South Korea's second city could easily be confused for being its biggest. Not because it resembles Seoul, but because it is a buzzing place with all the characteristics of a capital and a self-assurance that one rarely finds outside of a country's largest city. South Korea's largest port has a spectacular setting too with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. It has history, culture, cuisine, entertainment, shopping and more as well as being easily accessible and at the gatweay to the rest of Asia. It is not difficult to see why some regard Busan as the place to be in South Korea.
Perhaps a good place to start your Busan visit is at the Busan Tower in the city's Yongdusan Park. The views from both the hill and the top of the tower are magnificent and will give you a good idea about the layout of the city.
In terms of the city's markets you must check out both the Jagalachi Market (see 'To Try') and the Gukje Market (see 'To Bring Back'). The former is an incredible fish market while the latter is an outdoor affair selling pretty much everything you can think of.
Other attractions in the city include the Dongnae Byeoljang, a Japanese villa and garden with its own restaurant, and the Busan Aquarium, which has a seabed tunnel.
You cannot leave Busan without having been to Haeundae Beach, the best and most famous in the country. Around one mile in length and several hundred metres deep, it gets absolutely rammed in summer, but is a great place to be thanks to the atmosphere and the concentration of restaurants, bars and nighttime entertainment. If the crowds are all too much for you then try Gwangalli Beach instead from where you can enjoy the views of the Gwangan Bridge and, in October, the International Fireworks Festival.
Wandering around downtown Busan is a great experience. Just like in other major world cities there is a certain buzz and excitement about the place. The Busan International Film Festival Square, of BIFF for short, is very much at the centre of the action. You will find a high concentration of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs in the area as well as hundreds of street food stands. For something a little glitzy, head to Star Street where you can see the handprints of famous Korean and Internaitonal film stars.
Although it is tempting to stay in the city and take advantage of all the entertainment possibilities, make sure you head outside Busan too in order to marvel at its temples. Beomeosa, for example, situated north of the city on Mount Geumjeongsan (up to whose peak it is possible to hike from the temple), was founded in the 7th century. It was, like many of the country's temples, destroyed during the Japanese invasion on the 16th century, but it is still very much worth visiting its halls to see the artwork.
The star of the show though is Tongdosa Temple, one of the three jewels of Korean Buddhism (along with Haeinsa Temple and Songgwangsa Temple. Tongdosa represents the Buddha himself and you can see some of his possessions and even parts of his skull here. The temple's main hall, built, along with the rest of the original structure in 646, survived the Japanese destruction and still stands today. There are a total of 65 buildings to see, with beautiful murals and a museum too.
Busan is South Korea's southern hub. It is easily accessible by KTX train from Seoul with the journey taking just over two and a half hours. You can catch a train to Busan from many other large cities and towns or, if you prefer, the bus. Gimhae International Airport serves Busan from many Asian countries, especially in China and Japan and you can also catch a flight from here going to Jeju Island. Ferries to several Japanese cities leave from Busan too.
One thing you should probably avoid doing in Busan is drive, as the roads are regularly congested and it can take hours to get anywhere. A far better idea is to take the excellent subway system which is cheap and efficient. All indications are marked in English and the stations are numbered.
Otherwise try not to offend locals by learning the basic rules of the etiquette that one should adopt in every day life. Make sure, when greeting someone, to bow or nod slightly. You should always take off your shoes at the entrance to a restaurant or private home and in the case of going to the latter, make sure you bring a present. This should be offered with both hands and you should insist the host takes the gift despite their attempts to refuse it. Also know that tipping is not part of South Korean culture and that gratuity may cause offence.
Whilst the range of types of cuisine may not be as broad as in other major world cites, one thing is for sure - you are not going to go hungry in Busan. As well as Korean specialities, you will find plenty of fusion food (principally Japanese and Chinese influences) as well as a few Western outlets and fast food chains. There are also some Russian and Eastern European eateries to cater to the sailors from those parts that spend their leave time here.
The street food in Busan is incredible and you could easily spend a few days in the city and have all meals in the street, never eating the same thing twice. Of course, being a port city, seafood is the predominant cuisine and one of the local street food specialities is eomuk or odeng, a boiled fish cake. The best place to go and try what the city has to offer is Gukje Market which has one road dedicated to food.
The other place one must go to eat is the mesmorising Jagalchi Market, a huge complex with both indoor and outdoor stalls specialising in raw fish. The main building has seven levels full with crammed stands pedalling all types of seafood, most of which you will not recognise at all. There are hundreds of places to choose between both within in the main market and beyond and although it is a bit of a lottery choosing one unless you can find someone to advise you, you will enjoy the experience. One cannot but be enthralled by the colours, sounds and, above all, smells of the market.
While there is no specific item that one should bring back from Busan, there are a couple of places where you may well find something to take back home. The first of these is Gukje Market, Busan's largest outdoor market which mainly sells wholesale but you will also be able to find some traditional handicrafts, artwork, clothes/cloth, tableware and bedding.
For a more modern day shopping experience head to the Shinsegae Centum City Department Store which is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest department store in the world at almost 300,000m². While it may cover the most surface area of any place of its type in the world, we are not convinced that it has more actual outlets and brands than elsewhere. Nevertheless, you will find more than enough to keep yourself busy with not only retail but also a cinema, spa, ice rink, driving range and restaurants.