Busan: Things to do and see

I haven’t visited Busan for some time now, but it’s a city that’s still dear to my heart because I lived only an hour away from it for 2 years. It’s more chilled and laid back than the capital and people are generally friendly and willing to help. Overall Busan doesn’t have as many attractions as Seoul, but there is still plenty to do and see there, ranging from shopping to festivals to beaches to cultural attractions.

In no particular order, here is a list of some things to check out in Busan.

1.    Busan International Film Festival

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South Korea has a well known and internationally respected film industry, with Old Boy being a cult classic and recently the film Snowpiercer enjoyed critical acclaim and a U.S. release. BIFF is the largest film festival in Asia and a great time to watch Korean and Asian films, as well as some Western releases. The festival is held every October and has a lively atmosphere, certainly one of the best times to be in Busan. Tickets for the popular movies can be very hard to get, but I managed to get tickets for the less popular releases on the BIFF website when I went in 2014. I got tickets for 3 Korean films and one Vietnamese, though I ended up not being able to see the Vietnamese one. I also got a ticket to see a few short films, with one being American, one Thai and one French-Cambodian. The theater for the short films had only a few people.

There’s also Midnight Passion tickets, where one can see a few horror movies back to back after midnight, but these tickets can also be hard to come by as they sell out quickly.

The films are shown in various theaters mostly in the Haeundae area. Accommodation sells out incredibly quickly and gets very expensive in the festival time so book early to stay in Haeundae, or stay in a different area (like Seomyeon) and commute by subway.

2.   Gamcheon Culture Village

This is a very cute art village with an interesting history. Busan was one of the few places in South Korea not harmed by the Korean war and briefly served as the capital when Seoul was taken by North Korea during the war. Therefore refugees from other parts of the peninsula fled to Busan, and Gamcheon was a refugee area and filled with tiny shanty houses and remained poor after the war was over. In 2009, there was a project to improve the living of the Gamcheon residents so the homes were painted and decorated with murals. Today Gamcheon is a popular tourist place with local Koreans (especially couples and photographers) but remains pretty off the radar for foreign tourists.

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Gamcheon is usually compared to Santorini or Cinque Terre, but it seems to me to more closely resemble colorful shanty house neighborhoods in a place like Mexico or South America (from photos I’ve seen, I haven’t actually been to either yet). It’s a great place to walk around and check out the murals, but for me the best part is wandering up the hill through the tiny painted alleys. Bring water and be prepared to walk a lot uphill, some of which is a bit steep. Also, try to go on a sunny day as the pictures would probably turn out better than mine (it was cloudy when I went).

It’s pretty easy to get to as well, just take the subway to Toseong Station and come out exit 6. There’s a bus stop in front of a hospital where buses 2 and 2-2 go to the village. The ride is only a few minutes long. There’s a tourist information center in the village that has English maps.

3.  Haedong Younggungsa Temple

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This is one of Busan’s most famous temples, and it was the first temple I visited in Korea. Even after visiting more temples this one was definitely one of my favorites. The location by the sea is amazing and very refreshing in the hot weather. The temple does attract a crowd but it didn’t have a negative impact on my experience. Leading up to the temple are plenty of stalls selling Buddhist trinkets and some street food. There’s also Buddhist music and statues leading to the gate. The temple was founded by a monk in 1376 but was reconstructed in 1970, so the buildings and statues are hardly ancient but it’s one of the few temples in Korea near the sea. There’s plenty of great photo opportunities on the grounds and a great view of the temple and ocean up the hill. There is a bus that services the temple that leaves from Haeundae station, but I went with two friends so we took a taxi. From what I’ve heard, the bus drops off pretty far from the temple so taking a cab would probably be the best choice if with a group.

4. Gwangalli Beach

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Haeundae may be the most popular beach in Korea but I prefer Gwangalli. It’s cleaner, not as crowded and has plenty of restaurants around it as well. Gwangan bridge is also beautiful at night and the whole beach has a nice vibe at that time, with people setting off small fireworks on the beach and musicians playing on the stairs. My friend and I went here on Chuseok one year and it was peaceful and not too busy.

5. Nampo Dong Christmas Festival

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Nampo Dong is a big shopping area in Busan, and BIFF square is located near here, which has street food and some movie theaters. Nampo has plenty of discount shops and restaurants to enjoy. The best time to come here is in winter during the Christmas lights festival. It gets crowded of course but the crowds actually make the place a bit warmer, at least. The lights and trees are everywhere giving the place a great festive atmosphere.

6. Dongbaekseom Island

Dongbaek island isn’t actually an island — it used to be but is now attached to the mainland, so it’s really a peninsula. It’s very small and gets it’s name from the trees that grow there, called dongbaek. There’s an easy walkway around the peninsula that has some great views of the ocean, Gwangan bridge, and Haeundae beach. Dongbaekseom honors a Silla-era scholar with a large statue of him at the top. The APEC house (meeting place for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) is located here. The APEC house served as a meeting place for world trade leaders in Asia in 2005. There’s a good photo opportunity here of the house and and bridge. It’s accessible by subway, just get off at Dongbaek station and walk 700 meters.

7. Busan Aquarium 

I haven’t visited many aquariums in my life, so I’m not really sure how this compares to aquariums in general but I did enjoy this place. Has plenty of sea creatures including giant Japanese spider crabs, sharks, and a pool to touch starfish. The entrance fee is 18,000 won per person. It’s walking distance from Haeundae beach so easy to reach, and provides an escape from summer heat.

8. Yongdusan Park

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Yongdusan Park has a couple of things to see, such as a statue of the famous admiral Lee Sun-sin and a Buddhist temple, but the main attraction is the view of Busan from Busan Tower. There’s an escalator up the mountain and it’s located in Nampo Dong so it’s easy to reach. The tower had a long line but a good view of the downtown and the ocean and cargo ships.

9. Shinsegae Department Store

The world’s biggest department store more resembles a mall as this place is enormous. Huge amount of stores and restaurants. It attracts tons of people but it’s air conditioned so great to go in summer. It’s also home to Spaland, a famous jimjilbang with several different baths and saunas.

There are several notable omissions from this list, such as Taejongdae Park, Seokbulsa temple, Beomosa temple, Geumjeongsan fotress, UN memoral park, a few other beaches, and Samgwangsa temple. The reason why they are not included is because I never managed to visit them, but they also look like worthwhile places to go. I left out Jagalchi fish market because I never had much interest in going there as I don’t care for seafood. But I did see it from the outside and it does look huge so I’m sure it’s a good spot if you like fish.

If staying in the Haeundae area, I can recommend Hostel the New Day. It’s location is amazing, just a two minute walk from the Haeundae subway. It’s also walking distance from Megabox Haeundae which was great when I stayed in Busan for BIFF. The staff are very friendly and speak great English, the whole place and rooms are clean. The main drawback was that the bed in the 6 bed dorm was pretty uncomfortable, but I switched to the 4 bed during my stay and for some reason that bed felt better. The showers are also communal which I know can be uncomfortable for some.

I do wish that I had  gotten to a few more attractions in Busan while I lived near there, but the film festival, Yonggungsa, Gamcheon and the Christmas festival were highlights for me.  It has a different vibe from Seoul, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

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