clean for cooking! Treasure-hunters hoping to strike it rich scan the sand with metal detectors, children build sandcastles, and Koreans of all ages take turns burying themselves neck-deep in the sand and napping! Water sports have become more popular this summer, with kiteboarders, surfers, and jet-skiiers alternately occupying the deeper waters. A speed-boat decorated like a shark races by, towing a banana-boat filled with life-jacket clad adventurers holding onto the yellow craft, shrieking with delight.
Further from the beach, teens in school uniforms and couples in matching shirts and animal-ear headbands cling for dear life to the handlebars of the shaky roller-coaster at MeWorld, a tiny amusement park located atop a hill peeking over the ocean. Others try their luck at the outdoor arcade games behind the fish market, competing to win gigantic stuffed animals and bragging rights. When the summer ends, you’ll still find them there, their numbers growing during the various festivals that take place at Gwangalli Beach. In April, Gwangan is home to the Eobang Chukje, or the Fishers’ Festival, where traditional attire, music, and dance attract tourists and locals. In October, the International Fireworks Festival draws thousands who fill the beach, boardwalks, street, and rooftops hoping to admire the beautiful fireworks show that lights up the night sky.
So although it’s at Haeundae Beach you’ll see in the tourism guides and promotional videos, Gwangalli is another favourite destination in Busan, the little beach that deserves a second look. Whether you’re visiting on a tour or for a festival, be sure to set aside the time to visit this quirky seaside respite in the heart of Busan.