Seoul turned out to be Just Another Big City™, but could Busan, South Korea’s giant coastal city 200 miles to the southeast, really be any better? If culture, unique local character, and more humble people are what you’re after, then the answer is a resounding yes. Busan had everything I had hoped to experience in Seoul (yet didn’t) and then some. I spent eight days in “Dynamic Busan” soaking in the atmosphere, shooting thousands of photos, trying different foods, and talking to the locals. Here are my observations on the city.
Busan is very similar to Chinese coastal cities like Dalian and Qingdao – its drab colors, seaside scenery, tall and modern buildings, middle-aged and elderly people lounging on the sidewalk , and lots of mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall restaurants on every street.
Because of Busan’s hilly landscape intersected by many bodies of water, the city doesn’t really have a centralized circular layout like Seoul. Rather the city spreads out like a slithering snake. What this means on ground level is that getting from point A to point B can be more time-consuming than you might initially think. You generally can’t travel in a perfectly straight line, rather you must weave up and down and around and around to your destination. For example, just going 10 subway stations can take almost an hour.
One thing that surprised me about Busan was its extensive public transportation systems. The subway system alone has four lines and over 100 stations, which isn’t bad for a second-tier city. Every corner of the city is accessible via subway or bus, because you’re never that far from a station. There’s really no need to take taxis in Busan other than in the wee hours of the night. The subway stations and trains were also very full all throughout the day and night. I could get on the subway at 2 PM on a Wednesday afternoon, and it would still be full of people. Whether August is just a particularly busy time of the year, or if the subway always stays this busy, I don’t know. Nevertheless, getting around Busan was mostly straightforward, if not a bit uncomfortable at times.
As my travels have taught me again and again, too much development can certainly harm a country’s character and charm. Seoul felt a bit too developed for its own good and scrubbed clean of culture, and it can easily give an outsider a false sense of how developed the country is overall. Busan on the other hand felt like taking a step back in development. Perhaps one step further in development than China’s second tier cities, yet still one or two steps behind Seoul. I like that.
So how is Busan less developed than Seoul I hear you ask? Right off the bat I could see that traffic was much more aggressive in Busan. Whereas cars drove reasonably and gave pedestrians the right of way in Seoul, this was often not the case in Busan, where cars put the pedal to the metal. Almost no one jaywalked in Seoul, yet many people were in Busan. Customer service was clearly a step down too. Often when I went to restaurants or stores, I’d have to wait for the waitress or cashier to stop playing on their cell phone before they’d even give me any service. And no developing city would be complete without its fair share of bad smells lurking around every corner. But the trade-off to all this is that you get a much more authentic and unique experience, and that’s something you can’t put a price on.
Busan is a mixed bag when it comes to the average age of the locals. Seoul felt dominated by youth and pretension, but I was seeing lots of people of all ages everywhere I went in Busan. The people of Busan struck me as a bit more genuine and authentic than the plastic people of Seoul. The Busanites still had decent style, but they weren’t overdoing it to the point of vanity like in Seoul.
Whereas I didn’t stand out much at all in Seoul, I noticed I was getting lots of glances and stares from people in Busan. Elderly people, particularly those on the subway, looked at me the most. It wasn’t the obnoxious and prolonged kind of staring I often get in China, rather it was the simple kind of staring that made it obvious that I stand out among the crowd. I did notice that there were very few Westerners in Busan, even less than I had seen in Seoul. Other than your token English teachers here and there, it’s abundantly clear to me now that Korea has largely failed in attracting Western folks.
One thing I heard again and again about South Korea prior to my trip is how xenophobic the Koreans can be. I’ve heard stories of foreign guys being spit on for walking together with Korean women, people saying nasty things to them on the subway, and so forth. Honestly, I always thought that’s about on par with mainland China, especially northeast China. During my years living in Dalian and my subsequent years traveling around China, I’ve encountered my fair share of unprovoked animosity directed my way. Being told to go back to where I came from, being told by complete strangers that foreigners like myself are not allowed to take photographs in their country, being accused of being a spy, and so on. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s hard to erase from my memory.
So in 16 days in Korea, did I experience any xenophobia directed my way? Yes, twice as a matter of fact, and both times it was in Busan. The first time I was alone taking some pictures outside a seafood restaurant (pictured bellowed), and some random psychotic homeless-looking woman came up to me speaking some gibberish that sounded hateful in tone. She then took a camera out of her dirty-looking bag, aimed it at my face, and pretended to start taking pictures. At least I think she was pretending. I simply walked away a bit dazed, and I chalked the situation up to her just being a typical homeless loony.
