South Korea’s second city and main port is in the south-east of the country on mountainous terrain.
Busan has Korea’s largest seafood market, Jagalchi, and is the source of some of Korea’s favourite snacks and dishes, like fishcakes (eomuk) and seafood scallion pancakes (dongnae pajeon). At Haeundae Beach there’s an inviting sandy bay framed by skyscrapers, while the downtown Nampo-dong is an intoxicating warren of markets and high street stores.
In Busan you can try to make sense of the largest department store in the world, Shinsegae Centum City, leave the city behind in search of Buddhist temples in the mountains, or journey to Taejongdae, on a natural balcony over the Korea Strait.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Busan:
1. Jagalchi Fish Market
The leading fish market in South Korea lies on the waterfront at a seven-storey building in Nampo-dong.
Of course, there’s an obvious culinary appeal to a place like this, but it’s also worthwhile to roam the trading floor on the first level just to see an operation of this size in action and take the pulse of daily life in Busan.
As early as 07:00 you can pay for whatever takes your fancy (try haggling), be it octopus, king crab, lobster, shrimp, eel, squid, scallops or a huge array of fish.
Then take it up to one of the restaurants on the second floor where it will be cooked or simply cut for you if you’re having sashimi.
For a less hands-on experience there are restaurants and buffets on the floors above, while at the top is a sky park overlooking the harbour.
Yeong Island is joined by a bridge to Busan’s mainland at the downtown neighbourhood of Nampo-dong, and pushes out south-east into the Korea Strait.
The further you travel the sparser the development on this mountainous island, and at its very tip is a natural wonder.
Buffeted by the sea, Taeongdae is all dense evergreen forest and rocky coastal scenery with caves and lofty cliffs.
There’s a lighthouse, temples, a small amusement park, a wild pebble beach, a cruise terminal and an observatory on the cliff-top where you can make out Japan’s Tsushima some 40 kilometres to the south on clear days.
A road train (Danubi) will carry you to the most scenic spots, which are also linked by a walking path if you’re feeling energetic in this steep environment.
3. Haeundae Beach
The pick of Busan’s beaches is on the coast of the Haeundae District in eastern Busan.
The great allure of this sandy shoreline, has sparked incredible development in the last couple of decades, and the beach is now skirted by a crescent of supertall skyscrapers like Haeundae LCT The Sharp and Haeundae Doosan We’ve the Zenith, both above 300 metres.
Haeundae Beach is a 1.5-kilometre arc of pale sand, and, unlike the other major beaches in Busan, faces south, which opens it up to the south wind and creates rolling waves of up to 1.5 metres that break far out in this low-shelving bay.
All summer long there’s a line-up of festivals and events here, like a sand sculpture festival in June and the city-wide Busan Sea Festival in August.
This opes with concerts and a beach-side fireworks display and continuing a few days later with a Water Carnival, presenting dance teams and EDM performances.
4. Yongdusan Park
Downtown Busan’s main park covers the 50-metre Yongdusan Mountain, which takes its name for the Korean for dragon’s head (yongdu) to describe the shape of the peak.
The mountain is littered with monuments, like a 12-metre statue for Admiral Yi Sun-sin who gained key victories during the Japanese invasions (1592-1598), a flower clock, the Palgakjeong octagonal pavilion and the citizens’ bell pavilion.
At the very top is the 120-metre Busan Tower, which we’ll cover below.
During the Korean War (1950-53) the entire mountainside was a shanty town for refugees, but this was twice burnt down.
After the conflict, Yongdusan Mountain was replanted, becoming a welcome oasis in a dense area of Busan, and is a joy in spring when the cherry trees are in flower.
5. Gamcheon Culture Village
Cascading down the slopes of a coastal mountain Gamcheon Culture Village is a picturesque neighbourhood of brightly painted houses on scurrying alleys and stairways.
This part of Gamechon-dong began life as a shanty town settled by refugees in the wake of the Korean War, and coming into the 21st century was down-at-heel and underdeveloped.
