After Tokyo’s largest-city-in-the-world vibe and a delightful stop in Kyoto, we were ready for something off-the-beaten-path and different. So when we made the jump from Japan to our next RTW destination, we opted for Busan, South Korea. We’ve heard it called the most underrated city in East Asia, and after only a few days here, we can agree. As Korea’s second largest city and biggest port, Busan combines 600 years of history, culture, and a variety of sights and attractions that are surprising. Glitzy skyscrapers juxtaposed with centuries-old Buddhist temples and Asian back alleys tell a tale of uniqueness.
Like many cities, Busan today is a product of history and geography. And the contributions these two factors made give it an air of urban sophistication as well as old-style Asian hustle and bustle.
Our hotel in the Seomyeon neighborhood showcases Busan’s two sides perfectly. Modern, straight-laced office buildings tower over neon sign-clogged urban canyons with street-corner grannies selling ginger and green onions from their one-blanket markets. We could rub elbows with bankers on our way to the ATM, and then turn the corner into a narrow alleyway for the dark doorways leading to “Adult Entertainment” venues.
While across town, fancy hotels and ultra-modern high rises flank one of the longest, most pristine stretches of buff-colored beach one is likely to find in the middle of a major city. And to make us feel even more like gypsies in the palace, we walked by a Rolls-Royce dealership on our way to the beach.
Sitting on the margins of the Sea of Japan at the southeast tip of Korea, Busan’s geography has made it a world-class port city as well as a major player in the regional seafood market. And don’t think for a moment that the locals let all this fresh seafood slip through their fingers (pun intended). Because if it swims, crawls, creeps, or slides on the ocean floor, it ends up in what must be one of the largest seafood markets in the world, and ultimately in some local cooking pot … or is snarfed raw.
And perched on the mountainsides on the outskirts of Busan is a vivid reminder of the Korean Peninsula’s turbulent history. In the early 1950s during the Korean War, refugees flocked to Busan for safety, and many ended up in the steep hillside slums on the west side of town. These notorious slums persisted until 2009 when city government teamed with local artists, students and craftsmen to repair and decorate the dilapidated village with brightly colored folk art. And what was initially an eyesore has been reborn as Gamcheon Culture Village which is now one of Busan’s most colorful, artistic spots, and a major tourist magnet.
Busan isn’t widely known as a hot tourist destination, but it’s a hidden gem that bustles, and is truly an immersion into Korean life and culture. There are tourists, but not huge numbers, so you’ll see as much real “daily life” as you want. The locals are pleasant, friendly, and go out of their way to help and welcome foreigners. It’s the best of all worlds and should be added to your travel list.
James & Terri
Photo Credits: 1. yujeong Huh 10. Needpix.com 18. Visit Korea
Wow! Every image is saturated with color and really makes me want to see it for myself. I don’t recall ever reading anything about Busan before.
OK, what am I seeing in Image 5475? Is that a fence or wall painted to look like stacked houses?
Ray, sorry for the confusion. That’s a small model of the Gamcheon Village which is overlooking one of the big neighborhood temples. We’ve gone into the post and added captions to better explain some of the images. Thanks for the head ups. ~James
A great cross-section of photos. I love the Gerber baby! I taught Korean students English for a few years and they told me all about Busan. You chose a great place to spend time in.
Darlene, I’m sure that teaching English to Korean kids must have been fun and rewarding. It’s been interesting for us, because in every city we’ve visited at some point a young person or a group with a teacher has walked up and asked if they could practice their English. It’s always informative about their perceptions of Americans … in a good way. ~James
It was so much fun and the Korean children were like little sponges, they picked up the new language so quickly and also taught me a lot about Korea and its culture. I have such great memories.
And Darlene, part of what made the English practice so cute was there was generally a smiling teacher standing a few feet away who would casually walk over and whisper something in the ear of one of the kids – guidance of some sort I suspect. Pretty neat experience.
A destination that has not been on my radar at all. But reading this post is has certainly picked my curiosity.
The food alone would be a good reason for me to visit. Loving your photos.
Gilda, this part of the world takes a lot of travel to reach, so it pays to see what interests you while you’re in the area. Korea has been on our list for a while, and it’s great to finally make it. If you visit Japan, it’s only a short hop flight. Very neat place. ~James
The temple in Gamcheon Village is really beautiful. I love colorful folk art.
Then you would love the Gamcheon Village Rebecca, because it’s an entire mountainside full of fun, colorful folk art. I saw some of the photos of the area pre-project and it really is quite a transformation. ~ James
Thanks, James. I love the vicarious travel I get to experience from your sojourns.
Thank you for the ability to vicariously experience such a unique destination!
Thanks for the comment Ken and for dropping by the blog. It’s good to hear from you. Travel gets in the blood, and we were seriously hamstrung during Covid. So it’s great to be back on the road. I hope things are well for you, Debra, and the family. ~James
The temple ceilings are so colourful and beautiful. Love that they’re revitalizing the slums with street are. Sounds like Busan is one to put on our radar. Maggie
Maggie, I can’t get enough of these colorful temples. We’re in Vietnam now, which has its share of temples as well, and I must have taken 500 photos. Thank goodness for digital photos. And definitely put Busan on your list. ~James
Wow! What an interesting and colorful place to visit. Thank you for sharing your experiences and photos, Terri and James!
