How to spend a weekend in Busan, South Korea's seaside city

With long beaches and mountain temples, Busan has emerged from Seoul’s shadow to become a thrilling destination in its own right.

From its rocky perch above the shore, Haedong Yonggung Temple watches over the East Sea like a sentinel.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Chris Tharp for Busan Tourism Organisation
Published 15 Oct 2021, 11:00 BST, Updated 18 Oct 2021, 11:15 BST

Situated on the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula, Busan is where Koreans come for a little rest and relaxation. The country’s second-largest metropolis is most famous for its long, sandy beaches, and its seaside culture seeps into all aspects of daily life, from a noticeably carefree, festive air to the seafood-rich cuisine. This energetic city is home to some of the most exciting attractions in the country, and to top it all off, it offers up nature in spades, with pine-covered mountains, countless miles of hiking trails and marine parks dotted with cliffs. Here’s how to plan your next getaway to Korea’s city on the sea.

Haeundae Beach is the city’s most famous seaside playground and an ideal place in which to grab a coffee and kick back.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day one: turf and surf

Hiking is Korea’s national pastime, so start the day by joining the locals at Geumgang Park. Here, a precipitous ropeway takes visitors to the summit of Geumjeongsan Mountain — the fortress-topped massif that defines the skyline of the city — gliding over a blanket of pine trees and offering views of the densely packed urban world below. From the top, you can hike along the ridge for a few miles before dropping down and soaking up the serenity at Beomeosa, one of the great temples of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism founded in 678. Sit down at Sansugapsan, located just a short stroll from the temple’s main gate, for a meal of marinated duck washed down with a bottle or two of makgeolli, a milky rice wine served up on mountains throughout the country.

“South Korea's second-largest metropolis is most famous for its long, sandy beaches, and its seaside culture seeps into all aspects of daily life.”

After lunch, it’s time to head to the coast — and in Busan, that’s never far away. Just a 45-minute subway ride from Beomeosa, Haeundae is the city’s most famous seaside playground and an ideal place in which to grab a coffee and kick back with an azure stretch East Sea as the backdrop. (In the summer months, revellers gather here from far and wide, making this white-sand beach a prime people-watching spot, too.) If ready to resume rambling, head down to Mipo Port at the far end of the beach and board a cruise boat to the Oryukdo Islets, where you can take in the sleek high-rises of the city from a different point of view. Alternatively, saunter along the coastal path that snakes around Dongbaekseom Island, a rocky outcrop of pine trees on the west side of the beach.

While you’re in Haeundae, make sure to explore Bay 101, a sprawling culture and arts complex that also includes a yacht club, restaurant, cafe, pub and store. Feel the day slip into night over a dinner of grilled beef before jumping into a taxi and cruising over Gwangan Diamond Bridge and shooting up to the observatory at the top of Hwangnyeongsan Mountain, where the city lights splay out like a thousand stars. 

Jagalchi Market, in operation for over 600 years, is where locals and visitors alike can browse the sea’s bounty.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day two: markets and murals

The Nampo-dong neighbourhood, home to Busan’s main harbour and old downtown area, is an ideal gateway to your second day of urban  exploration. Here, attractions abound, from the secondhand book shops on Bosu Book Street to BIFF Square, the original site of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) — Asia’s largest, and the city’s most important cultural event. Make sure to explore the alleys of the labyrinth-like Gukje Market, too, to pick up a few mementos. Hunger pangs, meanwhile, should be seen to across the street, at Jagalchi Market. In operation for over 600 years, this is Busan’s beating heart, where locals and visitors alike can browse the sea’s bounty in all its scaly, gilled and tentacled glory. A meal in one of the raw fish pavilions is not to be missed — just point to what you want and the fish will be dispatched and served up on the spot.

Just a short taxi ride away is the Gamcheon Culture Village, a former hillside shanty settled by Korean War refugees that’s now famous for its tiny, brightly painted houses and vivid murals. Enjoy a coffee and the million-dollar view at Cafe Avant Garde before wandering its backstreets.

