6 Things to do in Busan

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A few weeks ago I came up with a list of the five things I think any visitor to Gwangju should do for my entry into the World Nomad’s Blog Your Backyard contest. But thinking about places to go in Gwangju only got me thinking about what I could write for the other places I’ve had the pleasure of living.

Decorations out front of Busan’s KTX Station for Buddha’s Birthday. Photo by Tony Bush.

In what may or may not become a regular thing on Aussie on the Road – I’m going to offer up five (or more) things that I think you must do in a certain location. And the first cab off the rank? Newcastle.

Next? My home town for six months – Busan. So, here are six things to do in Busan.

All about the things to do in Busan

Much like other cities in South Korea, Busan is often overshadowed by Seoul in the north. And while it’s true that the universe according to Korea does tend to revolve around the capital, Busan should be the #2 visit on anybody’s list of places to visit in South Korea.

Situated on the south eastern coast and boasting several great beaches as a result, Busan’s warmer temperatures and more pleasant surrounds make it an excellent choice for those who want to see more than just museums and displays of technological wonder. There’s no shortage of things to do in Busan in the great outdoors.

Busan also has the big perk of being a short ferry ride away from Japan, and that’s nothing to be sneezed at. Where else in the world can you opt to spend your weekend in Japan without boarding a plane?

Well, Japan obviously.

Enough of that. On with the show!

#6 – Have a Thursday Party

My friends Anne and Crystal (and a pretty stranger) posing out front of the Gwangalli Thursday Party

It would be remiss of me to speak about things to do in Busan and my time there without paying tribute to the local institution that is Thursday Party. Owned by a local known to me only as ‘Tiger’, the Thursday Party chain encompasses a series of bars across the city as well as two very good burger and pasta joints (imaginatively named ‘Burger & Pasta’) and even a couple of more traditional soju bars.

Despite the name, the best time to visit Thursday Party would be on a weekend – when the music is pumping, the beer is flowing, and the place is packed full of locals and foreigners alike. While some of the small bars boast darts to be played, the bigger venues even offer foosball and the American drinking staple – beer pong.

I challenged (and defeated) this pair of pretty locals

While there’s no shortage of excellent bars in Busan (I’ll do an entry on that later), I’ll always think of Thursday Party when I think of Busan. Whether it’s their two beachside venues in Gwangalli, their always busy KSU bar, or the quieter but no less awesome Haeundae bar – I’ve never had a bad night while drinking at Thursday Party.

Special mention to the Gwangalli bars. Request the ‘Pobby Yum Yum’ at the more northern of the two bars and prepare to have your mind blown by a brilliant shot. The Gwangalli venues are also nice and close to a Burger & Pasta, so you can eat your fill there before drinking the night away next to one of Korea’s most beautiful beaches.

#5 – Visit Yonggungsa, the Seaside Temple

Yonggungsa is a truly striking example of a Korean temple

I’ve written at length about Yonggunsa in the past. Where most temples in South Korea were literally rebuilt at the same time and tend towards a cookie cutter appearance, the ancient seaside temple of Busan is a different story. Carved into and built atop the rocky coastline of Busan, Yonggunsa is a must visit if you have any interest in Korean history or just like to snap photos of ancient architecture perched on the shores of the angry Sea of Japan. Or ‘East Sea’ as Koreans prefer to call it.

I make friends with a couple of ‘locals’ at Yonggungsa

Rather than rant about it again here, I’ll instead direct you to my entry on my day exploring the temple last year with my friend Heather from Khronicles in Korea. It’s definitely one of the more cultural things to do in Busan.

#4 – Browse the Jagalchi Fish Markets

Hungry?

Listed as the must see on the list of things to do in Busan by many travel guides, a visit to the legendary Jagalchi Fish Markets is definitely an experience to remember.

Coming from a country in which seafood is generally bought from an ice-filled glass case staffed by disinterested teenage girls, it’s a real change to have it still wriggling about in plastic tubs watched over vigilantly by leathery faced old ladies. It doesn’t come much fresher than still writhing octopus or frantically struggling eels.

As you walk the lengthy stretch of stalls selling everything from the conventional to the downright alien, your nose is assaulted by all manner of smells. Every now and then you’ll pass what passes as a restaurant – where a grizzled ajoshi (old man) hovers over a BBQ plate upon which they’ll cook up whatever you point too. Sometimes while it’s still alive.

Locals cooking up the day’s catch at the Jagalchi fish market

While the inclination might be to head to the nearest Burger King to find something to eat, I challenge you to instead point to something and sit down to eat in true Korean fashion: perched on an upturned bucket and shoveling piping hot fish into your mouth at the heart of a bustling seafood market. It’s a real experience.

#3 – Explore Gwangalli

Gwangalli Beach by night. One of my favorite places in Korea.

Gwangalli was, without a doubt, my favorite part of Busan. I spent many nights and a few sunny days exploring the long stretch of beach. Not only is Gwangalli Beach home to two of the aforementioned Thursday Party bars, but it’s also home to an absolutely stunning view of the brightly lit Gwangalli Bridge by night.

While Haeundae Beach (see below) draws more attention, I’ve got a real soft spot for Gwangalli. There’s a slew of fresh seafood restaurants on the northern end of the beach, as well as Burger & Pasta, the obligatory Lotteria and Baskin Robbins, and a pretty good Mexican restaurant by the name of Fuzzy Navel.