The second time I was also alone, and I was sitting on a bench outside at Seomyeong (a busy and modern shopping district), waiting for my wife to finish shopping and come back outside. During my wait, a Korean man who looked twenty-something zoomed by on a bike and shouted “fucking foreigner!” (in English) at me. It all happened so fast that it took my brain a few seconds to catch up and realize what had just happened.
While neither of these scenarios were that big of a deal, and I’m certainly not butt-hurt about them, it does show that there’s a select amount of hateful people in the country who’re ready to give an unsuspecting whitey like myself a piece of their mind once we cross paths. Surprisingly, I didn’t receive any kind of negative attention when walking around with my northeastern Chinese wife, someone who could’ve easily been mistaken for a Korean. I imagine if a Caucasian foreigner like myself were to live in Busan, they would encounter similar xenophobic situations. I had two in only 16 days in Korea. But other than those mishaps, I found the people of Busan to be far more to my liking than those in Seoul. Still, the xenophobia is something to be aware of.
The women of Busan were much more to my liking than those of Seoul. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of hotties in Seoul, but I prefer women with a more humble attitude and a cuter, more down-to-earth dress style. Whereas so many of the girls in Seoul had that sexy bitch look, the girls of Busan had more of a girl-next-door look. They looked good without overdoing it and being so try-hard. In the realm of women’s fashion, I find less is sometimes more. If it’s just fun and casual flings you’re after, Seoul fits the bill quite well. But if it’s a relationship with a quality girl you seek, my gut tells me Busan is the better choice. I’m sure vice versa is possible in both cities, but the odds would be less in your favor.
The ladies of Busan weren’t afraid of a bit of human contact either. If I looked their way, they often looked back. If I said hello to them, they would say hello back. If I asked to take their picture completely at random, they always happily obliged with a big smile on their faces. I didn’t really talk to any Korean women on a personal level during my trip, but I surprisingly got lots of good vibes from them, especially the ones in Busan. I felt acknowledged as a man, and that’s always reassuring.
South Korea is a small country, so regional differences aren’t that dramatic. But with Busan being a coastal city, there was naturally more of an emphasis on seafood than up in Seoul. I liked almost everything I tried, particularly anything with squid in it. Koreans cook squid better than all of their Northeast Asian neighbors. Maybe it’s the way they coat it in gochujang (spicy pepper sauce) that does the trick for me. If you like Korean food and seafood, then I don’t see how you could go wrong in Busan. It’s definitely one of the best cities for food in Northeast Asia. It’s still riddled with lots of tasty junk food like up in Seoul, but it’s all good nonetheless. Every meal was great.
Whereas in Seoul the restaurant scene is a perfect blend of mom-and-pop shops and franchises (especially American and Japanese ones), Busan is still mostly dominated by the mom-and-pop shops with only a sprinkle of franchises here and there. If you’re in a popular area like Seomyeon, prepare to see lots of franchises, but get off of the main drag, and you’ll start to see far more independently-run kind of places.
There were noticeably less foreign restaurants in Busan compared to Seoul. That doesn’t mean the foreign food scene sucked in Busan, rather you just had to know where to find it. Haeundae, the coastal area popular with tourists in the eastern side of town, had lots to choose from – pizza, burgers, kebabs, Mexican food, and so on. Korean-style fried chicken restaurants were also ubiquitous just like in Seoul. I love good chicken, but it’s hard for me to eat fried chicken often. Nevertheless, the fried chicken in Korea was some of the best I’ve had in the world.
One odd thing I’ve noticed in both Seoul and Tokyo is their lack of large supermarkets. I’ve seen countless convenience stores and “hybrid supermarkets” – stores too big to be called a convenience store, but too small to be called a supermarket – but never have I seen any full-sized supermarkets. This is not the case in Busan, where medium and large-sized supermarkets were in practically every neighborhood.
Busan was noticeably drier and cooler than hot and humid Seoul. Busan still had its fair share of heat and humidity, which was made all the more noticeable by Korea’s disregard for air conditioning, but the weather was still tolerable. Definitely comparable to the summers in coastal northeast China. I’ve heard Busan has mild winters though, the same of which cannot be said for northeast China. And just like in Seoul, Busan had a sprinkle of rain here and there, but not enough to hinder my enjoyment of the city. Overall the weather was quite pleasant and felt very summer-like.
