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Busan by the Sea

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan,
Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Busan, Photo by Steve Jermanok

By Steve Jermanok

It was late afternoon, and the crowds were thinning out when we reached our first stop in Busan, the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. First built in 1376, the impressive Buddhist shrine is carved in the cliffs overlooking Busan’s East Bay. Walking up and down the trails that line the hillside, around pagodas and the many sculptures of Buddha, you can’t help but be mesmerized by the vast sea that surrounds you. Indeed, the ocean is never far from where you are in Busan and that’s the main attraction of this city located in the southeastern corner of South Korea, a mere 2 ½-hours by bullet train from Seoul.

Gamcheon Cultural Village, Busan,
Gamcheon Cultural Village, Busan, Photo by Steve Jermanok

Thanks to an impressive subway system which whisks you away to all parts of the city and offers clean – yes clean – public bathrooms, you can see most of the major sites of Busan within 48 hours. Nestled atop a hillside in the city, the Gamcheon Cultural Village, was once the poorest part of the city after the Korean War ended. Now it’s a worthwhile stop to see how the neighborhood reinvented itself as a hub for artists and artisans. Colorful murals cover many of the walls and small shops sell everything from bracelets to tapestries.

Jagalchi Market, Busan,
Jagalchi Market, Busan, Photo by Steve Jermanok

Then it was off to Jagalchi Market, the largest seafood market in South Korea. Located at the Namp Port section of the city, you can spot the fishing boats and their nets drying just outside the maze of stalls that seem to go on forever. Every type of fish and mollusk imaginable, both live and dried, can be found here including octopus, squid, eel, large crabs, even flying fish. If you’d like, you can select your seafood and then have it cooked immediately at restaurants upstairs. We chose, however, to have lunch with a view of the ocean, overlooking Songdo Beach, where we had a memorable meal of sea scallops in the shell, octopus, and littleneck clams, all cooked on a small grill in front of us.

Jagalchi Market, Busan,
Jagalchi Market, Busan, Photo by Lisa Leavitt

We worked off our meal by strolling along Haeundae Beach, arguably the most exquisite stretch of beach in the country. Busan is already excited about hosting the World Expo in 2030 and at the beach, we found sand sculptures celebrating the upcoming event. We walked around the well-situated Westin Josun Busan, onto adjacent Dongbaekseom Island, home to a lighthouse and the celebrated Carving Rock, where a 14th-century scholar inspired by the beauty inscribed words still found on the rock. The most famous site on the island is the circular Apec House built into the hillside overlooking the ocean. It was constructed for the 2005 Asian-Pacific economic summit, where 21 heads of state were in attendance, including former US President George W. Bush.

Boating Under the Gwangan Bridge,
Boating Under the Gwangan Bridge, Photo by Boram Kim

We finished our time in Busan aboard a catamaran on a sunset cruise that departed from the docks not far from Dongbaekseom Island. The cityscape, including tall condo buildings and hotels like the Park Hyatt rising from the shoreline, is best seen from the water. But the highlight is sailing under Busan’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge, Gwangan Bridge, lit up at night. Neighboring boats were setting off fireworks and with glasses of soju in hand, South Korea’s signature drink, we toasted to another magical day.


Steve Jermanok has explored close to 100 countries and written over 2000 articles on a broad range of subjects, from food to art to adventure. He has worked as a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, contributing editor for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, and guest editor for The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. In May 2012, Steve and his wife launched ActiveTravels, a new type of travel agency where your travel advisors have more than likely been to that one country that entices you. 

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