5 months out of the year Busan is hands down no questions asked stop the conversation right here best city in South Korea. While the summer months turn Seoul into one hot Korean mess, Busan springs to life like Pee-wee Herman on a meth binge. Seriously, the place is awesome.
And there is plenty of great advice on what to do – a quick Google search reveals all the top attractions. They’re all great articles, blog posts and listicles so it would be redundant to repeat that here. But a lot of what that content lacks is the intricacies between all the main city highlights; i.e. how to best navigate the crazy extensive subway, making the best use of your time there, and choice places to recover from a hangover.
So, this article is not a list of top things to do. For that, read some great content here and here. Then come back here (please please please) for even more insight to get you traveling Busan like a champ.
It’s a big place
Busan is huge – 3.5 million people – roughly the same size as Los Angeles. So with that large population comes a pretty extensive geographical area. In other words, getting around takes time.
The transportation terminals (main bus terminal, airport, and train station) are very inconveniently placed in the far west of the city. If you’re not careful it’s really easy to spend several hours per day shuttling yourself on the subway from place to place; definitely not ideal when there’s precious beaches/shopping/day drinking to be had. Working out the logistics and the order of the places you’ll visit is important.
If your starting at any of those three transportation hubs, consider hitting the Jalgalchi fish market, Gamcheon cultural village, or great shopping in Nampo-dong first. These three places are tucked into the South West of the city off the orange subway line, about 30-40 minute subway ride (including one transfer) away. A taxi is also a good option, especially if you’re traveling in a group. Driving takes less than half the time and unlike Japan, taxis in Korea won’t break the bank.
Busan’s train station is a 10 minute walk from the eclectic Nampo-dong shops. If you’re taking the train, great! The train station is a 10-15 minute walk from both Jalgalchi and Nampo-dong.
A few quick notes
- For the most part, the subway will get you everywhere you want to go. With the exception of Haedong Yonggungsa Temple and some beaches/parks in the Southwest, everything is well connected – it just takes time. Getting from Sasang bus terminal (you’ll likely be dropped of here) is at least a 45 minute ride to Haeundae beach, for example. Taxis are reasonable and certainly an option when with a group.
- Jalgalchi fish market is one of those “glad I did it once but probably wouldn’t go back” experiences. Imagine a tiny yet interesting fish shop. Now take that exact same shop and put 250 of them in a row creating the best example of redundancy the Eastern Hemisphere has to offer. That is the Jalgalchi fish market. From my very limited one experience eating here, food is decent but a little poor in the value for money category.
- Say “gahm cheon moon hwa mah eul” (Gamcheon cultural village) to a cab driver. Unless you’re willing to walk a mile, taxis are the best option. There is no subway line that goes there and the buses get confusing. You could always figure out the buses, but again, time. If you really really don’t want to suck it up and pay like $5 for a cab, there’s a step by step guide to the public transportation option here.
- The shopping in Nampo-dong is some of the best in the city. Instead of cookie cutter department stores (looking at you Centum City) and flashy designer brands, this neighborhood is a bustling mix of street vendors, cute boutiques and fascinating yet potentially delicious street food. Fighting the crowds can be tough but the payoff is worth it.
Seomyeon has the best nightlife. Period.
If you taken the subway from the bus terminal to the places previously mentioned, you’ll recognize the name as the subway transfer station. Seomyeon – remember it. While the location is not within walking distance from other points of interest, the area itself is far from boring. With a “downtown-ish” (kinda maybe I don’t really know Busan can be strange sometimes) feel, there are a good mix of restaurants and shops during the day. But the neighborhood lights up into a hedonistic late night playground during the weekends. The slew of clubs and bars in one condensed area make for great bar/club hopping and the people watching that goes with it.
As a new arrival in South Korea I quickly gravitated towards Haeundae as the obvious night life arena. True, there is some of that there. But unless there’s a good reason to stick around the kiddie game, head for the big leagues in Seomyeon. At the junction between the green and orange subway lines, exits one and two will point you in the right direction. If you’re looking to spend the night, there’s some good hostels in the area as well.
