It’s been seven years now since I staggered off the plane and stepped into the sticky summer air of Busan, the south’s largest seaport.
I remember that first bus ride, white-knuckling it as we careened through the crowded streets, my eyes overwhelmed by the galaxy of lights outside – multi-colored restaurant and bar signs intermingling with the red neon crosses of the city’s countless churches.
Even late at night the sidewalks and alleys were mobbed with people walking, drinking, eating, shopping and selling. This was Asia as I imagined it, splayed out in all of its strange glory.
Busan is a city of nearly four million, snaking along the coastline and mountain valleys of the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. She is the nation’s second city, forever living in the shadow of Seoul, the true political and cultural capital. But like any second city, Busan has a distinct spirit and vitality. I love second cities for that reason. They can never compete with the inflated metropolitan egos of first cities; they’re forced instead to develop unique charms of their own and are almost always less pretentious as a result.
Despite having spent the better part of a decade here, I've found that Busan fails to lose her exoticism. Every day packs a new surprise. I often wander through the city in a deliberate attempt to get lost, and in this endeavor I rarely fail.
Like much of Korea, Busan is an exercise in contrasts. The new co-exists with the old. Just blocks up the hill from a state-of-the-art medical facility may be a crumbling rabbit-warren of narrow alleys and tiny houses.
The other day I walked out of a brand-new, multimillion-dollar subway station, only to take in a ninety-year-old woman sitting near the entrance selling three dead squid and a pile of medicinal tree bark. I live in Korea and yes, it’s still weird.
If you ever pass through Korea, make sure to check out Busan. Here are a few recommendations:
Hit the Beach
Though Busan is home to several beaches, there are two in particular that make the city famous:
Haeundae is a mile stretch of sand and the country’s best-known. In the summer it attracts hundreds of thousands of Koreans trying to beat the heat, and recently set the Guinness World Record for the largest amount of parasols ever set up in one place (though I’m not sure if this is an honor).
Gwangalli is smaller by comparison, but offers terrific views of Busan’s gorgeous Diamond Bridge. Both beaches are dotted with hotels, bars and restaurants, with raw fish joints being the most prominent.
Come! See! Buy!
This is the slogan of Jagalchi, one of Asia’s largest and oldest open-air seafood markets, both the beating heart and soul of Busan.
Jagalchi is so old that it even has its own dialect. Most of the stalls are staffed by tough-as-leather older women known as ajumma, who are the backbone of Korea.
Get Your Mountain On
Strap on your boots and take to the trails of one of Busan’s many mountains. Geumjeongsan, with its fortress ruins (a remnant of the Japanese wars), is the biggest and best. Make sure to stop at the top for a meal of goat meat bulgogi, washed down with the milky rice wine known as makeoli.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Koreans are nuts about baseball, and nowhere will you see this more than in Busan, where the local Lotte Giants are known to have the most fervent fans in the country. The quality of play is high, the atmosphere electric, and Korean baseball games are a free-for-all, lacking the stadium rules and price gouging so common to their American counterparts. The games are an excuse to eat, sing, stomp, chant, drink, drink and drink some more. Not to be missed.