It’s great to hear from you Nancy, because your name just came up in conversation. We’re in Hoi An, Vietnam which has a wonderfully preserved, but timeworn 17th Century trading village. We wondered if it is Vietnamese version of The French Quarter, which got us to reminiscing as we strolled around. And of course, anytime we think of New Orleans we think of you and all the fun times. Hope you and Johnny are well. And thanks for dropping by the blog. ~James
Oh wow, what a unique and so very colourful city. It looks so cool – although that dog walking basket did make me laugh!
Hannah, when we saw the guy with the dog we knew immediately that he had to go into a post. Me, I would have been a bit self-conscious walking around with a dog in a plastic box on my chest, but it didn’t seem to bother this dude. One of the wonders of travel! ~James
Great choice! Next time I’m in South Korea, I’d love to add Busan to my list of places to see. Have you read the book Pachinko? The book is partially set in Busan, and for that reason and many of the others you list here, I’d love to see it. I liked Seoul for many of the old-new contrasts you mention here, but the idea of having fewer visitors ad a seaside location is quite appealing!
Lexie, we’d just been in Tokyo so something a bit smaller sounded good. And if you’re looking for a seaside experience in Korea, Busan is the place for you. There are really nice beaches all over, and I’m sure the summer scene is jumping. Also, it’s nice to have fewer tourists, which is always better. So, for experienced travelers like you, it should definitely go on the list. Are you traveling now? ~James
I was in Southeast Asia for three weeks but am home now. Posted briefly about my layover in Doha and am working on a few more entries. Happy to be reading about your stops!
Lexie, we were going to stop in Doha on our way from BKK to Israel, and then all the BS blew up there so we had to change plans. Because of flights, we’re now stopping in Dubai, and obviously skipping Tel Aviv. I’ll go check out your Doha post. ~James
That’ll be just as, if not more, fun!
Although I’ve never been to Busan myself, I’ve heard good things about the city, and this post further affirms its appeal. It is also home to, what I believe, one of the most prestigious film festivals in Asia. Your photo of Haeundae Beach during your visit really makes me want to go there right now!
Bama, the beach really is beautiful, and the area around it has lots of bars, restaurants and hotels that cater to tourists. It certainly isn’t a small city, but it seems calm for its size. And the locals really were pleasant to deal with. Also, if you like seafood, it will be heaven on earth. ~James
Busan looks like a fascinating city. The photos almost seem too perfect or unreal; super colorful and straight out of cartoons. Is Korea expensive to visit? One day, we’d love to find house sits in Japan and Korea, to visit these countries as affordable as possible.
Thanks Liesbet. The Gamcheon Village was very colorful and photogenic. As for expenses: as we expected Tokyo is very expensive, but Kyoto is less so, but still not cheap. Busan was less expensive than Japan, for sure and was normal big city prices. But if you want a super cheap place Vietnam is the place. We’ve visited Hanoi an Hoi An and both are cheap. Hanoi traffic and general street scene is crazy busy, and watch for a post, but you could live cheaply there for sure. ~ James
Thanks, James. I was in Vietnam for five weeks in my early twenties (a long while ago) and remember it being affordable (that’s why I backpacked in SE Asia for a couple of years back then) and extremely loud and busy, especially the crazy motorcycles.
I’ve thought a lot about Hanoi and Saigon while in Colombia, dealing with the crazy motorcycle traffic here. Still, no comparison to Vietnam, haha. Looking forward to your Vietnam post. Lexie was just there as well…
Oh this does look exactly like the kind of place I like to explore. Korea has long been high on my list, and now for sure Busan will be part of my explorations when I eventually get there.
Great post you two. Sounds like you’re having a great time.
Thanks Alison. You’d like Busan. I’m sure the summer beach crowds would make it busier than when we were there, but we stayed on the other side of town and it was no problem. Cool area though. And yes, we’re having fun. We haven’t been to Asia for a while and it just great to be back on the road again. ~ James
I had planned a trip to South Korea, including Busan in the itinerary, before the covid pandemic started. Thank you for your post and beautiful, colourful photos that took me there virtually. Safe travels!
Natalie I hope you can reschedule because I’m sure you’ll enjoy Busan. The locals mask up about 50/50 but on the metro everyone does. I think also that it’s a part of the culture to mask because so many people ride motorbikes. ~James
I intend to reschedule. Hopefully combine South Korea with a revisit to Japan in one trip.
i come from Indonesia. Never been come to Korea even south Korea. really interesting to know from this blog about Busan. beautiful city
Thanks for the comment Citra and for dropping by the blog. If you make it to Korea I’m sure you’ll have a great time. Good luck! ~ James
We were only in Seoul for a half day on our way back to the States. If we ever return, Busan would definitely be our go-to spot based on your exciting text and photos of the sand sculptures, Gamcheon Village, the Korean Gerber baby, etc that all bring the city to life.
Annie, we had just been in Tokyo so Busan sounded like a much better option for us. And as we expected, it was much more laid back and lots of fun. Also, it was really easy to get around town, which made everything easier. Check it out when you’re over that way. ~ James