Busan City Guide

Busan

South Korea’s southern port city is in many ways an anti-thesis to the hustle and bustle of Seoul. Rustic, somewhat 70s in its styling and focused around a number of beautiful beaches (especially in the summer), Busan is the working class Korean’s city, a coastal Birmingham to metropolitan London, if you were to give the UK equivalents. To non-resident Koreans, Busan is seen as the holiday town. Come summer, startling front-page photos depict the cities beaches so crammed full that you couldn’t walk down to the water without a cold hose squirting in front of you, but avoid the peak season and this is a pleasant place to see the more traditional side of the country.

If the more traditional side of things is what you’re after, start at the fish market. Ja-galchi market is a full on smelly, four-storey building where local fisherman dump their wares straight off the boat. In between staring out at the port, you’ll find yourself in awe of the array of dried squid, as well as slightly shocked at the creatures that end up for sale – anything from a huge selection of phallic-looking sea cucumbers to ancient sea turtles. Not for the faint hearted, and only partly undone by a trip to the nearby aquarium (Korea’s largest), where the fish are treated quite substantially better.

For the more chilled out traveller, Beomeo-sa is one of Korea’s five great Buddhist temples, and a tiny patch of calm amidst the beach-focused chaos that reigns in the heart of the city. You can get there by climbing a hill at the end of the subway line, and on arrival you’ll find yourself staring down across the suburbs and out to sea while maroon-clad monks bow down and ring bells all around you. Another historic spot can be found at ’40 Steps’ a dirty district which serves as an illustration for how far South Korea has progressed over the past forty years. Wooden lamp-posts, statues demonstrating just how hard life used to be and old-world houses lining the hillside feature along the walk. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Busan, which – while backwards next to Seoul – is now an international trading hub, especially for long distant freight ships, and plays an important role in South Korea’s impressively international outlook.

The city’s hot springs provide another perfect moment of chill out. If the beaches at Haeundae and Gwangilli are packed to the gills than this spot probably will be too, but if you’ve timed your trip to avoid the height of summer you’re in for a treat. Korea is littered with tiny saunas where you can bath and sweat in a public bath for very little, but Busan’s best could also be the country’s. At Hur Shim Chung Spa – which claims to be the largest in Asia – you can wash in strawberry milk baths, hang out in an oxygen room and bury yourself in the sand of an iglooed sand sauna, all for the princely sum of around £5. There’s no time restriction either, and you can even eat or spend an hour or two watching DVDs inside (don’t be surprised if you’re outvoted and they end up being in Korean). This is a great way to meet some locals, who – if they’re learning English – might well drag you down to the nearest pub or restaurant afterwards for some practise.

Track down the entertainment districts like NampoDong and you’ll find Busan has plenty in the way of nightlife, too. In many ways, the city is the rougher around the edges than the rest of the country, breaking social clichés that Seoul residents might find totally unacceptable. In NampoDong’s neon alleyways you’ll find everything from the traditional karaoke bars to all-night long drinking establishments and rowdy rock clubs. In many ways, NampoDong is the district of Korea most reminiscent of the backpacker districts you’d find wandering around Bangkok or Delhi, though it’s populated almost entirely by locals.

If you want to get out of Busan, it’s also the perfect starting spot for some of Korea’s more interesting trips. The boat to the tropical vacation island of Jeju leaves from here, and it’s also the easiest and cheapest route into Japan, with boats docking on the southern island, a trip which can even be made just for the weekend if you time your crossings well. Most of all, though, this is a great city for escaping the capital’s mayhem. You can reach Busan from Seoul in a little over two hours on the high speed train, and you’ll find yourself transported to a different, more laid-back world, though at times one that’s even more overcrowded. Make the most of some time on a sunny, holiday-happy beach town without abandoning Korean culture all together: Busan is simply a gentler introduction.