By Robert Schrader
More than half the South Korean population lives within an hour of Seoul, which makes it easy to forget all the country’s other treasures as you plan your trip. If it’s understated – and underrated – cultural experiences you’re after, board a KTX bullet train bound for Busan, the glistening pearl of Korea’s southern coast. From kaleidoscopic cuisine, to surprising structures, to world-class celebrations of the written word and motion picture, Busan beckons.
Taste the Seafood Spectrum
If you aren’t an early riser, you’ll want to change that before you arrive in Busan. Not only is the crack of dawn the best time to watch fishermen deliver their fresh catch to the colorful stalls of Jagalchi Market, but heading out around the time the sun rises allows you to see a truly rare sight: The streets of Jung-gu all but deserted, their neon signs dark and dormant after a long night shift.
Though a trip to Jagalchi Market is a decidedly local experience, tourists can get a taste of the action – literally. Sit down at one of many pop-up restaurants within the market, and dine on the fresh mackerel, eel and abalone that’s made it famous throughout South Korea. Come to Busan in October, when the Jagalchi Cultural Tourism Festival gives you an even deeper look into the market’s importance.
Ride a Spiritual Wave
Another great way to spend a morning in Busan is with a trip to Haedong Yonggungsa, a 14th-Century temple not far from the city’s famous Hyundae Beach. The soft light and minimal crowds you enjoy before about 10 am allow you to get lost in the lush pathways that snake through this sprawling oceanside house of worship, and to drown your thoughts in the waves the lap beneath it.
Looking for a postcard-perfect shot? After entering the grounds of the temple, but before crossing the bridge that leads to the main building, hang a left and walk down onto the rocks you see before you. This is the ideal vantage point to capture Haedong Yonggungsa, which was founded by the famous Goryeo-dynasty Buddhist Master Naong, in all its coast-hugging glory.
Climb Through Color
Have you ever heard Busan described as the ‘Santorini of the East’? This might not be apparent upon disembarking your train, but will be once you make your way to Gamcheon Culture Village, which is accessible via bus from Toseong subway station. On the other hand, the colorful patchwork of houses and shops you see as you make your way into this increasingly famous district exudes a beauty that transcends comparisons.
Opportunities for photography notwithstanding, the narrow alleyways and hillside lanes of Gamcheon more than live up to the culture their moniker foreshadows. The aptly-named ‘Small’ Museum gives you an authentic glimpse into the daily lives of local people who called this unique neighborhood home before it became a bonafide tourist attraction, while dozens of street stalls serve up hot, sweet Ssiat Hotteok pancakes. Make sure to stop at Haneulmaru viewpoint to take in the most complete panorama of Gamcheon Culture Village!
Get the Whole Story
Many visitors to Busan assume they’ll be unable to enjoy Bosu-dong Book Street, since the shops there primarily sell Korean books. Not only is this not entirely true (as the streets – there are a few of them – become more popular with foreign tourists, you’re more and more likely to see foreign books), but it misses the point. The attraction of Book Street is not only the books you can buy, but the unique atmosphere thousands of curious people thumbing through tomes creates.
The story of Bosu Dong Book Street, which you should visit around mid-day when it’s at its busiest to get the full effect, is also rather interesting. It was originally the main thoroughfare of a residential district created at the end of the Russo-Japanese occupation of Korea in 1948, but book shops opened in rapid succession (and, seemingly, without coordination) during the subsequent years, which lends the area a vibe that can seem almost magical.
Preview Coming Attractions
The city’s most high-profile annual event, Busan International Film Festival isn’t as easy to visit as the rest of the places in this article. If you aren’t here during the first or second week of October, you won’t catch any of its Korean and international films, an increasing number of which are world premieres. That’s the somewhat bad news.
The good news? Busan Cinema Center, where the festival takes place, is open year-round. A visit here, whether to see a film or to admire the Guinness-record holding architecture – longest cantilever roof in the world – of the building, guarantees a satisfying conclusion of your trip to Busan, and makes a sequel much more likely.
A Brief of Busan Basics
If visiting Busan during the Film Festival (or other notable events, such as May’s Lotus Lantern Festival or August’s Busan Sea Festival) isn’t a priority for you, there’s good news. Busan is a 365-day destination, with plentiful sunshine to warm you during its chilly winter, and reliable rain showers that cool its sweltering summers. Coming to Busan during spring or fall, meanwhile, allows you to experience Korea’s cherry blossoms (Japan’s aren’t the only game in town) and autumn colors, both within the city and in scenic locales just outside.
Don’t plan to pass through Seoul, but still want to see Busan? Take nonstop flights from Asia hubs like Tokyo, Beijing and even Bangkok. Or, if you’ll be in Japan and don’t mind taking the proverbial slow road, hop one of up to 10 daily ferries to Busan from the city of Fukuoka. Busan slowly comes into focus as coast northwestward through cobalt waters, like a diamond crystallizing in thin air.