South Korea has become famous among travelers for its freshly caught seafood, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to sample it than at the Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan. The largest seafood market in the country, Jagalchi is unique in that its run largely by women who are known as Jagalchi Ajumma. This tradition dates back to the Korean War, when many of the men were off fighting and their wives took over the family businesses.
Walking through the market is like visiting an exotic aquarium, as many of the wares are kept live in tanks to maximize their freshness. You’ll find nearly any type of seafood you could want, including more varieties of shellfish than you knew existed. The market also houses a collection of seafood restaurants where you can bring your purchases to have them cooked up and served to you on the spot.
Gamcheon Culture Village spills down a hillside just outside of Busan in a riot of colors. The village, with nicknames like “Santorini on the South Sea” and the “Lego Village,” started off as a relatively poor area until the Korean War, when refugees began setting up homes here. Many of these refugees were members of the Taegeukdo religious movement, a religion at the forefront of the Korean independence movement.
Today, few of the 10,000 residents are still believers, but it remains a popular destination for visitors who come to see the multicolored cubicle houses stacked one on top of the other up the hill. Wander through the narrow alleys and streets, and you’ll stumble across murals, art installations and old houses converted into galleries or cafes.
During the 1950s, refugees of war-torn Korea began opening up small shops to try to earn a living. This modest collection of shops has transformed into what is now Gukje Market (International Market, or Kookjae Market), Busan’s largest traditional market with vendors selling practically everything under the sun – items both new and secondhand.
While Gukje Market is very much a place where local Koreans still shop, travelers will find plenty of interest as well, besides the atmospheric street market atmosphere. It’s a great place to find hanbok, the traditional Korean formalwear, small souvenirs, T-shirts and favorite Korean street snacks, all at bargain prices. Whether you’re looking for bargain clothes, vintage glasses, some new electronics, or dried seaweed, prices are cheap and bargaining is totally accepted. Korean culture is based around dignity and respect for one another, so do bargain with a smile and always be polite.
Built during the Goryeo Dynasty in 1376, historic Haedong Yonggungsa Temple is one of only a few Korean temples on the coast, and it honors Haesu Gwaneum Daebul (Seawater Great Goddess Buddha), a goddess believed to live in the ocean where she rides atop a dragon.
Legends aside, the east-facing temple offers a spectacular view of the rising sun – a site that’s especially popular on the morning of the Lunar New Year when Buddhist devotees come to make a wish for a prosperous new year. At the heart of the temple sits a three-level pagoda with four lion statues that symbolize joy, sadness, happiness and anger.
Busan Tower stands 120 m tall from the center of the city’s Yongdusan Park. Built in 1973 and modelled on Bulguksa Temple’s Dabotap Pagoda, the tower is a popular visit day and night. Head to the viewing deck via high-speed elevator, and enjoy panoramic views of Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city. Come at sunset to see the city lights start to twinkle under the night sky. On the lower deck of Busan Tower, there’s a souvenir shop and a cafe where you can while away the hours and enjoy the views of busy Busan port.
All loved up? Do as thousands of young Korean couples do, and tie a padlock with a note of your everlasting love to one of the fences by the tower. The mountain’s feng shui is said to bring you good luck.
Korean for Dragon Head Mountain because of its shape, Yongdusan Park hosts lots of lively cultural performances in summer and on weekends, and on Buddha’s Birthday, paper lamps shaped like tigers and dragons float throughout the park.
A majority of the visitors to Busan come for its proximity to the sea, and the city’s stretch of sand known as Haeundae Beach is perhaps the most famous beach in South Korea. Nearly a mile long (1.5 km), the beach is made up of rough sand from shells eroded by the Chuncheon Stream.
Visitors looking to laze in the sand or partake in water sports can rent umbrellas, yellow inner tubes, surf boards and jet skis all along the beachfront. Besides the beach itself, this stretch of coastline is lined with some of Busan’s best international hotels, as well as an assortment of restaurants, shops and the Busan Aquarium.
Deongbeak Island (Dongbaekseom), considered one of Busan’s most scenic places, isn’t really an island at all. The former island, now connected to the Korean mainland by a land bridge made up of accumulated sediment, gets its name from the abundant dongbaek trees that live there.
Located within an easy walking distance of Haeundae Beach, the island park is crisscrossed by a series of boardwalks and trails, some winding along the rocky shore and others climbing through the verdant interior, perfect for a fresh air escape from the nearby city. Follow the boardwalk along the shore, and eventually you’ll come upon one of the island’s most famous landmarks, a statue of a mermaid sitting on a rock amid the crashing waves.
Beomeosa Temple has a history that dates back to its founding in 678 CE by Buddhist monk Ui Sang, long before the original temple was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in the late 16th century. Perched on Geumjeongsan Mountain, the current temple complex was built in 1713 and includes a pagoda, several pavilions, three ornate gates and 11 hermitages.
