Busan: Korea’s Vancouver

A bustling port, beaches packed with sun-lovers of all ages, and a gamut of seafood restaurants by the sea set against a backdrop of tall apartments, skyscrapers and small rolling green mountains.

It sounds a lot like Downtown Vancouver, B.C. but Busan, South Korea offers a little more day-to-day hustle and a lot more night-time sizzle to the typical North American tourist.

What’s more is that Busan gives a unique Korean experience from that offered up by the capital of Seoul. Its metropolitan population of 4.6 million gives you enough city life to be dazzled by Korea’s modern gadgetry (and it doesn’t hurt to have the world’s largest department store where you can indulge in a first-class shopping experience) while the splendours of the ocean and proximity to neighbouring green spaces grant you a more intimate and less overwhelming travel experience.

Busan also offers more tempered weather compared to Seoul. While the summers are still humid, they’re not as hot and the winters aren’t as bitterly cold compared to Korea’s Big Smoke. Of course, the best time to visit Busan will be the spring or fall. In either of these seasons the temperatures are warm with little humidity and the mountains explode with a dazzling array of colours.

With the world’s fifth busiest port, Korea’s largest public fish market and the ceaseless inner-city traffic you know right away that this is a working person’s city.

When you arrive in Busan you’ll likely first notice its ultra-utilitarian Seoul-like concrete apartment complexes. Built decades ago to accommodate Korea’s rapidly expanding economy from 1970 onward these white and beige towers offer little for the eye’s imagination.

It’s not until you reach the city’s east side where you’ll see modern architecture at its finest – seaside blue glass skyscrapers – representing Korea’s rise into an economic powerhouse.

You’ll likely arrive in Busan from Seoul. A good option to find international flights from Canada to Seoul would be to check out an online flight agency like FlightNetwork.com for fares to the megalopolis. From there, you can find cheap budget airlines to fly you to Busan or you can take the speed train. Upon arrival you can hop in one of the city’s cheap taxis – which are abundant – and it’s a quick “Ka-Ja!” (Let’s Go!) and you’re off.

If it’s your first visit to Busan, or Korea for that matter, the best place to be is the tourist enclave of Haeundae district. To get there will cost about $20/30 by taxi from the train station/airport and it’s almost a certainty that you will traverse the love-it or hate-it Gwangan Bridge, a 7 km long suspension bridge that crosses a bay between Suyeong-gu and Haeundae-gu.  While it separates a portion of the city from the openness of the ocean it is nevertheless impressive in size and brilliantly lit up at night much like Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Bridge. And, it’s rather necessary after all, as this is Korea and one must get a move-on.

Before reaching Haeundae make a stop at the United Nations memorial to give some modern historical perspective on the city. During the Korean War UN troops were pushed back to Busan and it was here where the tide turned in favour of the blue forces. The memorial pays tribute to countries like Canada for their contributions.

Haeundae beach is the district’s main draw among the many other tourist spots. It’s about three kilometres long and well-groomed; The city imports sand to the beach to maintain its golden luster. It’s jam-packed full of vacationing Koreans in the summer months so be warned. Here, you’ll observe families picnicking and milling about on their smartphones. Don’t be afraid to start a beach game where less-shy young adults may ask to join in and play while practicing their English.

Haeundae will offer an array of western pubs and English-speaking foreign restaurants that offer a respite in a country that’s still grappling to learn English. But not to worry if you want the real Korean deal because for every foreign themed address there are countless Korean ones to delve into.

Koreans love eating out and Busanites love their seafood. They even take pride knowing what they eat is fresher than what can be offered in Seoul. Take a stab at the Dongnae pajeon, a green onion and seafood pancake, or a piping hot bubbling soft tofu and seafood soup served with kimchi. If you had been exploring Seoul and enjoying its food there is no need to worry about missing anything; dishes like bibimbap, barbecue pork, spicy kimchi stew and fried chicken are abound in Busan. Many places offer plastic patio chairs curbside to enjoy your meal. Embrace the crowds and enjoy. Of course any satisfying meal is accommodated by soju (rice wine). One cannot spare you the usual soju warning: Be careful not to drink too much otherwise an unforgettable/forgettable trip to a basement noraebang (Karaoke box) is inevitable.

The next morning if you don’t want to visit Jagalchi fish market – Korea’s largest – on the city’s west side you can tickle all five of your senses at Haeundae Market, a strip of bustling food vendors and smiling ajumma (a middle-aged or older married woman) fishmongers.

After exploring the market escape on a cultural journey to Yonggungsa Temple, an often misty Buddhist temple set atop steep rocky cliffs by the sea. If nature is more your thing a hike to the peak of Jangsan Mountain is easily accessed from Haeundea. The park offers easily accessible hiking trails. Here, you can see the complex web of city, mountains and sea that gives Busan its charm.

Back in the city relax at night with one of the city’s jjimjilbangs (spas). From April to late September you may be able to catch a Lotte Giants game of the Korea Professional Baseball league. Don’t sit on your hands as cheering loudly throughout the whole match is expected – even if your is losing badly. Pick a team, grab some rice rolls, dried squid and beer and enjoy!

If it’s raining the Busan Aquarium is a good hangout for the family. Or head to Centum City and explore the marvellously luxurious shops and the Shinsegae department store food hall where one’s wallet will get a workout.

That said, Busan is a great choice for those on a budget wanting to see a large, modern north Asian city at its finest. Curbside meals like deokbokki (finger-sized chewy rice cakes served with fish cakes in a chilli pepper paste sauce) can be had for under $5 and simply exploring the city is an adventure. Public transportation is also affordable and plentiful if you don’t want to pay for the convenience of a taxi. For instance, when you head back to the airport or train station a subway ride costs just $1.25.

So start exploring your trip online. Myriad of other activities are suggested on Wikitravel or the city’s tourism page here.