South Korea’s second city
Busan, South Korea’s second city, mixes a healthy outdoor lifestyle with an exciting nightlife scene. (Jane Sweeney/Getty)
Hidden away on the tip of South Korea’s southeastern peninsula, Busan joins the likes of Milan, Osaka, Melbourne and Manchester in that its fits firmly into the category of quintessential “second city”.
Yet, when it comes to Busan, there is no inferiority complex to contend with. The city is not about flaunting unmissable sights, extreme beauty or a history that changed the world. Instead Busan is a genuine all-rounder that mixes a healthy outdoor lifestyle with a love of the arts and an exciting nightlife scene. And with its ever-changing scenery of stunning beaches, forested hills, ancient temples and exciting shopping districts, emerging from different stations along Busan’s subway can often leave you surprised that you are still in the same city.
The decent Busan Museum of Art is worth visiting to see premier Korean artists such as Yang Dal-suk, Woo Shin-chool and Kim Jong-shik, but it was only after the unveiling of the stunning Busan Cinema Centre in 2011 that the global art world really started taking notice of this South Korean city. The cinema is an architectural masterpiece; a visual feast of soaring, wide open spaces with a deconstructivist design of straight, jutted lines reminiscent of Frank Gehry. But the building really comes to life at night when its roof is illuminated in a kaleidoscope of dazzling colours and images. It is also the home to the Busan International Film Festival, an emerging star on the global film calendar that takes place in autumn each year.
One of South Korea’s great obsessions is baseball, and even if you do not you like the game, get tickets to see some of the most fanatical sport fans in the world. The raucous noise of Sajik Stadium when it is filled with 30,000 screaming supporters is extraordinary, as inflatable batons are smashed together in deafening unison while music blares from the speakers and cheerleaders bust K-pop dance moves. Busan fans are famous for being the rowdiest in the country, known for the tradition of waving shredded newspaper pompoms and wearing the orange garbage bags provided under each seat on their heads as the game draws to a close.
Eating is another highlight of Busan, and seafood is the local specialty. The best place to see and sample the local catch is at the modern Jagalchi Market in Nampo-dong, where tanks of exotic-looking marine life sit alongside rows of stalls slicing up famously fresh sashimi. Unlike Japan, where sashimi is presented immaculately in bite-sized morsels, here you are required to buy the entire fish, so do not be dismayed when you are served a heaped plate of raw fish served with kimchi dishes and greens. Head upstairs to enjoy your meal with ocean views.
Puffer fish, another local favourite, is known for being lethally poisonous if prepared the wrong way. But you can trust your life with the expert chefs at Geumsu Bokguk in the Haeundaue district, a well-established restaurant that specialises in the fish and will prepare it anyway you want, from raw to deep fried.
Being a sizeable university town, Busan also has a youthful energy generated by students wanting to let off some steam and an enclave of foreign English teachers looking for a good time. Head to the student area of Kyungsung for a pub crawl through its labyrinth of neon-lit bars, student eateries and flashing game parlours; Vinyl Underground is the place for live music, while nearby Ol’55 has inexpensive drinks and a lively atmosphere.
After all this activity, travellers will need some pampering, and there is no better place than Busan’s Spa Land. Located within the Shinsegae Centum City complex, the largest department store in the world, Spa Land is a theme park for the body and mind, with rooms inspired by Turkish hammams and meditation spaces that involve sounds and blinking lights. The jjimjilbang (bathhouse) itself is shiny and resplendent, comprising of a series of hot spas, baths, pools and saunas, and baths are segregated by gender; take note of essential etiquette such as nude bathing and washing yourself thoroughly at the taps surrounding the baths before plunging in.