When most people think Korea, they think Seoul, the sprawling, neon-lit cultural, culinary and financial hub of the country. How many, however, think about the sunny sights of Busan, the country’s second largest city?
A beautiful port on the south-eastern tip of the country, Busan isn’t solely about relaxation and tranquillity. Like Seoul, in fact, it’s full of flavour, history, natural scenery and wonderful nightlife. It’s not as showy as its sister in the north – but it certainly has a better USP: a busy beach culture. It’s hip, trendy and buzzing in Busan.
Dive right in
Busan was made for the summer. The sunshine brings out the locals, as well as hordes of Koreans who’ve journeyed from other provinces for a quick weekend getaway in the sand. It’s just three hours on a KTX bullet train (Dhs1,650, www.info.korail.com) from Seoul to the seaside city, so it’s convenient and wallet-friendly. The beaches in Busan offer a beautiful urban backdrop that’s not unlike Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
We started off at Haeundae beach, the city’s most popular 12km stretch of sand, stunned to witness more than 20,000 people armed with inflatable yellow doughnuts ready to ride the currents. It seems everyone, from young kids splashing in the water to the elderly happily soaking up the sun, has decided the practically pristine Haeundae is the place to be. Evidently, it’s also a beach for the beautiful people and, if you visit on the right weekend, we’re told it also hosts some high energy live K-pop performances.
Further west, Songjeon beach is more about the swell. Surf shacks line the town’s promenade and young girls and boys swim out to catch the next wave. You won’t find monster swell here, but it’s a great place for beginners to work on the basics.
On a warm summer night, the young and the beautiful choose to go to Gwangalli beach for a romantic view of the luminescent Diamond Bridge. It isn’t the prettiest of beaches, but many who come at the weekends stay until sunrise. Busan’s beaches and beachside culture are very much worth the trip alone. But Korea’s second city has plenty more to offer.
A hip and happening metropolis
At its heart, Busan is very much a bustling, modern destination – a happy purveyor of everything Korean, cool and hip. For the best restaurants, shopping and nightspots, Nampo, Seonmyeon, Pusan National University (PNU) and Haeundae are the most popular urban districts. Be aware, though, that Busan is a big sprawl of a city, meaning it might take up to an hour to get to each district from the last. Taxis can be quite expensive, which means you need to plan your trip fastidiously – or just decide where your priorities lie.
If you’re into street food and cheap eats, for example, Nampo is the place you should head. The south-western district possesses a street market atmosphere, with little boutique shops, street cart food vendors and an array of aromas ranging from Korean spicy rice cakes to crab skewers, which aren’t as readily on offer in other districts.
For the youth-culture-inclined, we’d recommend Seonmyeon or PNU. At Seonmyeon, quick sit-down eateries, coffee shops and, of course, Korean barbecue restaurants line the streets, as well as plenty of nightspots, where K-pop and American pop are on steady rotation. And as you’d expect around a university district, the area around PNU thrives with bars, izakaya restaurants, karaoke boxes and clubs. It’s basically a college town, with ongoing parties to match.
Which brings us all very nicely back around to Haeundae district and the beach. This is where the rich folk live and party, with high-rises, hotels and clubs dotted around the area. Stop off at Centum City station and walk over to the largest department store in the world – the Centum City Mall, which also overlooks the Busan Cinema Centre, home of the massive Busan International Film Festival.
Seafood, eat it
All that beaching and shopping is enough to work up a good appetite. Luckily, Busan is home to some of Korea’s finest seafood. First port of call: Jagalchi Market, located a 20-minute cab ride from downtown in the south-eastern district of Nampo-dong, has some of the tastiest oceanic bites known to man. Giant clams, colourful fish, abalone, crab, squid, octopus and one of the most abominable creatures we’ve ever seen – the slime eel. This slick, slippery, cringe-inducing animal is a Korean delicacy, especially when chopped up, spiced in chilli paste and then stir-fried. It’s worth it just to see this creature, let alone taste it – for which you will need a brave stomach.
Breakfast, lunch or dinner, seafood is on the table in Busan. There’s always some kind of briny delight making up part of a meal, and that’s repeatedly confirmed as we stroll through the famous Jagalchi wet market, watching the old women forged from salt and sea tending to their freshest catch. Pick what you like and then take your food to one of the many nearby restaurants or seaside shacks who cook it up for you. We choose the shellfish barbecue known as jogae gui, which is kind of a big thing in Busan and shouldn’t be missed – it’ll cost you about Dhs118 for a platter. We snap up a giant clam and become entranced by the juices popping out of the seafood monster.
Just a few minutes away is the Jagalchi main indoor market building. It’s not as interesting as the wet market, but climb up to the seventh-floor terrace and take in the panoramic view of the port and terraced housing areas. It’s the perfect way to get a feel for the history of this once highly important centre of sea trade.
Further inland from the beaches, shrouded by a pine tree forest, is one of Korea’s must-see cultural attractions. Beomeosa temple, built in 678AD, provides a tranquil place to cool down and reflect, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s easy to find – just take the subway to Beomeosa Station and, from there, a cab or bus ride up to the temple. If you’re a little bit more gung-ho, take the hike up and marvel at the breathtaking pine tree landscape: be warned, it’s a good hour to the top.
Despite being plundered and burned down by the Japanese in 1592, and then burned down again in an accidental fire in the early 1600s, the temple has been reconstructed in beautiful fashion. The whole complex exudes tranquility.
Like most north-east Asian architecture, Beomeosa is planned in a courtyard format with low-ceilinged structures and a wide communal open space. The buildings are painted with an array of summer hues ranging from tangerine to seafoam green, which helps bring out the life and joy of the space. Add monks wondering around in traditional robes and woven hats, and you’ve got a scene straight out of another, long-lost world.
A further hike up from the main temple leads to an astonishing open courtyard where 100 statues sit on a terraced platform surrounding one main buddha. We’re pretty sure this is where some people find enlightenment and, for the lucky few, nirvana. We didn’t quite get there – although, on the whole, we got pretty close in Busan.
Need to know
Dubai to korea
Flight time: Approximately nine hours to Seoul, then 55 minutes to Busan.
Time difference: Five hours ahead of Dubai.
Dhs1 = 295 South Korean won.