South Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, is a composite of fast-paced urbanity and quiet natural beauty. Its vibrant inner-city neighbourhoods are populated by chic restaurants, bars and boutiques, yet it is the nearby mountains, beaches and hot springs that give this busy coastal city of 3.6 million its hybrid appeal.
Though Busan boasts an abundance of contemporary pleasures, the city’s importance as a site of religious pilgrimage should not be overlooked. Beomeosa Temple, a Buddhist shrine founded in 678 A.D., sits at the base of Geumjeong Mountain, a ridge whose rugged crags and peaks can be spotted from various points throughout the city. Famous for its seaside location, Haedong Yonggungsa temple, also known as the water temple, overlooks the rocky shores of the East Sea. Sangwangsa Temple, meanwhile, claims the distinction of being the youngest and largest temple in Busan. The 20th-century stunner, with sweeping views of the city, hosts a world-renowned lantern festival every spring.
There is no escaping the sands in this city of ports and harbours on South Korea’s southeast coast. And with seven beach districts offering everything from sunbathing and sport to culture and nightlife, who would want to? Famed Haeundae Beach beckons with its beachfront promenade and ferry to U-Dong Island, while the Sea Life Aquarium boasts a multitude of marine life and shade. Gwangalli is a well-known city beach with incomparable views of the Diamond Bridge. Head to the more secluded Songjeong Beach to catch some surf and sun; cap off your day with dinner at one of the nearby seafood restaurants.
When it comes to dining, seafood is Busan’s culinary calling card. The shoreside Jagalchi Market sells both live and dried fish. For an atmospheric lunchtime experience, order from one of its many informal dining stalls. Traditional octopus delicacies, pork soup, cold noodles and sashimi can be sampled at any number of casual downtown dining spots. Gukje Street Market is where to go for cheap bibimbap dishes and sweet filled pancakes, a Busan speciality.
Note the hypermodern skyscrapers and steel-and-glass structures of Centum City as you explore its cluster of attractions – including the world’s largest shopping mall, the architecturally acclaimed Busan Cinema Center, and the modern facades of the Busan Museum of Modern Art, all of which stand in stark contrast to the post-war buildings and docks of historic Central Busan. Such a dramatic mix of landscapes makes it clear upon arrival why this multifaceted cityscape has become a sought-after filming location for a number of international productions.
Sprawling Busan lacks a city centre, making it difficult to see all of its attractions on foot. The efficient and comprehensive metro, light rail and bus system will deliver you to the majority of Busan’s most essential destinations, many of which are grouped together in various districts. Zipping around on an electric bicycle is for the truly brave of heart—it’s much easier to hail a taxi. Busan’s International Gimhae Airport, its largest, is a short distance from and well connected to the city by shuttle and taxi.