To only see Seoul on a Korean vacation is an absurd task. Like an all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, you simply can’t experience all the city has to offer in the unfortunately short time you have. (And, also like the barbecue, you leave feeling bloated and confused, wondering where all your money went.)
Enter Busan. Busan is Korea’s second city: its Los Angeles, Lyon or Montreal, sitting on the southeast coast of the Pacific. There are five mountain ranges, six sunny beaches and noticeably few worthwhile touristy spots. This is nice. It means that, as a visitor, you can go to the country’s largest markets and be surrounded by locals who are there to actually shop; climb a mountain and you’ll be surrounded by Korean hikers. From a tourist’s perspective, it’s humbling.
I am, of course, biased, having lived in Busan for nearly two years and having visited Seoul precisely thrice. To be honest they’re both beautiful, graceful and bustling metropolises—but, as with any city that’s not the country’s largest, Busan just feels cozier. This two-day itinerary is meant to reflect that.
DAY ONE in Busan
The best place to start is Busan’s “old downtown”, Nampo-dong, a former downtown core kept alive purely through its plethora of shopping, both high- and low-end. The main street lined with golden statues and expensive brands from Korea, Japan and Europe is called Gwangbok-ro (광복로, but understand that this information is fairly useless, as nobody in Korea uses street names to identify direction), while farther in lay the city’s vintage clothes market (국제시장) and used book store street (보수동). Both offer impressive swaths of inventory sloppily strewn between alleyways.
Tourist trap tip: Don’t bother with Busan Tower. It’s just a lame tower with, once you reach the top, hanging photographs of significantly more impressive towers.
Nampo-dong has loads of restaurants, but it shines brightest in the street food department. BIFF Square, the former launching pad of the Busan International Film Festival (largest film fest in Asia; if you’re around in mid-October, look into it), hosts dozens of tented vendors selling fried donuts, fruit juices, dried squid, waffles, fried chicken in paper cups and spicy rice cakes. If all that somehow gets tiresome, move down to the harbourside and into the sprawling and smelly Jagalchi Fish Market, equal parts tourist attraction and viable seafood market. If you see something you want to eat, just point to it and they’ll just grab it and grill it for you on the spot. If you’re into splurging, find a place with king crabs, which will run around 80,000 won ($80) but can be split between two or three people.
On the main road near Nampo-dong, hop in a taxi or take bus #17 westward to Gamcheon-dong (감천동), a quiet corner of the city that’s quickly growing in popularity for a fascinating street art program initiated by its residents. Gamcheon Culture Village is an exploration through the back-alleys of one of the city’s slummiest neighborhoods, which grew spastically during the displacement of citizens during the Korean War and was left in poverty for decades. Recently, artists have appropriated the space; painted arrows guide visitors, twisting and turning, to the 22 art installations hidden throughout the neighborhood. Not only fun to explore, but astonishingly un-touristy.
Time to re-emerge into society. Find the nearest subway station and head up to Seomyeon, Busan’s signature downtown core of towering, neon-lit bars and restaurants built up to five stories high. It’s hard to go wrong with food in the neighborhood, and harder to recommend a specific place complete with directions. Korean barbecue, a number of which are near exit 2 of the subway, is a safe bet; makkoli and pajeon (막걸리 and 파전, a.k.a. rice wine and green onion pancakes, respectively) are also a signature Korean dish that go together like bread and butter.
When you’re finished eating, if you feel like staying out, ask around how to find Club Fix or High 5ive for a truly explosive Korean club experience. It’ll cost a bit to get in, though, and drinks are typically club prices, so don’t walk in expecting to save money. For cheaper drinks and lively atmosphere, check out any Thursday Party location (with cheap darts and free foosball) or the Old Record Bar, where the clearly ex-hippy bartender will gleefully play any record you request. Otherwise, local craft breweries like Who? and Judie’s Ninebrau (the ninth floor of Judie’s Taewha, 쥬디스 태화) are among the only microbrewers in the city, and produce a nice but limited selection of beers.
There’s also this thing called noraebang (노래방, literally “song room”), which is a private karaoke room you can book cheap and, famously, until the sun comes up and the subway starts running again. Seomyeon oozes with them, so choose any one, order a few bottles of soju and flip through their hefty pages of English-language songs to your heart’s content.
–See hotel prices in Busan—
Haeundae Beach is arguably Busan’s most famous tourist destination, lauded as Asia’s premier beach. There are a few hotels lining the shore, but its main attraction is the wide patch of sand and nearby coffee shops and restaurants, overrun with tourists in the summer months. Morning is an ideal time to go if you want to enjoy the sand without the swarms. There’s also a small food market, running parallel to the beach about two blocks in, with seafood soups and steamed buns filled with kimchi or red bean paste.
If street food isn’t cutting it anymore, Haeundae has more varieties of restaurant than anywhere else in Busan. International flavors (Thai, Indian, Japanese) will run a little more but are available; otherwise, pretty much any Korean food you want will be at your disposal, including spicy braised chicken or just a regular bibimbap (비빔밥) or kimbap (김밥) chain for something cheap and simple with veggies and rice.
Tourist trap tip: The farther from the beach you eat, the cheaper your meal will be. Haeundae is filled with fun alleys and smaller streets which often go unseen by tourists.
You’d be amiss to not spend any time hiking in Busan. The city’s got at least five decent-sized mountains, all of which are easy day trips; if some aren’t up to the challenge, the best light hike is Igidae Park (이기대). Near Kyungsung University, another major subway stop, Igidae offers a pleasant two-hour coastal stroll along boulders and through forests. You’ll pass fishermen quietly standing off against the horizon; find a flat spot on a rock near one of them for an ideal picnicking locale, if you’d rather brown-bag the afternoon’s meal.
Find your way back to Kyungsung University (KSU) to eat at any number of the popular student-oriented dives nearby. As with Seomyeon, the sheer amount of pork barbecue and fried chicken spots becomes overwhelming, but to quickly note the unique ones: there’s a Korean barbecue-cheese fondue specialty place, Shikshinga (식신가); a massive barbecue pork spot, Eudaedi (으대디); and a popular duck restaurant, Gogiya (고기야). But, honestly, anything will do.
Kyungsung has, in recent years, toppled Pusan National University for the city’s liveliest nightlife scene, so you might as well stick around for the night. It also boasts being the epicenter of Busan’s live music scene. (A lot of it is catered to and by expats, at spots like Ol’55, Vinyl Underground or Fabric, but the scene remains strong nonetheless.) For more soothing sounds, check out Monk or Jazz Cat for live jazz music.
–See hotel prices in Busan—