During our Grand Japan Windstar cruise last fall we ended up spending two nights and three days in Busan, South Korea while we sought shelter from the impending Typhoon Trami which was heading toward our next two ports of call - Kagoshima and Nagasaki in southern Japan. Because of the storm, our captain headed north instead to find shelter in the Seto Inland Sea where we would make our way to the Sea of Japan and sail to Busan. Busan was always on our itinerary but only scheduled for one day. So, after skipping stops in Kagoshima and Nagasaki we found ourselves with plenty of time to get to know Busan, the second largest city in South Korea.
To Windstar’s credit, the crew and excursion team managed to take the unexpected detour in stride. The captain managed to reserve a very convenient berth in the port of Busan even though we had arrived two days earlier than expected and the excursion team managed to add four additional excursions including a day trip by bullet train to the city of Seoul.
We opted not to sign up for the trip to Seoul because it would have made for a very long travel day (2-1/2 hours each way on the train). Instead, we used all three days in port to explore Busan and we were glad we did because we fell in love with the city’s vibrancy, friendliness and culture.
Below are our top 12 things to do in Busan.
1. Take a walk through the colorful Gamcheon Cultural Village
This village began as a refuge for Koreans from all regions of the country who fled their homes during the Korean War. The village, which is still occupied by residences and businesses, has been rejuvenated and now draws millions of visitors each year who come to admire the colorful buildings and street art nestled within the narrow, terraced streets. The area has earned the nickname, “Machu Picchu of Busan.”
2. Visit the Jagalchi Fish Market
Korea’s largest seafood market is located on the edge of Nampo Port and sells both live and dried fish. The massive market is a dizzying array of bright colored bins filled with every type of seafood imaginable, many of which I had never seen before. You can select a fish and have it sliced on the spot for you to eat sashimi style or head upstairs to the dining and cooking area of the market and have your fresh fish prepared at one of the many restaurants. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
3. Hang out in busy BIFF Square
This area is considered Busan’s movie theater district and is also home to the city’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Plaques displaying impressions of famous movie celebrities’ hands are on display along the street stretching from the Buyeong Theater in Nampo-dong to the overpass in Chungmu-dong. The Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) is held in the fall and is considered one of Asia’s most significant film festivals. It is a bustling street year-round with both tourists and locals shopping, eating and taking in the atmosphere. The most popular street food here is the ssiat hotteok, a pancake stuffed with seeds, brown sugar, honey and peanuts. There are many stands, side-by-side, selling the snack so look for the one with the longest line if you want the best.
4. Grab a seat and have a snack on “Sit and Eat Street” at the Gukje Market.
This street is actually part of the Gukje Market which encompasses multiple streets set up like flea market. It dates back 60 years when Korean refugees fled to Busan and set up stalls in this area to sell food and household items in order to make a living. It operates roughly the same today but food seems to be the biggest draw among tourists and local alike. Take a seat on one of the small, plastic stools and enjoy the fresh cooked street food including one of the city’s famous local snacks - chungmu gimbap, made with dried seaweed stuffed with rice and served with spicy radish and boiled squid.
5. Take in the views from the top of the Busan Tower in Yeongdusan Park
A trip to the top of the Busan Tower which towers 120 meters high provides great views, day or night. Enjoy the scenery inside the tower too as you walk through multi-media and interactive displays as well as plenty of photo ops.
6.Enjoy a bowl of bibimbap while trying to master tricky Korean chopsticks.
As far as I know Korea is the only country that uses metal chopsticks. In early times, it’s said the King used silver chopsticks as a way of protecting himself from being poisoned by his enemies, as the metal would change color when it came in contact with a poisonous chemical. Not only are Korean chopsticks heavier, they are also flatter and square in shape. They definitely took some getting use to.
7. Go shopping at the Lotte Department Store
To say Lotte is just a department store is a huge understatement. It’s basically its own town complete with a hotel, sports center, cinema, art gallery, giant food hall, restaurants and rooftop garden. The quality of the merchandise was first class as was the entire shopping experience. The highlights for us included perusing the food hall and upscale grocery store on the lower level, “car shopping” in the kids’ department which included a race track for the mini sports cars and exploring the outdoor garden and viewing platforms on the upper floors.
8. Soar across the sea in a cable car
Catch a ride above the sea on the Busan Air Cruise from Songdo Beach to Songdo Sky Park. For an extra thrill, choose one of the “crystal” cabins with a totally transparent floor. There is plenty to do once you reach the Sky Park like trail hiking, having lunch, watching little ones enjoy the playground and taking in the view from the observation deck.
9. Take a stroll along Gwangbok-ro Street
This street used to be a stream but was covered over around 1895 because the area had become overpopulated and the water polluted. Today, the street mimics the curvy shape of the meandering stream and is lined with vibrant flowers and bronze sculptures. The street means “independence,” so it’s also known as Independence Road. After the Korean War, refugees and returning locals set about establishing the street as a successful commercial area with cinemas, restaurants and shops. It is still a lively area filled with shops, boutiques and cafes. Bonus tip: You can catch an escalator from this street that will transport you up the hill to Yeongdusan Park and Busan Tower.
10. See the spectacular light show of the Gwangandaegyo Bridge
The Gwangandaegyo Bridge is beautiful by day but at night it becomes absolutely dazzling. Equipped with the world’s largest LED lighting and sound system for bridges, Gwangandaegyo Bridge lights up and even treats viewers to an amazing 10-minute laser show at 8:30, 9:30 and 10:30 every night.
11. Spend an afternoon on Haeundae Beach
Haeundae is Busan’s most famous beach and is a popular vacation destination for many Koreans and tourists alike during the summer. This beautiful white sand beach with a shallow bay is the perfect spot for sunbathing, swimming and people watching.
Visit a temple
There are as many as 30 temples in Busan, one of the most popular being Haedong Yongungsa Temple located right along the coast. We visited the Beomeosa Temple (pictured above) which is one of the oldest temples in the city. It’s about a 30-minute drive from downtown Busan to the mountainous area where you’ll find the temple nestled in amongst a beautiful forest.