Cost of Traveling
Busan was noticeably cheaper than Seoul – in fact maybe 25-33% cheaper. 5 to 7,000 won per person per meal was usually enough for casual meals, and I always left each meal full and satisfied. I expected the public transportation to be cheaper in Busan too, but it was actually a bit more expensive. 1,500 won per ride was a rough average.
Things to Do
Busan is a great city to just walk around. The sidewalks are mostly open and walkable, there’s lots of great natural scenery, the streets have a distinct local Korean feel to them, there are countless markets scattered all around the city, and there’s lots of nice little restaurants and cafes to chill out and relax in. Just being outside was entertaining enough. Interesting things to do and photograph found me, I didn’t have to find them, and that’s the true sign of a fun place to travel to.
When I think back on my eight days in Busan, five places pop up in my head as the most memorable:
First is Bujeon Market. This place is a giant wet market selling all kinds of exotic seafood, vegetables, herbs, spices, and meats. Walking in is an explosion on the senses, and the whole place feels distinctly Korea. It’s a travel photographer’s wet dream.
Second is Gamcheon Cultural Village. The area apparently used to be a ghetto of sorts, but it’s been given an artsy makeover and lots of renovations. It’s a bit like Georgetown in Penang but with a different landscape. I like the charming village because it feels very authentically Korean. The whole area is filled with little cafes, restaurants, and shops. And the view of Busan from the top of the village is outstanding. Definitely bring a camera.
Third is Gwangalli Beach and Haeundae Beach. You can’t make a summer trip report about Busan without mentioning its beaches. Surprisingly, the beaches were actually quite good, albeit a bit crowded. The sand was fine and yellowish white, the water was blue, the area was mostly litter-free, and the coastal landscape was eye-catching. I’m not big into beaches, but I do appreciate their summer vibes. I found myself wandering around them a lot over my eight days in the city.
Fourth is Dongbaekseom Island, which is right across from Haeundae Beach. This is a super scenic coastal area with a boardwalk, a small lighthouse, and the Nurimaru APEC House (the meeting place of the 2005 APEC Summit). It doesn’t sound that interesting on paper, but once you’re on the island (more like peninsula), the views are great no matter which direction you face. To the west you can see the enormous Gwangandaegyo Bridge, and to the east you can see Haeundae Beach. If you’ve ever been to Dalian’s Binhai Road, the boardwalk on Dongbaekseom is remarkably similar to that, albeit much shorter. If you’re a sucker for scenic views like me, then go and bring a camera.
And last but not least is Haeundae Market, a place I found myself again and again day after day. It may have “market” in its name, but I think it’s better described as a pedestrian snack street. It’s very short, maybe only half a kilometer long, but running along the street are several street vendors, snack stalls, restaurants, and a wet market. You can buy topokki (my favorite), fried chicken, baozi, dumplings, pastries, local specialties, tons of seafood, and countless other things. The street is best enjoyed at night, which is when it feels the liveliest. Most of my fondest food memories during my 16 days in Korea were on this street. Don’t miss it!
Busan was everything I had wished for Korea to be. While Seoul left a bland taste in my mouth, Busan turned things around and showed me that Korea can be fun. Busan’s authentic Korean atmosphere, its lovely and approachable women, its amazing local cuisine, its picturesque landscape and street life, and its energetic nightlife all sold the city for me. If one only had just enough time to see one of the two cities, Busan or Seoul, the best between the two is obvious – Busan.
But just because Busan is better than Seoul doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and sunshine. It has plenty of cons like bad smells, more aggressive locals, less regard for cleanliness, a medium-high cost of traveling, women glued to their smartphones, and mild xenophobia. Nevertheless, from a traveler’s point of view I felt like Busan’s pros definitely outweighed its cons, and I really enjoyed my trip there. I got hundreds of fantastic photos, and I never really felt bored during my eight days there. There was always something interesting to do or see. I’m certain I’ll be back to Busan sooner or later. The only question is when
I had a good 16 days in Korea. If you really want to understand northeast Asia just that much more, it’s not a country to be missed. Now if only I can manage to get myself to North Korea, the only country in Northeast Asia I’ve yet to see…