[Note: This article was originally published in the November 2009 issue of 10 Magazine. It was updated on 11.28.10]
More than just Asia’s biggest film festival or Haeundae Beach, Busan is a vibrant city with a unique energy and the kind of eclectic mix that only port cities have. Busan is Korea’s second largest city, with almost 4 million inhabitants, and could easily be described as a city of contrasts. At times it feels like it’s on the fast track to becoming a modern and thriving city like its big sister Seoul (Busan is making a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics), other times it looks and feels as if modernity and globalization have passed it by – but then that’s the secret of its charm.
From gritty to glitzy, this city by the sea has it all. Start your day with a morning stroll around Korea’s largest fish market and see ajumas hawking the days catch, as cigarette-smoking ajoshis fish off the pier between rows of docked boats and fish hung up to dry in the sea air. Then, bargain your way through Gukjae market alongside Japanese and Russian tourists or learn how to play baduk, a Korean board game, with local elders in Youngdusan park. Afterwards, head over to Haeundae beach for a laid back game of beach volleyball or float along Busan’s coastline on a cruise. Next, splurge on a lavish seafood dinner buffet at one of Busan’s 5 star hotels and top it off with a glass of wine while looking out at the rainbow-like light show of the Gwangan Bridge at night. And if that’s not enough, party the night away like a K-Pop star in one of the cities many live music bars or thumping clubs. What more could you ask for?
Busan is not a compact city so it helps to plan your arrival as not to waste time and money trekking to various parts of the city. Busan’s main train station (and final stop on the KTX) is located right next to the port and Nampodong. If you are staying in Gwanganli or Haeundae beaches, exit the train station go right and walk two blocks to the 1003 express bus stop (W1,500). If you are arriving by one of the slower Semaeul trains then you can take the train right to Haeundae station. However, if you plan to stay in the central Seomyeon area, then the quickest option is to take the metro at the train station. The central bus terminal for all points north of the city is located on the outskirts of Busan at Nopodong station – the very last stop on the metro’s orange line. If you are arriving in Busan from the east then you will get off at the Seobu terminal in Sasang, right next to the metro stop after the same name. Finally, from Gimhae Airport you can take any number of airport buses that will drop you off in most parts of the city. If you take an airport taxi, do not be tricked into taking one of the black VIP taxis that cost almost 50% more than the normal taxis but provide the same service.
Where To Stay
Seacloud Hotel: If you’re looking to pamper yourself, you can’t go wrong with the Seacloud, located right in the heart of Haeundae Beach. The hotel is only a few years old, rooms are large and luxurious, with giant flat screen TVs, and computers in every room. Call and ask for the latest package deals. 051-933-1000, seacouldhotel.com
Zen Backpackers: Only a 5 min. walk from the Lotte Hotel and department store as well as the centrally-located Seomyeon subway station. This hostel is at the doorstep of one of Busan’s biggest shopping, eating, and entertainment districts. Amenities include free internet and Wifi, air conditioning, a 42″ plasma TV, kitchen, washing machine, and more. Owner June Park speaks English fluently and can give you tips about Busan. A bed in a shared dorm room is 20,000. 010-8722-1530, www.zenbackpackers.com
Love Motels Don’t be fooled by the seedy name, love motels are often nicer than “normal” hotels or guest houses and often include free cable, flat screen TV’s, and hot tubs built for two. Ask to see the room before you agree to stay. Some of the special rooms will blow you away for a few more man won (W10,000). Prices run W40,000 – W60,000.
Where to Eat
Pork Stew Alley: Busan’s signature dish, Daeji Guk Bap or pork stew, is made up of rice and chunks of pork. The locals live by it and no visit to Busan would be complete without scarfing down a bowl. The alley is behind the Lotte Department Store. Just look for a street lined with women stirring huge steaming vats of the white soup. Metro: Seomyeon station.
