Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, is frequently referred to as ‘Seoul by the sea’, but it has a much more laid back, low-key vibe than the capital. Charismatic and enthralling, it offers a welcoming base from which to explore the south of the country. Famous for its beaches and seafood, Busan is home to South Korea's largest fish market, Jagalchi, and the country’s best-known stretch of sand, Haeundae Beach. Jutting out into the bay is one of the world’s largest container ports - its confetti of ships scattered over the sea looks unexpectedly romantic at sunset.
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Many sun-seekers in South Korea head straight to Haeundae Beach - a small yet highly prized strip of sand. During the summer, hundreds of visitors descend on Haeundae to swim by day and party by night. In front of the beach you’ll find a strip of seafood stalls selling everything from lobster to octopus: pick your meal and have it cooked and served to you in a matter of minutes. It doesn’t get fresher than that! However, if you like your beach life a little less hectic, South Korea’s second largest island, Geoje, is easily reached by an impressive 8km connecting bridge. Boasting spectacular coastal scenery, it offers excellent hiking opportunities and quieter stretches of sand.
There always seems to be a festival or cultural event taking place somewhere in Busan, from the acclaimed Busan International Film Festival, which sees big-name stars and wannabes rubbing shoulders on Haeundae Beach, to the slightly less glamorous Polar Bear Swim Festival, which sees over 5,000 swimmers braving the icy January waters. Busan’s Jagalchi Festival, which takes place in late September or early October, is paradise for seafood aficionados. Alongside the standard festival inclusions of fireworks and street parades, this annual celebration in Jagalchi Market features a surprise seafood auction, cooking demonstrations, and a raw fish contest, offering the opportunity to chomp your way through plenty of delicious samples.
Heading for Busan’s hills brings a revitalising breath of fresh air. On one nearby hillside, Gamcheon Culture Village has been transformed into an arty attraction by its residents, who have filled the community with vibrant murals and striking sculptures. Stroll through the colourful lanes, visiting galleries and stopping for an artisan coffee or two. Perched on a mountain just 30 minutes away is the 7th-century temple of Beomeosa, where monks go about their daily rituals undeterred by wandering visitors. A short drive west takes you to Jirisan National Park - a haven of tranquil hills and the temple of Hwaeomsa, which is particularly enchanting in the early morning before the crowds arrive.