Best of Busan: Discovering South Korea's Underrated Destination

29 July 2016

I have hiked for an hour up a steep hill to get to a magnificent 1,300-year-old Korean temple. But now that I’ve reached Beomeosa Temple, I’m paying it no attention.

The majesty of this historic structure cannot match the striking, sprawling views afforded by its lofty perch on the face of Mt. Geumjeongsan. Verdant forest painted in a palette of autumnal colours blankets the hillside, stretching to the outskirts of Busan city.

Travel Inspiration The beautiful Beomeosa Temple in Busan (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

Flanked on one side by these lush hills and on the other by the Sea of Japan, Busan is blessed by Mother Nature. In the same way the South Korean capital Seoul blends well into its lovely natural environment, Busan has managed not to ruin its pretty setting.

Big Asian cities often have many things going for them – great food, lively atmosphere, enchanting history, unique culture and affordability – but beauty can be fleeting. With its gorgeous beaches and lush national parks, Busan bucks this trend.

If South Korea is the most underrated country for tourism in Asia (and it may well be) then Busan is the most overlooked city on the continent. Compared to neighbouring Japan, which is fiercely popular with Western travellers, South Korea seems to receive just a fraction of the tourists.

Travel Inspiration A fisherman enjoys the sunset over Busan (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

This is despite the fact South Korea has similarly jaw-dropping historical sites, equally modern and cosmopolitan cities, food just as unique and tasty and an incredible public transport system that is far cheaper than Japan’s.

This relative lack of travellers works in the favour of those foreigners who do choose to holiday in South Korea. Even at its most famous sites, like the royal palaces and National Museum of Korea in Seoul, there is not a 'touristy' feel, with few touts hassling you or vendors taking up space with their stalls of cheap souvenirs.

The scarcity of Westerners also means the South Koreans have not become jaded by tourists, as is the case in so many of the world’s most popular cities. As a foreigner travelling in South Korea you feel as if you are welcome and valued, rather than a nuisance.

Travel Inspiration Jagalchi in Busan is one of the biggest fish markets in Asia (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

Of the more than 40 countries I have visited none has felt safer or friendlier than South Korea. Regularly I was approached by strangers in the street who either wanted to say hello, or were asking if I needed directions or advice.

Fortunately, South Korea is an easy country to navigate, particularly in its metropolises like Busan and Seoul where there is widespread English signage. Seoul is the star attraction for tourists and justifiably so, with its spectacular palaces, engrossing museums, bustling markets, rocking nightlife and adjacent national parks.

Yet Busan, at the opposite, southern end of the country, is a fantastically engaging city, easily reached from Seoul by train. The modern KTX trains allow you to complete the 350 kilometre journey in just over two-and-a-half hours and offer luxury and very spacious seats, with tickets just AUD $70 one way (at the time of writing).

Travel Inspiration Beautiful Haeundae Beach in the city  (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

Or you can save money by travelling on the equally comfortable but slower Mugungwha train, which takes just over five hours at a cost of AUD $33 one way (at the time of writing). The trains from Seoul land you at Busan’s central train station in the heart of this huge city, which is similar in size to Melbourne.

The train station is adjacent to one of the city’s largest shopping precincts, Jung-Gu, which has everything from department stores to high-end boutiques and street bazaars. A short walk from Jung-Gu is an entirely different shopping experience which gives you an insight into daily Korean life – the teeming Jagalchi fish market, one of the biggest such markets in East Asia.

Travel Inspiration Haedong Yonggungsa Temple owns a spectacular location (Image: Ronan O'Connell)

Just beyond the Jagalchi area is the unique enclave of Gamcheon, a former refugee town which has been transformed into a thriving artistic community embellished by galleries, museums and vibrant street art. On the other side of Busan, in the west, Haeundae Beach is the city’s coolest area. Not only is the beach itself pristine but the neighbourhood that surrounds it boasts a glut of top restaurants, funky bars and raucous nightclubs.

Along the coast just past Haeundae lies perhaps Busan’s most famous attraction, the 640-year-old Haedong Yonggungsa Temple. Built into rocks overhanging the sea, it has a location as spectacular as any other religious structure on the planet. In this way it is representative of Busan, itself, a splendid city which makes the most of its striking setting.

Ronan O'Connell

Ronan has been a journalist for 12 years, including nine years at daily newspapers in Australia, and now is a freelance travel photojournalist. As a freelancer he has contributed to almost 20 different magazines and newspapers across Europe, Australia, Asia and New Zealand, including The BBC, The Guardian, Travel Talk Magazine, For the Love of Travel Magazine, The Australian Financial Review and The South East Asia Globe.