Busan is considered South Korea’s “second city”—the younger sibling of glamorous and bustling Seoul. Yet it would be amiss to overlook all that Busan has to offer, namely beaches, warm weather, stunning scenery, and a more laid-back vibe than the big city. Busan is one of those rare places where you can go from hiking down a mountain to wading into the sea in a single afternoon. Here’s how to approach it:
Stay: When you’re visiting a city that boasts a total of seven beaches, there’s really no reason to stay inland. Haeundae beach is the most famous, a pristine two-kilometre stretch of white sand and clear blue waters. If you want to be super close to the beach, The Westin Chosun is an excellent choice: the steps of the hotel lead straight down to the sand, and even the gym has beautiful views of the shoreline. A couple blocks away, in the upscale area of Marine City, is the glittery new Park Hyatt, with rooms and a sky-high swimming pool that overlook the quiet harbour and Busan’s beautiful Gwanagan suspension bridge—modeled after San Francisco’s own—beyond.
Eat: Shabu shabu is a type of Japanese hot pot, but it is executed to perfection in Busan. Try Shabu Maxim on Gwangalli Beach, a popular high-end location frequented by young locals that offers individual bowls for cooking your own ingredients, as well as floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the beautiful trifecta of Busan: the beach, the bay and the bridge. For delicious, authentic Korean food, simply duck into any local kimbap cheonguk, the ubiquitous restaurants with bright orange signs that offer cheap, tasty local delights such as dolsot bibimbap (rice with vibrant vegetables and a good dollop of gochuchang, the wonderfully spicy Korean red sauce, served in a hot stone bowl) or kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice). If you have a craving for a great brunch during your stay, choose between the equally wonderful Caffe Primo and Cafe Ean. Both are owned by lovely young Korean women who serve up a variety of delicious dishes—think decadent Nutella crepes and avocado poached eggs.
Explore: One highlight of any trip to Busan is walking one of the city’s many coastal trails. Just off of Haeundae beach is a boardwalk that hugs the coastline of Dongbaek Island and looks out over clear waters. A little further afield, close to Gwangalli beach, you can hike the rugged, gorgeous coast of Igidae park—a walk that looks back out over the city and offers views of Haeundae beach and Gwangan Bridge.
Next, head to Shinsegae, the largest department store in the world. Inside you’ll find a lively food hall where you can sample both local and international delights, an ice skating rink, a movie theatre, and of course plenty of shopping. While at Shinsegae, be sure to relax at Spaland, Korea’s most luxurious jimjilbang sauna. The peaceful facility offers baths of varying temperatures, including one outdoor pool modeled after an ancient rock garden, and dozens of themed sauna rooms—most notably the Egyptian room and the rosy pink Himalayan salt room.
Wake up early one weekday morning to beat the tour groups to the uniquely gorgeous seaside Buddhist temple Haedong Yonggunsa. The busy and vibrant Jagalchi fish market is also worth a trip, and be sure to pick up one of the local specialty hotteok—a sweet filled pancake—at one of the stalls in the nearby Nampo-dong neighbourhood.
In the fall, the city hosts a well-attended international film festival and the impressive international fireworks festival, and in the spring you can walk down Dalmaji road, which is famous throughout the country for its cherry blossoms. Yet no matter what season you visit this beautiful city, you’ll encounter something truly special.