Eleven times. That’s how many separate visits I made to Busan in the space of a year. Granted, the presence of a certain special someone was a factor. Regardless, I tell no lies when I say that Busan is the best city in Korea.
Of course, that is just one man’s humble opinion but let’s delve into the facts. For many ex-pats here in South Korea, there are just a few cities in the running for the title – namely Daegu, Busan, Daejeon and of course the capital Seoul. Honorable mentions for other cities such as Gyeongju, Gwangju and the rising Sejong may creep into the conversation but the aforementioned big four are surely streets ahead.
So what makes Busan the best city in Korea?
1 – It’s the odd one out
After being decimated in the 1950s, South Korea was but a wasteland many thought doomed to be usurped by North Korea.
However, with the assistance of the US government, the Land of the Morning Calm turned things around. Rapidly. In sixty years they soared from an decimated wasteland to one of the most thriving economies in the world.
In fact, according to Bloomberg, as of January 2017, South Korea is currently ranked at the number #1 spot for the world’s most innovative economies.
How did they do it? How did they rebuild so quick?
Well, I’m no city planner, but it would seem that would seem a single blueprint was used for the whole country. Never before have I experienced such a homogeneous country where cities look so alike and often devoid of their own unique character. It’s uncanny at times and makes for a dull, cold environment after some time.
Busan dares to be different.
The artsy side of Busan is clear for all to see at Gamcheon Cultural village. This is quite a sight, a world away from the towering skyscrapers. Wandering around the twisting alleys and cobbled streets admiring the brightly-colored architecture is a fun way to spend an afternoon to escape the city buzz.
Gamcheon Culture Village is an indication of the thriving arts and creative scene that is very much alive in Busan. There is a burgeoning writing community and several workshops and bars dedicated to driving this culture to new levels with regular events.
Of course, Daegu and Seoul have their own creative communities too but the manic concrete jungle environment of those two cities pales in comparison to the chilled vibe that radiates from beautiful Busan. When it comes to finding inspiration, Busan is not stuck for beautiful places to retreat to.
Every Korean city has temples. Most have plenty of them. But how many have temples on the coast with a view of the ocean?
Talking about oceans, another aspect of Busan that makes it the best city in Korea is this…
2- Busan has beaches – lots of them!
Few other cities have beaches in Korea. The industrial city of Pohang on the East Coast is no rival to the wonders Busan has on offer.
Popular drags like Haeundae and Gwangan have excellent beaches and fantastic nightlife. With the relaxed laws on public drinking, many a great night can be had on the beaches here.
If you want to escape the crowds, I recommend Songjeong for an overnight camping session. Waking up on an empty beach to the sunrise is a pretty perfect way to greet the day. The sight may even put you in the mood for some seafood.
3 – Jagalchi Fish Market
When the hunger builds on you, Busan is not stuck for food. The cosmopolitan atmosphere at major tourist areas around Haeundae are a refreshing change when you are craving something different from the local fare.
If you want to try something different, head over to the largest fish market in Korea at Jagalchi.
Among the fresh catch, visitors can sample some real delicacies, the most famous of which is sannakji (산낙지). That’s live octopus. Even cut into little pieces, those suckers keep sucking. Chew fast or it might stick inside your throat. No, really.
4 – Big Country Town Environment
Despite its population of some 3.6 million and extensive metro line system, there is a relaxed atmosphere about Busan that belies its big city status. The nature of a mammoth metropolis like Seoul or Shanghai often alienates people. It is certainly less welcoming to new-coming teachers who are trying to forge their nest in a new country.
From speaking to many teachers in Busan, I’ve seen first-hand how the networks of young foreign teachers stretch across the city.
The groups of English teachers here retain a close, intimate family feel akin to the collectives found in smaller towns and cities in Korea.
Why is everyone so friendly here? Is it the sea air?
Another benefit of being close to the coast is that the sea air is much cleaner than the relatively smoggy atmosphere in the capital city. Even Daegu can be a pain on the respiratory system after a while.
5 – Location, location, location
I was very close to making the move to Busan last year. Ultimately, it made sense for my long-term goals to stay put.
One of the biggest attractions of Busan that appealed to me when I was considering the move was its perfect location.
Many ex-pats in Seoul often get trapped in the bubble up North as Seoul does have an unlimited array of entertainment options. When they do venture out of the city, it’s quite a trek to other places around Korea.
For the people of Busan, their city is easily-accessible by bus, train or high-speed KTX. As a result, it’s just a short jaunt from many popular cities that have many foreign teachers.
Daegu, Pohang, Gyeongju, Ulsan and Miryang are all less than 90 minutes away, leaving Busan residents spoilt for choice for weekends away.
Furthermore, the KTX service operating in Busan enables even lengthy journeys to Gwangju, Daejeon or Seoul to be completed in just a few hours.
By comparison, I live in Yeongju, which is basically the centre of Korea. Without the KTX, it takes me almost three hours to get to Seoul and more than four to get to central Busan. Gwangju isn’t worth considering for a weekend trip as I would spend half the weekend in transit.
6 – Shopping
I wouldn’t say I’m a shopaholic by any means. However, I have a knack of finding ways to empty my pockets. Whenever I have needed something here, from new clothes to tech gear, I automatically assumed the best shops would be in Seoul.
It was quite a surprise to learn that the biggest shopping department store is not in Seoul. It’s in Busan. Just to clarify, that’s not just the biggest department store in South Korea. It’s the biggest department store in the world. That’s right; the biggest department store on this planet is in Busan.
Shinsegae Centum City is so big that I always leave angry, usually because I have been starving for so long and can’t find my way back out. But it could be worse, I could be stuck in the Seoul subway system.
7 – Fun Festivals
Korea has a lot of festivals on the calendar. Busan may well have two of the best.
Every Autumn, the city hosts the Busan International Film Festival. Thousands descend upon the city to watch premieres of many foreign movies and documentaries from budding film-makers from all over the globe.
Then, as spring blooms, there is one festival I enjoyed last year that I think everyone should try once while they’re here. That’s the Holi Hai festival, held on Haeundae beach.
The ancient Hindu festival signals the arrival of Spring and encourages healing and forgiveness in broken relationships. In recent years, it has spread beyond Hindu nations, many other countries have adopted the fun festival and promoted its frolics of color, love and music.
There are many festivals to go to in Korea but if you needed a good weekend to go to Busan, then this is as good as any. A daytime party on the beach with colored paint and some soju is guaranteed fun. You’ll no doubt come away with great memories and new friends.
Truth be told, any weekend in Busan is a good one. Whether you’re into shopping, sunbathing, fine dining or wild partying, Busan has it all and somehow manages to retain a chilled vibe in comparison to the big cities up north.
If anybody is torn between where to decide to go teach in Korea, you can’t go wrong here. It’s no coincidence that EPIK have restricted applications for Busan by demanding higher TEFL qualifications.
Everyone knows it by now. It really is the best city in Korea.