The beach itself doesn’t boast much in the way of surf, but it’s ideal for late night canoodling and mid afternoon beach sports. There’s a real sense of romance on the beach at night as fairy lights, the distant bridge lights, and the moon on the water work together to paint a serene picture.

Preparing to dominate/be dominated by the bucking bull at Me World

Gwangalli is also home to a small amusement park by the name of ME World. It’s nothing to write home about – but who doesn’t love a few sideshow games and a ride on a bucking bull?

A day in Gwangalli is a more traditional day on the beach than you could usually find in South Korea. Some ice cream, some fries, a day in the sun, and a few sideshow games? Sounds like a good day at the beach to me. And if I had to choose my favorite of this list of things to do in Busan, Gwangalli Beach would be my winner.

#2 – Go shopping

A bit of classical by the fountain on Busan’s Lotte Department Store

Korea is, above all else, a nation of consumption. The competitive spirit that has driven South Korea to become a technological and economic powerhouse exists on a very basic level between friends and neighbors – driving people to buy bigger, better, and more expensive things at every opportunity.

The true testament to this consumer culture is in the massive shopping centres and malls – veritable temples to excess.

A great example of this is the Lotte Department Store in Nampo Dong, famous for its multi-storey water fountain that does daily displays to music ranging from classical to hard rock. When they’re feeling particularly decadent, the centre will even have Russian ballet dancers or acrobats in attendance for the occasion.

The fountain in full swing. Synchronized to a bit of Dream Theater in this case.

It really needs to be seen to be believed.

It’s not just Lotte Mart either. Centum City near Haeundae is a similarly decadent location. Owned by the Shinsegae giant, Centum City is the single largest shopping centre in the world. Boasting a driving range, multi floor cinema complex, in house spa and bath house, and more stores than you could ever visit in one day – Centum City is consumerism at its most ravenous. Hell, you could find copious things to do in Busan without ever leaving its confines.

If malls aren’t your thing, there’s countless street markets and underground markets (typically in subway stations) where you can pick up everything from cheap electronics to clothes to CDs to a tasty snack. The Seomyeon subway station has a particularly exhaustive underground market.

#1 – Brave the crowds at Haeundae Beach

Haeundae Beach at the height of summer. A sight to behold. Photo from Asia Wonder

Korea’s most famous beach, Haeundae is picturesque all year round but becomes something else entirely when people descend en masse during the summer months. The photo above says it all – people are literally fighting for space on the beach, and it’s not much better as you bob out in the ocean with a few thousand of your closest friends.

Haeundae’s proximity to Busan’s famous aquarium and a stretch of foreigner friendly restaurants and clubs makes it a great place to visit regardless of the time of day or year. Chains such as Benigans give kimchi weary travelers a chance to get a taste of home, there’s a few great Mexican places, good Indian fare at Ganga, and a slew of foreigner bars including a Thursday Party, the Busan wing of the Wolfhound franchise, and plenty of ‘doof doof’ in the clubs.

Special mention also goes to Rock Bar, which offers a stunning view of the beach below by night. I’ve got fond memories of watching the Socceroos triumph over Uzbekistan from that lofty perch during the 2011 Asian Nations Cup.

Enjoying late night ‘poju’ (Powerade and Soju) on Haeundae Beach in 2008

Outside of peak season, when the locals aren’t crowding the beach, it’s a great place to while away an afternoon. Kite flying is popular on the windy stretch of sand, but by night you can buy cheap fireworks and take a pitcher of Hite or Cass down to the shore to have a few less than quiet drinks.

Silliness at the Busan Aquarium

things to do in busan

Your Picks

Been to Busan? Live there and can’t believe I’ve omitted your favorite spot? Let the other readers and I know!

Busan is a big city with a lot of things to see, do, and taste. I can’t possibly have done justice to it here, so share your knowledge and do fellow travelers a favor.

For additional information on Busan, a great source of information is Busan Haps.

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24 comments

  1. Chanced upon your blog when I searched “Things to do in Busan” and found this really helpful. Thanks much!

    Would like to get your thoughts: should 2 days in Busan (I’m travelling in May) be enough or should I do 3? Trying to decide how much time to spend there because I’m planning to visit Jeju as well.

    Thanks much!

    • I don’t know that I’d consider any of them close enough for a run to one of them in that time to be feasible. Between landing and checking into your next flight, you’d be pretty pressed for time.

  2. Hey! Great blog!!! I’m going to go to South Korea in January, which is smack in the middle of winter~ was just wondering if the places you mentioned above are still good for winter at all? I mean, the beaches will be too cold I imagine…

    • I visited Yonggusa and the Busan Aquarium during the fall, so I’d certainly say they’d be a fine choice in winter. Shopping in the city would be fine year round as well.

      The beaches won’t have any crowds, so they’ll be fun to photograph.

  3. Ah, poju is such a great name for one of my favorite drinks. I’m not sure how it escaped me before!

    I agree with all of these (especially Gwangalli and Thursday Party)! Busan is such a fun city. 

    • As much as I love Busan, I’d have to say Seoul is the real must see if you’re a first time Korea visitor. There’s a lot more of the cultural stuff in and around Seoul.

      But if Jeju is your destination, Busan is much closer. I’d imagine the ferry even departs from there.

  4. Yonggunsa temple was awesome, the fish markets are great too. These pics made me nostalgic, I want to head back to Korea now and drink some makoli!

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