While many visitors to the temple come to enjoy the verdant grounds for only a few hours, Beomeosa Temple is one of several in Korea that allows temple stays, where visitors both foreign and Korean can experience firsthand Korean Buddhist monastic life. The main temple stay program here includes meditation sessions, tea ceremonies, traditional monastic meals and several hands-on cultural clinics.
The cover star of just about every city tourism poster since it opened in 2003, Gwangan Bridge is the Golden Gate of Busan. Beautiful day or night, Gwangan Bridge is best viewed from popular Gwangalli Beach, where lots of families and couples come to enjoy the sea air and to watch Gwangan Bridge’s nightly light show, when colorful lights are set to the tune of famous songs like Offenbach’s Can-Can, or K-pop girl group Crayon Pop’s Pa Pa Pa.
South Korea’s second-longest suspension bridge, Gwangan Bridge links the ritzy Haeundae district with Suyeong. Also known as Diamond Bridge, another good spot to see the bridge’s pretty lights is from the astronomical observatory on Geumnyeonsan Mountain, and on the popular coastal walk around Dongbaek Island. This route will take you to ritzy Marine City, where you can see the bridge shimmer on the Pacific while enjoying a drink at one of the restaurants lining the water.
Busan’s version of Oxford Street, Gwangbokdong Street is a true shopping mecca. Stretching from the foot of Yongdusan Park to Gukje Market, there are well over 100 shops selling everything from cutesy phone cases to folk crafts and high-end cosmetics.
Shopping in South Korea is a unique experience and prices are low, especially for high street fashions. Check out the stores selling tea dresses and pastel coats, and pick up a bargain at the outdoor street stalls while K-Pop blasts from storefront speakers and groups of stylish young women link arms as they wander down the avenue. Look out for any new stores opening, too -- they often hold welcome events where you can pick up some freebies. And at the Korean makeup stores, you’ll often get a ton of free samples even if you buy only one item. On weekends, lively Gwangbokdong Street is open to pedestrians only.
Hahoe means “enveloped by water,” the name given Andong Hahoe Folk Village due to its position at the bend of the Nakdong River in the foothills of the Hwasan Mountains. Far from the modern skyscrapers of Seoul or Busan, the village offers visitors a glimpse at a Korea of old.
The village, one of several that comprise the UNESCO-listed Historic Villages of Korea, dates back to the 10th century, when members of the Ryu clan began settling there; descendants of the clan still live in the historic homes today. The village is unique in that commoners and the upperclass coexisted there, and you’ll notice that the tile-roofed houses of the elite toward the village center gradually give way to thatched homes toward the outskirts.
Founded in 802, UNESCO-listed Haeinsa Temple famously houses the Tripitaka Koreana, one of the world’s most complete collections of Buddhist texts and a Korean national treasure. These 81,000 sacred religious works were engraved on wooden blocks between 1237 and 1248.
The buildings designed to house the Tripitaka Koreana date back to the 15th century and are considered themselves a work of art, and the temple ranks among Korea’s most beautiful. Located within the forests of Gayasan National Park, the Haeinsa grounds harmonize with the natural surroundings to create a serene temple experience.
Like many of South Korea’s temples, Haeinsa Temple welcomes visitors to its stay program – a two-day, one-night glimpse into what life is like for monks at the temple. A typical itinerary includes meditation sessions, lectures on temple etiquette and a chance to chat with the monks over tea or while strolling the grounds.
Andong Folk Museum is the perfect place to get acquainted with Andong’s ancient culture and traditions. Next door to Andong Folk Village, the museum contains over 3,700 artifacts. From traditional clothing to pottery dating back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392 - 1897), as you wander two floors of exhibits you’ll get to learn the traditions that Koreans go through from birth to childhood, in adulthood, and in death. From Korean child rearing to ancient cooking methods, wedding ceremonies to spiritual practices, there are lots of interesting facts to learn about. Did you know that, in the past, when pregnant Korean women wanted a boy they would pray to phallic rocks?
After seeing the indoor exhibits, head to the outdoor park to see the thatched-roof houses that were saved when nearby Andong Dam was erected in 1976. In the garden you’ll also get to see and learn about Korea’s giant totems, traditionally built with fierce faces to ward away evil spirits.
Two hours west of Busan near Changwon City lies 705 acres (285 hectares) of natural habitat known as Junam Wetlands Park. Bird watchers from around the globe visit the park, Korea’s largest migratory bird habitat, to witness the spectacle of anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 winter birds – white-naped crane, spoonbill, swans, geese and mallards among them – who fly into the park daily. In the summer some 5,000 migratory egrets, herons, orioles and warblers join the park’s permanent residents, including ducks, pheasants and skylarks.
Much of the park is accessible via a series of elevated wooden boardwalks with pullouts for scenic views and bird blinds where you can observe the birds more easily without startling them. While October to April is prime birdwatching season, there’s something to see no matter the season.