Initiatives like an area-wide repainting scheme, public art commissions and the “Empty House Residency Preservation Project” have reinvigorated the area, now full of character and one of the most arty in Busan.
You can come to look around, take insta-worthy photos of the townscape and murals, browse art studios and get a little background on the neighbourhood’s rebirth at Gamcheon Cultural Village Information Center.
6. Haedong Yonggungsa
An easy excursion from Haeundae Beach and eastern Busan, Haedong Yonggungsa is a Buddhist temple in a marvellous setting, resting atop granite outcrops and looking east out to sea.
The location is unusual as most temples in Korea are posted high in the mountains.
The temple goes back to 1376 during the last years of the Goryeo Dynasty and after being pulled down during the Japanese invasions (1592-1598) was reconstructed in the 1930s.
Some of the monuments to discover are the 108 steps, the Gulbeop Buddhist Sanctum (tucked in a cave), the Haesu Gwaneum Daebul statue (Seawater Great Goddess Buddha), a three-storey pagoda embellished with four lions and the magical Daeungjeon (Main Hall). If you can, try to visit at sunrise, while there’s a sublime lantern show to celebrate Buddha’s Birthday, in April or May.
7. Busan Tower
An emblem for Busan, the 120-metre tower in Yongdusan Park has been here since 1973 and unlike many towers of its kind was raised purely as a visitor attraction, without any broadcasting equipment.
At the foot of Busan Tower are souvenir shops, an aquarium and a science exhibition hall, while the observatory at the top is set on two floors.
Catching an elevator to the top is one of those things all first-time visitors have to do in Busan, especially if the sky is clear.
At night there’s a knockout panorama of the harbour, the Busan Bridge, Jagalchi Market and out as far as Japan’s Tsushima Island in the Korea Strait if conditions are right.
Perched on the secluded eastern slopes of the 800-metre mountain, Geumjeongsan, Beomeosa is a head temple for Korean Buddhism’s Jongye Order.
It is one of the three most important temples in South Korea’s Yeongnam region and has a history that can be traced back to 678 CE, in the reign of the Silla King Munmu.
A lot of what you see today dates from the beginning of the 17th century as the temple was badly damaged in the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598). The complex is wreathed in wild wisteria and lavender, which is breathtaking when it blooms in late-spring.
You’ll have a series of Korean National Treasures to take in, like the highly ornate main temple hall (Daeungjeon), held as one of the great works of Joseon Dynasty architecture in Korea.
Other sights savour are the three-storey stone pagoda, the Iljumun (one-pillar gate), the eastern and western pagodas for the nearby Wonhyoam hermitage and a historic stone lamp and flagpole holder.
There’s a templestay programme for people who want to get a feel for Jongye Buddhism and escape the city for a couple of days.
9. Gwangalli Beach
Curling round for 1.4 kilometres, and more than 100 metres across in places, Gwangalli Beach has soft, fine sand and high water quality after improvements in recent years.
You’ll never go hungry at Gwangalli Beach as there are more than 300 restaurants, cafes and sushi bars within a few steps.
What will hit you right away is the view of mammoth Gwangandaegyo suspension bridge spanning the bay a few hundred metres out to sea.
The shore here is the best place to catch the bridge’s LED lightshow after dark.
More than a million people gather at the beach and the promenade behind for the Busan International Fireworks Festival, one of the largest fireworks events in Asia and held across two evenings in late-October.
Like Beomeosa this temple is a little removed from the city, high past the west side of Geumgang Park in Buk-gu.
The simplest way to get there is to catch the park’s cable car, and then make the hike from the upper station through beautiful evergreen woodland via the South Gate of Geumjeongsanseong Fortress to this peaceful mountain haven.
The journey is half the fun, especially on the cable car, which has photo-worthy views of Busan between the trees.
The name Seokbulsa (Rock Buddha Temple) most likely comes from the reliefs of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and muscular guardians carved into the high walls of rock behind the temple up to ten metres.