Come dinnertime, nearby Bupyeong Kkangtong Market is a haven for no-nonsense, traditional Korean cuisine. There are scores of stalls cooking up everything from bindaetteok (mung bean cake) and guksu (Korean noodles) to pajeon (green onion pancake) and dwaeji gukbop (pork and rice soup), Busan’s savoury, signature dish. When it’s time to walk off the evening feast, amble over to Yongdusan Park and reach the top of Busan Tower for bird’s-eye-views of the harbour, mountains and electric cityscape.

Gamcheon Culture Village is a former hillside shanty settled by Korean War refugees that’s now famous for its tiny, brightly painted houses and vivid murals.

Photograph by Getty Images

Day three: baths and bars

Busan is famed for its spas, and to relax after a couple of days on your feet there’s Heosimcheong Spa, in the Oncheonjang neighbourhood. This huge complex is one of Asia’s largest naturally fed hot springs and offers hot, cold and outdoor baths. For lunch, treat yourself to a selection of the side dishes known as ‘Korean royal court food’ at Yewon Hanjeongsik, a short taxi ride away.

To discover Busan’s sophisticated side, make time to also see the gleaming cluster of high-rises in Centum City. Lose yourself in the luxurious expanse of Shinsegae, the world’s largest department store, or explore the Busan Cinema Center, home of the BIFF. 

In the end, however, Busan is all about the beach, so jump back on the train and cruise over to nearby Gwangalli to watch the sun go down by the majestic Gwangan Diamond Bridge. A few blocks back is Seorae, a good place for a hearty, sizzling meal of tabletop-grilled pork, and after that, there’s no shortage of watering holes, from HQ Gwangan, the city’s best Western-style pub, to Galmegi Brewing, which serves locally produced craft beer. For something more upscale, Bar Di.Lan features a top-notch selection of whiskeys and wines — perfect to end the trip in style.

The Nampo-dong neighbourhood is dotted with many markets, including Gukje Market and Jagalchi Market.

Photograph by Alamy

Three street foods to try in Busan 


1. Ssiat hotteok
This is Busan’s take on hotteok, a popular Korean street delicacy. It consists of wheat-flour hot cakes stuffed with brown sugar, honey, cinnamon, pine nuts and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. It’s particularly good in the chilly winter months, but beware — the sweet, gooey inside can sometimes be magma-hot.

2. Eomuk 
Any visitor to Busan will notice street vendors selling these fish paste ribbons on skewers all across the city. Savoury and satisfying, eomuk is the favourite food for Busanites on the go and is best when dipped in soy sauce. Make sure to get a cup of the eomuk broth, too; a few sips of it make everything right in the world, at least for a moment.

3. Bingsu
Like most of the country, Busan can get downright tropical in the summer months, and one way locals beat the heat and humidity is by eating bingsu. This shaved ice dessert is served with sugary toppings such as chopped fruit, condensed milk, syrup and — most popularly — sweet red beans. 

A lighthouse on Dongbaekseom Island, a rocky outcrop on the west side of Haeundae Beach.

Photograph by Getty Images

Three seaside attractions in Busan


1. Tajeongdae Resort Park
Situated at the far end of Yeongdo Island, Tajeongdae Resort Park is where the sea meets the sea — violently: strolling under a canopy of pines, visitors can watch the waves explode on gargantuan rock forms. This is nature in action, just a 15-minute taxi ride from Nampo-dong.  

2. Haedong Yonggung Temple
From its rocky perch above the shore — where the ancient stone of the Korean peninsula makes its last stand before the sea — Haedong Yonggung Temple watches over the East Sea like a sentinel. This is Busan’s second-most-famous Buddhist temple, with an ornate yet rugged beauty.

3. Songdo marine cable car
In recent years, Songdo, Busan’s first official municipal beach, has undergone a remarkable makeover. This includes a state-of-the-art cable-car that carries visitors across the water to Amnam Park, where they can enjoy panoramic views of the city.

Essentials

British Airways offers regular nonstop flights to Seoul. From there, Busan is just a quick connection. The city is served by a world-class public transport system, and taxis are also plentiful and inexpensive. 

For more information, go to visitbusan.net.

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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