Notes about a bridge
Continuing with the great Eastern expansion, Gwangalli is the next notable highlight. Differentiating this beach from its brother, Haeundae, is the gorgeous bridge crossing the horizon. There is no surf, but less people and plenty of fun restaurants across the street to make it easy to grab lunch/drinks and soak up the gorgeous view.
And a huge insider tip about that view. Anyone considering a romantic evening in Busan should look now further than Gwangalli. Really. Just as the sun sets the bridge’s neon lights turn on giving a cinematic feel to the evening. First, arrive at a nice restaurant 45 minutes before sunset to secure a good view. Second, order a a round of drinks and make conversation. Right around twilight the lights turn on and do the rest of any charming work for you. Third, bask in the magnificence of having the person across the table swooning. Really guys, it’s hard to mess this one up.
Just in case you do mess it up, it’s not a bad location for some post night out recovery Bloody Mary’s either.
A word about Centum City
It sucks. A few stops further down the green line is Centum City, the largest department store in the world and self proclaimed mecca of shopping. Don’t get too excited, the place isn’t that great. About the only thing bigger than the building’s size is the designer label prices.
But making up for all the junk – the blindingly shiny marble, the painfully slow escalators that you need to take for a bajillion floors, and the exact same shops you have in your home country – there is one redeeming quality that makes it all worth it: Spa Land.
Spa Land is to spas what the Grand Canyon is to canyons. There really is no other comparison. Around $15 dollars buys you a four hour pass into one of the most gloriously refreshing experiences of your life. The actual spas are segregated, but change out your birthday suit for Spa Land supplied pajamas and your entry into the communal areas is where the fun really begins. There’s dry saunas, sleeping rooms, rooms with hot rocks (you’ll just have to find out), tv lounge rooms, foot baths, massage rooms, dvd lounge chairs from The Jetsons – basically everything that you’ve ever needed for the perfect lazy Sunday.
So yea, skip Centum City and head directly to the spa.
(Please keep in mind that I’m a middle aged male so my opinions on over-sized shopping malls might be biased.)
The obligatory Haeundae
I don’t want to give the impression that Haeundae Beach is bad. It’s not and often can be a lot of fun. Just that going to Busan and spending all your time there is tantamount to spending all your time in New York City’s Time’s Square. To be fair, there’s good people watching on the beach and the restaurant/bar scene a few blocks from the beach is great for a night out with friends. Just stroll the main strip perpendicular to the beach and you’ll find dozens of places. Alternatively, if it’s a more chill/relaxing evening you’re after Haeundae could be a good option as well. There is almost always live music to keep you entertained while you sip on convenience store beers and watch the locals set off fireworks.
But if you ever have the drive to get some stunning views, take a quick cab ride or 30 minute walk up the hill directly to the left of the beach. I cannot remember the neighborhood name, but it is a fun mix of art galleries and expensive restaurants, one of which offers one of the best views in the city and some really spendy cocktails. Since my memory is pretty much worthless I’ll try my best to show it on a map (blue pin on the right)
Some Final Odds and Ends
Baseball games are worth all the hype. Sajik stadium during peak games feels more like a playoff football game than routine baseball. Bringing outside food and alcoholic beverages is expected, unlike their Western counterpart. So load the cooler and get hydrated.
But be warned. If you do decide on a baseball game, prepare yourself for a very long day.
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple
I’ve been to Busan countless times but unlike everything else on this list haven’t ever been here – there’s always something that just pops up first! Anyway, it’s a very reasonable cab ride from Haeundae. Additionally, there’s a beach next door which will definitely be a lot more private than any other beach in the city. Here is a explanation on getting there via bus.
Finally, Busan truly is a global city and I know I left many tips/tricks/key points of interest out of this post. If there’s anything you think I missed, please comment below!