These are Seokbulsa’s must-see, as is the main hall carved from the rock and occupied by the single Seokgamoni-bul (The Historical Buddha) on the ground floor and hundreds of smaller Buddha statues on the level above.
Here, Birojana-bul (The Buddha of Cosmic Energy), is at the centre of the main altar, flanked by Moonsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Bohyun-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Power).
It can take a while to get yourself oriented in Busan’s chaotic central shopping area, but before long you’ll notice that the various alleys are reserved for specific products.
Kang-tong Gol-mok (Tin Can Alley) has bargain market items, while Vintage Clothes Alley is a crazy jumble of second-hand clothing, with some real finds among the chaos if you’re persistent.
Book Alley is self-explanatory, while Gukje Market is for international goods and arrived in the 1950s when American items smuggled through Busan Port would end up here.
Fashion Street, formerly a gritty place to buy camera parts, is now lined with brand name clothes retailers and is the scene for Nampo-dong’s Christmas lights festival.
In 2017 a new Lotte Department Store opened to the east Gwangbok, hosting fast fashion brands like Uniqlo, Zara and Mango, and drawing more visitors from the beach to this bustling downtown area.
12. BIFF Square
This dining, shopping and entertainment district, also in Nampo-dong, is named after the Busan International Film Festival, which was launched in 1996. Held across ten days every October, the festival took off right away and screens hundreds of movies from scores of countries, welcoming prestigious international guests from Ennio Morricone to Wim Wenders.
The festival has had a transformative effect on BIFF Square, giving rise to a modern movie district loaded with first-run theatres.
A roll-call of directors and actors have left their hand prints on the pavement on this 428-metre street, and in between the cinemas there’s a lot of shopping to be done.
This is also just place to munch on proper Busan street food.
A local signature is ssiat hotteok, a pancake with a sweet filling of pine nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, brown sugar and cinnamon, and a warming treat on winter nights.
13. Samjin Eomuk
Hard to miss at Busan Station for the long line trailing out its door, Samjin Eomuk is a wildly popular chain selling fishcakes (eomuk), close relatives to croquettes and made with 70% fish and sold for pocket change.
These are a classic Busan street food, introduced during the Japanese occupation, and elevated to a delicacy in the last decade by this very company, whose shop at the station is laid out like a bakery.
Along with the classic Samjin Eomuk offers a range of fillings in its fishcake croquettes, like cheese, sweet potato, hot pepper, curry, shrimp and potato.
The company has a number of locations around Busan, including a sleek cafe concept and a factory/museum in Yeongdo where you can see fish paste being processed and sign up one day in advance for workshops.
14. Gwangandaegyo Bridge
Tying the massive urban development project at Centum City to Busan’s central Suyeong-gu, is the second-longest bridge in the country, with a total length of 7.42 kilometres.
This giant structure crosses the mouth of the Suyeong River, took nine years to complete and is on two storeys, with one-way traffic in opposite directions on each level.
Tens of thousands of LED lights put on a light show that changes by the season and runs from sunset until midnight or the early hours of the morning.
Cross the bridge and you’ll be treated to satisfying vistas of the Korea Strait, Gwangalli Beach Hwangnyeongsan Mountain, Oryukdo Island, Dongbaekseom Island and Dalmaji Hill.
15. Shinsegae Centum City
A good reason to head over to Centum City is for what is officially the largest department store in the world.
Here since 2009, Shinsegae Centum City is the flagship store for the Shinegae chain, outstripping Macy’s Herald Square in New York.
The surrounding Centum City is an urban regeneration project at what used to be Suyeong Airport and is now offices, exhibition halls and large-scale shopping amenities, all hooked up to Line Two of the Busan Metro.
Shinsegae Centum City has mind-boggling proportions, especially when you look up in awe at the atrium.
There are ten floors of shopping, for clothing, cosmetics, accessories, sportswear, footwear and a groceries, complemented by a multiplex cinema on the upper levels and an ice rink.