As most of us know, there's life outside Seoul. Busan is often an overlooked city, as many flock to Seoul, bright lights, big capital. But ask any Korean and they will tell you – Korea's second largest city Busan is by no means the ugly sister in the family. In fact, Busan is the real Korea. Colorful, brash but endearing, Busan is a rough diamond that certainly speaks for itself, as spending time with the locals will show you. Busan may feel like second fiddle for now but it's time is coming.
What to see?
If you're going to head to the beach then there are seven in Busan to choose from. You must see Haeundae Beach – the most popular beach in Korea. Crowds cram this place every day in August and umbrellas mushroom across this 2km space but it has to be seen to be believed. Don't expect any great shakes as far as quiet beach resorts go, just enjoy it for what it is, it's an experience you won't forget. If personal space is more your thing, avoid July and August, there are less crowds and it is a more tranquil place – you may not be able to swim but a stroll along the white sands and the sounds of seagulls is perfect on a cool spring day. Just opt for exit 3 from Haeundae station, turn left and walk 250m.
Located just 15 minutes from Oncheonjang train station, Heosimcheong Spa is a complete chill out zone. Supposedly, the biggest hot spa in Asia, it has a none too meek capacity of 2,000 people. Based on the 4th floor, it is packed with tubs and saunas. You can grab a robe and kick back for a couple of hours, all for the princely sum of 8,000 won. Body scrubs and massages are extra and last entry is 9 pm.
If you're into temples check out this majestic Buddhist temple which is one of the main highlights on a trip to Busan and doesn't fail to impress. Located at the base of the famous Geumjeongsan Mountain, it's the stairway to heaven.
In “Donggukjeojiseungram” (historical text) the origin of the temple is told and has an interesting legend behind it. They say, there was a well at the top of the mountain and the water was, well, gold. Apparently, the golden fish in the well rode the colorful clouds and came down from the sky (sounds feasible to me). That is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (gold well) and the temple is named “fish from heaven.” Maybe the story does sounds rather far fetched but the serenity and beauty of the place is amazing and good for the soul. The idyllic setting actually makes you want to experience psychedelic things, such as gold fish riding candy colored clouds.
The original temple was destroyed during the Japanese Invasion of Korea in 1592 but was renovated in 1713. It is one of the most ornate temples from the Joseon Dynasty. Despite its city location, it is set against a lush, mountainous backdrop. To get there take the subway to Beomeosa train station (exit 5), walk 200m to the small bus station and finally take bus No.90 for 15 minutes.
Where to sleep?
If you want to splash out then aim for The Westin Chosun Beach Hotel, the chief of Busan's deluxe hotels. Established in 1978, and Busan's first international hotel, its excellent service, panoramic views, idyllic beachfront position and small forest to the rear, are nicer than nice. The hotel has the feeling of a grand old hotel, and the only downside is that it could do with an upgrade in design, for a more modern feel. With six restaurants to choose from, all of them looking onto the rippling ocean, it's easy to delude yourself you're not part of the urban massive, well for a night or two anyway. Sipping cocktails over white sands in the Panorama Lounge, you could literally melt into the ocean. The seafood at Kuromatsu, the hotels sleek and contemporary sushi restaurant is affordably priced and has a vast array of succulent raw and cooked fish. In Camellia, the innovative buffet chefs can prepare your customized dish on the spot for you. If you want to take it easy, the sauna, spa, pool, and health centre, are all included. There are special discounts, when traveling off season.
The Riviera Hotel is located in Haeundae, strangely enough, over the Riviera department store. The attractive, spacious and clean rooms have well off peak rates.
Cheap as chips
If you're on a limited budget, there is no need to worry, as there are a myriad of cheap yeogwan around Busan from 20,000-30,000 won. One worth mentioning is Tae Yang Yeogwan. From the outside it looks a bit shady, but the rooms in this motel are clean, spacious and come with queen size beds for 25,000 won a night. It's just behind the Arirang Hotel, just exit Busan train station and turn left. There are plenty more options around the area.
Where to eat?
The local specialty here is salty, spicy, raw fish, and many come from all over the country to sample the fare. This however can be a shade expensive. Head for Seomyeon or Nampo-dong, where you can find all sorts of restaurants to suit all budgets. Millak Town Raw Fish Centre has an authentic Korean buzz. Based at the northeast end of Gwangalli Beach, you can buy a fish for 20,000-30,000 won from the vendors on the 1st floor and whisk it upstairs another floor where the food is spruced and served for you in minutes for a further 10,000 won. Ride the subway to Gwangan station and take exit 5. Cho-won Blow Fish serves, yes, blowfish, in this out of the way restaurant. The bokmaeuntang (spicy blowfish soup) is tasty indeed. Take exit 3 from Namcheon station and walk to the second corner. Turn left and continue ahead for 300m.
There are literally thousands of bars ranging from smooth hotel bars to your local pub, and a vast array of Noraebang (Karaoke rooms), they are mainly concentrated around the Haeundae beach area. Mi Wharf is at the most easterly point of the Haeundae beach promenade, its outdoor drinking area has prize sunset views. After 10 pm Moo Monk is a retro bar if you are looking for something funky.
Take me there
The most memorable journey to Busan is by bullet train, a little expensive but well worth the cost of 45,000 won each way for the sheer experience of speeding down to Busan in two and a half hours.
For more information about hiking in Seoul, visit http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_6.jsp?cid=258277 and KTO's main homepage http://www.visitkorea.or.kr/intro.html