Jagalchi Seafood Market: The largest seafood market in the country is a site not to be missed while in Busan. On the ground floor, youﾕll find dozens of stalls with tanks full of all the sea has to offer. On the second floor is an array of restaurants to choose from. Outside, the tent bars are filled with friendly locals firing up charcoal BBQs for you to grill up your fresh catch, day or night. Just point, grill, and eat. Oh, and then pay. ijagalchi.co.kr, 051-249-9363
Where to Go Out
Ol’55: Bring your instrument and join one of the weekly open mic nights or play darts, shoot pool, and listen to live music. Located in the middle of the lively college neighborhood of Kyungsung and Pukyong University, you’ll be surrounded by plenty of places to party the night away. See pusanweb.com for latest events.
Vinyl Underground: also located in Kyungsung (just a few doors down from O’l 55) is a local expat institution. DJ’s here spin an eclectic mix of techno, trance, house, hip-hop, funk, drum-n-bass, this basement club fills up with both foreigners and Koreans. Check pusanweb.com for latest events.
Murp II, dubbed Busan’s most stylish club, is located in the Novotel Ambassador on Haeundae beach. The music varies from house (Hedkandi Party) and hip-hop to B-list Korean pop star concerts. An alternative is Club Maktum just down the street with a similar crowd and atmosphere. murphys.co.kr
Busan Web Sites
Pusan Web, a site run by foreigners for foreigners living in Busan, is the unofficial website of the city. Check out the “Upcoming Events” section to find the latest Open Mic, Ladies, or Political Discussion Night, poetry reading, beach volleyball meet-up, and much more.
Busan Haps is “the magazine for what’s happening in Busan.” Check out their website for the latest of what’s going on around the city.
City of Busan official website.
10 Magazine’s Busan 10 Best
1. Best Wine Bar & Lounge You can’t beat the views of Gwangan Bridge at night from the Sky Lounge on the 19th floor of Hotel Aqua Palace . In the summer, the 21st floor observation deck doubles as a cafe and bar: a must for any visitor!
2. Best Zen Pilgrimage Although most usually visit Beomeosa Temple when they visit Busan, try the seaside temple of Yonggungsa on a rocky outcrop with waves crashing against it below, for something different (bus 181 from Haeundae station).
3. Best “Hangin’ With the Locals” Experience Cheer with the locals at a Lotte Giants baseball game, by far the city’s most beloved sports team. The local soccer and basketball teams have quite a following as well. Their site is giantsclub.com, but you can’t even see it without downloading a bunch of Active X garbage, so we don’t recommend visiting on your own computer. Try it at a PC Bang. Busan Haps usually posts a game schedule on their website.
4. Best Bargain Shopping: Gukjae Market. Get all your Busan souvenirs in the city’s largest outdoor market. Bargaining is encouraged at this maze-like market in Nampo-dong.
5. Best Beach: Songjeong. Busan’s most beautiful beach with a long strip of sand minus the crowds of Haeundae. Best place for surfers to ply their trade as well. Be sure to have a beer and burger at Blowfish while your there. Take bus 181 from Haeundae station to Seongjeong Beach.
6. Best Spa: Heoshimcheong. This self-proclaimed “largest hot spring in Asia” is a must for any spa lover. With a massive domed skylight covering a number of hot, cold, and “well-being” pools, there’s no better place to get clean and get naked with the locals. Entrance is W7,900.
7. Best Beer: Heoshimcheon Brauhaus. What could be better than downing a few pints of Busan’s best brew after a day at the spa or a hike down the mountain? Although this place is extremely popular with the local older generation, the house band can really get this place rocking. They play Korean favorites as well as international hits by the Beatles and such. The best time to go is on a Saturday or Sunday evening after all the makoli-soaked ajumas and ajoshis really let loose.
8. Best Cafe Terrace There’s nothing better than sipping your latte or espresso on the 3rd floor outdoor terrace of Cafe Pascucci on Gwanganli Beach. Go at night for a great view of the Gwangan Bridge.
9. Best Buffet: Although it’s pricey, the lunch buffet at the Camelia Restauarant in the Westin Chosun Hotel on Haeundae beach is unforgettable. The view alone of the beach and ocean while you eat is worth it. Check their website for monthly specials.
10. Bar With Best View: Rock’N’Roll House is a pub and grill in Haeundae on the 14th floor of the Sea Star building overlooking Haeundae beach. It has a pool table, darts, and a fantastic view of Haeundae beach. 051.742.5553;